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U.S. chairmanship of Arctic Council presents challenges

  • Author: Carey Restino
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published April 26, 2015

On April 24, the United States assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, arguably the most important intergovernmental forum among Arctic states. For the past two years, Canada has been the organization's chair, and has focused on economic development in a worldwide region facing constant and unprecedented change.

Leona Aglukkaq, Canada's minister for the Arctic Council, announced as the nation took over its chairmanship, that the theme for the next two years was "development for the people of the North" with a focus on responsible resource development, safe Arctic shipping and sustainable circumpolar communities.

One of the successes of Canada's chairmanship, said Aglukkaq, is the creation of the Arctic Economic Council, a forum for businesses operating in the north to communicate and hopefully create more business opportunities in the region.

The economic council, however, has drawn some criticism. In the past, the Arctic Council has been more focused on scientific research. The creation of a business-focused subgroup points toward a shift toward resource development, and some objected to the fact that the sub-council is mainly made up of mining and energy development companies. Northern businesses make up a small percentage of the economic council, those opposed pointed out.

Aglukkaq rebutted those concerns by stating that the Arctic is going to be developed, and it is private enterprise that will develop it. In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, she said the theme for the country's chairmanship, and its subsequent creation of the business-rich council, was in direct response to the concerns of those who lived in Canada's Arctic.

Now it is America's turn at the helm of this organization, and the focus is decidedly different, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who will lead the U.S. chairmanship. The United States' focus is on climate change and how to mitigate the impacts on Arctic communities around the world.

That's quite a shift, and one that some in Alaska may be less than enthusiastic about. But perhaps the greatest challenge of the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council will not be selling its highly politicized area of emphasis. The big challenge will be that, mid-way through it's chairmanship, there is going to be an election that may well change the leadership. The question is, how can the United States keep from letting the potential changing of the guard get in the way of finally making a name for itself in the Arctic arena?

For years now, the international consensus has pretty much been that the United States is lagging behind in Arctic development, in part perhaps because the state that makes it an Arctic nation is literally removed from the rest of the nation. But taking the chairmanship of the Arctic Council could be a shift for the United States if it defines its goals and objectives and works hard to speak for the people of these most northern lands, as well as the interests of the nation.

One of the big questions the United States needs to address is how long it will continue to tolerate what the world is calling aggressive action from Russia -- military activity, unpermitted flights over American airspace, and a general lack of cooperation from the neighbor.

Canada is calling for a strong response to Russian posturing, while the United States continues to speak of Russia as a "partner." Diplomacy is a virtue, but the current situation is questionable at best, especially from a nation that attempted to place a flag on U.S. Arctic regions underwater in order to claim them.

The most interesting part about all of this is that in Alaska -- undeniably the front lines for any potential conflict between the U.S. and Russia, there has been virtually no news about this activity, nor about the concern from other nations about Russia going rogue.

Meanwhile, Russia is light years ahead of the United States in terms of developing its resources, though the techniques and safety measures are highly questionable. The Russian government has devoted millions to developing infrastructure in its northern coast, while the United States is still a decade away, at best, from building its first Arctic port.

Let's hope the Arctic Council chairmanship provides the venue for the United States to finally deal with its Arctic issues, be it climate change, responsible economic development, defense or infrastructure. And hopefully, the nation will seize the opportunity that the chairmanship presents to make meaningful progress on issues that are of dire interest to Alaska and the nation, regardless of political affiliation.

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 News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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