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National Security Memorandum on United States Policy on the Antarctic Region

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On May 17, The White House released the National Security Memorandum on United States Policy on the Antarctic Region, marking the first update to regional policy since 1994. The memorandum represents a significant reaffirmation of US interests and commitment to the Antarctic region.

Read reaction and analysis here: how this strategic move impacts not only national security but also environmental stewardship and international collaboration in one of the world's most remote and sensitive areas. 

Reactions and Analysis

  • Polar Institute Senior Fellow Evan Bloom provides his take on the newly released statement:

    The newly released Antarctic National Security Memorandum is the most important comprehensive statement by the US Government on its Antarctic interests in thirty years and is long overdue.  The United States has the largest presence of any nation in Antarctica, and is a leading player in Antarctic diplomacy, but it interests have often failed to attract high level attention within the government.  A statement clarifying US approaches to key political and environmental issues is a welcome development.

    The new document largely affirms long-standing US policies promoting peace and security, opposing territorial claims, protecting the environment, and supporting sustainable fisheries management.  The policy supports the existing legal prohibition on mineral resource activities, otherwise known as the “mining ban,” which is one of the Antarctic Treaty System’s key contributions to environmental protection.  A key update is the policy’s focus on the importance of Antarctic in relation to climate change.  

    Of particular importance is the direction that US agencies will maintain strong science programs that “enable the United States to persuasively advocate for effective protection and conservation of Antarctic ecosystems and marine living resources.”  The policy thus underscores the key role that US science provides in strengthening US diplomatic efforts.

  • Tony Press, from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, offers an Australian perspective of the new Memorandum:

    President Joe Biden’s recent statement on US Antarctic interests is most welcome – a lot of ice has melted since the last statement by Bill Clinton in 1994. While it looks like “steady as it goes”, National Security Memorandum nSM-23 sends an important signal to Antarctic countries: the USA is firmly committed to the Antarctic Treaty System. In a time of rapidly evolving global geopolitics, and increasing impacts of climate change, this commitment by the country that facilitated the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty underpins the importance of Antarctica to the global community.

    The Memorandum prioritizes protection of the Antarctic environment and its ecosystems, and the maintenance of Antarctica as a place of peace, science, and international cooperation. It also emphasizes the importance of Antarctica for understanding global climate change. Importantly, the Memorandum states that the US strongly supports the Antarctic Treaty System and its legal framework for the region. 

    These commitments will be welcomed by other Antarctic Treaty Parties.

    I pointed out in a recent article that Australia and the US have common Antarctic interests. But the fact is, those interests are common to all Antarctic Treaty Parties, or should be. Antarctica exerts a huge influence on global climate and is a non-militarized region covering 7% of the planet: its protection, and the maintenance of its unique international legal system, should be common goals for all of humankind. 

  • Cassandra Brooks, Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, contributes her thoughts on what the new Memorandum means for climate action:

    It’s excellent to see the new United States Antarctic policy, which has been a long time coming. The new policy highlights not only Antarctica’s diplomatic value but also acknowledges its critical role in the functioning of the global climate system, appropriately noting how climate tipping points in Antarctica will have global consequence.  

    The new policy also makes clear the United States’ ongoing commitment to protection and conservation in the region, including an ongoing prohibition of mining, conservation of marine living resources, and recognizing the value of fully and highly protected large-scale marine protected areas. The policy thus signals an opportunity for the United States to continue their leadership in conservation in Antarctica. 

    Finally, the policy emphasizes the importance of having strong scientific programs in the region. This emphasis is most welcome and hopefully will lead to dedicated resources and support for new and ongoing research operations in Antarctica. 

  • Mathieu Boulègue, Polar Institute Global Fellow, shares his view on the US-Antarctic memorandum from a security and geopolitical perspective

    The 2024 National Security Memorandum on United States Policy on the Antarctic Region reiterates the core values the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) is built on. However, these shared values are increasingly at odds with competitive dynamics pursued by Russia and China, as both states are now openly challenging the primacy of the ATS architecture. 

    While the US Memorandum clearly outlines the absolute need to first and foremost protect the Antarctic environment and preserve the region, Moscow and Beijing are actively pushing for an alternative narrative of ‘rational use’ – namely the blatant exploitation of regional resources at the expense of environmental protection. Indeed, China is weaponizing scientific data to serve national interests while Russia is prospecting mineral resources in the British Antarctic Territory. 

    Furthermore, while the US policy update reaffirms the need to ‘maintain the Antarctic Region for peaceful purposes’, both Beijing and Moscow are suspected of conducting dual-use operations for military purposes (intelligence gathering, radar surveillance, missile tracking, etc.) disguised as ‘scientific research’ on the continent and in the Southern Ocean. Such activities would represent a direct violation of the Antarctic Treaty – yet the current inspection and verification regime no longer has efficient compliance mechanisms in place.  

    The associated Fact Sheet to the 2024 Memorandum outlines the need to ‘remain vigilant’ against the negative agendas of state competitors that could bring ‘discord’ to the region. More than ever, Russia and China should not be allowed to hijack the consensus-based decision-making process within the ATS, with the risk of eroding trust in Antarctic governance.