The Future of the Arctic

Thomas Nides
Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources 
The Arctic Imperative Summit, Alaska
August 26, 2012


Thank you for that kind introduction. Alice told me that one of the reasons she put on this conference was to get the rest of the country to wake up to the challenges and opportunities in Alaska and in the Arctic. Well, she’s done a great job. Look at this crowd.

I also want to say how honored I am to be in the presence of former Secretary of State James Baker. Although we may be of different political persuasions, you’re an historic figure and a legend at the State Department. Thanks for everything you’ve done and are doing for America.

As a native Minnesotan, let me say, I’m delighted to spend the last days of summer in the only place in America colder and more beautiful than where I grew up.

To pick up a newspaper today is to see a world in the grips of change. I was sworn in as Deputy Secretary of State just two weeks after a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire and changed the Middle East forever. Two months after that, Japan—as close an ally as we have—experienced an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. In every region, we are dealing with rising powers and new opportunities and new challenges. We face huge economic risks from the crisis in Europe, we see continued violence in Syria, and further provocations from Iran and North Korea. And all the while, new technology like Facebook and Twitter is helping bring millions of people into the political conversation and, sometimes, onto the streets.

From Benghazi to the South China Sea, day by day we are dealing with the challenges of a changing world.

What’s happening in this neighborhood, too, is a potential game-changer. In some ways, the Arctic is a unique case for us, because it’s about a physical change to the planet. Few places are changing faster than the Arctic. And few places are more important to our shared future.

150 years ago, when another Secretary of State, William Henry Seward — part of the original “team of rivals” — negotiated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians, our goals were modest. We wanted to search Denali’s hills and streams for minerals and reach ports locked in by ice.

Today, our knowledge of and access to the Arctic has expanded, and so have our strategic goals. And decades from now, this could be a very different place. New cities could ring the Arctic driven by industries we cannot even imagine today. As Arctic ice melts, new shipping routes can radically shorten the time it takes to send goods from, say, New York to Tokyo. New population centers will need to be tied to national interiors by rail, power lines, roads and political culture. As all this happens, we will be faced with the challenges of migration and environmental issues.

All of this is speculation about the future. But just last month, a glacial sheet twice the size of Manhattan suddenly broke off Greenland and fell into the sea. Only a week later, scientists reported that melting occurred over nearly the entire surface of the Greenland ice sheet in just four days—something that had not happened in over one hundred years. 

It was just two years ago that a Russian vessel became the first commercial supertanker to transit the treacherous Northern Sea Route, thousands of miles shorter than traditional routes. The sailors threw flowers in the water to honor all those who had died attempting this same journey in years past. 

And yet many believe that, rather than embodying these sailors' spirit of shared endeavor, the Arctic is destined to become the site of a fierce, chaotic scramble for territory and resources between the countries and people who share this region. 

But that’s not the future we see and it’s certainly not what we see today. There are compelling reasons for Arctic nations to continue to cooperate and we are committed to making that happen. 

The truth is, we don’t know what the Arctic will look like in the next decade, let alone the next century. But we do know that we must be in the game. The Arctic may hold one-fifth of the world's recoverable oil and gas reserves. More importantly , America is an Arctic nation. We are committed to protecting and advancing the interests of Alaskans, and of all Americans. Around the world, we are committed to promoting cooperation and commerce. And in every region—including in the Arctic—we are committed to working closely with other nations to solve the challenges no country can solve on its own.

Now, let me tell you briefly about the two ways we’re mixing tried and tested diplomatic tools with innovative approaches to seize the opportunity in the Arctic.

First, we’re enhancing our diplomatic engagement on Arctic issues.

My boss, Secretary Clinton, last year, led the U.S. delegation to the Arctic Council meeting in Nuuk, Greenland. She was the first Secretary of State to attend an Arctic Council meeting and her presence was a clear demonstration of how important these issues are to us.

The Arctic Council is the preeminent forum to discuss Arctic issues. But to keep up with change, the Council itself must become more flexible and dynamic. We are pushing the Council in a new, more responsive direction, so that we can address the next generation of complex issues facing the region and Alaska’s communities and indigenous groups.

We plan to use our two-year Chairmanship of the Council beginning in May 2015 to sharpen the focus on concrete problems and practical solutions.

These are not easy issues, and I know it’s no surprise to anyone here that the dealing with multilateral organizations can be challenging and very messy. But on all the big issues – from fishery cooperation to search and rescue to resource development to satellite coverage – we’re making real progress. Through the Arctic Council, and through bilateral agreements and cooperation with our Arctic neighbors, we see the foundations of shared prosperity and security in the region. The international community is on the right track and that’s good news for all of us.

The second big thing we’re doing is pushing for the Senate to act so we can join the Law of the Sea Convention.

This might seem like an abstract point. But the rules of the road for the Arctic Ocean are found in the Law of the Sea Convention. I know you heard about this in the morning session, so I’ll be brief on this point. This treaty is full of provisions that will help protect our strategic interests—and it will create American jobs.

Nobody is better positioned to benefit from this treaty than the United States. We’re the world’s number one sea power and largest economy, and this treaty enhances our national security by securing freedom of navigation. We have the world’s second-longest coastline, and this treaty has important provisions to protect our offshore natural resources. We have an exceptionally large seabed. Only by joining the treaty can we fully secure our sovereign rights to the vast oil and gas resources of our continental shelf beyond 200 miles—which, in the Arctic, could extend over 600 miles. Further, the Convention would enable U.S. businesses to obtain security of title for deep seabed mining operations, creating an environment for investment, innovation, and job creation – something the American people deserve.

And I’ll tell you something else: we are the only country under this treaty that was given a permanent seat on the group that will make decisions about deep seabed mining.

And there’s an urgency to getting someone in that seat. Right now, we are being left behind. All other Arctic States have joined and they are going through the process of establishing the outer limits of their continental shelves in the Arctic using the Convention’s provisions. Meanwhile, as a non-party, we are abiding by the requirements of the Convention without enjoying key benefits that only come with joining it.

This is about jobs, the environment, and national security. Our opponents’ arguments, to be honest, just don’t hold water.

That is why U.S. companies, business groups, labor unions, all our military leaders, the Coast Guard, and every living Secretary of State -- including Jim Baker -- support joining the Convention now. I know I am preaching to the choir here in Alaska: folks like former Governor Wally Hickle and the late Senator Ted Stevens…and even former Governor Sarah Palin… have always supported the Law of the Sea Convention.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently held what the Senator Kerry called a “24-Star Hearing”: six four-star generals and admirals testified to the importance of this treaty to U.S. national security.

And yet, the Senate has still not approved this treaty. I used to work on Capitol Hill, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not often that you find the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the American Petroleum Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council all on the same side of an issue.

John Kerry has said he will push the Senate to take up the treaty following the election, and I hope the Senate will take advantage of the opportunity to take necessary steps to protect American interests, security and prosperity.


As Secretary Clinton likes to say, we have to deal with the urgent, the important and the long term all at once. In many ways, the foreign policy challenges in the Arctic combine all three. This region is one of the last true frontiers in the United States. It is becoming a new frontier in our foreign policy.

The stakes are high. We know that the Arctic is more important in world affairs today than it was twenty or even ten years ago. And we know it will be even more important ten, twenty, and fifty years from now. This is the time to get it right. And if we do, we will have a more secure and prosperous Alaska, America and world.

Alice, again, thank you for putting on this wonderful conference.

With that, I think I have time to take a few questions.