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U.S. Needs an Arctic Push

Melting ice caps in the Arctic in recent years have rapidly increased the ease by which humans can access the frozen north. As the ice recedes further every year, new opportunities open for activity within the Arctic Circle. In 2010, only four ships made the transit across the newly accessible Northern Sea Route; in 2012, that figure was up to 46. Moreover, a report by the US Geological Survey notes that 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered petroleum reserves lie under the Arctic.

Historically, US foreign policy in the High North has been unambitious and low-priority; the little diplomatic capital which was expended focused on resource extraction. That changed with the publication of a comprehensive Arctic strategy in 2009, but there is still no U.S. ambassador to the Arctic; the United States is represented at the Arctic Council by Senior Arctic Official Julia L. Gourley. In June, the United States appointed its first Special Representative to the Arctic, Bob Papp. But neither of these positions convey the legitimacy of an ambassador, or even the authority of a Special Envoy.

Though diplomatic rank may not seem like the most pressing issue in the Arctic, it conveys the little priority the United States seems to put on the Arctic. However, there are three clear areas in which the United States could use an Arctic ambassador to push its policy agenda.

Taking the Lead in Energy Governance

The energy resources that are being explored in the Arctic are immense: the US Geological Survey reports 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Though commentators have argued that the global need to reduce carbon output makes tapping difficult, particularly in the context of the recent deal between the United States and China to reduce carbon emissions. However, for better or for worse, hydrocarbons will remain in demand for the foreseeable future, and if Arctic extraction is economically viable, it will be attempted. Moreover, much of this extraction has taken place under the aegis of Gazprom, the Russian state oil giant, which has signed a deal to export 400 billion dollars’ worth of natural gas to China over the next thirty years. So while many countries have made a commitment to decarbonize, Arctic petroleum reserves will still be extracted.

A policy goal in the 2014 “Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” a document which outlines the US plan of action for its chairmanship of the 2015 session of the Arctic Council is to “ensure the safe and responsible development of non-renewable energy resources.”

What’s clear is that there is a lot more to be done. Managing responses to oil spills, making sure there is a regulatory regime for drilling, and coordinating policy are all policy areas where US leadership could be beneficial. The travails of Shell Oil in the Beaufort and Chuckchi Seas show that these issues are not just abstractions. Shell Oil had problems certifying a response plan to a potential oil spill, and the drilling season was plagued by mishaps, including having to move the drill ship to dodge a massive ice floe. While these incidents happened relatively close to US shores, difficulties are sure to increase as drilling activities go further out to sea.

A recent report from Bookings notes that managing the responsible extraction of resources from the Arctic should be a priority of every Arctic littoral state. It also argues that to achieve this, the United States needs to broaden its involvement in the Arctic—the authors go so far as to suggest that the Department of State establish a Polar Bureau, much like its Bureau of African Affairs. Certainly, a greater focus from the Department of State would go a long way towards enacting these policy goals.

Promoting Arctic Infrastructure

A greater network of infrastructure needs to be established in order for the littoral states to take full advantage of emerging opportunities in the Arctic. The Arctic Maritime and Aviation Initiative, a project of the Arctic Council tasked with inventorying infrastructure in the Arctic Circle, notes a paucity of ports, airstrips, and other necessary infrastructure within the Arctic Circle. A lack of such a support network negates the utility of shipping routes, and makes resource extraction near impossible.

Necessary infrastructure goes beyond airports and ports: a support network needs to be in place. A prime example of this is the need for search and rescue teams and icebreakers. Currently the United States operates a single operational icebreaker; search and rescue resources are likewise scarce, although there is an agreement between the Arctic littoral states which establishes the specific obligations of every state.

This is another opportunity for the United States to take the lead. Clearly, some leadership is needed to organize and strengthen the infrastructure in the Arctic, including support networks. Considering that the United States will take the chair of the Arctic Council in 2015, it is logical for the United States to take the initiative in such projects. Such leadership is more easily achieved from a position of real leadership—lead by an ambassador.

Strengthening the Arctic Council

The easiest and most direct ways of accomplishing the aforementioned goal is by way of existing institutions. The Arctic Council is the most established international institution in the Arctic, handling most internationally coordinated projects. It is also more inclusive than similar institutions, with six groups of indigenous peoples represented as permanent participants. As such, it is the ideal vehicle for advancing a policy agenda.

Strengthening the Arctic Council should be the primary responsibility for any future Arctic Ambassador, and presents another strong argument for the necessity of such a position. Having a higher ranked negotiating presence at Arctic Council meetings would increase US bargaining power; in addition, the greater independence of an ambassadorial appointment delegates more agency to the Arctic Council.

Though there is little doubt that Bob Papp will be working closely with Julia Gourley to make US presence known at the Arctic Council, a full ambassadorial appointment would no doubt increase the visibility of US engagement with the council. The more the United States is engaged, the more it can show its support for strengthening the council—this is the way forward for the United States to use existing institutions to achieve policy objectives in the High North.

The High North is one of the most dynamic and emerging regions in international politics, demanding space on the policy agendas of all Arctic littoral states. Eleven countries have posted Arctic ambassadors in the past seven years. In order to guarantee a leadership position consistent with US policy goals, it simply must shed its culture of disengagement in the Arctic Circle. Though at the present US diplomatic capital is spread thin, with high-priority initiatives in both East Asia and the Middle East, there remains sufficient resources for the State Department to appoint a full ambassador to the Arctic. From energy governance to Arctic infrastructure to strengthening the Arctic Council, the United States needs to appoint an ambassador to the Arctic to advance these essential policies.