The Corner

Obama’s Arctic Strategy: Just a Tip, No Iceberg

When Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the media derided the deal as “Seward’s Folly.” Some congressmen accused Seward of overstepping his authority. Most Americans were just plain mystified: Why would the U.S. government, already laden with the heavy financial burden of Reconstruction, give the Russians millions of dollars for a remote and frozen wasteland?

Seward, of course, didn’t see it that way. When asked to identify the greatest achievement of his long, distinguished career, Seward replied: ”The purchase of Alaska — but it will take the people a generation to find it out.” Sadly, some seven generations later, many Americans still seem unable to appreciate the importance of Alaska and the Arctic region to the nation’s economic and security interests.

On Friday, May 10, the White House published its “National Strategy for the Arctic Region.” But don’t let the title fool you. Merriam-Webster’s defines strategy as “the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war.”

The White House “strategy” document comes nowhere close to fitting that description. At best it is a set of guidelines, falling far short of the type of vision and leadership America needs for the Arctic region.

The administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the region is unfortunate because the Arctic matters a great deal to U.S. national interests. The U.S. is one of only eight countries in the world lucky enough have territory within the Arctic Circle. The region is rich in minerals, wildlife, fish stocks and other natural resources, but the Arctic’s greatest value is geo-political. The region contains an estimated 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas deposits. It is where the U.S. shares a maritime border with Russia and a land border with Canada. And it is an area where non-Arctic countries like China and India are getting more and more involved. 

The region is changing physically, as well. Arctic ice is increasingly melting during the summer months. As this continues, new shipping lanes will open, tourism will increase, and natural-resource exploration will expand. 

Dozens of nations now view the Arctic as a region offering tremendous economic opportunities. In fact, countries far away from the Arctic like China, India and Japan are now observer members in the Arctic Council. And their desire to secure a piece of the pie presents new challenges for U.S. interests. To further complicate things, more than 20 different U.S. agencies and bodies on the national, state, local and tribal level already hold sway over at least parts of the Arctic region.

Advancing our national interests through this complex situation requires a thoughtful, comprehensive, and robust strategy. But that’s not what we got last week from the White House.

Its “strategy” document totaled 13 pages (including the title page, foreword and table of contents). It was released, quietly, on a Friday afternoon — apparently in the hope that no one would notice. Compare this to other countries that apparently take the Arctic more seriously: Finland’s Arctic Strategy runs 96 pages; Denmark’s is 59 pages long. 

“Why bother releasing anything at all?” you may ask. Well, the Arctic Council held its bi-annual meeting this week, and Secretary of State John Kerry needed something to hand out, even if it had no substance.

This isn’t a strategy; it’s checking a box. 

The Arctic region is rich in opportunity and challenges. It deserves Washington’s attention and serious thought. That means developing a proper cross-government strategy and providing the resources needed to back that strategy up. 

With hindsight, it is clear that Seward made the right call 146 years ago. At 2 cents an acre, resource-rich Alaska has paid for itself many times over. Thanks to Seward’s vision and leadership, the U.S. is blessed with Alaska and its Arctic territory, and we cannot afford to let the new opportunities opening in the region slip through our hands. For the administration to continue ignoring it would be a folly indeed.

— Luke Coffey is the Margaret Thatcher Fellow in International Relations at the Heritage Foundation.

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