Argument

Advice for the Ice King

5 recommendations for America's new Arctic ambassador.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

"Hidden in wonder and snow, or sudden with summer/ This land stares at the sun in a huge silence/ Endlessly repeating something we cannot hear."

– Francis Reginald Scott

Poetry aside, it seems quite clear that the "hidden" days of the Arctic are coming to an end. The High North is an emerging maritime frontier with increasing human activity, rapidly melting ice packs, hugely important hydrocarbon resources, and a competing international agenda. In response to this, the United States recently named its first special envoy for the Arctic, retired Coast Guard Commandant and master mariner Adm. Bob Papp. In his role as what might be termed America’s first "Ice King," he will have his capable hands full in moving the needle of U.S. engagement in the land of the midnight sun.

One particular challenge is that the United States has not defined a distinct set of goals looking forward, either in the immediate term or over the long haul. Part of that is due to the variability of the environment in the High North, part is the confusion of interests among the players, and part is due to overload on the national planning process by so many other more immediate demands. Admiral Papp would be well served to try to develop a more specific agenda, sell it to the president, and carry it forward. Hopefully the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, coming up next year, will provide a spur to the planning process.

There are many challenges facing the United States as we look north to the Arctic waters. First is the rising geopolitical tension with Russia, which has arisen out of events in Syria and Ukraine principally; but will ultimately have repercussions in the High North. We are seeing increased Russian activity with their highly capable and numerous fleets of ice-breaking ships, as well as their stated intent to build military bases in the Arctic region. Second is the environmental and ecological damage brought on by the melting polar ice cap, which is straining the entire delicate eco-system? Third, associated with the melting ice, is the growing commercial sense of an "oil and gas rush" up north. As the principal Arctic nations explore and exploit hydrocarbons, competition and disputes will rise in number and intensity. Fourth, the United States has no serious culture of engagement in the High North, and today has only a single truly functioning icebreaker, compared to dozens operated by Russia. And fifth, we simply lack the idea of an "Arctic Identity" in the way Russia, Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark (by virtue of Greenland in the latter case) enjoy.

All of this means that the good work of Admiral Papp will be both challenging and important. Here are five key elements upon which he should direct his attention:

1. Ensure the United States is a leader in the Arctic Council.

All of the nations bordering the Arctic Ocean (the six noted above as well as Finland and Sweden) meet frequently to work on issues in the High North. These include exchanging information about military operations, protecting the environment, creating standards for the exploitation of natural resources, practicing salvage and rescue operations, and conducting climate studies and other scientific operations. The United States needs to put real resources behind our participation, sending top government figures (in addition to Papp) to consultations; appropriating significant funds for the activities committed by the Arctic Council; and driving policy by shaping coalitions within the international body.

2. Build more ice breakers.

If the United States intends to be serious about operating in the Arctic Ocean, we need the ability for both military and commercial ships to get through the ice pack. While many of our submarines are hardened and can break through the ice, if we are going to take advantage of the reduced shipping distances, move oil and gas offshore structures, and support everything from science diplomacy to responsible tourism, we simply need more icebreakers — this is the path to credibility in the Arctic. At this moment, Russia, Canada, Finland, and Sweden all outpace us; and Denmark and China are building more vessels now. This must be reversed.

A good icebreaker costs money — between $800 million and $1 billion. The reason buying one is hard is because they must compete with other high-cost items like Navy Arleigh Burke destroyers, aircraft advanced fighters, and sophisticated Army command and control. But going forward, the usefulness of such a vessel seems clear, especially when we have such limited capability in that area. (See this report by the Congressional Research Service’s Ron O’Rourke for more detail.)

3. Take a leadership position within NATO on the Arctic.

There are varying views of the role of NATO in the High North, which run from Canada’s somewhat laissez faire philosophy of "High North, Low Tension" in terms of NATO involvement; to Norway’s desire to integrate national and NATO surveillance systems to cover the Arctic aggressively and thoroughly from an alliance perspective.

The Norwegians often say the High North is the unguarded flank of the Alliance, because they fear Russian territorial aggression and a fight over hydrocarbons. The Canadians, on the other hand, jokingly say that the real job of the military in the Arctic in terms of any invader would be "search and rescue, because the conditions are too harsh to permit real military threat" as the Canadian minister of defense said somewhat ironically at the Halifax International Security Forum in 2012. The U.S. position tends to lie somewhere in between these two views, and we should lead NATO to engage more directly and realistically.

4. Enhance dialog with Russia.

The reality is that Russia — with roughly 4,300 miles of Arctic coastline — has the most at stake of any nation in the region. By working with Moscow we can ensure that the Arctic becomes a zone of cooperation — not of competition or actual conflict. Despite our disagreements in other areas, we need to maintain the conversation with the Kremlin about the direction of the High North. Admiral Papp should go to Moscow and have a dialog with Russian officials about our shared interests in this region. Russia is building an operations center focused on the Arctic; Washington should explore how it could be part of that in some cooperative way, sharing engagement with Canada and other NATO allies.

In the dialog with Russia, much of the conversation will focus on commercial and navigational issues. Some scientists are already predicting a "blue north," (e.g. one that has water, not ice during much of the year) by 2030. Shipping, oil/gas, tourism, science, and many other commercial interests will soon come to dominate the agenda. Admiral Papp should spend time with the private sector to fully understand the issues and find linkages with the public sector efforts, which can then be translated into a dialog with the Russians. 

5. Take an interagency approach.

U.S. interests in the High North will cut across Cabinet departments — from the Defense Department to Homeland Security, from State to the Interior (as well as agencies, like the EPA, NOAA, and so on). Working hard to make sure that the entire U.S. government is represented will be important. This concept is of course central to the DNA of a Coast Guard officer, again making the choice of a retired 4-star admiral and Coast Guard commandant sensible: the "Coasties" work with many other organizations and entities within the big tent of the Department of Homeland Security, such as the DEA, Customs, Fisheries, and so forth; and thus are very comfortable in an interagency environment.

The Obama administration, however, should reconsider the title of "special representative." It would be better to appoint Admiral Papp an Arctic ambassador, as most of the other nations in the High North have done with his counterparts. While this would require Senate confirmation, it would imbue his office with more authority. At the moment, his appointment appears to offer only limited authorities to truly develop an Arctic strategy. Hopefully he will be able to make the case, given the importance and size of the region, that he and his successors over time be given real authority and influence with the U.S. government. 

* * *

Over a century ago, in 1879, the United States was seized with "Arctic fever" tied to the later disproved notion of a temperate land zone in the center of the North Pole. Of course, the land rush that was bred of these fantasies never materialized. A U.S. Navy expedition was launched onboard the doomed USS Jeannette, which voyaged into the Arctic carrying with it the dreams of a nation bent on staking a claim to global leadership. The Jeannette became icebound and was crushed, stranding the crew as winter approached. As masterfully depicted in Hampton Sides’s recent book, In the Kingdom of Ice, most of the brave sailors died trying to bring the United States into the High North. Not much has happened since; America has largely stayed on the sidelines in this vital geopolitical part of the world. But with the appointment of an Ice King, and an increased focus on the High North, we must again assert our engagement in a challenging but critical part of the globe.

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