Lessons from the Wild West – the US’s approach to taming the Arctic

Posted by / 13th November 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

How is the US psyche holding up to the prospects of a new and wild frontier? Climate-change is melting Arctic sea-ice at an astonishing rate. With it, a new frontier is opening with the prospects of rich rewards for those who access untapped reserves of oil, gas, minerals and green-energy or those who control new fishing, tourism, construction and shipping opportunities. To date the US appears to be a reluctant player in a significant economic and geo-political game, sitting on the bench as Russia, China, Canada and even Denmark steal a march on them. In order for the US to remain relevant, they will need to learn the lessons from their own past.

‘Taming’ the West

The entrance to the Harry S. Truman Library in Missouri is adorned by a vivid mural by Thomas Hart Benton depicting Independence and the Opening of the West. It is an interesting piece in as much as it captures an edgy tension at odds with the more pervasive, rose-tinted, national narrative celebrating the struggle of pioneering families against the odds of a harsh environment and a belligerent indigenous population.

History, it is said, is written by its victors. Having vanquished the indigenous people, global powers such as France and England and its regional competitor Mexico, Americans have a tendency to embroider the historic record of their Western expansion. The bitter plight of the indigenous people and the diverse environmental impacts – ranging from the decimation of 15 million buffalo to a similar fate for ancient hardwood forests – are relegated to footnotes in a story of conquest. For settlers themselves, their heroism is advanced over their plight. Just imagine how it felt for the 30,000 Forty-Niners who managed the long trek to reach California in 1849 from the East – leaving behind them a trail of dead compatriots whose bones liberally littered the unforgiving Nevada Desert – only to find that the gold that had enticed them was not much more than dust.

In comparison, the Arctic exchanges heat for cold and dust for ice, but also holds interesting parallels begging lessons to be learned. Of its many riches, the Artic holds 20% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas, and its Boreal forests are home to 8% of global wood reserves. The process of determining power and economic gain in the Arctic will have profound consequences for indigenous people, the environment and the course of global development and governance. In this context, the Arctic offers an uncomfortable truth for the US, unpicking the historical thread, revealing an unresolved past.

Old Cabbage or Cabotage?

Two examples seem to best illustrate the confuddled nature of US Arctic policy and languishing pioneer spirit. First is the question of ice-breakers as a barometer for wider investment in innovative Arctic technologies.

It should be remembered that success in the West was as much the outcome of the pioneering spirit as was the investment and application of new technology. Railways enabled Texan cattlemen to supply markets in the East via Chicago – a city of 30,000 people in 1850 having grown from just 12 families in 1831. Farming of the Great Plains was made possible by deep-water wells, the multi-furrow laying gang plough, specialised harrows, steam threshing machines and mechanical reapers and binders. Mining fortunes were rarely made by the early prospectors. It was big business that benefitted through investment in equipment and technologies for deep mining and efficient refining.

Ice-breakers, not tallies of nuclear warheads or naval fleets, are the means of projecting technological and political power in the Arctic. These highly advanced and hardy ships are more than ice-capable, at a cost of around $1 billion each, they are able to break through and navigate Arctic ice flows that lay waste to other vessels. The maritime annals are full of tales of timber vessels being reduced to kindling as a result of being trapped in ice, so too is the wrecking ball effect of ice on standard steel hulled ships. Their value is in their unrivalled versatility: keeping sea routes open, escorting convoys, coast guarding and military patrolling, rescuing ice-grounded vessels, acting as research platforms or as supply boats servicing polar research stations and Arctic rigs, towing weak or damaged vessels, and even iceberg ‘herding’.

The High Latitude Study presented to Congress by the US Coast Guard suggests that to fulfil its statutory missions it requires six icebreakers, but to deliver the continuous presence requirements of the Naval Operations Concept requires ten icebreakers. Currently the US has, almost, three. Of its two heavy ships, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea, both have surpassed their 30-year service lives. Polar Sea is now mothballed and Polar Ice has had its life extended to coincide with the delivery of a new ship planned for around 2023. The third US ice-breaker, Healy, is medium sized which limits it to, primarily, research.

There are three dilemmas for the US in trying to resolve this. First is timing. If the US ramped up their shipbuilding programme, given the ten year lead time, much of the ice will have disappeared by the time they are ready to break it.

Second is cost. During boom times the US chose not to invest in its 5th Ocean capabilities. At the time climate change sceptics had a stronger voice and the scientific community’s projections, when listened to, anticipated a slower rate of Arctic change. Now, in the time of austerity, getting ahead in the Arctic is all about the Benjamins, as U.S. Navy Commander Blake McBride suggests: “If you don’t have the budget or funds to invest in manpower and equipment then you don’t have anything.”

Third is US shipbuilding capacity. Even if the US had the appetite and the budget, the final hurdle to jump is the Merchant Marine Act, also known as the Jones Act or Cabotage Law. Protectionist in its purpose, it requires vessels transporting cargo or passengers between US ports to be built in the US and to be owned and crewed by US citizens. Coined the ‘maritime boondoggle’ on debut in 1970 (New York Times) the Act has failed to secure a significant US owned merchant fleet that could be commandeered in a time of national need – over 97% of cargo ships using US ports carry foreign flags. Not surprisingly therefore, US naval shipbuilding capacity is lacklustre, and the pipeline for building new icebreakers, without the option of sourcing elsewhere, is excessively long, not to mention costly.

Russia and China, meanwhile, are far less constrained and with far more of a pioneering spirit, producing ice-breakers like Dime bars. China recently unveiled the Xuě Lóng (Ice Dragon) and Russia has three new heavy nuclear vessels on order for 2017-2020.

To Ratify or not to Ratify?

A second illustration of confuddled US Arctic policy and weakening pioneering resolve concerns the question of territorial rights and whether the US should give primacy to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Stretching back to the early 17th Century a nation’s rights to seabed minerals were restricted by doctrine to a narrow strip of water tracking the national shoreline. This remained the case until 1945 when the US, under Harry S Truman, announced that it was to assume jurisdiction of all natural resources to the edge of its continental shelf. The US’s move was quickly followed by several other states eager to exploit marine resources. Tension rose quickly over fishing and mineral rights, pollution and competing claims. To deal with this, 150 countries came together over 14 years, with the aid of US leadership, to draft the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, completing in 1982.

In 2013, the landlocked, desert state Niger was the 166th country to ratify the treaty, but the US with its extensive coastline has still not. As a signatory, the US would have final and binding rights over areas of their continental shelf extending up to a maximum of 350 nautical miles from shore. The convention conveys rights that would provide a more secure basis than resting on the vagaries of customary law. For the US, signing up would mean jurisdiction over around 4 million additional square miles of Ocean –a sizeable portion of this in Arctic waters.

Reagan was the first to hold out on signing up – wanting a better deep-mining settlement that was achieved some time later. Subsequent Presidents have put their weight behind the treaty from Bush junior to Obama, but a minority Republican voice in the Senate has used the tools of filibustering to scupper successive legislative attempts.

These decades of delay provide interesting contrast with the acquisitive approach to land assembly demonstrated by the Founding Fathers. Where would the West be without the Louisiana Purchase that saw Napoleon sell French holdings. War with Mexico liberated vast tracks of land including Texas, California and much of the South West.

For those few but belligerent Republicans bent on abrogating the convention, their arguments boil down to an ideological resistance – not wishing to cede power to transnational bodies. Arguments that suggest that accession is not in the national interests have been dismissed by a wide range of defence planners. Admiral Roughhead, for example, specifically states the Arctic will ‘expose the costs of our national reluctance on the Law of the Sea convention and to test our present understanding of customary legal guarantees to the very freedoms behind our global operations today.’

Second term in office, post-Obamacare and buoyed by Republican meltdown over the fiscal cliff debacle, is this the time for the administration to act again on ratification? If it is not, what does this tell us about American hegemony and the health of the nation’s pioneering spirit? The triple Arctic aims of protecting the environment, upholding indigenous rights whilst ensuring wider economic security is fraught with difficulties. It requires strong political leadership that is prepared to grab the bull by the longhorns, or else, other stronger minded pioneers will get on with the job themselves.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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About the author
Rory Robertshaw is a core team member at ReSeT. He specialises in education, international development and project management.

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