(by Willy Østreng)



On January 9, 2009 the White House issued two Presidential Directives defining US policy in the Arctic: one for National Security and one for Homeland Security. The Directives state that the United States has varied and compelling interests in the region relating to national and homeland security, resources extraction, governance, environmental protection, scientific exploration, international cooperation and shipping. Eight months later - in October 2009 - the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations issued the U.S. Navy Arctic Road Map in support of the Presidential Directives, addressing among other things the changing Arctic environment, the potential increase in natural resource extraction, inter- and intra-Arctic shipping, the activities of other Arctic nations and current fleet capabilities and limitations for operations in the High North1 . The Arctic situation is part of the global situation.

To keep up her readiness, the U.S. Navy, while being committed to conducting military activities in an environmentally sound manner, “..is opposed to any framework which unreasonably restricts or prevents (her) ability to train and operate effectively2 .” The Roadmap is to be reviewed and revised every four years to provide fresh 5 year actions plans specifying Navy objectives and “desired effects regarding the Arctic3 .” Among the areas to be addressed are undersea warfare, expeditionary warfare, strike warfare etc4 .

International Governance

During World War II, the US Vice-President, Henry A. Wallace, proposed that his country should lead the way in establishing an Arctic Treaty for, inter alia, scientific exploration and cooperation among the Arctic States5 . The drafting and implementation of such a treaty never materialized, partly due to the hegemonic features of the Cold War, and partly due to lack of pressing contemporary needs for international cooperation in most civil fields. In light of this episode, the Directive is quite firm in denouncing the drafting of “an Arctic Treaty of broad scope – along the lines of the Antarctic Treaty6 .” Such a move is regarded both as inappropriate and unnecessary due to “geopolitical circumstances.” Instead the President urges the Senate to act favourably on U.S. accession to UNCLOS III to protect and advance national interests both globally and with respect to the Arctic.

Among the Arctic states the US is alone in not having ratified the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS III).  Until that happens, the Directive shall be implemented in a manner “consistent with customary international law as recognized by the United States, including with respect to the law of the sea7 .” This implies that the United States for the time being is in a position to pick and choose among the articles of this and other ocean related Conventions that best suits the fulfilment of her national interests.

This comes to expression in the Directive stating that the “most effective way to achieve international recognition and legal certainty for our extended continental shelf is through the procedures available to State Parties to the U.N Convention of the Law of the Sea.” This flexibility of action is also evident in the willingness of the White House to consider new and enhanced international arrangements to address issues like shipping and development of energy and other resources.

Such arrangements are seemingly not to be part of the work of the Arctic Council, which is regarded as a useful instrument within its limited mandate of environmental protection and sustainable development. The Arctic Council should not, however, “..be transformed into a formal international organization, but should remain a high-level forum devoted to issues within its current mandate. The United States are willing to update the Council’s structure to improve its work, as long as the update is consistent with its limited mandate. This is just another way of saying that the Arctic Council shall not extend its agenda, for example to cover “..matters related to military security8 ”, which has been consistently rejected by the US ever since the establishment of the Council in 1996.


The United States defines three priorities for maritime transportation in the Arctic:

  1. Facilitate safe, secure, and reliable navigation, which depends on reliable infrastructure to support shipping activities in cooperation with other nations;
  1. Protect maritime commerce;
  1. Protect the Arctic environment through a risk-based capability to address environmental hazards.

In light of these priorities the United States aims at developing Arctic waterway management regimes in accordance with accepted international standards (not Arctic-specific standards), including vessel traffic-monitoring and routing; safe navigation standards; accurate and standardized charts; and accurate and timely environmental and navigational information. The Roadmap explicitly states that regional developments in terms of sea ice melting and resource extraction may “reshape the global transportation system9 .”

The Directive is positive to evaluate the feasibility of using access through the Arctic for strategic sea lift and humanitarian aid and disaster relief, as suggested by former State Advisor to the Russian Federation, Alexander Granberg in 1992.

Resource Extraction

According to the Directive, resource extraction shall be conducted in a sustainable way. That is to say that the United States will seek to balance access to, and development of, energy and natural resources with the protection of the Arctic environment by ensuring that continental shelf resources are managed in a responsible manner through working closely with other Arctic nations.

Best practices and accepted international standards will be applied to ensure that hydrocarbon and other developments in the Arctic are conducted in a sustainable way. Consultation with other Arctic nations and international cooperation are defined as means to discuss issues related to exploration, production, environmental and socioeconomic impacts of economic utilization of resources. The new policy also states that the United States will protect its interests with respect to hydrocarbon reservoirs that may overlap boundaries to mitigate adverse environmental and economic consequences related to their development.

Environmental Protection

An interesting aspect of the Directive is that it uses the concept of climate change consistently to describe the changing Arctic environment, despite of the Bush Administration’s long term resistance to accept that the global warming of the present is indicative of climate change. It still claims that high levels of uncertainty exists concerning the effects of climate change and human activities in the Arctic region and that much more research is needed to make sound political decisions based on scientific evidence.

This being said, and taking into account the limitation of existing knowledge and data, the efforts to protect the Arctic environment and to conserve its national resources “..must be risk-based and proceed on the basis of the best available information10 .” In other words: The United States are not inclined to postponed regional economic development until more scientific certainty is available about the potential effects of exploitation. Uncertainty will always be part of political decisions and should therefore not stay in the way of responsible exploitation. To enhance certainty in this respect marine eco-system management should be applied in the region.


  •  1. U.S. Navy Road Map (2009), p. 5
  •  2. U.S. Navy Road Map (2009), p. 12
  •  3. U.S. Navy Road Map (2009), p. 27
  •  4. U.S. Navy Road Map (2009), p. 15
  •  5. Pollack, H. and P. Anderson (1973): “United States Policy for the Arctic”, Arctic Bulletin, no. 2, 1973
  •  6. US National Presidential Directive (2009), p.3
  •  7. Ibid.
  •  8. Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council”, footnotes 1 and 5 (1996).
  •  9. U.S Navy Roadmap (2009), p. 6
  •  10. US National Presidential Directive (2009), p. 6

Willy Østreng, 2010, United States’ Arctic Policy, CHNL.©

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