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.


I would like to offer my thoughts on the approach of the Obama administration on the goals and strategies that we have been pursuing since the president took office in January 2009. My task is a bit easier today because I have the opportunity to build and amplify on the speech that Secretary Clinton gave just last week at the Council on Foreign Relations, which I commend heartily to you.

Secretary Clinton's remarks build on the two central strategic premises that have animated our administration since the outset. The first premise is that the extraordinary changes that have taken place over the past two decades - political, economic, social, cultural and technological - have dramatically increased the importance of mobilizing international cooperation to seize the opportunities and respond to the increasingly shared threats of our time. The second premise is that while no one state, no matter how powerful, can meet these challenges acting alone, without strong US engagement and leadership there is little prospect in achieving the necessary degree of international cooperation.

This perspective has important elements of both continuity and change. Because our approach is based on this recognition that there have been significant changes in the international landscape - the rise of new powers, the emergence of non‑traditional threats, and increasing global interdependence - we need to adapt our strategies to the time. At the same time, we believe in the enduring value of the basic principles that have served the United States and our partners so well during the Cold War: the need for leadership engagement, strong alliances, capable institutions, and an international order based on law and respect for universal rights. These remain as true today as they did 25 or even 50 years ago. At a time when some are questioning the capacity, the relevance or even the necessity of US leadership, it's particularly appropriate now to address how we, the United States, see this challenge and our strategy going forward.

Secretary Clinton highlighted this blend of continuity and change in defining our strategy for building a strong framework of international cooperation. In her words: ‘What we need is a network of alliances and partnerships, regional organizations and global institutions that is durable and dynamic enough to help us meet today's challenges and adapt to threats that we cannot even conceive of, just as our parents never dreamt of melting glaciers or dirty bombs.'

Many observers contend that national interest remains a central driving force in the international landscape, and of course that is inherently correct, but what distinguishes our age from periods in the past is that many, though not in all cases, of the areas where countries need to work together are areas where national interests do converge. For example, in the need to sustain a vibrant, stable global system of trade and investment; in dealing with the challenge of global warming or terrorism; or even, and maybe I should say especially, in addressing the dangers of nuclear proliferation. These are disparate issues, but what unites them is a certain common character shared by many of the challenges we face. Each is driven by an interconnected world; each depends on cooperation from a multitude of stakeholders. Whether the issue at hand is peace and stability in a particular geographic region or meeting transnational threats, the vision of engaged leadership and global cooperation, as Secretary Clinton laid out last week, speaks powerfully to all of them.

But commonality of interest is no guarantee of common action. That is where we see our central challenge. When nations fail to cooperate, even though it is in their interests to do so, we face what academics - like Harvard's Tom Schelling -- call ‘the collective action problem': challenges of the commons, free‑riders, incentives to defect, etc. Nations, including sometimes even the United States, define their self-interests too narrowly. They allow mistrust to trump common interest, and they disagree about how to share of the gains generated by cooperation and apportion the burdens of achieving it.

This is a somewhat technical way of thinking about the problem, but it is important to understand the implications in the real world. To meet this challenge, our strategy has three key elements. First the need to adapt and strengthen our longstanding core bilateral relationships. Second, forging constructive ties with emerging centers of power. Third, building new structures, formal and informal, to facilitate regional and global cooperation.

The starting point of our approach, and one of the core elements of continuity with the past, is the central importance of these core strategic partnerships; relationships that are based on both interests and values. Although many of these relationships had their roots in the Cold War, events have proven their durability and value, even in a far different era.

Let me begin with our partnership with Europe. Notwithstanding all the changes of the past half‑century, our partnership with Europe remains at the core of America's own global strategy. The salience of our partnership of value and interests has grown, not diminished, over time; whether it is addressing the remaining challenges in the Balkans and the Caucasus; or our deep engagement through NATO in Afghanistan; Europe's critical role in the Quartet which is helping to build momentum toward Middle East peace; or the global and economic and environmental challenges. Similarly, in East Asia, our core treaty partnerships with Japan, Korea and Australia, along with Thailand and the Philippines, remain central to achieving our common interests, not just in security but in broader regional and global issues, including economic growth; environment, energy and climate change; and transnational threats ranging from piracy to pandemic disease.

Japan remains the cornerstone of our engagement in East Asia, and I have seen enough ups and downs in our relationships to remain convinced that Japan is and will remain a strong and committed partner, irrespective of the vicissitudes of Japanese politics.

That partnership is complemented by our ever‑deepening ties with the vibrant and prosperous South Korea, which is playing an increasingly important regional and global role, which will be on display as South Korea prepares to host both the G20 and the second Nuclear Security Summit in the coming months.

Australia too remains an invaluable partner, with its strong commitment to our common interest in Afghanistan and to our collaboration on security and expanded trade in East Asia.

Our partnerships with our North American neighbors are also growing, with our ever‑deepening political, economic and cultural ties both with Canada and Mexico, and our shared commitment to work with President Calderón to address the challenge of the drug cartels.

These alliances - in North America, in Europe and Asia - remain at the core of our strategy. But as I said, our approach also embodies elements of change, and nowhere is that more apparent than in our efforts to build new cooperative relations with the emerging global and regional powers, beginning with India, Russia and China; but also key countries like Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey, which now reside among the world's 20 largest economies. It is welcome news that these nations and others, like South Africa, will have a growing capacity to contribute beyond their borders, both globally and as regional anchors of stability.

At the heart of our strategy of engaging emerging powers is a conviction that the growing economic prosperity and expanding middle classes of these new powers offer the opportunity to enhance the collective capacity to meet urgent common challenges. We do not see their rise as an inherent threat to our interest, though we recognize the cooperation will not come automatically and that we will inevitably face issues on which our interests diverge. For this reason, we have placed a high priority on strengthening our dialogue and our engagement with these key emerging powers. Our famous ‘Reset' with Russia has enabled significant new cooperation on a range of issues, including UN sanctions on Iran and North Korea, the New START Treaty, and enhanced access of our forces to Afghanistan through supply routes.

With China, our recently concluded second Strategic and Economic Dialogue, chaired on our side by Secretaries Clinton and Geithner, has brought a more comprehensive framework for our engagement, building on the strong ties between our two presidents. This engagement has led to some notable successes, including cooperation in addressing the global economic crisis in the framework of the G20; President Hu's participation at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington; and China's support for new UN sanctions against Iran and North Korea. On some issues, such as climate change, the path forward has not always been easy, but China did sign on to the Copenhagen Climate Change Accord and is making unprecedented investments in clean energy at home.

As President Obama observed at the launch of our first Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington last year -- there is no more consequential bilateral relationship for the United States going forward than China. Both sides are deeply committed to the challenging but vital task of managing our ties in a constructive way.

This fall, President Obama will visit India, returning the visit that brought Prime Minister Singh to Washington for the first official state visit of the Obama administration, and a chance to highlight the work of our broad‑ranging strategic dialogue, which encompasses a truly vast array of common efforts, from agriculture and education to trade, energy, environment and security.

Building these relationships does not and should not lead us to shy away from pressing emerging powers in areas where we have important differences, from Russia's role in Georgia to China's economic and human rights policies. It is especially important that we manage the inevitable tensions that will rise as these powers grow and expand their military capability. That is why we place such importance on establishing a more durable and effective military-to-military dialogue with China. Both sides recognize the importance of strategic trust, but without dialogue we cannot provide the kind of reassurance that will allow us to avoid the trap of great power competition. It is vital that China restores the military-to-military dialogue with us. This should not be a bargaining chip. It builds trust, prevents miscalculation, and lets both sides address our disagreements, including in areas like the South China Sea and Yellow Sea.

To an important degree, our ability to achieve these positive sum outcomes with emerging powers will depend on our ability to go beyond these important bilateral engagements, to construct the kind of regional and global arrangements in which we embed our bilateral ties and foster needed cooperation. That is the third pillar of our approach, and nowhere is that strategy more evident than our deepened engagement in Asia.

From the first days of this administration, we sought to make good on Secretary Gates's observation, made a few years ago at the annual IISS conference in Singapore, that the United States is not simply an interested observer in the Pacific, but a resident power. Secretary Clinton made her first overseas trip to Asia. Our first Pacific president attended the first‑ever US‑ASEAN Leaders' Summit.

Our commitment to building Asia's multilateral architecture can be seen in everything from our accession to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, to our commitment to try to move forward on the Trans-Pacific Partnership to enhance interregional trade, to our cooperation with Northeast Asian partners in addressing the challenge of North Korea's nuclear program, to our upcoming participation in the East Asia Summit for the first time.

As Secretary Clinton has said, we are all well aware that a rapidly changing Asia demands that we create some new institutions while updating and refining the old ones. While the United States may not be part of every effort, we wholeheartedly support mechanisms that are transparent and focused on producing real results.

Of course the need for enhanced regional cooperation is not limited to Asia. In Europe, this fall's NATO summit will mark a significant milestone in the adaptation of this critical alliance to the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to the adoption of NATO's new strategic concept.

The OSCE too will hold a summit this fall, and despite the evident challenges we face in demonstrating our common ability to address key issues like the frozen conflicts in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, the OSCE offers unique opportunities in all three of its dimensions to build on the vision of a Europe whole and free.

In Africa, a more capable and committed AU is playing an increasingly important role in addressing challenges like Somalia and Sudan. In our home hemisphere, we have made clear - through President Obama's participation in last year's Summit of the Americas, and Secretary Clinton's speech a few months ago at the OAS General Assembly - that we're deeply committed to strengthening the tools of cooperation in the Americas in the spirit of respect and mutual engagement.

Some of the most pressing issues that we face transcend regions, and for this reason it is also vital that we build the global institutions necessary to address them. Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with a number of the leaders of UN and related organizations headquartered in Geneva, from the WHO to the IOM to the WTO to the IUCN. Now for many, just listing this alphabet soup leads to a skeptical raising of the eyebrows, and no one dreaming up an ideal framework for addressing 21st century problems would particularly choose anything like the current tangle of overlapping, sometimes inefficient, and often outdated institutions, which are still acting on mandates established sometimes 50 years ago. President Obama has described these institutions as ‘buckling under the weight of the new global reality.' They were designed, as Secretary Clinton said, to serve a different time and a different world.

Yet we have learned through painful experience that to sidestep these institutions, devalue persuasion, and use a ‘go it alone' approach only makes the problems worse. Abandoning the effort is simply not a viable option. Building new, more flexible and nimble institutions that can deliver results has been one of our core priorities, as can be seen in our efforts to forge an international response to the global financial crisis we faced on day one of our administration. We recognized that the G7, the traditional U.S., European, Canadian and Japanese global economic managers, was not a broad enough group to provide an adequate response to a truly global phenomenon, and we seized on the potential of the G20 to galvanize the global response.

Now we must give G20 nations a greater voice in the IMF and World Bank, where Belgium and the Netherlands currently have more voting shares than China.

Similarly, in addressing the challenge of climate change, we recognize that while the formal global approach of the UN Framework Convention was an important component of the overall response, the rigidities of a universal consensus‑based organization made the prospect of meaningful action dim at best. Through innovative strategies, such as the Major Economies Forum, and ultimately through the pragmatic decision of like‑minded countries to adopt the Copenhagen Protocol, we have managed to propel the agenda forward, although there remains much work to do before we can be said to have taken the kind of action necessary to meet this urgent and compelling challenge.

One area that starkly demonstrates the urgency of developing new strategies of regional and global cooperation is the Arctic. 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. This presents enormous opportunities. The Arctic may hold one‑fifth of the world's recoverable oil and gas reserves. Just last week, a Russian vessel became the first commercial supertanker to survive 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 in the past attempting the same journey, yet many believe, rather than embodying the sailors' spirit of shared endeavor in harsh terrain, the Arctic is destined to become a site of fierce chaotic scramble for territory and resources.

Yet there are compelling reasons for Arctic nations to cooperate. All would benefit from sharing scarce search and rescue capacity, from shared scientific research, and, most importantly, from a peaceful resolution to competing claims to Arctic routes and resources. 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. 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. On our part, we will continue to urge the Senate to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, because becoming a signatory not only lets us lead by example but supports our own efforts there as well.

I want to conclude by saying a few words about the challenge of nuclear proliferation. Addressing the challenge of nuclear proliferation has been one of the highest priorities of President Obama and Secretary Clinton. In his Prague speech last spring, President Obama laid out a three‑part strategy to address this challenge. First, the President committed to reducing the number and role of nuclear weapons as part of our own strategy. Second, he pledged to strengthen the NPT to discourage other states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Third, he committed to more urgent efforts to deal with securing nuclear material and technologies to prevent them from falling into the hands of dangerous actors. Over the past 18 months we have made important progress in all three legs of the agenda, from the recently concluded NPT Review Conference and the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, to the New START Treaty with Russia, and our own Nuclear Posture Review.

We recognize that however important these efforts are, the ongoing nuclear programs of both North Korea and Iran pose a fundamental challenge to the global non‑proliferation regime. While I cannot stand here today and offer any guarantees of success, I do believe that the renewed sense of international determination and consensus on this issue offers a real opportunity for a meaningful solution.

I recognize that sanctions themselves are not a panacea. But the scope of international pressure, not just in the unprecedented measures adopted in the UN Security Council Resolution 1929 but the powerful additional steps taken by the United States, the EU, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea, and others, along with Iran's growing international political isolation, including from some of its traditional friends, makes clear to Iran the stark choices it faces. Central to our efforts has been the willingness of President Obama to offer Iran the opportunity to engage with the United States, an offer which remains open even as we deepen the pressure.

Similarly, the strong international response following last year's North Korean nuclear test, and our own efforts to strengthen security ties with our Northeast Asian allies following the sinking of the South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, offer at least some prospect of moving forward there. Our own recent dialogue with Chinese counterparts convinces me that China shares our view on the urgency of the North Korean nuclear question, and, at bottom, recognizes that China cannot achieve its desired goal of stability on the Korean peninsula and the avoidance of further proliferation in the region so long as North Korea continues to pursue its nuclear and missile programs.

In closing, I see a glass that is more than half full for the prospects and promise for international cooperation, from the global efforts on the economic crisis to the Copenhagen Protocol to the Nuclear Security Summit and the international reaction to Iran and North Korea. I believe that President Obama and Secretary Clinton's commitment to the twin pillars of global cooperation and US leadership have played an important role in moving these agendas forward.

Ultimately, the decision to reinvigorate global cooperation is not ours alone. But America's actions can powerfully shape the choices that others face. In other words, leadership from America or allies may not be sufficient, but it remains as necessary as ever. As Secretary Clinton said, for the United States, global leadership is both a responsibility and an unparalleled opportunity.

I thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today. I look forward to your comments and your questions.

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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