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An Icelander in Alaska

Austin Baird

GIRDWOOD -- Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson looks perfectly in his element at Alyeska Resort here. His comfort level, though he is thousands of miles from his hometown of Ísafjörður and is tested by the stories of bear sightings floating around the hotel lobby, should probably be expected. Grímsson is in the middle of his fourth consecutive term as president of Iceland, and he has shared his expertise on Arctic policy with more groups and at more conferences than he can remember.

Whatever the topic of discussion, Grímsson wears his political experience on his sleeve like the slightly oversized glasses pressed against his face. He answers no question immediately. Instead he pauses for a moment, calculates a response, and then delivers -- unless, of course, an issue arises that's a touch too controversial. 

Grímsson's background in Arctic political circles has extended to the Last Frontier since the eccentric Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel wandered into his office, as Grímsson puts it, "some years ago." If memory serves Grímsson well, it was during his first term as president when, during a visit to Reykjavik, Hickel requested a meeting to discuss an array of issues similar to those addressed at the Arctic Imperative Summit here this week. Hickel is now gone, but many of the same issues remain: the need for pan-Arctic collaboration to spur development of infrastructure and business; the possibilities for private investment to help build ports and industry; the devastating problems that might arise and the opportunities that might appear along with shrinking Arctic sea ice; and the need for new energy sources after oil booms turn to bust.

Even though Grímsson is a former editor of a socialist newspaper and is decidedly leftist in his political views, Hickel's more conservative passions won his support.

"Hickel was one of the most remarkable visionaries, leaders, practitioners of constructive policy that I ever met, (but he) also had a deep sense of the future," says Grímsson. "He also had an extraordinary historical sense, because he was part of the generation that brought statehood to Alaska. In many ways, he reminds of the leaders from the Icelandic Independence movement of the 19th century."

That should be considered high praise. Iceland's revolutionary leaders, who won independence from Denmark in 1944, are the subject of Grímsson's political science dissertation, making the analogy akin to an American politician drawing comparison to Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.

If Grímsson's admiration of a former Republican governor of Alaska and one-time member of the Nixon Cabinet seems surprising, his glowing praise for another well-known (though currently less popular) former state leader will probably bemuse European leftists even more. For a few days during the 2008 presidential campaign, Grímsson's name showed up on blogs and in newspapers around the United States, as he was the only foreign leader Sarah Palin had met before she was tapped as Sen. John McCain's running mate.

"At the time (we met), she was a new governor and not talked about on the national level," Grímsson  says. "We talked constructively about the geothermal potential of Alaska and about many of the same issues that I discussed with Gov. Hickel … I sensed in her a fundamental political capability, a political nature that you either have or you don't. It's like a musical quality. Whether people are for or against (her) that she has taken herself from an elected official in Alaska to become one of the most influential forces in politics in a matter of years demonstrates her ability."

Political ability aside, what does he think of Palin's policy beliefs? "Let's not talk about that," he says with a grin, before he not-so-subtly shuffles the conversation in the direction of green energy, climate change and his preferred talking points.

The substance of the Arctic Imperative Summit has little to do with Hickel, Palin or anyone else who crossed paths with Grímsson in the past. Instead, the lingering questions from the summit concern the countless big ideas touted by the political and business elite, and whether these ideas will eventually constitute realpolitik or something closer to a parent telling a kid "maybe later" after their child has asked for candy for the thousandth time.

After all, despite decades of big talk and big ideas, not much in the way of progress has been made in many areas of the Arctic since Grímsson and Hickel first met. There is a legitimate concern at the summit this week that a similar group will convene decades from now, perhaps even at Alyeska Resort, to address the same exact issues that have been discussed for the better part of a century. Still, Grímsson saw potential in this meeting.

"Let us hope not," says Grímsson of the potential for failure as he left to speak at another Arctic-oriented engagement Monday before meeting Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell for what was described as a working lunch. It was all part of his attempt to affect a structural change in Arctic policy.

"This summit brings together many bright minds and influential people,'' he says. "That there are people from so many different areas gives me hope that this will not be the same as past events."

Arctic concerns aside, a couple tough questions apparently qualified as pesky, conversational end-alls. "Can you talk about Iceland's economy and how it has fared during the global economic recession?'' he was asked. "Also, what do you expect to come from the internationally-ridiculed handling of the failed Icesave bank?"

The president paused, calculated a response, but before he could manage a response, his handler delivered him away. "He has another important meeting," said the aide. "We must go."

And go they did to another meeting, the crux of which appeared to be a discusson over the type of appetizer to order at one of the resort's many restaurants.

Contact Austin Baird at austin(at)alaskadispatch.com