Supporting the role of subnational governments and the value they add to our interests in the Arctic
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Justice Louis Brandeis coined the phrase “laboratories of democracy” to describe how states, as subnational governments, could try social and economic experiments that might later become a model for the entire nation. Today a new, but similar laboratory is emerging in the Arctic, as regional and local leaders are connecting to share experiences and best practices. As the United States transitions away from its chairmanship of the Arctic Council, we would do well to look at what is taking place in Alaska, our subnational government in the Arctic, to advance our leadership and engagement in the High North.

In 1996, the Arctic Council was established as the preeminent intergovernmental forum for issues related to the Arctic region. Yet well before its formation, subnational governments had recognized the need to reach across political borders to address commonalities such as social policies, environmental and climactic concerns, and economic development.

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For example, the First International Conference on Human Environment in Northern Regions in 1974 led to the creation of the Northern Forum, which serves to improve trans-boundary cooperation. The Northern Forum now includes 18 subnational or regional governments, including the State of Alaska and most of Russia’s Arctic regional governments. As Walter Hickel, one of the founding members of the Northern Forum and a former governor of Alaska, noted, all Arctic regions and countries must work together to solve common problems.

Last month, subnational governments again came together to discuss common challenges and solutions when 12 mayors from Arctic communities in Alaska, Canada, Finland, Iceland, and Norway held their own forum on the sidelines of the Arctic Council’s Fairbanks Ministerial. The mayors spoke to a number of issues of local concern, including economic diversification, infrastructure investment, energy independence, efforts to adapt to a changing climate, and the incorporation of traditional and local knowledge into decision making.

By joining together across political boundaries, these mayors aim to be a greater voice in the national and international discussions surrounding the Arctic. It is also through this information sharing that the quality of life in the Arctic, particularly in the underdeveloped areas of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and parts of Russia, can best advance.

This past March, the Wilson Center’s Polar Initiative, in conjunction with Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation, held a forum entitled “The North American Arctic: Building a Vision for Regional Collaboration.” The forum brought together leaders from Alaska, Greenland, and the Canadian territories of Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut to talk about areas where subnational governments in the Arctic region can work together. As a result of the forum, the leaders agreed that continued discussion and interaction would be beneficial moving forward.

A similar type of engagement with Russia’s Arctic regions is occurring via the Northern Forum and should be supported at the national level. It is important to recognize that this type of interaction benefits our nation and is consistent with our national interests. By bypassing the intricacies of Washington, D.C. and Moscow, and focusing on the unique interests and character of each individual Russian region, interaction by subnational governments can provide the United States with the ability to learn, inform, and derive national benefits.

Even though the United States is no longer the chair of the Arctic Council, we must maintain our leadership in the region. Failure to do so will create a void for other interested nations to fill, to the detriment of U.S. interests there and around the globe. Increasing our national presence in the Arctic – both politically and physically – remains the goal, but our first effort should focus on how to support the role of subnational governments, the value they add to our interests in the High North, and their ability to keep the Arctic a zone of peace and cooperation. 

Murkowski is a chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.