By K. Joseph Spears

The United States, like its northern neighbour, Canada, is an Arctic nation. The state of Alaska is why the United States is an Arctic nation. Alaska’s shoreline abuts against the Bering Sea and is home to 735,000 residents. Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, after it was purchased from Russia in 1867. The waters of the Bering Strait between Russia and North America are the western chokepoint through which all Arctic shipping must transit between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic regardless of which Arctic shipping route is used. Marine activity is increasing in American Arctic waters because of melting sea ice, which is also affecting Alaskan coastal communities. The United States has taken a proactive approach to policy initiatives in the Arctic in the last year on a variety of fronts.

The United States faces many of the same challenges as Canada when it comes to funding Arctic governance. Like Canada, many Alaskan Arctic communities are serviced by sea. In addition, Alaska is far from the seat of government and its residents form only a tiny percentage of the total population of the U.S. It has one relatively new research icebreaker, the USCG Healey and two large polar class Coast Guard icebreakers which, ironically, are funded by the National Academy of Sciences and operated by the US Coast Guard. The USCG operates both in the Arctic and Antarctic. The USCG icebreakers Polar Sea and Polar Star are almost 40 years old and have seen a lot of use. The USCG Polar Sea had been slated for decommissioning and scrapping but was taken off the chopping block because of the pressing need for an icebreaking capability. The USCG Polar Star was laid up in Seattle for many years and underwent a major engine refit costing $57 million. It now back in operational status.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, retired Admiral James Stavridis, now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and former Supreme NATO Commander stated: “…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 2015, the United States will chair the Arctic Council. President Obama has nominated Senator John Kerry, the Secretary of State to be the Chairman for a two-year term, commencing in March, 2015. The United States is rolling out its policy on the Arctic, and Arctic shipping is very high on that policy agenda. The United States has been a member of the Arctic Council Senate’s inception in 1996, and six of the permanent participants’ indigenous organizations have representatives in Alaska. The United States recognizes that international Arctic shipping is going to be a major governance challenge, which is reflected in the recent nomination of John Kerry as Chair of the Arctic Council.

Commentators have indicated that Kerry’s nomination represented a recognition of the importance that the United States places on the work of the Arctic Council in its forthcoming Chairmanship. This is what the State Department’s press release says about the announcement:

The Arctic region is the last global frontier and a region with enormous and growing geostrategic, economic, climate, environment, and national security implications for the United States and the world. With the team we’re building at the State Department, we will make sure that the United States is in the strongest possible position to meet these challenges and seize these opportunities.

One of President Obama’s recent actions with respect to the Arctic that has gained a lot of international attention is the appointment of Admiral Robert Papp, Jr. to be the Secretary of State’s Special Envoy for the Arctic. Admiral Papp is the recently retired former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard who spent 39 years in uniform. Admiral Papp is a retired four-star admiral and his appointment reflects U.S. concerns over and challenges presented by Arctic shipping. Admiral Papp likes to think of himself “as a simple sailor” but this mariner and leader and the “13th U.S. Coast Guard Ancient Mariner” (Most sea time held by an officer) is far from that. He has a wealth of maritime experience at an operational, tactical, strategic and international level, afloat and ashore. He has spent time on US Coast Guard vessels in Alaska, commanded the Coast Guard sailing barque USCG Eagle and four other cutters, led the U.S. delegation to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and was in charge of all aspects of the U.S. Coast Guard for ten core missions in U.S. waters and globally which ran the gamut from maritime security to search and rescue to aids to navigation, a diverse and complex mixture. He has been dubbed the “Ice King”.

U.S. Arctic policy was rolled out in an National Security Presidential Directive NSPD- 66 on January 9, 2009, which set out the following goals: meet national security and homeland security needs relative to the Arctic region, protect the Arctic environment and conserve its biological resources, ensure that natural resource management and economic development in the region are environmentally sustainable, and strengthen cooperation between the Arctic nations.

On May 10, 2013, the Obama White House released a national strategy for the Arctic region. Embodied in that strategy are advancing U.S. security interests, pursuing responsible Arctic region stewardship and strengthening international cooperation. This clear signal from the White House caused all of the various U.S. agencies to move forward in a unified fashion with respect to the Arctic, driven by both geopolitical issues as well as climate change. For Canada, this is a very good thing as we share a coastline and boundary with the United States. We have a long history of working together on search and rescue and other elements of ocean governance.

These Arctic initiatives were followed by the announcement of the Department of Defense of a new Arctic strategy with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel indicating that the Pentagon would have a five-point strategy. The relevant issues from a shipping standpoint include working with both private and public sector partners including the state of Alaska, and federal agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard in order to improve the understanding and awareness of the Arctic environment to operate safely and effectively. Another point was to preserve freedom of the seas throughout the region, to ensure that the Arctic Ocean will be as peacefully navigated as other oceans of the world. Recently the Defense Department recognized that climate change is a major strategic threat to the United States and that all of these issues involving the Arctic are interconnected to climate change.

The U.S. clearly recognizes it has capability gaps in the region with respect to search and rescue. This position has been consistently stated by the senior leadership of the U.S. Coast Guard, especially as it relates to search and rescue involving large passenger vessels. Each year the U.S. Coast Guard operates an exercise called Arctic Shield which deploys SAR assets to the north coast of Alaska for interagency cooperation.

One glaringly large policy gap is that the Law of the Sea Convention remains unsigned by the United States. Being a signatory to this convention would provide clarity in Arctic waters. It is a an underpinning of U.S. policy that a signed treaty would provide clarity and the appropriate international legal framework to submit an article 76 claim to extend the continental shelf past 200 nautical miles.

Admiral Papp is the right person for the job and realizes this is a major undertaking. He has consistently made the comment that the U.S. needs to be more “active and forward leaning.” What he means is the United States has to be forward thinking with respect to the rapid changes that are coming about, especially as they relate to changes in the climate that are going to increase opportunities for Arctic shipping. Papp said the United States would pursue conservation in the Arctic with the same drive as John F. Kennedy’s call to send a man to the moon after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. “Rather than a national imperative, what we have is a moral imperative. We have an obligation to protect this area for future progress, for the people that live here.” This is a clear indication of how serious and how much effort the Obama Administration will be putting into its Arctic policy and action.

In a recent speech in September 2014, Admiral Papp talked in broad terms about initiatives and projects that the U.S. is considering in three areas: ocean governance, climate change mitigation and the adaption and improvement of the economic and living conditions of Arctic residents. He has articulated the evolving American position, and made it clear that climate change will be a major priority for the United States when it takes over Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015.

There is an opportunity for Canada to work more closely with United States and cooperate on these issues. In a recent book, Merger of the century: why Canada and America should become one country, National Post columnist Diane Francis argues that China has a strategy for the Arctic that could potentially disrupt U.S.-Canada relations and oil shipments. This book highlights some of the changing geopolitical concerns that are going to occur in the Arctic Ocean basin. While China has been active in the region, from a scientific and commercial standpoint, Russia has taken a more overt military posture, increasing its military bases and marine and long-range air patrols in the region using maritime reconnaissance Tupolev Tu-95 Bear aircraft which harken back to the coldest days of the Cold War.

Canada has a long history of working with United States on ocean governance and marine shipping. Admiral Papp’s appointment is positive for Canada. We must seize this opportunity to develop an ocean governance regime that reflects the protection of the environment which is in keeping with Canada’s policy that has been articulated at the Arctic Council to both enhance economic development and protect the marine environment. Canada needs to work closely with the United States, its best friend and ally, to ensure, as Admiral Papp has indicated, that not only is Finding Franklin a moon shot, but is also about protecting the Arctic environment. It is a shared moon shot of all the Arctic nations. It will require strong leadership at the Arctic Council, and the U.S. recognizes that fact. It is ironic that HMS Terror, one of John Franklin’s ships, led to the penning of the American national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”. What this highlights is that Canada and the United States share an Arctic future, and need to build on a long history of cooperation and friendship. Often complex problems are solved by simple sailors.

K. Joseph Spears is an ocean policy consultant with the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group. He has worked closely with American interests in shipping governance and the U.S. Coast Guard. He can be reached at