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The U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship: Changes from One Administration to Another?

This article is part of the Arctic in Context series of expert assessments of the Arctic Council at its 20th anniversary. 

By David N. Biette

As the United States prepared to take the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council for the second time, observers noted the 2015-2017 term would straddle two administrations. President Barack Obama’s considerable efforts to deal with the enormous threats of climate change did not ignore the Arctic. A Trump administration’s treatment of Arctic issues remains to be seen, but the looser environmental regulations he promises will exacerbate environmental threats to the planet.

Obama’s noted concern for climate change guided the formation of the goals of the chairmanship by the Department of State, the U.S. government’s home for international Arctic-related matters. By the time Secretary Kerry accepted the gavel to commence the U.S. chairmanship in 2015, a number of policies were already in place. Kerry had appointed Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., U.S. Coast Guard (Ret.) as the State Department’s Special Representative for the Arctic, and assembled a small but strong team to lead the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council during its 20th anniversary. 

The United States put forth an ambitious agenda for its two-year term under the theme of “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities,” which sought to concentrate on issues common to all Arctic states. The “One Arctic” theme importantly notes that the entire world is responsible for protecting the Arctic region. 

The agenda—and U.S. Arctic policy in general—is based on one of the last policy documents of the George W. Bush administration, the National Security Presidential Directive NSPD-66, issued in early January 2009. That document formalized U.S. Arctic policy to address national security and homeland security, protect the Arctic environment, ensure that natural resource management and economic development are environmentally sustainable, include indigenous communities in decision-making, enhance scientific research, and strengthen cooperative institutions—such as the Arctic Council—among the eight Arctic nations.

Those policy objectives were reinforced by the Obama administration in the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, released by the White House in May 2013, followed by an Implementation Plan for the strategy in January 2014.

The United States focused on three crucial areas of the National Strategy as the focus of its chairmanship: improving economic and living conditions, Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship, and addressing the impacts of climate change. As we approach the three-quarters mark in the U.S. chairmanship, we can look at a number of accomplishments both within and outside the Council. 

President Obama’s trip to Alaska in 2015, the first by a sitting president north of the Arctic Circle in the United States, brought attention to the real effects of climate change experienced by Americans. While in Anchorage, Obama was able to address the issue with hundreds of specialists from around the world in a less constrained and less formal forum than the Arctic Council.

Obama set up the Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC) within the White House with a January 2015 executive order to provide guidance and coordinate priorities and activities across the multiple executive agencies that all work on Arctic issues but whose funding streams are not at all coordinated. The AESC, which also offers support to the Arctic Council Chairmanship, sponsored the first-ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial in September 2016, gathering science ministers from 25 countries and the EU to discuss Arctic research priorities. Ministers signed a joint statement on increased international collaboration and reached consensus on a draft text of a legally-binding agreement on enhancing international Arctic scientific cooperation under the auspices of the Arctic Council.

Despite their importance, few of the Arctic Council’s accomplishments make headlines in major media outlets outside the North. The State Department’s Arctic team has raised the profile of the Arctic in the lower 48, but with a larger budget, much more progress could have been made in getting Americans to realize that the United States is an Arctic nation with important stakes in the region. 

Establishing a long-term strategic plan and financing goals are critical to the Arctic Council, and while not earth-shattering, they strengthen the Council as a circumpolar consensus-based forum that engages adversaries such as the United States and Russia on topics of mutual concern. Deepening cooperation on issues such as health, suicide prevention, search and rescue, and Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response is critical to progress in providing these services for Arctic residents. Additionally, the warming climate has created conditions across the Arctic that demand—and will continue to demand—attention from the federal government.

The next Arctic Council Ministerial will take place in Fairbanks, Alaska, in May 2017—some four months after the inauguration of Donald Trump—and it is unclear whether Trump’s yet-to-be-nominated secretary of state will attend the meeting. While specific Arctic issues were not featured in the presidential campaign, climate change has informed many of the U.S. goals for its Arctic Council chairmanship and will become a much more contentious issue as a new administration begins to take shape. 

It is very likely that the United States will continue the work it has been doing as chair of the Arctic Council until it passes the gavel to Finland in May. Current budgets operate at 2016 levels under a continuing resolution until Dec. 9, and a lame duck Congress must fund the government for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year, which will end Sept. 30, 2017.

Changing regulations on coal-fired power plants, methane release, and fuel economy standards have been discussed in the campaign. While a Trump administration’s policy positions are still uncertain, infrastructure projects such as ports and telecommunications improvements in the Arctic are relatively uncontroversial. Still, Arctic issues are unlikely to figure in President-elect Trump’s first 100 days.

Alaskans will certainly welcome the potential for increased oil and gas development under the next administration. Although the Arctic Council promotes sustainable development and environmental protection, the development of hydrocarbons is longstanding in Norway, Canada, Russia, and the United States. Alaska, America’s Arctic, holds firm to its desire to responsibly exploit onshore and offshore oil and gas, which have been critical to its economy. The extent of future unsubsidized development will depend in part on the price of oil, but federal policy will play a role as well. Senator Lisa Murkowski, re-elected last week, has considerable seniority on Capitol Hill and has been a champion of the U.S. role in Arctic governance, as well as more specific policies related to Alaska including natural resource development, infrastructure, health, and other issues for Alaska Natives.

In campaign mode, Donald Trump did not appear to seek advice from experts, but if he is to succeed as president, he will have to listen to others. Who he appoints to positions of leadership, such as high-level bureaucrats and ambassadors to other Arctic nations, could have important bearing on the United States’ approach to the Arctic. How Congress tackles issues relating to the Arctic will also be important to watch. While climate change “deniers” may want to undo Obama’s legacy, some his initiatives have already become part of long-term corporate business plans. 

Given that the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council will end shortly after Trump’s first 100 days, it is highly unlikely that the new administration will pay any attention to Arctic issues during that period, or even think of changes to the U.S. agenda. The United States will continue to play an important role in the Arctic Council after its term is up. The Arctic Council will remain a serious forum for the discussion of Arctic issues—one where the United States and Russia can work toward a common purpose.

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David N. Biette is a Global Fellow with and founding director of the Wilson Center’s Polar Initiative.

[Photo courtesy of the United States Government Work]

 

 

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