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Much ado about America’s Arctic “ambassador”

To be or not to be an ambassador, that is the question plaguing one of America’s leading Arctic legislators
Well dressed to play the part, but will she get the role? (Photo: Sen Lisa Murkowski)

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When America takes over the presidency of the Arctic Council in 2015, it hopefully will be with a newly minted Arctic envoy at the helm.

The move to create such a position, announced on February 14, has been heralded as a sign that the US has renewed its commitment to the region, but leading voices say they are worried the position, officially a special representative for the Arctic region, lacks the prestige it will need to defend the country’s interests abroad.

By establishing the office, John Kerry, the secretary of state, made the US the last of the eight Arctic powers to name a senior official to tend to issues in the region.

The lack of high-level representation has been seen by many as symbolic of America’s lack of enthusiasm for Arctic issues. And the decision to create a special envoy comes after countries as far away as Thailand have done the same.

But the move, Kerry said in a statement, proved the US recognised the region held “enormous and growing geo-strategic, economic, climate, environment and national security implications for the United States and the world”.

“The great challenges of the Arctic matter enormously to the United States, and they hit especially close to home for Alaska.”

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Not everyone, however, is convinced that the position will be enough give America the weight it needs to hit back in negotiations, particularly in the Arctic Council, where everyone except the US is represented by a full-fledged ambassador.

Lisa Murkowski, one of Alaska’s two US Senators and an open critic of the government’s Arctic policy, pointed out that, even after Kerry’s announcement, that would still remain the case.

Although the term “ambassador” has been popularly used to describe the position, it was not used in the official announcement, which Murkowski, a Republican, said reflected America’s “lacklustre” Arctic policy.

“I am gravely concerned that the special representative will not be on par with our Arctic partners at international bilateral and multilateral events,” she said.

Even though Murkowski welcomed the measure, she feared the position would be “window dressing” and would send the wrong message to America’s Arctic partners. But, more worrying, she felt, was the lack of seriousness it would display to non-Arctic countries seeking influence in the region.

Other Arctic countries, she said, “are proceeding full steam ahead and even non-Arctic nations like Italy, India, China and South Korea are all making an Arctic push – while America slips further behind.”

Those concerns were downplayed by Mark Begich, Alaska’s other senator and a Democrat. He underscored that the Arctic representative would have staff and an office in Washington, and that as the co-ordinator for US policy affecting the region, would be the “spokesperson for the federal government”.

Other Alaska lawmakers, including Sean Parnell, the state’s Republican governor, also expressed their satisfaction that the Arctic will now have a voice in Washington.

Murkowski, however, said the focus ought to be on getting Washington’s representative out into the Arctic.

“Will they be sitting in the staff chairs behind, or will they be afforded a seat at the table at the Arctic Council?”

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But as genuine as her concerns may be, Murkowski’s objections may be as much a matter of posturing as anything else.

With the Arctic representative job mostly likely to go to an Alaskan, Murkowski would be the active envoy she says the US needs: she has long been the Senate’s leading voice on Arctic policy and has a litany of credits to point to.

All that may to be her benefit, but party politics and her criticism of current Arctic policy may have put her out of the running even before the position was announced.

Despite Murkowski recognised for her Arctic expertise, it was Begich who was given the honour of announcing the creation of the Arctic “ambassador” – a position he says was among his first proposals as a senator.

Murkowski says she is upset America won’t have an Arctic ambassador. That would hopefully make the let down easier were Begich chosen over her for the special representative job.