U.S. to name ambassador-at-large for Arctic region

“This announcement—which dovetails the recent opening of the new Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies—sends a strong signal to our allies and adversaries that America is all-hands-on-deck in the Arctic,” said U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski. Pictured here, a file photo of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaking ice in the Arctic Ocean. (Petty Officer Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard/AP)

The United States plans to name an ambassador-at-large for the Arctic region, the State Department announced on Friday.

It will be the first time the country has an Arctic ambassadorship and will replace the position of U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region.

“The Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Region will advance U.S. policy in the Arctic, engage with counterparts in Arctic and non-Arctic nations as well as Indigenous groups, and work closely with domestic stakeholders, including state, local, and Tribal governments, businesses, academic institutions, non-profit organizations, other federal government agencies and Congress,” the State Department said in a news release.

“The United States remains committed to constructive cooperation in the Arctic, foremost through the Arctic Council, and the Ambassador-at-Large will work in close partnership with the U.S. Senior Arctic Official, the federal Arctic science community, and the Arctic Executive Steering Committee.”

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (left) and China’s President Xi Jinping (right) at the welcome banquet for leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People on April 26, 2019 in Beijing, China. Both countries are investing heavily in the Arctic. (Nicolas Asfouri/Pool/Getty Images)

The announcement comes amidst a time where some 30 years of international cooperation in the North has been upended by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and numerous projects involving collaboration between Russia and the West have been affected.

China has also become increasing active in the Arctic at the same time that country has become an increasing concern to Washington, and other Arctic states like Finland and Norway.

“Appointing an ambassador-at-large signals that the Arctic is growing in importance for the United States and comes at a time where the stability and level of cooperation that we have enjoyed in the Arctic has certainly changed,” Troy Bouffard, the director at the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told Eye on the Arctic in a phone interview.

“We’re likely to see a lot more competition now in all sectors, including geopolitical.”

“All-hands-on-deck”

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a prominent advocate for creating the Arctic ambassador role, says it’s been a long time coming and sends an important signal to the international community. 

The U.S. was the only Arctic nation without dedicated diplomatic representation for the Arctic Region at the Ambassador level or higher,” she said in a statement upon the announcement. 

“By establishing this role, America will solidify its dedication, commitment, and leadership to this strategically important region and have greater opportunities to spur the diplomacy necessary to preserve a peaceful, prosperous Arctic. This announcement—which dovetails the recent opening of the new Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies—sends a strong signal to our allies and adversaries that America is all-hands-on-deck in the Arctic.”

“Make no mistake, because of Alaska, America is not only an Arctic nation, but an Arctic leader,” said U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, pictured here in a file photo from this year’s Arctic Encounter symposium in Anchorage, Alaska. “I look forward to the announcing of a nominee and urge the State Department to quickly move forward with the next steps.” (Mark Thiessen/AP)

Bouffard said the new role will also help elevate the importance of northern issues across the board..

“One of the most obvious advantages of having a U.S. ambassador for the Arctic, is it just instantly elevates the importance of any topic discussed, or event that they’re at,” he said.

“Not having an ambassador sends a different sort of signal, especially with our competitors like Russia, and it always kind of put us off balance a little. The creation of an ambassador-at-large for the region takes care of that quite nicely.”

The Arctic amidst U.S. global interests

The new ambassador has not yet been named.

Once an ambassador has been chosen, the nomination will be sent to the Senate for confirmation.

Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson (L) greets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he arrives for the Arctic Council Working Dinner at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, May 19, 2021. (Saul Loeb/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Bouffard says given the high complexities of U.S. foreign policy and the country’s interests in the region, he expects someone high profile, with vast experience and knowledge of the North.

“A lot of people forget that when you look at the Arctic nations you’ve got small states where the Arctic is their whole world, then you’ve got mid-powers like Canada where the Arctic is important, but for the United States, and to some extent Russia, the Arctic is just one part of the rest of the entire world that they’re juggling and managing,” he said. “It can be difficult for people to keep that in context.

“It’s important that whoever is in this position understands very well the national security priorities of the United States in general, and know how to manage Arctic issues in the larger context, and the full scope, of the United States’ global interests.

“It’s certainly quite daunting.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: NORAD’s role vital for North America and for NATO, says Stoltenberg, CBC News

Finland: Hundreds of foreign soldiers join military exercise in Arctic Finland, The Independent Barents Observer

NorwayDefence minister says Norway must get stronger in the North, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Assertive Moscow outlines push into central Arctic Ocean, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: U.S. Army poised to revamp Alaska forces to prep for Arctic fight, The Associated Press

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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