America’s increasing attention on the Arctic is timely and well-deserved but it’s important to recognize that there have been many individuals and organizations whose focus on the Arctic over the years we are now building on. We can point posthumously to statesman such as Wally Hickel and Walt Parker whose life work contributed to this issue, and more recently to our congressional delegation, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (chaired by Mead Treadwell and subsequently Fran Ulmer) and the University of Alaska, all of whom have developed a body of Arctic expertise over decades. Too often the response to “Arctic” is from a position that the U.S. is behind in understanding the reality, challenge and opportunity of the region. Alaskans have been at the forefront in responding to and thriving in the harsh Arctic environment. What is new to this equation is the scale of attention -- the urgency felt by local communities to maintain and support their traditional ways of life, renewed national interest in strategic security and defense, and the investment interest by the public and private sectors around the world.
The newly announced U.S. special representative of the Arctic Region, retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp, who is visiting Alaska this week, and the recently launched Arctic Economic Council should be seen as part of a historic trend, then, toward more effective governance, responsiveness and security in a region that is experiencing rapid and unpredictable change. Each of these efforts points to a strategic, purposeful approach to addressing the future of the Arctic, and to making sure that opportunity doesn’t pass us by.
The position of special representative for the Arctic Region is a response by the State Department to Alaskans’ demand for a higher level of attention to the Arctic and reflects the importance that the U.S. places on the Arctic. America’s Arctic -- Alaska’s Arctic -- now has a champion in someone who has the sole function of communicating to international and domestic audiences the rights and responsibilities of being an Arctic nation.
Ably supported by Fran Ulmer, who will continue serving also as the chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, we are doubly fortunate that the special representative comes from the U.S. Coast Guard. The USCG, with 100 years of experience with Arctic maritime operations, understands the region, and can clearly communicate and respond to the gaps and challenges that are emerging and remaining in Arctic waters, many of which are driven by private sector activity. Admiral Papp too can bridge U.S. domestic (articulated now in the National Strategy for the Arctic Region and corresponding implementation plan) and foreign (most visible in relation to the Arctic Council, which has not included security, for instance, as part of its agenda) Arctic policy. This is a step in the right direction and further supports U.S. participation in the Arctic Council, but isn’t defined by it.
The Arctic Economic Council (AEC), launched under the Canadian chairmanship of the Arctic Council, will be one of Canada’s more important accomplishments during its chairmanship, especially as it most closely delivers on the theme of development for the people of the North. The AEC will hold its first and formative meeting in September, with three members of Alaska’s Arctic business community participating as the U.S. delegation. Each of these individuals brings unique and different experiences and backgrounds to the AEC and, most importantly, a firm understanding of Alaska’s economy and business climate. I would argue that this, as well as a relationship with Alaska’s Arctic, is most important when negotiating with business representatives from the seven other Arctic nations and six permanent participants (indigenous organizations). It is not the Arctic only that they must relate to but how to structure and work toward a stable, competitive and capable economic environment. They must also clearly communicate to the Arctic Council that economic development must not be disembedded from the work of the Sustainable Development Working Group, and that the AEC can play a substantial role in further responding to multiple bottom lines within the Arctic Council.
These new efforts remind us that we are not behind at all when approaching the Arctic. In fact, the U.S. and Alaska are clearly sensitive to increasing change and activity in the Arctic, as well as increasing attention outside the region. These are important and right-timed activities that will further lay the groundwork for a successful future resting on a strong foundation of healthy environment, thriving economies, resilient cultures and sustainable communities. This is work that has been decades in the making, and Alaskans have been at the forefront of setting current and future priorities. That said, as the framework to address these issues is now well-established, Alaska and federal authorities will have an emerging obligation to prioritize funding for the recommendations that have been developed during this period.
Nils Andreassen is the executive director of the Institute of the North.
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