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The U.S. – in like a lion, out like a lamb?

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This article originally appeared in issue 01.17 of The Circle. See all issues of The Circle here.

The priorities put forth for the U.S. tenure as Chair of the Arctic Council included addressing climate change, improving economic and living conditions, and better stewardship of the Arctic Ocean, tied around a common theme of “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities”. Then, writes HEATHER EXNER-PIROT, the unexpected happened.

DONALD J. TRUMP was elected U.S. President, with an almost wholly undeveloped foreign policy beyond the slogan, “America First”. But as Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, conceded when hosting the Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region in Anchorage on February 24, “there has not been a clear lay-down of a policy on all things Arctic” by the Trump Administration. And there may not be before the Ministerial in Fairbanks on May 11. The U.S. approached its Arctic Council Chairmanship with energy and ideas, marking a period of growing American interest in the region following the indifference of the 1990s and early 2000s. But it faced some shortcomings even before Trump was elected.

The biggest challenge was, and remains, the disconnect between Washington D.C. and Alaskan perspectives on policy priorities for the Arctic region. The State Department, under John Kerry, privileged climate change and environmental protection; whereas Alaskan politicians expected investment and progress on economic development and infrastructure. They got moratoriums instead. Disagreements have been aired publicly. The Arctic Council, which has been trying to find compromise between those two solitudes for twenty years, was able to stay above the fray.

For its part, the Obama administration embraced the Arctic, if not necessarily the Arctic Council. The Arctic became a much higher profiled piece of American foreign policy than ever before, with the well-attended GLACIER conference in Alaska in August 2015 that focused on climate change efforts; the White House Arctic Science Ministerial in September 2016; and two Joint Arctic Leaders’ statements with the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, in March and December 2016.

To the cynical observer, the attention given the Arctic was a proxy for Obama’s interest in climate change, with the region acting as an object, not a subject, in the discussion. It was unusual, if nothing else, for the Chair of the Arctic Council to spend so much time on Arctic issues outside of the parameters of the Council itself.

On that matter, the appointment of Admiral Robert Papp as the State Department’s Special Advisor for the Arctic in July 2014 always raised more questions than it answered. He launched the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship agenda, seemed to preside at some Arctic Council events, and became the public face of the Chairmanship, but his role was never clear. He left the post rather ignominiously, with a press release coming from Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc. of Panama City, Florida, on January 6, 2017 – well before the inauguration, the time when political appointees usually offer their resignation – announcing he was the company’s new President of its Washington operations, i.e. its lobbyist.

Politics aside, the history books will likely remember the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship as a successful one, judging by Arctic Council standards. An Arctic Science Cooperation Agreement was already agreed to ad referendum in July 2016, and will be signed with the requisite fanfare in Fairbanks in May. Traditional Council fare – important scientific work that consistently fails to capture the public’s imagination – will be proffered. Amongst other things, the U.S. Chairmanship’s efforts on telecommunications, sanitation and renewable energy are some of the most practical endeavours the Council has taken to address sustainable development.

But the U.S. Chairmanship is still subject to the whims of the Trump Administration. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who will preside over the meeting, has kept a very low profile, and the State Department has been on the defensive. The prospect of Tillerson meeting publicly with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, on American soil may bring unwanted attention to the Council and the region. The focus on climate change may be diluted. Public debate around Obama’s unpopular moratorium on oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic may hijack the Ministerial’s preferred messaging.

At this point, it would be a blessing if the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship ended with a whimper rather than a bang, and if the Fairbanks Ministerial was a bit of a bore. There are far less desirable alternatives.

HEATHER EXNER-PIROT is the Managing Editor of the Arctic Yearbook.

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