Video Message: Senator Murkowski State of the Arctic: Alaska

Arctic Circle Conference - Reykjavik, Iceland

As I look at the number and variety of participants at this conference, I can’t help but get excited at the level of attention the Arctic has received of late. Just look at the issues covered in the agenda: climate change, energy, security, business cooperation, research, shipping, infrastructure, investment, health, tourism.

And from an Alaskans perspective, there is plenty of reason to be excited– our federal government seems to have finally realized that the United States in an Arctic nation. That we are surrounded by three oceans – not just the Atlantic and Pacific. There have been multiple federal task forces, reports, and strategies focused on the Arctic over the past couple of years.

(Click on image to watch Senator Murkowski's video message)

But as excited as Alaskans should be, we are also worried. Worried that the federal government is not prepared to take on the role of an Arctic nation. Worried that the State of Alaska and our Arctic stakeholders are not viewed as true partners in the efforts to craft our Nation’s Arctic policy. Worried that as focused on the Arctic as the people of Alaska are, the federal government will squander this opportunity to be a leader on Arctic issues.

Alaska’s limitation is that the Arctic is not just Alaska’s backyard. It is an international arena and that means that federal officials determine the level of engagement within that arena – not Alaska.

Alaska and the federal government need to have a unified agenda, but so far we have not seen the level of preparation we would like to see from Washington, D.C. The United States will become chair of the arctic council in just over a year and a half but we have not identified the issues we would like the Council to focus on during our Chairmanship.  Staff buildup has not taken place and outreach to the Arctic stakeholders has been limited

It would be easy for Alaska to strike out on its own and interact with the international community.  Alaskans are a pretty independent lot – our third largest political party is the Alaska Independence Party, originally formed to promote Alaska becoming an independent nation.  We also have a pretty significant contingent of state, local and tribal leaders there in Reykjavik to talk about the Arctic.

But the reality is that the United States’ federal government and Alaska’s Arctic stakeholders need each other in order for any Arctic policy to be successful.  The federal government needs Alaskan buy-in for its policies to have credibility.  Alaska needs the federal government so that our Arctic interests are not sidelined by other Arctic nations.

So there is a bit of an awkward dance going on.  I’ve been pushing for increased federal attention to the Arctic since I joined the Senate in 2003.  I’ve been advocating for a U.S. Ambassador to the Arctic for just as long.  It is only recently that we seem to be making headway on the importance of the Far North.

I mentioned in my comments in the opening session the idea of the Arctic as a zone of peace.  Unfortunately, the peaceful areas of the world don’t get the level of attention they need and deserve.  Here in Washington, it seems to take a crisis to generate attention – or sometimes, we just need to be jolted into action.  We all recall Russia’s symbolic planting of its flag on the Arctic seafloor. That picture on the cover of Time magazine really sparked the United States’ attention in the region.

We are not looking to generate a crisis in the Arctic to obtain the federal resources necessary to develop our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities, but it is clear that we are falling behind as other Arctic nations invest in their ports, ice breakers, and navigational aids.  It is not easy during this time of fiscal austerity to direct hundreds of millions of dollars toward the Arctic.  So we must be creative in our approach, thinking outside the box and hopefully gain some insights from conferences such as this on the realm of possibilities ahead.