Investing in the Arctic will strengthen U.S. security, our economy, and more.
When I joined the U.S. Senate in 2002, conversations about the Arctic were rare. There was no comprehensive strategy to guide our actions. There were few Arctic-focused leadership positions within the federal government. Aside from the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, there were no think tanks with dedicated centers or institutes with scholars and experts. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum with eight Arctic nations as its primary members, was still a relatively new and little-known entity.
Thankfully, much has changed. The Arctic is increasingly part of high-level discussions on everything from national security to international cooperation. This growing awareness is a good thing, but we still have considerable work to do to keep the Arctic as a region of peace, where rules and law-based order prevails.
There are few certainties in modern times, but one is that the Arctic has never been more important to our country or the world. Whether we recognize it – and guide the Arctic to a sustainable future – is another matter. Here is a look at what a real strategy for the region will require from us, and a few of the challenges we will have to navigate along the way.
Let’s Start with the Basics: Infrastructure
Whenever we focus on the Arctic, we must bring it back to communities and the people who live there. It is important to recognize that the Arctic is not a snow globe. There are about four million people who live in the region, and they need and deserve infrastructure.
Infrastructure is one of the foundations of modern society, impacting everything from food security, health care, education, commerce, and our ability to operate militarily. It is no different in the High North. However, in many parts of the Arctic, infrastructure is often poor or simply non-existent, which is detrimental and unfair to its residents, and should be unacceptable to us as an Arctic nation.
In Alaska, more than 30 percent of people lack access to reliable and redundant broadband. Nearly 20 percent – 120,000 people – have no access at all.
We have a long way to go before our Arctic infrastructure is reliable, sustainable, and secure. We must act quickly to reach that point, as global interest and activity in the region continue to grow, and the pandemic continues to test the limits of underdeveloped and underserved communities.
The pandemic has highlighted the need to connect and develop the Arctic. Since the pandemic’s onset, governments have made nearly identical requests of their people. Work from home if you can. Socially distance and limit the number of people at gatherings or convene outdoors. Wash your hands with soap and warm, clean water. Governments have made these requests – even passed laws or written regulations enforcing them – under the assumption that people have equitable access to the necessary infrastructure to follow suit. This is not always the case in the American Arctic.
In Alaska, more than 30 percent of people lack access to reliable and redundant broadband. Nearly 20 percent – 120,000 people – have no access at all. And even those with access often pay higher rates for slower or limited service. Likewise, communities in the Arctic often do not have the means to follow health directives. Multi-generational families living in crowded housing make social distancing impossible, while extreme temperatures prevent gathering outside. More than 3,300 rural Alaskan homes lack running water or reliable sanitation and pay five to ten times the normal price for hand soap. A seven-dollar bottle of detergent in the Lower 48 can cost more than $20USD in rural Alaska. The situation only worsens when supply chains are stressed, as food, sanitation, and medical equipment simply stop arriving.
Cargo traffic in the region has increased tenfold in the last decade. Traffic is certain to grow as ice recedes and charting, mapping, and forecasting improve and demand rises.
To truly reap the full benefits of an Arctic nation, and address the global challenges of being one, we must expeditiously address the local issues the pandemic has emphasized, and those that existed before it. Addressing local issues will also posture us to address global issues, such as increased trade and traffic in the region.
Global trade is increasingly viable across the Arctic. Cargo traffic in the region has increased tenfold in the last decade. Traffic is certain to grow as ice recedes and charting, mapping, and forecasting improve and demand rises. All of this will test the limits of environmental management programs, search and rescue capabilities, and the international laws and norms that govern international shipping.
Here, too, there is little doubt that we remain underprepared. Right now, the United States’ northernmost place to launch any sort of response to a maritime incident in Arctic waters is from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, which is halfway out on the 1,000-mile chain of the Aleutian Islands—the geographic equivalent of sending assets from Miami to respond to an emergency in New York. This is unacceptable and a threat to the safety of maritime shipping in the region.
So, what are we doing to address these issues? Throughout 2021, I worked on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will help us build reliable and robust infrastructure all over the country, including the American Arctic.
The new infrastructure law will allow us to build out and upgrade roads, bridges, and airports. It will facilitate the deployment of broadband systems, ensuring our northernmost communities and those who work and operate there can utilize the latest technologies. It will help us construct new Arctic ports and create a deep-water port in Nome, so that people and goods can move efficiently, and emergency and security assets can be prepositioned nearer to the Arctic.
This law will also help build water and wastewater systems, establish resilient grid infrastructure, and invest in clean energy and mineral security. It provides basic services and economic opportunities for Indigenous communities. Ultimately, it will connect the American Arctic to the rest of our country and the world in smart and safe ways.
Our infrastructure bill will not immediately put us on equal footing with every other Arctic nation on its own – much of the European Arctic has been “connected” for decades now – but it is the most important action we have taken thus far to move forward as an Arctic nation.
Russia has made or pledged sizable investments in nuclear icebreakers, mapping and charting, and the development of sea, rail, and air ports along the Northern Sea Route.
Infrastructure is not our only focus. We also need to understand how other nations, both Arctic and non-Arctic, are approaching the region, and find ways to engage with them. That starts with Russia, the largest Arctic nation, and one of our closest geographic neighbors.
The Russia Paradox
Over the past two decades of President Vladimir Putin’s regime, Russia has reversed some of the gains made in stability brought about by the conclusion of the Cold War. In many parts of the world, including former Soviet states, Russia actively sows discord. For many years, the Arctic appeared immune to these actions, but today I fear this region might not be any different, which could greatly complicate our relationship.
There is little doubt that Russia will seize any and all opportunities to capitalize on its access to the Arctic frontier. Already, Russia has made or pledged sizable investments in nuclear icebreakers, mapping and charting, and the development of sea, rail, and air ports along the Northern Sea Route. It is also moving ahead unabated with the development of new oil and gas reserves throughout the region.
Of greater concern, however, is Russia’s massive influx of military development in the Arctic. Russian officials have insisted their build-up is defensive in nature, but recent satellite imagery shows a scale exceeding anything since the Cold War.
New military bases and underground storage facilities likely house high-tech weapons. These installations could theoretically be perceived as defensive actions if Russia’s actions elsewhere – Ukraine and Georgia are obvious – were not so blatantly offensive and disruptive. With this in mind, there is little reason to believe that Russia will abstain from manipulating the rules-based order that has long prevailed in the High North, especially if the eyes of the world gaze elsewhere.
It is hard not to let Russia’s actions around the world spoil our cooperative efforts in the Arctic. Likewise, it is hard to believe Russia will commit to a rules-based order in the Arctic while disparaging it elsewhere. Invading Ukraine would be in blatant disregard of established global norms
Most know that Moscow has been strengthening its economic ties with Beijing and conducting military exercises with the People’s Liberation Army. Likewise, we are all aware the Kremlin has backed the Assad regime in Syria. Yet we also see deliberate provocation with incursions from Russian planes and naval vessels into sovereign U.S. airspace and waters, notably in my home state of Alaska.
Even if Russia sought stability in the Arctic, its desire to develop its share of the Arctic could be a hazard unto itself. Look no further than the Norilsk diesel spill and wonder what would happen if a Russian tanker had an accident in the Bering Strait. As a petrostate, economically reliant on oil and gas, we should recognize that Russia will take almost any measure to ensure the vitality of those industries, regardless of sanctions and environmental impacts.
There is little doubt that our relations with Russia have ample room for improvement. Yet, when it comes to the Arctic, it is not all bad. Even in the midst of broader dynamics, the U.S. and Russia have been able to sustain communication and cooperation in the region. Three times in the past decade, the U.S. and Russia have co-led task forces at the Arctic Council to negotiate new treaties for the Arctic. The U.S. Coast Guard has had a robust, collaborative relationship with the Russian Border Directorate in preventing illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. This past summer, our nations, along with eight others, committed to the Central Arctic Oceans Fisheries Agreement to take a legally binding, precautionary approach to protect an area from commercial fishing.
It is hard not to let Russia’s actions around the world spoil our cooperative efforts in the Arctic. Likewise, it is hard to believe Russia will commit to a rules-based order in the Arctic while disparaging it elsewhere. Invading Ukraine would be in blatant disregard of established global norms. It would wreck any credibility Russia can claim as an even-handed, sincere member of the Arctic Council while making it nearly impossible for the U.S. and other Arctic nations to openly engage while Russia chairs the Arctic Council. So how should we deal with Russia? The answer is embedded within our overall approach to Arctic affairs.
Making Progress in the Arctic
The U.S. must lead in the Arctic with a multi-dimensional, whole-of-society strategy that is wide-eyed, globally-minded, and fact-based. We must simultaneously address our domestic challenges to care for the local people, the strong desire for sustainable development, rising geopolitical tensions, increased Arctic traffic, and the ramifications of a rapidly changing climate. Other nations seem to understand these issues are inextricably linked. We should, too.
The Arctic is on the front lines of climate change, and also home to an abundance of energy, minerals, fisheries, and shipping opportunities. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to champion a resource, business, and climate-friendly agenda in the region. Our recent bipartisan infrastructure law was the first step in leveraging this opportunity. How we roll it out is the next step, and recent changes to Arctic leadership will help.
When the Biden administration took office in January 2021, I made a number of Arctic-related recommendations regarding policy, personnel, and positions. One was to re-establish the Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC). I’m glad the Administration has now done so, as the AESC will help prioritize and coordinate forthcoming infrastructure projects. The AESC would be wise to work hand-in-hand with the Denali Commission – an independent federal agency focused on providing critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support for Alaska’s remote communities – to ensure its priorities are sound and projects are ready.
Revitalizing the AESC was just one step. At my request, the Administration has involved Alaska Natives, Alaska Native Corporations, and a reinvigorated U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC) to help produce an updated National Strategy for the Arctic Region (NSAR) that will be released early this year. Based on who is participating, I’m hopeful it will incorporate and reflect local perspectives, guided by sound science and research.
The new NSAR comes on the heels of our military services’ Arctic strategies, which I have pushed the Pentagon to adequately resource along with my counterparts in Alaska’s congressional delegation. The Pentagon has designated a Senior Advisor for Arctic Security Affairs who will lead the newly established Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies, which will be located in Anchorage, Alaska. This year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included a provision from Senator Dan Sullivan and I, the Arctic Security Initiative, which ensures our nation’s Arctic strategies have adequate resources.
While those are all important to the development of a coherent strategy for the Arctic, there are further actions we must take.
One priority is icebreakers. A few months ago, I visited the Polar Security Cutter Healy when she hailed on Baltimore after transiting the Northwest Passage. I found myself wondering whether its voyage is an indication of how far we’ve come—or how far behind we are as an Arctic nation.
Bringing an aging Polar Security Cutter back to life on numerous occasions is a real achievement. Yet when America’s most – and perhaps only – capable icebreaker is being celebrated for transiting a route first navigated over a century ago, that indicates our aspirations are high, but our Arctic equipment and resources are severely lacking.
Congress has authorized a total of three new Polar Security Cutters – with two fully funded and one potentially receiving funding for long lead-time materials this year – and I look forward to the day we have a fully functioning fleet of six major icebreakers. Yet the Russians, by comparison, have upwards of 50, with more under construction and even more planned.
A second priority is to continue elevating the Arctic within executive branch agencies, especially the State Department. Along with Senator Angus King, who co-chairs the Senate Arctic Caucus with me, I have introduced the Arctic Diplomacy Act to enhance our diplomatic presence in the region. Right now, the U.S. is the only Arctic nation without an Arctic Ambassador, and our legislation would change that by establishing an Assistant Secretary of State for Arctic Affairs. We also need to establish an Arctic Shipping Federal Advisory Commission within the Department of Transportation and add a Senior Arctic Advisor to the National Security Council.
A final priority is to address climate change in a rational, meaningful manner, one that recognizes the imperative but does not define the Arctic solely by this challenge. The Arctic is already being heavily impacted, with Alaska warming at roughly twice the rate of any state in the Lower 48.
Third, the Senate must ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, often abbreviated as “UNCLOS.” We are the only Arctic nation that is not a party to it. If the U.S. ratifies it, we could lay claim to an offshore area the size of California. But if we continue to defer, other countries are more likely to see their expansive claims approved at our direct expense. I introduced a resolution in May 2021, calling on the Senate to finally ratify UNCLOS, as 167 other nations have already done. Without ratification, the U.S. lacks a seat at the table in critical discussions about Arctic territorial claims. Rather than international diplomacy, we have to rely on customary law and military strength alone.
A final priority is to address climate change in a rational, meaningful manner, one that recognizes the imperative but does not define the Arctic solely by this challenge. The Arctic is already being heavily impacted, with Alaska warming at roughly twice the rate of any state in the Lower 48. We must do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but should also recognize that some of our best solutions will come from Arctic communities and innovators. Continued resource and energy production is vitally important to our country, and the U.S. Arctic – Alaska – has a large role to play. As we work together to address climate change, we can benefit from the technologies being developed and the adaptation measures underway in the High North, all while we provide crucial assistance to local communities that are most impacted.
I’m optimistic about the future of the Arctic. Policymakers are paying more attention to the region than ever, recognizing that the future of America is intricately intertwined with our identity and responsibilities as an Arctic nation. If we can maintain and strengthen our focus, if we can continue to devote the time and resources that are needed, we can keep it a zone of peace known for its sustainability and growing prosperity.
To do that, we must ensure the world abides by a rules-based international order for the region. We must tackle our challenges head-on, continue to build our domestic capacity, and provide genuine leadership for the rest of the world to follow.
The alternatives are simply not an option.
Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s senior U.S. Senator, is a third generation Alaskan proudly serving as the first Alaskan born senator. She is Co-Chair of the Senate Arctic Caucus. Murkowski was born in Ketchikan and raised in towns across the state, including Wrangell, Juneau, Fairbanks, and Anchorage. She is married to Verne Martell and they have two grown sons. Lisa loves spending time in the Alaska outdoors. She’s an avid skier, has hiked on glaciers, enjoys fall duck hunts, and has a pretty impressive King Salmon mounted on her office wall.
Cover photo Senator Murkowski attending a whaling festival in Utgiagvik, Alaska. Courtesy Office of Senator Murkowski.