U.S. National Strategy Reinforces Commitment to Antarctic Treaty System | Polarjournal
The US-policy gives strong support to the Antarctic Treaty and its related instruments which form the Antarctic Treaty System.

Authors: Evan T. Bloom and William (Bill) Muntean

On May 17, 2024, the White House issued a National Security Memorandum on United States Policy in the Antarctic Region (NSM-23) and Fact Sheet. This is one of the most important announcements by the United States regarding Antarctic policy in decades and replaces the previous national strategy that had been issued in 1994. The policy makes clear that “the United States will continue to lead cooperative international efforts through the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) to maintain the Antarctic Region for peaceful purposes; protect its relatively pristine environment and ecosystems, particularly given the key role Antarctica plays in the global climate system; and conduct critical scientific research, long into the future.” The policy is fundamentally in keeping with longstanding U.S. practice for the region and reflects the significant benefits the ATS has provided to the United States, and thus NSM-23 is more of a policy update than a new policy. There are a number of notable elements to the policy; these include:

On May 17, 2024, the White House issued a National Security Memorandum on United States Policy in the Antarctic Region (NSM-23)

Alone and Updated: NSM-23 rescinds and replaces the prior policy from thirty years ago issued under the Clinton Administration as Presidential Decision Directive/NSC-26 (1994). That document’s limited scope was intended to encourage the U.S. Congress to ratify the then newly-negotiated Environmental Protocol and to protect funding for Antarctic scientific research and operations. The updated policy also firmly separates Antarctica from Arctic policy, recognizing the significant differences between the two poles.

Strongly Support the ATS: The policy gives strong support to the Antarctic Treaty and its related instruments which form the Antarctic Treaty System. NSM-23 focuses on the Treaty, its Environmental Protocol, and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. Recognizing that the strength of the ATS is that it can evolve to face current issues, the policy says, “the United States has held and will continue to take a leadership role in negotiating and implementing related agreements concerning the Antarctic Region.” That leadership role has been evident in U.S. actions over the years, including its investment in Antarctic science and active role in Antarctic diplomatic bodies, but has not been a point of emphasis in high-level policy documents, until now. 

Sovereignty: The United States has for over a century, since 1924, rejected all claims to sovereignty in Antarctica, including those made by allies and friendly countries. The updated policy strongly and clearly supports that policy by stating that the U.S. “reiterates its steadfast position of not recognizing the sovereignty claims and reserving all its rights throughout the whole of the Antarctic Region, consistent with the Antarctic Treaty.” The countries that currently maintain claims are Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom.  This removes any doubt that U.S. continues to wish to remain a bulwark against these claims, despite the fact that these claimants include close allies, and would oppose any other claims, which are in any event prohibited by the Treaty. Under the Antarctic Treaty, the United States (like Russia) maintains a “basis of claim”. While not discussing this aspect, NSM-23 clearly allows for that basis as a possible element of U.S. policy, even though there is no indication the U.S. would act on such a claim.

Peaceful Cooperation: The policy refers to maintaining the region as a zone for peace and international cooperation to pursue science and environmental protection. NSM-23 does not focus explicitly on current concerns related to behavior by competitors like Russia and China, including with respect to how dual use technologies might be used now or in the future by these or other countries or resource management. It therefore demonstrates the U.S. commitment to maintaining the status quo in the region through international cooperation, which gives the impression that Washington wants to calm conversations about the inevitable rise of great power competition in Antarctica or the imminent demise of the ATS. 

Civilian and Scientific Control:  According to NSM-23, the Department of State, National Science Foundation, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are the relevant U.S. government agencies for U.S. policy and actions in Antarctica. It is notable that the Department of Defense is not mentioned in NSM-23, which is consistent with the U.S. approach over the past decades to deemphasize Antarctica as a theater of conflict, and to ask other countries to invest in civilian rather than military support for Antarctic activities. Related, the policy also notes the importance of arms control, noting the Treaty’s basic prohibitions on militarization and support for compliance tools, specifically in-person inspections. 

Compliance Monitoring: The policy does not rely on good faith  to achieve its aims but reinforces the importance of using the Treaty’s monitoring tools to “remain vigilant against actions by countries that could threaten U.S. national interests by bringing international discord to the Antarctic Region.” The Fact Sheet specifically discusses the importance of the inspection regimes (which the policy notes has been used more by the U.S. by than any other country), including most recently in 2020.  

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10) is seen moored up to the ice pier at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Jan. 17, 2024. Operation Deep Freeze is one of many operations in the Indo-Pacific in which the U.S. military promotes security and stability across the region. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Graves)

Domestic Action: The U.S. has fallen behind in approving commitments that the U.S. made at ATCMs years ago, notably with respect to Measure 4 (2004), Annex VI (2005) on liability, and Measure 15 (2009), which deal broadly with environmental and tourism matters. The Fact Sheet promises that the Administration will “work with Congress to meet international commitments and to ensure the appropriate domestic legislation and regulations to safeguard the wide range of U.S. interests in the Antarctic Region,” which implies a willingness to proceed with these matters in Congress. It also states it will work with Congress to support its research stations and the research conducted there, including in the Southern Ocean, as well as the long-overdue and challenging process of modernizing its polar icebreaker fleet.

Environmental Protection: NSM-23 provides the following guidelines, which are to “promote the application of a precautionary, ecosystem-based approach rooted in the best available science to sustainably manage target, associated, and dependent species.” The policy supports the Environmental Protocol’s prohibition on mineral resource activities, otherwise known as the “mining ban.” This is one of the Treaty System’s key contributions to environmental protection and reinforces the U.S. position at the 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Helsinki, Finland where the United States led the efforts to reinforce the commitment to the mining ban that does not expire in 2048 or any other year. 

Fisheries: The policy gives strong support to the precautionary and ecosystem-based management approach of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and gives strong support for establishing marine protected areas, as tools to conserve Antarctic marine living resources. Of particular importance is the direction that NOAA and NSF will maintain strong science programs that inform CCAMLR decision-making and that “enable the United States to persuasively advocate for effective protection and conservation of Antarctic ecosystems and marine living resources.”  NSM-23 thus underscores the key role that U.S. science provides in strengthening U.S. diplomatic efforts.

Climate Change: NAM-23 advances U.S. policy objectives in particular by focusing on the importance of Antarctic in relation to climate change. NSM-23 notes how climate change information – including that from Antarctica – is developed and disseminated through the United States Global Change Research Program. It highlights scientific issues it is particularly interested in, including “ocean warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, pollution, threats to biodiversity, and the risk of reaching tipping points such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet.” It also raises the importance of international collaboration, which could indicate that the United States will use the Fifth International Polar Year in 2032-2033 as an opportunity to cooperate in Antarctica on matters of global importance. The Fact Sheet states the United States will encourage countries “to set ambitious 2035 nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement that are aligned with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

US flag at the South Pole

By issuing this updated policy NSM-23, the United States has joined with the other countries most active in Antarctica in providing their national policies in recent years.  It also provides welcome positive news about U.S. commitment to the region, including working with Congress to appropriately support U.S. interests in the region. While there are a variety of interests reflected in the various national policies, no country has expressed any desire to end or replace the Antarctic Treaty System. Although there will be challenges at the ATCM that has just started in Kochi, India, this consensus about the overall direction of the region is a positive development for the Antarctic region and the United States.  

The writers are former U.S. heads of delegation to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings.  The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.

Authors: Evan T. Bloom and William (Bill) Muntean

William (Bill) Muntean, U.S. Departements of State’s Senior Advisor for America, 2018-2023

William (Bill) Muntean is a Senior Associate (non-resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he focuses on Antarctic geopolitics.  He was a career Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State for over 22 years.  His final diplomatic assignment was as the Senior Advisor for Antarctica, overseeing a range of political, economic, and environmental & scientific activities related to Antarctica, from August 2018 to July 2023.  In this position, he was the deputy U.S. representative to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting twice and was the U.S. Head of Delegation in 2022 (Berlin) and 2023 (Helsinki).  He also led the 2020 U.S. inspection team, which conducted unannounced inspections of three Ross Sea stations, including the PRC station under construction on Inexpressible Island that is now called Qinling Station (see picture). 

Evan T. Bloom joined the Wilson Center as a Senior Fellow in January 2021

Evan T. Bloom: During his nearly thirty years at the Department of State, Mr. Evan T. Bloom served as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and Fisheries (8/2019 to 9/2020) and Director of the Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs (1/2010 to 12/2019 and 9/2020 to 12/2020).  He led US Antarctic policy as head of the US delegations to the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources from 2006 to 2020.  He also served as the lead US negotiator for the successful establishment of the world’s largest marine protected area, in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. He led four official inspections of foreign facilities in Antarctica. He was also active in negotiations for the Arctic and UN high seas treaty negotiations (biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction). Evan T. Bloom joined the Wilson Center as a Senior Fellow in January 2021.

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