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Begich aims to raise U.S. profile in Arctic by creating ambassador

Mia Bennet
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, right, and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo discussed the need for deepwater ports in Arctic Alaska during a meeting in Anchorage in April 2012. Loren Holmes photo

Last month, I discussed Japan’s designation of Masuo Nishibayashi as Arctic ambassador -- the second Asian country to create such a position. While Japan joins Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Russia and Singapore as countries with Arctic ambassadors or equivalent positions, the United States still does not have a similar role. Canada once had an ambassador for circumpolar affairs, but eliminated the position in 2006. Yet Canada will soon become the chair of the Arctic Council, and with Minister of Health and MP Leona Aglukkaq slated to become chair, the country does not lack a point person representing national policy in the Arctic. The U.S., by contrast, finds itself lacking a figurehead at the top.

Alaskans take the lead on northern policy

In the U.S., Alaska officials are at the vanguard of a lot of the country’s initiatives and policymaking in the far north, whether it’s regulating offshore oil drilling or looking into the best site for a deep-draft port. Thus, it comes as no surprise that U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, is one of the few Americans calling for the creation of an Arctic ambassador. In a letter (PDF) to President Obama, Begich stated, “The changes we see in the Arctic today now warrant taking the next step to heighten our diplomatic presence at the top of the globe with the appointment of a U.S. Ambassador to the Arctic.”

On Feb. 11, Begich introduced S. 270, also known as “United States Ambassador at Large for Arctic Affairs Act of 2013.” He lists a number of geographic reasons as to why the U.S. merits such a position, including the length of Alaska’s Arctic shoreline, the 100 million acres of American territory above the Arctic Circle, and “an even broader area defined as Arctic by temperature that includes the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.” With the definition of the Arctic under contention lately, given that countries such as China are claiming to be near-Arctic, Senator Begich is making sure to cover his bases. He confirms that the U.S. qualifies as an Arctic state according to three different definitions. Most importantly, it’s a littoral state, joining the exclusive club of five Arctic states (one into which Iceland has been trying to muscle its way by positioning itself rhetorically as an Arctic coastal state). Climate change, growing tourism, oil and gas development, are also posited as reasons the U.S. needs an Arctic Ambassador.

Outlining key duties

Based on the text of the bill, a U.S. Arctic ambassador would have two key duties. First, entrusted with diplomatic representation, he or she would represent the U.S. at the Arctic Council, the United Nations, and to other Arctic states when Arctic affairs were of concern, thereby enhancing “the ability of the United States to respond quickly and appropriately to issues of mutual interest to the Arctic Council and Arctic countries generally.” Second, an Arctic ambassador would play an advisory role, serving as a “principal adviser to the President and the Secretary of State regarding matters affecting Arctic affairs.”

The first task might be easier than the second, as the U.S. generally shies away from taking a strong stance on issues in the Arctic, preferring to let the Arctic Council and other Arctic states do much of the heavy lifting. Yet an advisory role would be more difficult to fulfill, as there are numerous competing agencies and levels of government within the U.S. that have different interests in the Arctic. Would a U.S. Arctic Ambassador promote the interests of Alaska, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, or the Coast Guard, for instance? Perhaps the best starting point would be to simply inform the president of ongoing affairs in the Arctic, raising the presence of the region on the Oval Office radar. Still, that’s not to say that it would be impossible to create an effective U.S. Arctic Ambassadorship. Already, there are U.S. ambassadors to the the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations Environmental Program, among other international organizations. Yet there are no ambassadors for particular regions. There are ambassadors-at-large for certain issues like war crimes and global women’s issues, but not “the Mediterranean” or “Africa.” So in the American context, it might make the most sense to create an Ambassador to the Arctic Council.

Possible candidates

There are several American officials right now who might qualify to serve as Arctic ambassador. Although this post from Foreign Policy magazine’s blog, The Cable, is now over three years old, some of the information is still current: Julia Gourley, for instance, is still the U.S. senior Arctic official, while David Balton is still the Oceans and Fisheries Ambassador and oversees U.S. foreign policy in both the Arctic and Antarctic. At the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in 2011, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and Alaska’s Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell formed part of the American delegation.

Another question besides who would serve as the Arctic Ambassador is where it would fall within the State Department hierarchy. This organization chart shows the chains of command within Foggy Bottom. Would an Arctic ambassador fit best under Oceans and International and Environmental Affairs, European and Eurasian Affairs, or another area entirely? The Arctic Council chairmanship will pass to the U.S. in 2015, and it will be interesting to see who the country chooses as chair since there is currently no clear candidate.

For now though, the debate is a moot point. Bob King, Begich’s legislative assistant for the Arctic, Oceans, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, communicated in an email to me that the State Department responded politely to Begich’s advocacy, thanking him and his staff for their interest but “suggesting they already had the right team in place.”

Mia Bennett administers the Foreign Policy Association's Arctic Blog, and writes about Arctic issues for Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.