A month into the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the nation’s top Arctic official says he is being greeted with open arms around the circumpolar north and in national capitals.
There has been “universal” positive reaction to the U.S. leading the eight-nation organization over the next two years, said retired Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp, the U.S. special representative for the Arctic.
In those two years, the U.S. has some lofty goals, including improving economic and living conditions for Arctic communities; enhancing Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship; and addressing impacts of climate change.
The program is considered highly ambitious, possibly the most ambitious themes ever for a two-year Arctic Council chairmanship, Papp said in an interview Tuesday with Alaska Dispatch News.
“Of course, that raises expectations. And now you’ve got to deliver,” said Papp, who is visiting Alaska.
U.S. commitment to the Arctic
He paraphrased a comment he heard a few days ago at the House of Sweden in Washington, site of the Swedish embassy and other Nordic offices: “’Nothing important ever gets done in the world without the United States either leading or throwing their participation in there.’ So that’s, I think, why they’re excited,” Papp said.
There are international doubts, though, about the U.S. commitment to the Arctic, he said.
Not a single dollar has been allocated from the government to a new icebreaker, he said. There is no U.S. deep-water Arctic port, he said. Arctic partners are wondering about lack of U.S. investment in Arctic navigation, Arctic telecommunications and other far-north infrastructure, he said.
“They understand that where this country puts its treasure is what’s important. And they don’t see a lot of that treasure going towards the Arctic right now,” he said.
His response to the doubters? The U.S. has a new Arctic Strategy, issued in 2013, and an implementation plan, issued in 2014. President Obama this year signed an executive order to get government agencies to work on Arctic projects.
“I think it’s a good start,” Papp said. “At least, I’m satisfied that we are getting attention.”
The Russia question
What about Russia, once — and some say still –the nation’s adversary? Will tensions with Russia affect goals of the Arctic Council under U.S. chairmanship?
Papp said that although Russia’s actions in Ukraine are “inexcusable” and Putin’s own public behavior has been provocative, the United States and other nations need to continue working with Russia on Arctic issues. Papp’s recent world travels as Arctic ambassador have included Moscow.
“To exclude Russia would have terrible consequences. It would be a terrible burden on our chairmanship,” he said.
Isolating Russia on Arctic issues also harms U.S. national interests on non-Arctic matters, Papp said. There are several problems around the world for which the U.S. needs Russian help, he said.
“I’ve never known any problem in the world that was made better by shutting down communication,” he said.
Papp discounts talk of a “new Cold War” or Arctic “land grab” by Russia, and he cautions against exaggerating the significance of Russian actions in the Arctic, military or otherwise. To a large extent, he said, Russian actions in the Arctic are similar to the “operations normal” of the past, and similar to what other nations like Norway area doing — including recent military exercises.
World interest in the North
What about China, a non-Arctic nation that has become a major player in Arctic issues and two years ago won status as an Arctic Council observer?
As the world’s second-largest economy and as a major producer of carbon and other atmospheric emissions, China should be involved in finding solutions to Arctic problems, Papp said. “I’m glad that China’s interested. I don’t think we should feel threatened by China,” he said. “Excluding someone that you need cooperation from would be foolish, in my estimation.”
If people in Russia, China and elsewhere care about the Arctic, what about Americans outside of Alaska?
Papp has made it a personal mission to convince the public in the Lower 48 that Alaska and the Arctic are important. The message is starting to sink in, he said, thanks to recent weather extremes, including unusual winter storms brought to the eastern and southern U.S. states by the polar vortex, the current deadly floods in Texas and other powerful events that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns will become more common as the Arctic and global climate warm.
“What gets the rest of the Americans interested in Alaska? And I have been struggling with what’s that national imperative. The president, I think, is going to do us a favor here by focusing on climate,” he said.
President Barack Obama’s commencement speech last week at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Papp noted, focused on the theme of climate change as a national security issue — with specific references to Alaska, its vast Arctic coastline and Arctic sea ice, which has been trending low all year.
The Arctic- and climate-influenced national security that Obama discussed is broader than military defense, Papp said. “National security encompasses economic security, environmental security, energy security and a whole bunch of other things,” he said.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Feature Interview: 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: Obama defends Arctic drilling weeks after Kerry promotes clean energy at Arctic Council, Blog by Mia Bennett