PRESIDENT OBAMA’S ALASKA TRIP, to focus public attention on climate change, was notable for more than his renaming of Mt. McKinley to Denali, a hyped-up meet-up with reality show personality Bear Grylls, and a solo hike (with the Secret Service and press) to melting Exit Glacier. Of greater significance was the president’s message to Vladimir Putin — an announced plan to start construction of $1 billion, state of the art Coast Guard icebreakers to catch-up with Russia’s extensive modern fleet.
Keeping with the environmental theme of the trip, a White House fact sheet couched the announcement in stewardship and safety:
The growth of human activity in the Arctic region will require highly engaged stewardship to maintain the open seas necessary for global commerce and scientific research, allow for search and rescue activities, and provide for regional peace and stability
It is unlikely stewardship was first on the president’s mind. More worrisome to his administration is America’s slow pace in the militarized race for Arctic mineral and oil drilling rights.
Alaska Governor Bill Walker was blunt about the Russian advantage in Tuesday’s New York Times.:
“It’s the biggest buildup of the Russian military since the Cold War,” Mr. Walker said, noting Alaska’s proximity to Russia. “They’re reopening 10 bases and building four more, and they’re all in the Arctic, so here we are in the middle of the pond, feeling a little bit uncomfortable.”
The White House avoided the Cold War metaphor but acknowledged:
When age and reliability are taken into account, the fleet is down to the equivalent of two fully functional icebreakers and only one heavy-duty icebreaker. Russia, on the other hand, has forty icebreakers and another eleven planned or under construction.
There is more to the Coast Guard than icebreaking and search and rescue, however. It is “one of the five armed services” with an explicit duty to “support combatant commanders” in operations related to “coastal sea control” and “military environmental defense.”
Message to the rest of the world: the Arctic alpha dog will not only growl, it will bite.
This is not lost on Vladimir Putin. There is a larger history here. On February 27, 2013, Barents Observer published these portions of a speech to the Defense Ministry Board in Moscow in which Putin called out the United States for Arctic aggression:
Methodical attempts are made to rock the strategic balance in one way or another. The US has practically started the second stage of its plan to set up a global missile defense system and there are probes into the possibility of NATO’s further eastward expansion. The danger of militarization of the Arctic exists.
Our task – to create a mobile, well-equipped armed forces ready to respond promptly and adequately to any potential threats to peace, to protect our citizens, our allies, the future of our nation and state.
By 2015, the proportion of the new generation of weapons should be 30 percent, and by 2020 to reach 70-100 percent
President Obama’s National Strategy for the Arctic Region, issued on May 10, 2013, read like a pointed reply to Mr. Putin’s Cold War-style throw down. Its first “line of effort,” entitled “Advance United States Security Interests,” states:
We will enable our vessels and aircraft to operate, consistent with international law, through, under, and over the airspace and waters of the Arctic, support lawful commerce, achieve a greater awareness of activity in the region, and intelligently evolve our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities, including ice-capable platforms as needed. U.S. security in the Arctic encompasses a broad spectrum of activities, ranging from those supporting safe commercial and scientific operations to national defense.
The National Strategy is equally clear about the reasons why:
The dense, multi-year ice is giving way to thin layers of seasonal ice, making more of the region navigable year-round. Scientific estimates of technically recoverable conventional oil and gas resources north of the Arctic Circle total approximately 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas deposits, as well as vast quantities of mineral resources, including rare earth elements, iron ore, and nickel . . . As portions of the Arctic Ocean become more navigable, there is increasing interest in the viability of the Northern Sea Route and other potential routes, including the Northwest Passage, as well as in development of Arctic resources.
We wrote in the October 8, 2013 EarthDesk, Cold War at the Top of the World:
If you are a student of history, or old enough to remember, you recognize the posturing, and worse, in which the United States and Russia are now engaged. Their competing assertions of sovereign global rights, as melting Arctic ice gives way to new navigation routes, and oil and mineral riches, have all the hallmarks of the Fail-Safe days of the 1950s and 60s.
The positions staked out by Obama and Putin are a warning to each, and to the rest of the world: the Arctic alpha dog will not only growl, it will bite. For the U.S., the Coast Guard announcement is one small realization of an Obama Arctic Doctrine that begins and ends with military might, as this language from the president’s National Strategy makes clear:
[T]he United States will support the enhancement of national defense, law enforcement, navigation safety, marine environment response, and search-and-rescue capabilities. Existing international law provides a comprehensive set of rules governing the rights, freedoms, and uses of the world’s oceans and airspace, including the Arctic. The law recognizes these rights, freedoms, and uses for commercial and military vessels and aircraft
President Obama earned understandable praise for bringing climate change and stewardship front and center during his recent trip. But his other Arctic mission should not be overlooked or underestimated. The White House does not want more headlines like this one from The Daily Caller of August 8: Obama Frets Over Melting Ice While Putin Claims the Arctic.