Blog: Some final thoughts on the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship

United States Secretary of State John Kerry responds to a question during a news conference at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting Friday, April 24, 2015 in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
United States Secretary of State John Kerry responds to a question during a news conference at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting Friday, April 24, 2015 in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
On Monday, I wrote about future directions for the Arctic Council now that the U.S. has taken over the rotating chairmanship from Canada.

That followed a post from the week before in which I compared the Iqaluit Ministerial, which took place on April 24, to the Kiruna Ministerial in Sweden two years before. To close out this series on the Arctic Council, here are a few final thoughts on the outlook for the U.S. chairmanship over the next two years.

The good news: the bear is still in the room

One retired Alaskan law enforcement officer tweeted to me, “There’s still that bear in the room,” ostensibly with a tone of suspicion towards Russia. Yet I think it’s actually good news that the ursine country is still taking a seat at the table. Due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Russia has been booted out of international forums like the G8, which is now the G7. But Russia remains in the Arctic Council, which allows the U.S. regular opportunities to engage with the country. Ties between the two countries remain at historic lows, which has negatively affected U.S.-Russian cooperation in the Arctic. Joint military exercises, for instance, have been called off indefinitely. The U.S. and Russia, however, are still talking at the Arctic Council and may actually be on better terms within the body than Canada and Russia. Canada, for instance, boycotted an Arctic Council meeting in Moscow last year, while the U.S. did not.

While Kerry didn’t mention Russia during his presentation of the U.S. chairmanship program at the Iqaluit ministerial, he did talk about the country during comments to the press. Bob Weber, a journalist from the Canadian Press, asked if the Council had reconsidered weighing in on security concerns in the Arctic, as the issue is currently beyond its mandate. (Militarization is one narrative that the press loves to perpetuate about the region.) Kerry acknowledged that there are “legitimate concerns” about the militarization in the Arctic and that he had partaken in some related conversations with his Russian counterparts. He emphasized, however, that both Russia and the U.S. want the Arctic Council to remain focused on “peaceful purposes” like environmental protection. Kerry explained,

“But I will tell you this: I talked to Sergey Lavrov (the Russian Foreign Minister) just a couple of days ago about any number of broad issues on which we continue to cooperate, and he made it crystal clear to me that Russia wants the council to be successful, that they want this to be a cooperative entity that is geared towards peaceful purposes, and that it’s their intent to cooperate with us on the protection of the environment on the agenda that we have set forth. So again, I think it is better to approach those other issues through the alternative fora.

If the U.S. follows through with its program prioritizing climate change and the environment, then hopefully Russia will send its foreign minister to the ministerial in 2017 as it last did in Kiruna. Then, the bear will really be back in the room.

Location, location, location

One other issue that will be interesting to watch is where the U.S. decides to locate its Arctic Council meetings and, ultimately, the ministerial. Though the ministerial takes place only once every two years, Senior Arctic Officials meet several times a year, often, but not always, in the host country. The Department of State’s Arctic Calendar for the next two years shows that so far, all of the meetings related to Arctic Council proceedings on U.S. soil are scheduled for cities and towns in Alaska. Fairbanks, Anchorage, Barrow, Kotzebue, and Juneau all make the list.

No locations in Maine have been selected despite the state’s efforts to position itself as an up-and-coming player in the Arctic, but this may yet change. Senator Angus King (I-Maine) accompanied Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Secretary of State Kerry to the Iqaluit ministerial, a first for a politician from the northeast state. Maine might wish to hold at least one meeting in recognition of its growing regional stature. As Senator King wrote in an op-ed following his trip to Iqaluit, “Maine’s geographic location makes it the strategic lifeline between these newly available resources and the rest of the eastern seaboard.” [2]

Weak funding, strong dollar

Due to the large number of agencies and departments with interests and activities in the Arctic, it’s hard to say how much the U.S. government spends annually on conducting foreign policy in the region. What is clear, however, is that the entire amount of funding the U.S. provides to the Arctic Council totals a mere $125,000 [1]. This amount will remain the same in 2016 as it was in 2015 and 2014, despite the U.S. taking on the chairmanship. $125,000 probably barely covers the salary of one full-time employee at the Arctic Council’s permanent secretariat in Tromsø, Norway – but at least the dollar has risen 25 percent against the Norwegian krone in recent months. Funding for the Arctic Council is more than double what the government gives to the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, but it’s less than 10% of what the U.S. spends on funding the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. Who knew.

The four-month wildcard

One reason why the Canadian chairmanship was so focused on issues like Arctic sovereignty and development was because it directly reflected Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s priorities in the region. Harper, who has served as prime minister since 2006, could also be fairly confident that he’d be able to oversee the entire two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council. In contrast, President Obama will remain in office for most, but not all, of the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which makes for a bit of uncertainty. After all, President George W. Bush issued NSPD-66, a new regional policy directive for the Arctic, just six days before leaving office. Yet even if a Republican does get voted into the top office, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. being able to radically change its agenda at the Arctic Council between the next president’s inauguration in January 2017 and the next ministerial, likely to happen in May 2017. Unless, that is, the next president happens to be a climate change denier like Republican candidate Rick Perry.

The U.S. & Arctic: Still at an arm’s length

Senator King recalled in his op-ed,

“On the plane ride back from Canada, Secretary Kerry sat down with Senator Murkowski and me for a two hour discussion that literally covered the world, including the Arctic, Syria, Iran, Russia and Ukraine, Yemen, Israel, and with a little congressional politics thrown in. Sitting in that folding chair on the plane home, I was reminded of the significant privilege and responsibility that comes with my job as a U.S. Senator — and that comes with being the leading nation on the Arctic Council.”

The two-hour discussion between senators from the U.S.’ two Arctic states and the Secretary of State covering a whole host of global hot spots underscores that even the country’s Arctic politicians have interests outside of the north. And while the Arctic is peaceful, all of the other places Senator King mentioned are engaged in wars or involved in serious conflicts. So long as the U.S. continues to play global policeman, it will get its hands dirty in places like the Middle East while keeping an arm’s length from the Arctic, even as it chairs the council.

[1] Congressional Budget Justification Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. p. 50.

[2] For more on Maine’s prospects in the Arctic, see a post I wrote in April 2013 entitled, “Maine: The Next Near-Arctic State?”

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.


Related stories from around the North:

Canada: The Arctic Council – What was accomplished and where we go from here, Eye on the Arctic

Denmark:  Nordics to step up security cooperation on perceived Russian threat, Yle News

Finland:  Survey – More than half of reservists in Finland pro-Nato, Yle News

Norway:  Peace and stability crucial for Arctic economy, Barents Observer

Russia: Majorities in Arctic nations favor cooperation with Russia, Barents Observer

Sweden:   Arctic Council – From looking out to looking in, Blog by Mia Bennett, Cryopolitics

United States: As U.S. assumes chairmanship, what’s next for Arctic Council?, Blog by Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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