Top Lawmakers Want to Establish a US Ambassador-at-Large for Arctic Affairs

In two separate bills, Congressmen Don Young (R) (left) and Dean Phillips (D) have recently pushed for the US to establish an Arctic Ambassador. Both bills are referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Several Congressmen have recently launched bills to establish a US Arctic Ambassador in a push to bolster US diplomacy in the region. 

“The United States is an Arctic nation because of Alaska, and it is more important than ever that the United States is well-positioned to maintain security and stability in the region. This starts with strong leadership, which is why we need a U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Arctic Affairs.”

The comment was made in a recent press release by Congressman Don Young (R) who, along with Rick Larsen (D-WA), Brian Mast (R-FL), and Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to establish a permanent United States Ambassador-at-Large for Arctic Affairs.

Representative Dean Phillips (D) recently also introduced the Arctic Diplomacy Act of 2021, legislation that would establish a US Ambassador for Arctic Affairs. Focus would be on working with partner nations to maintain peace and stability, while also promoting sustainable development, working on reducing carbon emissions, and strengthening resilience in the Arctic region. Phillips' bill furthermore mandates an Arctic Region Security Policy to bolster U.S. diplomacy and, among others, enhance resilience capacities to combat climate change and increased militarization.

Several past attempts

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. 

In short, if the bill is released by the Committee, it must pass by a simple majority in the House of Representatives. If passed, the bill moves to the Senate, where the bill is assigned to another committee. If released, the bill must pass a simple majority in the Senate. The bill must finally be considered and approved by the President.

Formalize diplomatic focus

Congressman Don Young (R) was re-elected in 2020 to serve his 25th term as Alaska’s only Representative to the United States House of Representatives.
Congressman Don Young (R) was re-elected in 2020 to serve his 25th term as Alaska’s only Representative to the United States House of Representatives. Young is also Co-Chair of the Congressional Arctic Working Group.

“The Arctic is changing, and if we are to secure success in the region, we must project American diplomacy just as we would with any other nation. Without a high-level official dedicated to Arctic policy, the United States risks falling behind", Don Young (R) said. 

"This is vitally important as it is now Russia’s turn to Chair the Arctic Council. Now more than ever, America needs to formalize its renewed diplomatic focus on the Arctic to engage with our near peer adversaries, including Russia and China, who are jockeying for future strategic advantages in a changing Arctic."

Representative Rick Larsen (D), who also is Co-Chair of the Congressional Arctic Working Group, said an ambassador-level position "signals the U.S.' commitment to international cooperation on Arctic policy.”

US Representative in the Arctic Council

According to Young's press release, the Ambassador's duties would include representing the United States at the Arctic Council and serving as Chair during the United States’ next term.

In contrast to the other Arctic states, the USA does not have representation in the Arctic Council  on an ambassador level. 

In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed former Commander of the US Coast Guard, Admiral Robert Papp, as Special Representative for the Arctic. Papp did not, however, represent the US in the Council. The position was eliminated in 2017.

In 2020, the State Department appointed Foreign Service officer James DeHart as U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region. DeHart is currently leading the State Department’s Arctic-related efforts, but nor he represents the USA in the Arctic Council. The responsibility in the Council lies with Foreign Service officer Meredith Rubin, who is the US Senior Arctic Official (SAO).

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Andreas Østhagen, researcher Arctic Affairs and Security Policy, Fridtjof Nansen Institute
Senior Research Fellow Andreas Østhagen at FNI.

US Arctic focus continues 

"There has been an ongoing debate in Washington DC over the past decade with regards to the status of the American SAO in the Arctic Council", Senior Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute Andreas Østhagen tells High North News. 

"The State Department has been criticised over many years for not having prioritized the Arctic enough, which shows a.o. through its not raising the level of the US representative in the Council to ambassadorial level, as other Arctic states have done."

Østhagen says the calls for an Arctic Ambassador may be related to the realization that the US needs to play an even more active role in the Arctic and has responsibilities there as well.

The establishment of a US Arctic Ambassador would essentially mean that the State Department attaches more significance to that position, he adds.

However, the senior researcher notes that there has been increasing focus on the region from the US in recent years, particularly during the second half of the Trump presidency. He adds that the Biden administration, besides giving more attention to climate and cooperation, continues on the same track with regards to military activity and the tough stance towards Russia and China.

"I doubt that this increased attention in DC is driven by domestic concerns in the region, but rather mostly related to ongoing great power politics", he says in closing.

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