In cooperation with the 2015 High North Dialogue we conduct a series of podcast interviews with some of the speakers and participants of the conference as well as other Arctic voices. This project is a collaboration between the University of Nordland’s High North Center and The Arctic Institute. The podcasts will be available on iTunes via The Arctic Institute, as well as on the High North Dialogue Website.
In our 5th podcast for the High North Dialogue 2015 we talked with Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Heather Conley received her B.A. in international studies from West Virginia Wesleyan College and her M.A. in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Prior to joining CSIS in 2009, she served as executive director of the Office of the Chairman of the Board at the American National Red Cross, as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs and as a senior associate with an international consulting firm led by former U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage.
During the last year(s), Arctic cooperation was frequently discussed and scrutinised from a non-Arctic perspective with global geopolitical tensions potentially affecting collaboration within the Arctic Council and between its members. Consequently, Heather stressed that the High North Dialogue and its particular emphasis on “Arctic Dialogue” took place at a very convenient time with Arctic cooperation currently being under close scrutiny. In order to continue Arctic collaboration Heather would rather emphasize the term “Arctic safety” instead of “Arctic security”, as security is often publically interpreted as potential “militarization”. In order to find common ground between the different interests and perceptions of the Arctic states, “Arctic safety” seems to be a more suitable approach to tackle the various challenges a future Arctic holds.
The immediate future of Arctic cooperation, safety, and security will be largely characterised by the U.S Arctic Council chairmanship, assumed on April 25, 2015. In that regard, Heather stressed the necessity to effectively include non-Arctic actors and states in discussions to address their increased attention in Arctic issues. Within the United States, the chairmanship provides an opportunity to remind the United States that it actually is an Arctic nation and has a particular Arctic identity. As highlighted by Heather, “you can’t have an informed policy if you don’t have an informed public”. Currently, related efforts to strengthen a particular U.S. Arctic identity have been observed within the policy-making circles in Washington, D.C.
Andreas Raspotnik: Hello and welcome to this 5th podcast for the High North Dialogue 2015, a collaboration of the University of Nordland (Bodø), the University’s High North Centre for Business and Governance, and The Arctic Institute. We are speaking with attendees and speakers about their work, the High North Dialogue, and the conference’s theme of security and business in the Arctic. Thanks for joining us. I am Andreas Raspotnik. Today we are talking with Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Heather Conley has extensively written on Arctic issues and just recently published a report, in cooperation with Caroline Rohloff, on the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship, entitled “Recommendations for the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship: Enhancing Policy Focus on Arctic Health and Well-Being”, which can be downloaded here.
Dear Heather, thanks for joining us today. Time flies and this year’s High North Dialogue already dates back one month. If you look back upon the conference, what were your general impressions and how do you think it differed from other Arctic conferences?
Heather Conley: Well, it’s always a wonderful opportunity to visit Bodø. I don’t have – as often as I would like – the opportunity to speak with students and young professionals who want to engage in Arctic studies and Arctic research, so it was a particular pleasure to be in a beautiful university setting and to be very energized by a lot of exciting and enthusiastic young professionals. I have to say that the impression the conference left me with was really the environment in which the conference took place – in the middle of some very unanticipated and unexpected snap Russian military exercises in the Arctic. And it comes at a moment where we are really trying to understand what the future of Arctic cooperation will look like as, unfortunately, geopolitical tensions continue to increase between the United States, Europe, Canada, and Russia. I think it was the setting and the understanding that these are very real questions that we have to ask ourselves, so it was a good time to have that conversation and to have some Russian colleagues to speak at the conference, which I thought was extremely useful.
Andreas Raspotnik: One of the conference’s key features of discussion was “Arctic security”, a broad term used to describe the region’s manifold challenges and already previously discussed with some of the conference’s speakers, as for instance Michael Byers or Alexander Sergunin. Keeping the discussion in Bodø in mind, what is your first association of the term “Arctic security”?
Heather Conley: Well, I actually try to rephrase it; I talk about Arctic safety. How can we safely have human and commercial activity exist in the Arctic? So that clearly speaks to search and rescue operations, and oil spill prevention response capabilities. Some suggest that this is soft security; I actually don’t accept that, because any type of operation in the Arctic is just hard to do. This is not soft, these are very hard conditions, and they require military operations – and sometimes, different nations have different ways of expressing these types of operations. For the United States, it is principally a coast guard function. For other Arctic nations it is naval, and for some – like Russia – it is their border guard. We all have different institutions and instruments, but this is really about Arctic safety; how can we make the Arctic a safe place for the people who live there today and for the people who seek economic opportunity and/or protection of the Arctic region. I think when you say ‘Arctic security’ everyone immediately goes “Oh no, you’re going to talk about the militarization of the Arctic” – and I think in some ways people have allowed that to shut down the conversation, and if we shut down the conversation, we can’t talk about how we can meet the challenges that are in the Arctic today, let alone trying to address the future safety challenges in the Arctic.
Andreas Raspotnik: By the end of April 2015 the United States assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. According to your opinion and Arctic experience, what are the key challenges for the United States and how would you compare this time’s chairmanship with the first one, held from 1998 to 2000?
Heather Conley: Exactly! The last time we assumed the chairmanship was in 1998 and the Arctic Council was only two years old. Now at our next chairmanship, we are going to celebrate a 20-year-old body, so in some ways the Arctic Council has had a lot of growing to do and it has really been flourishing these last twenty years. The challenge for the U.S. chairmanship is really about your first question: we have only ever known the Arctic Council as a product of the end of the Cold War and the warming of relations with Russia, so the question mark is: how is the Arctic Council going to function if we have a re-freeze or a re-chilling of relations with Russia? So that would be one question that the chairmanship is going to have to grapple with. I think U.S. officials have said it very clearly, that they see multilateral cooperation in the Arctic, they see Russia as being a cooperative partner, so I think the U.S. chairmanship is going to do its very best not to allow any of these geopolitical tensions to spill over, and we just have to wait and see how the relationship manifests itself and what impact that will have on the Arctic Council. The other two challenges that I think the U.S. chairmanship will face, that it did not face in 1998 is the fact that in 1998, I’m not sure that the Arctic – other than for researchers, scientists, and environmentalists – captured that many headlines. Well today, it certainly captures a lot of headlines, and not just the interest of Arctic states, but particularly of non-Arctic states. We were not talking about China constructing its second icebreaker or having a much more significant Chinese interest as an observer to the Arctic Council back in 1998. There’s the whole non-Arctic dimension, what does it mean that India has become an observer? What does it mean that Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and others have joined this? The U.S. chairmanship is going to have to manage both the positive side effects – that there is a lot of interest and enthusiasm in the Arctic and to participate in the Arctic Council – and to maintain that the Arctic Council remains true to its purpose, which is to focus on the people that live in the Arctic – particularly the indigenous populations – to try to handle all these new geopolitical currents that didn’t exist in 1998 and making sure that this almost 20-year-old council continues to grow, to mature, and to meet the challenges. The third, I think, difficulty is that the Arctic itself changes so rapidly, so profoundly. How can we slow this change down? How can we hold and press governments to do more, to reduce black carbon, to reduce methane emissions? How can we help with food security in the Arctic as subsistence hunting patterns change because of climate changes? How are we going to move coastal villages away from the coast and into safety? How do we deal with permafrost thaw? These issues were there during the chairmanship in 1998, but – my goodness! – how rapidly they have progressed, beating expectations of most scientific models. So the challenges are enormous: the new actors and now, potentially, geopolitical tensions that may spill over into the Arctic. I think the U.S. chairmanship will have its hands full.
Andreas Raspotnik: At the High North Dialogue you stated, “We (the lower 48 and Hawaii) have to remind ourselves that we are an Arctic nation”. Can you please explain if or how this knowledge or feeling of an “Arctic identity” will be enhanced during the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship? Do you think more could be done in this regard? And if yes, what exactly?
Heather Conley: Yes, absolutely. Certainly the people of Alaska have a very clear understanding of their Arctic origin. Unfortunately, the other 48 states may not wake up every day and realize that the United States is an Arctic nation, so what we’re hoping in the lead up to the chairmanship and now as we take over the chairmanship beginning tomorrow, we’re really hoping to use the next two years as a great opportunity to raise that public awareness, that education, that interest in what are the key issues of the Arctic, what is the U.S. chairmanship hoping to accomplish, because you can’t have informed policy if you don’t have an informed public. So there’s going to be a lot of work just dedicated here in the United States to educate people about the Arctic and what the economic interests are, what are the environmental changes and impact, but again always keeping the people who live in the North at the centre of the policy. I think that is going to be an enormous benefit to our U.S. chairmanship, just to help the average American know a little more about the Arctic.
Andreas Raspotnik: Coming to our last question now. At the High North Dialogue you also touched upon that the U.S. Arctic Strategy lacks concrete formulations of what will be done, within which time frame, and at what cost. In your perspective, what is the most urgent topic that the U.S. has to deal with in relation to the Arctic?
Heather Conley: Well, let me talk a little about the U.S. agenda for the chairmanship and then a little bit about what we see as the future for U.S. Arctic policy itself. The Arctic Council is a consensus organisation, so every two years when a new chairmanship begins to think about what it would like to do it proposes some ideas, and of course the other seven Arctic Council members and the permanent participants have to say: “Yes, we support that”. In some ways it is not just for the U.S. and what we would like to do, it’s also what the eight countries say is a good thing, and because a state can’t accomplish big things in two years, we see these chairmanships as sort of rolling through to each other and what maybe begins in the U.S. chairmanship will then extend when Finland takes the chair in 2017, so we are very modest about what we can and cannot accomplish. The U.S. has set out three priorities or three themes: 1) to focus on climate change: to mitigate black carbon and methane emission; 2) to focus on ocean stewardship, ocean acidification – again getting back to safety –working hard on search and rescue operations, trying to bring a little bit more implementation to the search and rescue agreement that was signed in 2011, as well as the oil spill response agreement. And then finally 3) to again focus on the people of the North, to look at ways to improve the economic and living conditions of the people of the North, and there are a series of initiatives that are designed around that. Those are the three big themes. I think the U.S. chairmanship will also focus on how to strengthen the Arctic Council. As I said, there has been a lot of growing up the last almost twenty years and it has experienced some growing pains along the way. How it was designed in 1996 is certainly being challenged to operate efficiently in 2015, so the chairmanship will look at that. As far as U.S. policy, we have done a lot of writing the last few years, a lot of strategies, at the national level and now you see where different agencies and departments – like the Defence Department, like the Department of Homeland Security, and others – will be writing their strategy on how their funding and resources are being given. The White House has created a new coordinating body called the ‘Arctic Executive Steering Group’ – and that’s an attempt to get a lot more senior-level attention about the Arctic, prioritizing what are we not doing that we should be doing, and hopefully down the road, beginning to fund some of these important priorities. We’re going to be doing that simultaneously as we work on our chairmanship, so the hope is that both through the engagement with the U.S. chairmanship – doing what we’ve already been doing – and strengthening the U.S. domestic policies that by 2017 when we hand over the torch to Helsinki from the chairmanship and we welcome a new presidential administration, we’ll have elevated our Arctic policy and then moved to a phase of implementation. That’s the hope, now we’ll have to see if we can get that all accomplished, but I think we’re getting there. We may not have a strong Arctic identity here in Washington, but I certainly see an enormous amount of work and effort and focus. We understand that we’re a little bit behind and we’re doing our very best to catch up and provide that important Arctic leadership.
Andreas Raspotnik: Dear Heather, thank you very much for taking the time to highlight some of the challenges the U.S is and will continue to face in the Arctic. See you again in Bodø.
Heather Conley: Well, thank you Andreas. It has been great speaking with you.
Andreas Raspotnik: Thanks for joining us for this podcast, which was recorded on April 23rd, 2015. Follow along with the series on iTunes or via our websites highnorthdialogue.no and thearcticinstitute.org. The music you’ve heard at the beginning and at the end comes from Hebber Zepherin and can be found at ccmixture.org.