Alaskans frequently complain that their fellow Americans are oblivious to the Arctic. But as the United States prepares to assume leadership of the eight-nation Arctic Council this week, a new survey finds that many residents of the circumpolar north remain unaware of important Arctic issues.
The survey, which posed questions to 10,000 people in the eight Arctic nations, was commissioned by the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program in Canada and the Institute of the North in Alaska. It serves as an update to a similar poll taken five years ago.
The new survey found that outside of Iceland, the Canadian north and, to some extent, Alaska, there was relatively little awareness of the Arctic Council and its makeup, including the role that indigenous northerners have in its affairs. Only 8 percent of respondents in southern Canada said they were aware of the council, for example, even though Canada has chaired it for the past two years.
That was a striking result, and one that could be instructive for U.S. leadership, said Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Anchorage-based Institute of the North.
It might be helpful, once the U.S. takes over chairmanship, to take steps to include more southern parts of the United States in Arctic Council matters, he said. There is an Arctic Council event scheduled for Maine in 2016, he noted, but other sites might be appropriate as well.
"Almost all the nation's Arctic expertise outside of Alaska is in Houston when it comes to oil and gas development," he said.
Much of the survey probed attitudes about Russia, security and military affairs.
A key finding: Residents of all the Arctic nations want to continue cooperation, dialogue and exchanges with Russia, no matter how strained relations have become since the annexation of Crimea and other events.
"It's one of the questions I get asked more often recently," Andreassen said. His answer: It is logical to keep working with the Russians. "They're 40 percent of the Arctic, which is huge," he said. "To the extent that they are at the table and cooperating with the other seven Arctic nations, I think we have to try and continue to make the effort."
He was encouraged by the survey responses to that question, he said. It shows that, while people acknowledge that tensions and potential for conflict are rising, "they're also pretty committed to peace," he said.
There was widespread acknowledgment of heightened geopolitical tensions in the survey results.
A majority of the respondents in Russia, Iceland and Finland said they believe the threat of military conflict in the Arctic has increased in the past year, and that view was held by roughly a third of respondents from other countries.
But there were mixed attitudes about military affairs in the Arctic.
In most countries, majorities of the respondents said they believed the Arctic Council's mission should be expanded to military security. Levels of support ranged from 79 percent in Russia to 44 percent in Iceland, according to survey results.
Respondents expressed preferences for peace-oriented policies, however.
Except in Alaska, large majorities of respondents favored keeping the Arctic free of nuclear weapons. Support for a nuclear-weapons-free Arctic ranged from 90 percent in Sweden to 46 percent in Alaska. And majorities in all countries favored negotiations to resolve border disputes over a strategy of taking a "firm line." Support for negotiations in such cases has actually increased since the last survey taken five years ago.
The survey breaks down the U.S. responses to the nuclear weapons question into two groups: Alaska and "U.S. South." Of the 500 Alaskans surveyed, 46 percent agreed that the Arctic should be free of nuclear weapons, compared to 67 percent of 1,016 Americans surveyed outside of Alaska. In 2010, about 47 percent of Americans believed nuclear weapons should be removed from the Arctic.
Andreassen said the Alaska results possibly reflect the fact that "security and defense apparatus is such a large part of our economy and communities." However, Alaska responses were way off those from elsewhere, he said.
"It's a little bit disturbing," he said.
In Russia, 68 percent of respondents said they agree the Arctic should be free of nuclear weapons.
Survey results also highlighted one question that might be subject of a future border dispute: Who controls the Northwest Passage shipping route?
Among Canadians, there was strong sentiment that the Northwest Passage lies within Canadian waters; that view was held by 71 percent of respondents from Canada's North and 45 percent of respondents from the southern part of that nation. Most respondents from elsewhere disagreed. Fifty-one percent of Russian respondents said they consider the Northwest Passage to be an international waterway. That view was shared by 41 percent of Alaska respondents and about a third of those in Finland, Norway, the Lower 48, Sweden and Iceland.