Why the U.S. Needs an Ambassador to the North Pole

The country is about to gain a whole lot more responsibility in the Arctic region that Russia, China, and others are vying to control.

National Journal
Marina Koren
Add to Briefcase
Marina Koren
May 5, 2014, 3:35 a.m.

It sounds like a joke at first.

Reps. Jim Sensen­bren­ner and Rick Larsen in­tro­duced a bill last week to es­tab­lish a U.S. am­bas­sad­or-at-large for Arc­tic af­fairs. In oth­er words, someone to rep­res­ent the na­tion at the North Pole.

The wise­cracks are bound­less. Could this cre­ate a power struggle with Santa Claus? Would po­lar bears serve on the am­bas­sad­or’s staff? Has Rudolph re­leased a state­ment?

But ap­point­ing a U.S. am­bas­sad­or to the Arc­tic is a le­git­im­ate re­quest — and a smart one, too.

The U.S. is a mem­ber of the Arc­tic Coun­cil, an in­ter­gov­ern­ment­al for­um cre­ated in 1996 to fa­cil­it­ate co­oper­a­tion among na­tions whose land­mass ex­tends in­to the North Pole. The group, which in­cludes Rus­sia, Canada, Nor­way, Den­mark, Fin­land, Sweden, and Ice­land, fo­cuses ex­clus­ively on is­sues like en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion, trade routes, and fish­er­ies at the top of the globe — and leaves polit­ics out of it.

That’s how it’s al­ways been. But the north can’t ig­nore ten­sions farther south forever. At a weeklong sum­mit in March, the coun­cil’s Ca­na­dian rep­res­ent­at­ives said they were keep­ing a close eye on their Rus­si­an coun­ter­parts’ re­marks in light of the on­go­ing Ukraine crisis. And next year, the United States, the lead­ing skep­tic of Rus­si­an motives, takes its turn as the chair of the Arc­tic Coun­cil.

“We need someone with am­bas­sad­ori­al rank to show that the U.S. is ser­i­ous about be­ing an Arc­tic na­tion,” Sensen­bren­ner, a Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an, said in a state­ment. “As Rus­sia con­tin­ues to act ag­gress­ively, in­clud­ing mak­ing claims in the Arc­tic, and as China states its own in­terest, the U.S. must co­ordin­ate its Arc­tic policy and pro­tect its do­mest­ic en­ergy sup­ply at the highest level.”

Cur­rently, 20 dif­fer­ent fed­er­al agen­cies, in­clud­ing the State De­part­ment, the Pentagon, and the Na­tion­al Sci­ence Found­a­tion, are charged with hand­ling Arc­tic policy. The le­gis­la­tion would stream­line that work un­der one am­bas­sad­or, who would serve as Arc­tic Coun­cil chair un­til 2017.

No coun­try has yet laid full claim to the Arc­tic re­gion, which in­cludes the North Pole and is home to 15 per­cent of the world’s oil and a third of its un­dis­covered nat­ur­al gas. But sev­er­al na­tions have tried to ex­tend their sov­er­eignty there, which re­quires prov­ing that their con­tin­ent­al shelves ex­tend more than 230 miles in­to the Arc­tic Ocean. Last year, China and sev­er­al oth­er Asi­an na­tions ap­plied for a seat at the Arc­tic Coun­cil.

The coun­cil’s gov­ern­ing na­tion can some­times cre­ate fric­tion with the oth­er Arc­tic states. Last Decem­ber, Canada, the cur­rent chair, an­nounced that it plans to sub­mit a claim for ad­di­tion­al Arc­tic ter­rit­ory, in­clud­ing the en­tire North Pole. Its Arc­tic rival, Rus­sia, re­spon­ded im­me­di­ately. The next day, Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin ordered more troops to the re­gion.

By West­ern meas­ures, Rus­sia hasn’t played fair at the top of the world. By Rus­sia’s reck­on­ing, the West is the prob­lem. In 2009, Rus­si­an Se­cur­ity Coun­cil Sec­ret­ary Nikolai Patrushev ar­gued that “the United States, Den­mark, Nor­way, and Canada are con­duct­ing a com­mon and co­ordin­ated policy to deny Rus­sia ac­cess to the riches of the [Arc­tic] shelf.”

Un­der Dmitry Med­ve­dev, Mo­scow’s agenda was a re­l­at­ively peace­ful one: It re­solved a ter­rit­ori­al dis­pute with Nor­way and worked out policy is­sues with oth­er Arc­tic powers. Putin’s Arc­tic rhet­or­ic, however, has been hawk­ish. He hopes to re­store the coun­try’s So­viet-era power in the re­gion by mod­ern­iz­ing aban­doned air­fields and build­ing nat­ur­al-re­source in­fra­struc­ture by 2020.

The U.S. has not yet rat­i­fied the U.N. Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea, which means it is not eli­gible to file of­fi­cial ter­rit­ori­al claims, through Alaska, in the Arc­tic. But the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has hin­ted about a big­ger agenda in a re­gion whose melt­ing ice is re­veal­ing tre­mend­ous eco­nom­ic and nat­ur­al-re­source op­por­tun­it­ies.

In Feb­ru­ary, the State De­part­ment an­nounced it would ap­point a spe­cial en­voy to the Arc­tic, but no names came up. “Pres­id­ent Obama and I are com­mit­ted to el­ev­at­ing our at­ten­tion and ef­fort to keep up with the op­por­tun­it­ies and con­sequences presen­ted by the Arc­tic’s rap­id trans­form­a­tion — a very rare con­ver­gence of al­most every na­tion­al pri­or­ity in the most rap­idly chan­ging re­gion on the face of the Earth,” Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry said at the time.

A new U.S. chair­man­ship and am­bas­sad­ori­al team would come in handy against an ag­gress­ive Rus­sia. The coun­try’s in­ter­ven­tion in Ukraine makes clear that the Krem­lin is ready to fight for its na­tion­al in­terests any­where — in­clud­ing the North Pole.

This seems to be an is­sue Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats can agree on. Co­spon­sors of Sensen­bren­ner’s and Larsen’s bill in­clude Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Betty Mc­Col­lum, D-Minn. In the Sen­ate, Mark Be­gich has been push­ing for more rep­res­ent­a­tion in the po­lar re­gion since 2008, and the Alaskan Demo­crat has in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion for an in­creased U.S. Coast Guard pres­ence there.

“When I first ar­rived in the Sen­ate five years ago, I got a lot of puzzled looks when I men­tioned the Arc­tic,” Be­gich said re­cently. “With un­pleas­ant re­mind­ers of the Cold War and the vast po­ten­tial for re­source de­vel­op­ment in the re­gion, a mil­it­ary pres­ence is more im­port­ant than ever.”

What We're Following See More »
CAN’T NAME ONE WORLD LEADER
Gary Johnson Stumbles Again
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
GOES TO PRESIDENT
Senate Approves Bill to Preserve Rape Kits
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The Senate on Wednesday approved legislation ensuring sexual assault survivors in federal criminal cases have access to forensic evidence collection kits, sending the bill to President Obama's desk. The legislation, known as the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, was passed by unanimous consent as lawmakers prepare to leave Washington until after the election. The House passed the measure earlier this month."

Source:
2-MONTH GIG OR 8-YEAR GIG?
Alec Baldwin to Play Trump on ‘SNL’
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS
STRIKES DOWN NEW HAMPSHIRE BAN
Court: Selfies in Voting Booth Now OK
4 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
WILL LEAD U.S. DELEGATION
Obama to Travel to Israel for Peres’s Funeral
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS
×