As the Arctic ice cap is decreasing in size, the international race for Arctic resources is heating up.

The High North countries—including Russia, Denmark, Norway, and Canada—are scrambling to lay claims on previously inaccessible giant oil reserves and begin their development. Richard Weitz, Ph.D., senior fellow at Hudson Institute, recently published a report on the subject that comes to an unpalatable conclusion: “U.S. is dead last in committing resources to the Arctic mission.”

There are a number of reasons for that strategic blunder. First is the lack of public and government attention to the issue and an unwillingness to allocate resources to Arctic exploration. There are certainly some costs involved—the U.S. spent a total of $5.6 million in the Arctic in 2008—but, as The Heritage Foundation rightly notes, that is “a pittance compared to the billions of dollars of Arctic natural resources that are at stake.”

A key national interest like this is not an appropriate target for budget cuts. After all, if successful, Arctic exploration could solve multiple economic problems, from creating jobs to reducing dependency on foreign oil from unstable regions.

Another reason is that the U.S. is behind countries like Russia and Canada in naval assets and technologies necessary for Arctic exploration and development. Compared to Russia’s flotilla of 18 icebreakers, including seven nuclear-powered ones, the U.S. only has three, two of which are nearing the end of their service lives. Russia is developing new models of nuclear ice breakers, anticipating demand for their services, but unlike Russia, the U.S. government and the private sector are hesitant to commit more funds to building and developing new icebreakers given the current economic situation.

Weitz believes that the Arctic “is not fated to become an arena of international conflict” and that most of the disputes will be resolved with international cooperation or negotiations through intergovernmental organizations. However, Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture in the Arctic suggests otherwise.

As we wrote, Russia “is increasingly relying on power, not international law, to settle its claims.” To support its Arctic claims, Moscow not only deployed civilian research expeditions; it also resumed military navy and air patrols of the region for the first time since the end of the Cold War. And unlike the U.S., Russia has a number of elite military units trained specifically for combat in the Arctic.

We further concluded that that such an aggressive stance and “the current rush to dominate the Arctic Ocean and everything under it indicates that greed and aggression characterize the new Russian polar bear.” Under these circumstances, it remains to be seen whether Russia will use diplomacy, as Weitz outlines. Even if they do, at this point in time it is Russia, not the U.S., who is able to negotiate from a position of strength in the Arctic.

Finally, Weitz, mentions that the Arctic countries may use the U.N. Law of the Seas Treaty (LOST) to make resolve disputes. The U.S. is not a party to LOST and thus cannot use the same international legal mechanisms, which he believes somehow may put the U.S. at a disadvantage, as Washington would not be able to use the same international legal mechanisms to enforce its claims as the other Arctic countries. Still, as we wrote before, the claims may still be legally enforceable using President Harry Truman’s Presidential Proclamation No. 2667, which declares that “any hydrocarbon or other resources discovered beneath the U.S. continental shelf are the property of the United States.”

To conclude, the U.S. should secure a strong position in the Arctic. Heritage Foundation scholars have written extensively on the issue, and the primary suggestions could be summarized as follows:

  • Increase budget spending on Arctic operations, including oil exploration, U.S. coast guard maintenance, and acquisition of icebreakers;
  • Check Russian activities in the Arctic;
  • Negotiate with other countries with disputed Arctic claims who also oppose Russia’s expansion and are likely to be more friendly to the U.S.;
  • Establish secure control over the region with the help of U.S. NATO allies; and
  • Using NATO, expand cooperation with other international security organizations, especially EUROCOM, in order to maximize U.S. presence in the region.

The stakes in the Arctic are too high for the U.S. to procrastinate on addressing its challenges in the region.

For more detailed information about Heritage’s suggested policies to revive U.S. presence in the Arctic, see these writings:

EUCOM Should Lead U.S. Combatant Commands in Defense of National Interests in the Arctic