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Amplifying Arctic Issues ‘Downstream of the 66th Parallel’

This article is part of an Arctic in Context series featuring Winter 2017 Arctic Research Fellows from the International Policy Institute, in the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington. This Arctic research program is dedicated to improving the transfer of research and expertise between higher education and the policy world in the area of global affairs.

By Elena S. Bell

The passing of the Arctic Council chairmanship gavel from Canada to the U.S. in 2015 was a highly anticipated event. The last two chairmanship terms were headed by two extraordinary individuals: the Honorable Leona Aglukkaq, former minister of health and minister of the environment in Canada, in 2013, followed by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015. In the “Eye on the Arctic” blog, Heather Exner–Pirot characterized the transfer of power as “something like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens facing off in a Stanley Cup playoff.” But perhaps more importantly, Aglukkaq and Kerry’s commitment to advocacy on behalf of the Arctic and personal interest and involvement in Arctic issues differentiated them from their predecessors, driving public attention to the Council’s activities. 

While world audiences recognize and hear the voices of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kofi Annan, and Ban Ki-Moon—all former secretaries–general of the U.N.—the Arctic Council chairs are rarely as visible. Comparing the two institutions is hardly fair; the Council is much younger and smaller than the U.N., which has over 70 years of history and over 190 members. But they share certain strategic practices, such as appointing a prominent, visible, and politically active chairperson. Aglukkaq and Kerry were both notable and vocal Arctic Council leaders who were widely covered by the press and stood out from their predecessors, perhaps matched only by Sergey Lavrov’s involvement in the Council as Russia’s foreign minister. 

Today, in order to reach the common goal of keeping the Arctic as safe and healthy as possible, there is urgent need to educate and influence public opinion. Canada and the U.S. took steps in this direction by appointing Aglukkaq and Kerry, both political actors at the ministerial level, instead of the lower-level officials from foreign affairs or environmental departments that have typically assumed this position. The stature and reputation of these two chairs—both well-known and energetic Arctic advocates—heightened the Council’s visibility and credibility on the world stage. 

While Canada, a prominent negotiator and avid supporter of the Council, appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy to its first Arctic Council chairmanship position from 1996 to 1998, it took the U.S., a country that has been historically more lukewarm toward the Council, almost 15 years before a secretary of state paid attention to the organization. It wasn’t until 2010, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated in the “A5” Summit in Chelsea, Canada, that a U.S. official of that stature attended a Council event. At the meeting, Clinton was highly critical of Canada’s exclusionist approach—non-coastal Arctic nations were not invited to participate—but the call to use the Arctic to “always showcase our ability to work together, not create new divisions," triggered worldwide media attention. As Reuters wrote, “officials say her trip shows the Arctic is moving up Washington's priority list”. Clinton then signed the first legally binding Council document, the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, in 2011. It was not just a demonstration of U.S. interest in the Arctic; it also raised the Arctic Council’s public profile.

For its own part, Canada has proven to be a leader in advancing indigenous representation in the Council. In 2000, prominent indigenous rights advocate Mary Simon was appointed the Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) chairperson, leading Canada’s team of SAOs and serving as the country’s head Arctic Council representative during its non-chairing years. Later, in 2013, Aglukkaq became the first Inuk woman to hold the chairperson position. Born and raised in the Arctic, she directed her attention to what she knew best and cared for most: the people of the Arctic. In 2013, she stated that the “well-being and prosperity of people living in the North must be at the forefront of the Arctic Council’s priorities.” In 2015, at the ninth ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Iqaluit, she presented a long list of almost entirely “people-focused” accomplishments, including collaboration between community representatives and health professionals regarding mental wellness, the establishment of the Arctic Economic Council, and the introduction of new practices to combine scientific work with qaujimajatoqanit, or traditional indigenous knowledge.

The Canadian, U.S., and international media attention surrounding Aglukkaq’s work brought discussion of the Arctic far beyond its borders. Reuters, CNN, Russian Information Agency, Radio Canada International, and BBC all ran articles that referred to the Arctic Council and Aglukkaq’s priorities. Mainstream press outside Canada focused on business development, marine area pollution prevention, black carbon, and methane reduction rather than on how traditional knowledge and modern technologies could coexist and complement each other in Aglukkaq’s projects or how language preservation programs could be translated into broader use of native languages. But the attention to the Arctic Council and its work in general was higher at this time than during the previous terms.

As the next Arctic Council chair, the U.S. stayed committed to many of the goals set by Canada and carried them forward, shifting emphasis toward the impact of climate change on Arctic and global communities. In his declaration of the “One Arctic” theme for the U.S. chairmanship, Kerry propagated Council priorities globally: fighting the negative effects of climate change, decreasing black carbon and methane gas emissions, and preparing for and actively preventing oil spills. He continuously drew attention to persistent challenges such as rapid Arctic warming and the need for safe and sustainable transit through the Arctic sea passages. He highlighted the Arctic Council’s role in the implementation of these goals, and stressed the importance of signing the 2016 Paris Agreement, aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing the rise in global temperature.

Kerry’s tenure was marked by multiple successes, including the first-ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial, greater engagement of indigenous leaders in scientific discussion, and more global collaboration on Arctic issues. These efforts “didn’t stop at the 66th parallel,” but were carried “downstream” by the national and international press, political analysts, and social media. This not only raised Arctic visibility internationally, but also highlighted the region on the U.S. map, educating the domestic audience of a country that traditionally does not view itself as an Arctic nation.

Whether at home or in the international arena, Aglukkaq’s and Kerry’s efforts and their effects on broader audiences differ tremendously from their predecessors. During the 15–year cycle between the two rounds of country chairmanship terms, the Arctic Council gained strength and maturity, and it seems that the approaches of Canada and the U.S. to appointing officials to this position did as well. Both countries successfully used their second chair’s professional background, diplomatic skills, and national and international clout to advance the Council’s priorities and amplify its message. Today, as the chairmanship gavel passes to the next second–term member–state, it is up to Finland to amplify the ripple effect established by Aglukkaq and Kerry. An effective leader does not necessarily need to be highly visible, nor does the ability to attract mass media attention make someone a great head of state or an organization. But when an accomplished, dedicated, charismatic, and internationally known official steps up to the plate, he or she can produce invaluable results that further strengthen the Arctic Council.  

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Elena S. Bell is a first-year Ph.D. student at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. Her professional background is in linguistics and public diplomacy. She focuses on the role of public diplomacy in the international relations and the Arctic region. 

Find the lead article to the series here.

[Photo Courtesy of U.S. Department of State]

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