First US Arctic Ambassador as the Region Climbs on the DC Political Agenda

An Arctic region that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and cooperative is of critical strategic importance to the United States and a priority for Secretary Blinken, a State Department press release states.  (Photo: Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal/U.S. Air Force). 

The US plans to appoint its first Arctic Ambassador. The announcement clearly shows that the US is serious about the Arctic, says Senior Research Fellow Andreas Østhagen at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

US President Joe Biden plans to appoint an Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Region. 

The position is created to further American interests and cooperation with Allies and partners in the Arctic, according to a press release from the State Department. The Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Region will advance U.S. policy in the Arctic, and engage with Arctic and non-Arctic nations as well as Indigenous groups a.o., the statement reads. 

The US has lagged behind

Andreas Østhagen, FNI
Seniorforsker Andreas Østhagen ved Fridtjof Nansens Institutt. (Foto: FNI).
Senior Research Fellow Andreas Østhagen at the FNI. (Photo: FNI).

Senior Research Fellow Andreas Østhagen at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) says the announcement clearly shows that the US is serious about the Arctic and that the region has been climbing up on the political agenda.

"However, the fact that the US has been waiting this long to appoint such a position also signals that the Arctic, in fact, has not been particularly high on the political agenda in Washington DC". 

Before the appointment, the U.S. was the only Arctic nation without "dedicated diplomatic representation for the Arctic Region at the Ambassador level or higher," as noted by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) who for years has advocated for the elevation of US Arctic leadership and diplomacy.  

"In DC, people have, also under the Trump administration, talked about putting more weight behind the country's representative in the Arctic Council. And it is strange that this has not been done before. It is not a shocking move, but it is good that the USA is taking a lead from the other Arctic countries and now appoints a person who could have a greater impact, in the Arctic, but also at home."

Even non-Arctic states have created such a position in recent years. South Korea has appointed an ambassador for Arctic Affairs, and in 2020, France announced an ambassador for the Poles and Maritime Issues.

In 2020, the US State Department got its first top-level Arctic official in almost four years when a Coordinator for the Arctic Region was appointed. The Arctic Ambassador will elevate this position, the State Department notes. 

If one were to consider resuming cooperation with Russia on some level, it would be a difficult diplomatic assessment.
Senior Research Fellow Andreas Østhagen at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI).

Signal to allies and adversaries

As High North News has reported, there have been several attempts over the past decade to pass bills in order to establish a US Arctic Ambassador, but the bills have not moved beyond getting referred to its appropriate committee. 

Østhagen at the FNI argues that the US' increased focus on security politics in the Arctic may be a driving force behind the current announcement. He particularly points to the increased attention given to Chinese activities in the region, but also the increased "politicization" of the Arctic Council after the suspension of meetings in council in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

"By suspending the meeting, one signals that all the other seven countries consider the council as an important political forum and a means towards Russia. Consequently, one increases the importance of the Arctic Council and gives it a higher status. That in itself could have been a driving force behind USA's appointing of an Arctic ambassador," he says and elaborates:

"Going forward, diplomacy and expertise in the Arctic Council will be more important than ever as the situation is so sensitive. If one were to consider resuming the cooperation with Russia on some level, it would be a difficult diplomatic assessment."

Has yet to announce a candidate

The Biden administration has yet to publicly announce a candidate for the position. A nomination will be sent to the Senate, the press release states, and the position is furthermore subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. 

"We look forward to continuing our strong partnership with Congress to swiftly confirm the Ambassador-at-Large", the State Department said in closing. 

The decision is done after extensive consultations with Members of Congress, local and federal government officials, and external stakeholders.

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