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US Deputy Secretary of State: Arctic region will be next international strategic challenge

| Sep. 30, 2010

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For US Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, the Arctic is a strategic hot spot that usefully illustrates the challenges and opportunities facing the Obama Administration as it recalibrates US foreign policy.

In an address to students at the Harvard Kennedy School under the auspices of the Future of Diplomacy Project on September 16, Steinberg cited the fast-changing circumstances in the Arctic and the inadequate policy responses of world governments and global institutions as an example of the surprising and complex global issues the Administration is addressing. Steinberg noted that in recent weeks, a Russian vessel became the first commercial supertanker to survive the treacherous Northern Sea route, thousands of miles shorter than traditional routes, because of the changing global climate. That could set off a chaotic scramble for territory and resources, he said.

Steinberg brought his own particular blend of political and academic experience to his survey of US foreign policy strategy as principal deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On leave from his position as Dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs to serve in the Administration, he was previously the head of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

The Deputy Secretary spoke to an overflow audience in the Wiener Auditorium at the Kennedy School as the first Future of Diplomacy Project's fall speaker. Steinberg was introduced by the Project's Director, Professor R. Nicholas Burns, who is spearheading the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs' research and activities into how global challenges are reshaping modern diplomacy and negotiation as part of the Future of Diplomacy Project.

Steinberg said the Obama Administration is shaping its strategy to answer global changes including the rise of new powers such as China and India, the emergence of non-traditional threats and increasing global interdependence.

However, he said, "commonality of interest is no guarantee of common action."

In response, the Administration is looking beyond traditional allies to forge new ties with emerging power centers, among them India, Turkey and South Africa, and working to build new structures to address what Obama has described as institutions "buckling under the weight of the new global reality."

He cited the Administration's sequencing of events around issues of non-proliferation as an example of the globalized approach. In April, the President convened the first  Nuclear Security Summit to deal with threats of proliferation and nuclear terrorism.  At the same, his Administration focused on the New START Treaty with Russia, pressed for tougher sanctions on Iran and sought renewed talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons.

The Arctic, he noted, would likely be one of the next strategic challenges.

"Melting ice, changing technology and a world hungry for energy and natural resources has opened up a whole new arena; an arena that could be a venue for cooperation or competition in the years ahead," Steinberg said - not least because the region could hold one-fifth of the world's recoverable oil and natural gas resources.

Arctic nations need to cooperate to share these resources, but "It should surprise no one today that we lack the forums, bodies, rules and norms to deal with a cross-cutting challenge such as this," he said. "So we need to reinforce and build on the mechanisms already in place, like the Arctic Council, the UN process and our bilateral relationships, to build a more effective strategy going forward."

The Administration also will continue to press the Senate to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, he said, so that the United States can lead by example and better meet its own needs in the Arctic.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Future of Diplomacy Project
For Academic Citation: Smith, James. “US Deputy Secretary of State: Arctic region will be next international strategic challenge.” News, , September 30, 2010.

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