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The Road to the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship

By Heather Exner-Pirot

The United States will assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council this coming April for a two-year term. In the run-up to this transition, the Obama Administration has been making significant efforts to beef up its Arctic policies and objectives. It launched a new National Strategy for the Arctic Region in May 2013 and appointed former Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Robert Papp, as the U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic in July 2014. It also issued an Executive Order to enhance coordination of national efforts in the Arctic in January 2015, and controversially proposed new wilderness protections in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) that will impact oil and gas production in the state of Alaska. In cataloging the nation’s interests in the Arctic region and articulating the common goals it shares with the other states and indigenous Permanent Participants that make up the Arctic Council, Admiral Papp has proffered the following agenda for its chairmanship:

·       Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship

·       Improving economic and living conditions

·       Addressing the impacts of climate change

Admiral Papp has said he wants to put the Arctic Council “on steroids,” and has described the U.S. agenda as “aggressive;" others in the region would agree. The agenda was presented at the last meeting of the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs) in Yellowknife, Canada with 15 concomitant projects, including organizing a full scale Search and Rescue (SAR) exercise for Summer 2016 and assessing the utility of a Regional Seas Program--an idea considered unlikely in the past due to American intransigence in regards to new treaties.

While the newfound American interest in regional Arctic policy is welcome, it is likely to be met with caution, if not outright suspicion. The modern history of the circumpolar north reads as a series of occasionally well-intentioned southerners imposing their grand visions and values on unwitting northerners. After four decades of hard-fought battles to win back rights of self-determination across much of the Arctic, northern stakeholders may no longer be interested in entertaining big ideas that come direct from southern capitals. The Arctic Council, with the influence of its indigenous Permanent Participants, has become very sensitive to this state of affairs, and if the work of the Arctic Council has been slow and incremental, it has also been consensual and progressive. Process matters in the Arctic, and it is this reality that seems to be posing the greatest challenge to the United States’ newfound Arctic ambitions.

Benign Neglect

Alaska is an important player in Arctic affairs, but the United States has a lackluster record of leadership in the region. Arctic regional cooperation began in earnest in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The kind of matters the Arctic Council was given a mandate to address--environmental protection and sustainable development--are motherhood and apple pie kinds of issues that all Arctic nations could accept and support. But the United States chose to play a mostly minor role in the Arctic Council, ensuring, for example, that military issues were excluded from discussions, and that no defined monetary contributions were assessed.

It was not until the Arctic assumed greater geopolitical importance in the mid-2000s, as a consequence of climate change and its conspicuous effects in the Arctic, that the United States began to devote more protracted attention to the region. Its chairmanship comes at an important time for the region as the Council is evolving from a policy-shaping institution with the primary outcomes of high quality scientific reports to a policy-making institution, with influence if not responsibility for regional environmental governance and regulatory implementation at the national level. The growing interest of non-Arctic governments, from China to the European Union, in the work of the Arctic Council has lent it additional clout.

The Rocky Road to Iqaluit

Admiral Papp has been given the unusual title of “Special Representative” to the Arctic, amidst a plethora of Arctic Ambassadors who spearhead Arctic policy for their respective countries. He was also named “Coordinator” of the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship, a position that does not exist in the Council’s terms of reference. Traditionally, the Foreign Minister or Secretary of State of the designated country officially chairs the Council, and a diplomat is appointed to chair the senior arctic officials responsible for the work of the Council on a daily basis. Admiral Papp, apparently, will be neither of those.

However, confusion over roles is the least of the Americans problems at this point. A gap between Washington, D.C. and Alaska stakeholders has opened up, with many Alaskans taking exception to the State Department’s prioritization of climate change when Alaskan legislators recommended focusing on jobs and economic opportunity, as well as practical issues such as suicide prevention and sanitation facilities.  

Obama’s unilateral ANWR proposal further exacerbated the divide, and also placed Papp in an awkward position as he tries to build consensus around the American agenda. At a conference in Seattle last month, the chair of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, State Senator Lesil McGuire, explained that she and co-chair Bob Herron went to lengths to include Alaskan input into their recently released Alaska Arctic Policy and Implementation Plan, in contrast to the federal government’s approach: “Alaska does good governance by listening.” Former North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta put forth that while Obama’s plans might be good, and they might be bad, it’s a failure that they lacked Native input.

For northerners, these are damning statements. The State Department will have to expend some of its diplomatic skills on finding common ground with Alaskans if its chairmanship, and its Arctic policy in general, is to be successful. 

What’s in a Chairmanship?

It’s worth noting that the chairmanship is not a particularly powerful role, first because the Council operates on a consensus-basis, and second because the ouncil is not a particularly powerful organization.

That said, the Arctic Council has been a powerful shaper of norms in the region. Arguably, the Arctic Council’s greatest achievement has been in creating space for indigenous and other northern stakeholders to have a voice in regional policy decisions, and to ingrain the importance of local input into the culture of the Council and its working groups.

It can be difficult for those who live in southern metropolises to see the Arctic has anything but a confluence of sea ice and polar bears at threat from climate change, and to imagine the Arctic Council as anything but devoted to the former. Many, for that reason, cheered the Obama Administration’s focus on climate change after Canada’s emphasis on sustainable economic development.

But those who live in the Arctic are experiencing the effects of climate change in a very practical sense. For them, the Arctic is not just some pristine wilderness to be protected. It is home, a place where people work and live, but also where good employment opportunities and living conditions are in dire need of improving. The Arctic Council is a forum where environmental and social issues are addressed together, and the U.S. chairmanship must find a way to preserve this balance.

The Commandant’s Mission

Admiral Papp has expressed that he would like to promote an appreciation amongst Americans that the United States is an Arctic nation. He will be successful if he can use the platform afforded by the Arctic Council chairmanship to help educate Americans about how the Arctic is more than the caricature of sea ice, shipping, and polar bears that the media has made it out to be. It is a dynamic international region, with innovative governance arrangements, strong cultures, incredible natural assets, and immense political challenges. The Arctic Council is on the right track to address many of the region’s challenges through its respect for local input and capacity building. The United States will do well to support momentum in achieving common goals of the Arctic Council as a partner, not a leader.

*****

*****  

Heather Exner-Pirot is Managing Editor of the Arctic Yearbook, a Research Fellow at the EU Arctic Forum and a Strategist for Outreach and Indigenous Engagement at the University of Saskatchewan.  

[Photo courtesy of The Arctic Council]

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