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U.S. Operational Retreat from Antarctica


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Center for Strategic and International Studies

Antarctica is not currently a geopolitical hotspot, but there are growing concerns about the increasing presence of great powers, particularly China, in the region. Unfortunately, instead of reinforcing the United States’ traditional leadership role in the region to advance science and preserve peace, the United States appears to be reducing its commitment to the region. Over the past year, the only announcements coming from the U.S. government have been that it will reduce its short-term activities and long-term capabilities in the region.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced in April that it would not support any new fieldwork this coming season due to the Covid-delayed modernization of McMurdo Station, which will create difficulties for researchers in the short term. More problematic is that the NSF and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) have announced cutbacks that will compromise U.S. scientific and geopolitical interests in the region for decades to come. Specifically, the NSF announced in April that it would not renew the lease for one of its two Antarctic research vessels, and in October 2023 it announced that it would operate only one research vessel in the coming decades, even if that vessel did not have the capabilities to conduct the myriad of missions it would likely need to address. Additionally, the USCG announced in March that it needed to “re-baseline” its heavily delayed Polar Security Cutter program, a sure sign that this program vital to U.S. national interests in both poles is in trouble. The decisions made today will have implications for U.S. activities in Antarctica well beyond 2050.

Furthermore, these operational and logistical decisions have not been offset by policy statements that provide a different narrative. No senior State Department official has made a policy speech outlining U.S. foreign policy interests in the region, the White House appears content with an outdated and incoherent national strategy for Antarctica from the previous century, and the U.S. Congress has not taken any actions to implement long-standing pending agreements or take a holistic look at U.S. interests, activities, and capabilities in the region.:snip:

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