U.S. nominates Alaskan as first Arctic ambassador

Alaskan Michael Sfraga, shown left at Arctic Frontiers 2022 in Tromso, Norway, is the nominee for the position of the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Arctic Affairs. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

U.S. President Joe Biden has unveiled the nominee for the newly created position of Ambassador-at-Large for Arctic Affairs, with Alaskan Michael Sfraga getting the nod on Monday.

Sfraga, who trained as a geographer specializing in the polar regions, has long been involved in Arctic research and affairs.

He was appointed Chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission by Biden in 2021. Sfraga was also the founding director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center, a U.S. think tank, where he’s the institute’s chair and distinguished fellow.

The U.S. was previously represented in Arctic affairs by U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region Jim DeHart.

In 2022, the State Department announced it would replace the position of Coordinator for the Arctic Region with the country’s first-ever Arctic ambassadorship.

The new role signals the increasing importance of the Arctic to the U.S. at a time of increasing geopolitical competition.

An F-15 takes off at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska on October 18, 2012. (Eric Engman / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / AP)
An F-15 takes off at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska on October 18, 2012. The creation of an Ambassador-at-Large for Arctic Affairs signals to the world the importance Washington places on the Arctic. (Eric Engman / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / AP)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 upended some 30 years of international cooperation in the North, with the western Arctic nations putting numerous cooperation projects with Moscow on hold.

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

“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 of the new position.

Position will allow U.S. to further arctic priorities, says senator

The U.S has long been at outlier among arctic nations with no Arctic diplomatic representation at the ambassador level.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski,  a prominent advocate for creating the Arctic ambassador role, praised Sfraga’s nomination. 

“I’m very pleased to see Dr. Mike Sfraga nominated to serve as Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Region,” Murkowski said in a statement on Monday. 

“This places the U.S. one step closer to having dedicated, high-level diplomatic representation in the Arctic, which will allow us to advance a range of U.S. policy priorities at a crucial time.” 

The nomination will now be sent to the Senate for confirmation.

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

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: U.S. downs another aerial ‘object’ as search continues for wreckage in Yukon, CBC News

Norway: Norway buys 54 Leopards for protection of the North, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Lonely Lavrov invites Arctic colleagues to Siberia, but no one will come, The Independent Barents Observer

SwedenNorway, Finland, Sweden prioritize North in updated statement, Eye on the Arctic

United States: U.S. Coast Guard talks Arctic at recent summit, Eye on the Arctic

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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