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Why not have US ambassador for the Arctic?

Carey Restino | Arctic Sounder
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, right, and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo discussed the need for deepwater ports in Arctic Alaska during a meeting in Anchorage in April 2012. Loren Holmes photo

In recent weeks, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, has amplified his call for the creation of an Arctic ambassador position. Begich's stance is that the United States needs someone to oversee all things pertaining to Arctic development and diplomacy. Many of the elite group of nations that have territory in the Arctic, as well as several who don't, have already created similar positions. An Arctic ambassador, as he proposes, would interact with the Arctic Council as well as report to U.S. elected officials.

This is not a new idea -- Begich has been requesting this position for some time now. In February, he introduced Senate Bill 270, known as the "United States Ambassador at Large for Arctic Affairs Act of 2013." In it, the senator notes that 100 million acres of U.S. territory lie above the Arctic Circle. Issues such as climate change, tourism, oil and gas development, trade and ship traffic and even immigration are all emerging as large-scale international topics for Arctic nations, and ones that would be well served by having an ambassador.

So why not have an ambassador for the Arctic? Six of the eight Arctic nations have ambassador-level diplomats representing their interests before the Arctic Council, arguably the largest driver of Arctic policy. Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Russia and oddly Singapore have Arctic ambassadors or political equivalents. Canada, soon to be the chair of the Arctic Council, has an Arctic political leader in Minister of Parliament Leona Aglukkaq.

Japan, which does not even have Arctic coastline, but has a vested interest in the future of shipping in the Arctic, is one of 14 states and organizations to apply for permanent observer status with the Arctic council. The nation appointed an Arctic ambassador in March of this year to participate in the council, anticipating its permanent observer status will be approved this month when Sweden hands over the chair of the Arctic Council to Canada.

In addition to appointing an ambassador, it has created a "Consortium for Arctic Research" with some 300 researchers to address long-term Arctic environmental research, planning, human resource development and community outreach inside and outside Japan, the Barents Observer, which serves Russia, Norway, Sweden and Finland, reported.

It is not news, at least not on these pages, that America is behind the curve when it comes to Arctic development and planning. Setting aside environmental issues for a minute, from a strictly financial standpoint, the country has a tremendous amount to lose from not being actively engaged in every level of debate and discussion over Arctic issues. An Arctic ambassador would represent this country's interests as well as educate our nation's leaders on the importance of these issues.

At most recent count, the United States had 188 ambassadorial appointments as representatives of countries, as well as ambassadors-at-large, a high-ranking diplomat who serves his country internationally on a particular issue. Some ambassador-at-large diplomatic topics include war crime issues, counterterrorism, international religious freedom, global women's issues, HIV and AIDS, and monitoring and combatting trafficking in persons.

The Arctic falls right in suit with these internationally pertinent topics, and it makes sense that someone of rank should be solely responsible for representing the United States in such a manner for the well being of all its people.

There is promising dialogue currently going on between recently appointed Secretary of State John Kerry and Begich regarding this topic. Kerry plans to attend the next Arctic Council meeting in Sweden in May, and has said it is vital for the nation to sign the United Nations Law of the Sea, a step that has long been called for as necessary to be at the table with other Arctic nations.

Kerry has been quoted as noting that Chinese and Russia are currently "laying the map, staking the claim, getting a head start on this sort of reservation on the resources of the future. We're sitting around." Kerry went on to offer any senators who wanted it a classified briefing to explain the importance of the Arctic to the strategic interest of the United States.

It's hard to understand why the U.S. leaders are dragging their feet so frightfully when it comes to progressive policy-making and action in the Arctic. Perhaps it's because they think they have little to gain from Arctic development. Perhaps they are worried attention to the Arctic will draw money away from their states' projects.

Maybe they recognize the mountain that must be climbed from a financial investment standpoint to put in place necessary infrastructure to develop the Arctic responsibly. That was illuminated clearly by this year's Shell Oil offshore exploration, which was a dismal flop from a readiness standpoint.

A port, more icebreakers, increased vessel management and oversight infrastructure, high-powered tugs and so much more are needed in the north to safely guide ships navigating the increasingly ice-free waters. And all that is going to eat up a lot of money.

But little is to be gained, and much to be lost, by sticking one's head in the sand and avoiding necessary steps like joining the conversation and appointing a leader to guide us. Surely, if lawmakers feel it necessary, pick someone who understands the pace at which the United States currently wants to go.

But leaving the ship captain-less only invites chaos. Hopefully, Begich's calls for leadership and attention to Arctic issues will finally be not only heard and applauded but also acted upon. And the sooner the better.

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.