President Trump’s abandonment of military operations in the Middle East caused much consternation among foreign policy professionals in the Beltway, but while the media is focused upon Trumpism, the Trump Administration is neglecting its duty to prevent a military crisis in a new frontier, thousands of miles away from the Fertile Crescent: The Arctic.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a treaty that gives nations the opportunity to expand their territorial sea claims from 200 nautical miles beyond their land border to the end of its continental shelf, up to 350 nautical miles. To date, 167 countries have ratified UNCLOS. The United States, however, is not one of them. If the United States ratified UNCLOS and submitted a claim for the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf, it would expand sovereign American territory by more than 291,383 square miles.
The United States is the only Arctic nation that hasn’t ratified the Convention, and that poses a great risk to national security. Russia, Canada, and Denmark have all submitted overlapping claims to hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory. These claims meant little when the treaty was first signed, but are an ever-increasing flashpoint between sovereign powers as the ice melts and new shipping lanes and valuable resources are discovered.
Special interest groups in Washington on the political right, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, oppose UNCLOS ratification on the grounds that “U.S. can and should negotiate bilateral treaties with neighboring nations to demarcate the limits of its maritime and continental shelf boundaries.” While this may be true, the United States dictating the terms of its territory may not go over well with the other nations of the Arctic, considering that around 44% of the Arctic Ocean is bordered by Russia.
The foremost way the United States can secure its claims and a seat at the table on the global stage is by ratifying UNCLOS, putting the nation on even-footing with every other nation in the Arctic Circle. Up to 25% of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves are in the frozen Arctic, and it would be regrettable if the United States had to fight with UN bureaucrats, or worse, Russia and China, to get access to Arctic resources within its potential 350 nautical mile border because we chose not to ratify an international treaty.
At present, Russia and China are overjoyed that America has abdicated its authority in the north, which has allowed them both to operate with impunity. China is now calling itself a “near-Arctic state,” despite Beijing being nearly 2,000 miles away from the Arctic Circle. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has presided over the creation and development of Arctic combat teams, 16 deepwater ports, 14 new military airfields, and over 40 icebreakers. By comparison, the United States currently has one solitary functioning icebreaker in the Arctic Circle, signaling its bare-minimum commitment to the region.
American reputation abroad and access to almost 300,000 square miles of new, internationally-recognized territory aside, there are over 19,000 Arctic-Americans living in remote areas of Alaska. By not investing in their national security and border enforcement via UNCLOS ratification, we put all of them at risk. These far-northern Americans are hard-working and sturdy, living in one of the harshest environments on Earth. We do them a disservice
with second-rate safety and security compared to the contiguous United States.
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to “Make America Safe Again.” Three years later, many American citizens of the Arctic must be wondering: “When will the President make us safe again?” It’s time for Congress to ratify the Convention, and reclaim America’s title as an Arctic power.