Skagway, Alaska. Photo: Jill Clardy
The US recently reached the 100 days milestone of its Arctic Council Chairmanship. What has been achieved, what have been the main weaknesses and how should the Chairmanship move forward? Heather Exner-Pirot, advisor to The Arctic Institute, here shares her perspective to these central questions.
Has the US used the first 100 days of its Chairmanship strategically to create the necessary planning, political, and financial groundwork for a successful two years of leadership?
I think that the majority of planning comes in the 1-2 years preceding the Chairmanship, and so the agenda has been set. The United States seems to have done their due diligence in consulting with local stakeholders and Arctic Council members, and built momentum and buzz with the appointment of Admiral Papp as the Special Representative on the Arctic. They also demonstrated flexibility by moderating their focus on climate change and adopting a stronger economic and social development focus, as well as changing their tone on the Arctic Economic Council, between September 2014 and March 2015. But I think there has been some regrettable dissonance between Washington DC and Alaskan politicians.
There has not been a lot of evidence of significant additional financial support to support Arctic Council activities. But it seems one of the goals of the US Chairmanship is to build awareness and support for Arctic issues and needs in the lower 48 in order to secure more funding from Congress for significant infrastructure and capital projects in America’s Arctic in the future.
It’s also important to put the US Chairmanship in context. The planning and financial backing for its Chairmanship looks roughly comparable to that of its predecessors. The United States began by articulating some provocative and ambitious plans (“Arctic Council on steroids”), but 100 days in, the US Chairmanship looks to be aiming for continuity within the Arctic Council, and I think that is a good thing. Bluster and reform are not needed or desired.
What has been the American federal government’s biggest shortcoming in the first 100 days?
The American federal government’s greatest weakness might also be its greatest strength – the jury is still out. But in my opinion it is Admiral Papp. He has been very effective at communicating US Arctic policy and interests and building awareness in Washington DC and the lower 48 – which I perceive to be his main objective. I also think he has been accessible and genuine with Alaskans and external stakeholders, and has adopted a constructive approach with the Russians. His appointment and his public relationship with Secretary of State John Kerry has brought a gravitas to US Arctic policy which was previously lacking. In many ways I am envious because it would have been helpful for Leona Aglukkaq to conduct herself similarly during Canada’s chairmanship.
But it is equally clear Admiral Papp is not an expert on the Arctic. He has a tendency to speak off the cuff (Disney, Singapore), hark back to JFK, and lecture on American maritime history. But he is not yet knowledgeable enough to speak comfortably about Arctic policy issues, let alone develop policy. This has led to Papp becoming the public face of the US Arctic Council chairmanship while Senior Arctic Official Chair David Balton manages things behind the scenes, with apparent skill. Perhaps this dual strategy is brilliant and avoids compromising between form and function; it also seems risky, if the relevant actors don’t know who ultimately makes the decisions, or worse, a power struggle ensues. Papp might see forest where Balton sees trees.
I also think the US federal government mishandled Alaska’s role in developing Arctic policy in the months before the US Chairmanship and hasn’t always shown sophistication on the human development side of the Arctic equation. But they’ve certainly moved along the learning curve in the first 100 days and indeed the months leading up to Iqaluit.
What has been the American federal government’s greatest success in the first 100 days?
The US government has generated optimism, after a difficult Canadian Chairmanship and broader geopolitical tensions with Russia, for the Arctic Council and its work. Secretary Kerry has articulated genuine interest, and hosted a reception in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the State Department on May 20 to usher in the US Chairmanship which included the Foreign Ministers of Norway Finland and Iceland, as well as several Ambassadors and Senior Arctic Officials. This is a long way from the Arctic Council of the 1990s, when Ministerial meetings were held in high school gymnasiums.
By all accounts the first SAO executive meeting in Washington DC in June was successful and constructive, and management of the Council has been effective. But the Americans are upping the ante even more by planning an August forum with the eight Arctic Foreign Ministers in Alaska – some meeting on Arctic issues for the third time in four months – to discuss climate change and COP21, outside the formal parameters of the Council. Finally, engagement with Russia has been put on a better footing. All of this has contributed to a welcome sense of momentum for the Arctic Council.
Has the US effectively engaged other Arctic (and non-Arctic) Council countries in regional political, economic, social, and security cooperation in the first 100 days in line with their One Arctic theme?
US external engagement has been a strength, with the State Department reception, Kerry’s visit to Sochi, and Admiral Papp’s outreach efforts counting as positives. However I don’t think I will ever embrace the One Arctic theme. It’s a useful hashtag and rhetorical tool, but a more sophisticated rendering of the Arctic would highlight its heterogeneity and demonstrate an appreciation of its complexity. Most people south of the 60th parallel already view the Arctic through a singular and simplified lens and the theme of One Arctic appeals to this lowest common denominator. I think the Americans missed a chance to communicate the Arctic’s diversity.
Moving forward, what are the most important areas of investment, policy initiatives, and polar challenges to address?
The actual work of the Arctic Council is unsexy, and subsequently so is the US agenda. I am very interested in their planned work on economic and social development, especially renewable energy, sanitation, and telecommunications infrastructure. But I am extremely skeptical about the Arctic Council’s ability to translate research into policy, let alone implementation, on social issues.
In terms of the Council’s natural strengths, it will be important to continue the work on short lived climate pollutants. I will cross my fingers for a breakthrough on a regional seas programme, although it seems most members are only ready for baby steps on that file.
I am not convinced the Arctic needs more emphasis on climate change – there is an almost ubiquitous mental association of the two in the broader public’s mind and I think it sucks energy out of other important issues – but I think it’s inevitable the US will highlight it as a policy initiative, unless or until a Republican wins the 2016 Presidential election.