October 30 was a historic day for the environment, for international relations and for Connecticut. Representatives from the eight nations bordering the Arctic — the U.S., Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — gathered in New London that day to create the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. Representatives from those nations spent several days beforehand working out the details of the agreement at the United States Coast Guard Academy Center for Arctic Study and Policy.
The same eight countries form the Arctic Council, which was established to promote cooperation and coordination among them, indigenous groups and other Arctic inhabitants, according to an article in The Day of New London, and already had binding agreements on search and rescue and environmental protection. But there was no mechanism to implement operations; thus the creation of the forum.
The U.S. is an Arctic power because of the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.
“The fact that we signed this statement, this joint statement among these Arctic nations, is symbolic of the fact that we see this as imperative,” said Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. The members of the forum will work out how to operate collectively in the Arctic, which is seeing increased human activity as the region warms and sea ice melts, opening previously inaccessible areas to greater traffic.
“We have an opportunity to lay out a strategic framework for the Arctic, to make it a region that focuses on humanitarian concerns, on environmental concerns, on the way of life of indigenous tribes, and not as a warfighting domain,” Zukunft said. “An area that we can work with collegially and not as adversaries.”
During the first visit by a sitting president to the Arctic, President Barack Obama visited Seward, Alaska, in September and called for speeding up the acquisition and building of new icebreakers. Russia has 40 operational icebreakers; the U.S. has two. Obama called for speeding up the acquisition and building of new icebreakers.
The Coast Guard’s Center for Arctic Study and Policy, known as CASP, was established in 2014 as a think-tank for strategy and policy in the Arctic. With civilian ship traffic increasing as Arctic waters continue to warm, the U.S. has inadequate resources for search and rescue, particularly in the Bering Strait. In the event of a disaster at sea, Zukunft said, “The nearest vessel may be days if not weeks away.”
The creation of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum is an important landmark in facilitating peaceful cooperation among the nations that share the Arctic, where sea traffic promises to increase for a long time to come as the planet continues to warm.
And Connecticut is playing a part.