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
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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.”

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