Op-Ed: Time for U.S. to Lead on Arctic

The U.S. assumed the Chair of the Arctic Council last month in an international event held in Canada and attended by leaders from around the world. Unfortunately, it seems like this barely registered to most Americans. A recent study found only 32 percent of U.S. residents are either clearly or vaguely aware of the Arctic Council’s existence. Alaskans, who have a natural affinity for the Arctic, didn’t fare much better, with only 35 percent aware of the Arctic Council. 

When you compare this awareness level with 70 percent of Icelanders knowing the work and importance of the Arctic Council, it’s clearstep one of our chairmanship needs to be educating ourselves about the doors this opportunity opens to us through this international body.

What is the Arctic Council and why should it matter to the U.S.? Formally established in 1996, the Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states with the involvement of the Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues. In short, it is the people of the north coming together to find solutions that work for our unique geographical circumstances — with a focus on sustainable development and putting sensible environmental safeguards in place.

The council is composed of eight voting nations that have territory inside of the Arctic Circle — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States — as well as six “Permanent Participant” groups that represent the indigenous peoples’ organizations across the Arctic. Four of those groups, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Aleut International Association, the Gwich’in Council International and the Inuit Circumpolar Council, have connections with Alaska, giving the United States an even greater voice within the council. The Permanent Participant groups have full consultation rights in connection with the council’s negotiations and decisions but do not have a vote.

Tellingly, because of the economic prospects that are opening up in the region, non-Arctic states and entities have increasingly sought to participate in Arctic Council deliberations — some of them closer to the equator than they are the North Pole. Non-Arctic actors have sought observer status, which is open to non-Arctic states. At present, 12 of the 32 observers in the Arctic Council are non-Arctic nations, including China, Japan, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany and India.

The presence of, and increasing interest by, these observers should be a clear indication of the promise held in the Arctic, and why the United States should be interested and engaged in the Arctic Council. Because of a reduced polar ice cap, there is greater access to the natural resources contained in the region, as well as shorter maritime transportation routes to connect Europe, Asia and North America. With nations around the globe realizing the council is the place to be for Arctic policy decisions that steer activity in the Arctic, many nations that seek to advance commerce in the region or wish to be included in discussions on the region’s future look to the Arctic Council for leadership. For example: the Arctic nations came together to push the Polar Code through the International Maritime Organization to set security and environmental standards for ships operating in the Arctic. The Arctic Council has also adopted two agreements in recent years to further cooperation and collaboration for search and rescue activities and oil spill response protocols.

Despite the recent uptick in Russian aggression in the region, the Arctic has historically been considered a zone of peace and is a region relatively free from long-standing disputes and entrenched views that make international cooperation difficult. Politically speaking, it is a clean sheet, but with the increased international attention and recognition of the Arctic’s potential it is more important than ever for the United States to take the lead in guiding policy decisions relating to the Arctic.

We are in a position to do so as chair of the Arctic Council — but only to the level we are willing to knowledgeably engage. The rest of the world is making decisions and placing a priority on Arctic investment and vision; America cannot afford to be left behind and miss the opportunities that are emerging there for the taking. Otherwise, we’ll stand on the shore as the Chinese and Indian icebreakers carve their way north to a future that should be ours.
America is in the driver’s seat for the next two years. It’s time we as Alaskans and Americans identify this opportunity, come together and lead.