The State Department must step up on Arctic diplomacy
When it comes to Arctic policy, there is no shortage of steps we can take. One is ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, to prevent other nations from making territorial claims that deprive the U.S. of vital access and resources. Another is passage of my Arctic Commitment Act, which focuses on regional security, shipping, research, and trade. But the quickest and most obvious step is for the State Department to elevate its efforts on Arctic diplomacy, which the Biden administration can immediately do on its own.
The U.S. is an Arctic nation, and the region has both challenges and opportunities that require active diplomacy that are going unmet. We can help close the current leadership gap by establishing a U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Arctic Affairs at the State Department. This individual would head an office that projects our Arctic interests and works closely with nations that share our commitment to the international rules-based order.
There is no question about the Arctic’s rising importance and the need for a high-level diplomatic office to focus on the region. Three of the most consequential geopolitical actions of the last half century are intricately connected to it. Russia, the largest Arctic nation and current chair of the Arctic Council and Arctic Economic Council, has commenced the largest land invasion since World War II. Sweden and Finland are seeking to join NATO, reshaping European and global security. And the impacts of climate change grow more evident each day, as the Arctic warms at four times the rate of the rest of the world.
In addition, the world is seeing how Arctic energy is vital to economic stability and prosperity. Vast reserves of Arctic minerals can help meet skyrocketing global demand. And Arctic shipping routes promise to greatly shorten and cheapen global shipping regimes.
How we address the Arctic will shape the global order, so the U.S. cannot afford a diplomatic vacancy. Not having a dedicated Arctic diplomat causes other countries to question our commitment to the region. Yet, at the moment, we don’t even have an Arctic Coordinator at the State Department.
This is in stark contrast to other nations who understand the role the Arctic plays in the modern geostrategic environment. The U.S. is the only Arctic nation without a dedicated Arctic ambassador or higher. Even some non-Arctic nations have Arctic ambassadors, including China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. Those countries, and others, are posturing to capitalize on the new “Great Game” unfolding in the High North. The U.S. should be leading the way, and we must make diplomatic parity a priority.
The State Department has the authority to create an Arctic Ambassador position and Congress is on record in support of it. Last year, my colleagues and I, on a bipartisan basis, appropriated funding to establish an Arctic Ambassador. The same will be the case again this year, and no less than three bills have been introduced to establish a high-level Arctic diplomacy office.
This new office would have authority to draft, coordinate, implement, and lead an Arctic strategy that is inherently linked to the upcoming National Strategy for the Arctic Region (NSAR). It would advance U.S. interests and equities in the Arctic and help us leverage shared interests and values of other nations, in concert with other Arctic stakeholders within the department. This would underscore U.S. commitments to abide by international rules and norms, steward policies and actions that care for the Arctic’s inhabitants and environment, promote responsible development, and leverage efforts that link our domestic and foreign policies.
To be clear, the State Department would not need to fundamentally reconstruct itself, or even the inner workings of its current Arctic-focused offices and personnel, to accomplish this. It merely needs to establish a single, outward-facing office to be the face and the voice of our Arctic interests, to proactively address and influence the many factors and conditions shaping the region. I strongly recommend the first occupant of this office be an Alaskan with deep knowledge of the Arctic region and a holistic understanding of Arctic policy, both domestically and abroad, who can reflect and project Arctic policy.
It is time for the Arctic to receive proper attention in a changing world where we compete for ideas, resources, and relationships. The U.S. must demonstrate the seriousness and sincerity we hold in our Arctic engagement, and we can start by establishing a dedicated diplomatic office at the State Department with the authority, title, staff, and resources commensurate with its responsibilities to shape the contours of the Arctic’s future.
Lisa Murkowski is the senior senator of Alaska and a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
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