U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accepts the gavel from Minister Leona Aglukkaq. Photo: U.S. Department of State / Public Domain
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accepts the gavel from former Arctic Council Chairman Leona Aglukkaq. Photo: U.S. Department of State / Public Domain

On April 24, the Arctic Council ministerial convened in Iqaluit, capital of the territory of Nunavut, wrapping up the two-year Canadian chairmanship. Last week, I compared the Iqaluit ministerial to the previous ministerial, which was held in Kiruna, Sweden in 2013. I argued that whereas the Kiruna ministerial looked out to the rest of the world with five Asian countries and Italy gaining observer status, the Iqaluit ministerial marked an inward turn for the Arctic Council. Throughout its chairmanship, the Canadians emphasized the theme of “Development for the People of the North” and, in that vein, established the Arctic Economic Council to promote circumpolar business partnerships.

Canada has now passed the torch to the United States, a country that Rob Huebert, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, has called “the reluctant Arctic power.” The U.S. has promoted cooperation in the Arctic under the auspices of the Arctic Council in part because multilateralism allows it to shift responsibility onto other countries and organizations. In Iqaluit, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed during comments to the press,

“Every action that the council takes requires collaboration, so we’re very grateful to have partners who are all intent on getting things done and on being constructive and getting them done right.”

Reading between the lines, Kerry seems to imply that the U.S. relies on other countries and partners to “get things done” in the Arctic, since the U.S. is not leading the way. The country has many other foreign policy priorities, from the Middle East to the “pivot” to Asia to Russia. A glance at President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget request for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development reveals some of the country’s top concerns abroad: countering ISIL and responding to the crisis in Syria, addressing migration from Central America, tackling climate change and adaptation, ensuring global peacekeeping and security, supporting global health initiatives, and countering Russian pressure, particularly in Ukraine. With all of these other agenda items, the U.S. will not be pivoting to the Arctic anytime soon even with its newfound chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

Still, that’s not to say the U.S. has let the Arctic completely fall off its radar. The country has sent a secretary of state to the past three Arctic Council ministerials, beginning with Hillary Clinton’s participation in the Nuuk ministerial in 2011. Last year, the U.S. also finally appointed a Special Representative to the Arctic, Admiral Robert J. Papp. The Arctic is thus more important to the U.S. than it was before, and one of the main reasons for that has to do with the current administration’s concern for climate change.

Below are some reflections on where the U.S. chairmanship will take the Arctic Council over the next two years.

“The People of the North” versus “The Entire World’s Arctic”

Skipping to the chase, the two contrasting themes of the Canadian and U.S. chairmanships emphasize the countries’ differing outlooks in a nutshell. Canada promoted “Development for the People of the North,” whereas the U.S. is upholding a theme of “One Arctic.” Kerry elaborated,

“The theme of our chairmanship is “One Arctic,” which is a phrase long used by the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which embodies our belief that the entire world – not only the Arctic, not only the eight here plus, but the entire world shares a responsibility to protect, to respect, to nurture, and to promote the region.”

From this point of view, every country – from China to Cameroon to Canada – has a responsibility for the Arctic. On the spectrum of viewing the Arctic as a closed space of territorially sovereign nation-states versus a global commons, the U.S. almost appears to be leaning towards the latter based on Kerry’s speech. The Canadians instead view the Arctic as a unique region nearly separate from the rest of the world. While the U.S. agrees that there is only one Arctic, it believes that the world holds the responsibility to protect its peoples, ways of life, and environment from disappearing – not just the Arctic Council member states and permanent participants.

Climate change

While the U.S. will still not be making the Arctic a foreign policy priority, many issues facing the circumpolar north fall under the administration’s expressed concern for climate change. One of the State Department’s 2016 budget funding highlights is “investing in clean energy, sustainable landscapes, and adaptation through the Global Climate Change Initiative to support a healthy global environment, climate-smart growth, and improved resilience to the impacts of climate change for the most vulnerable countries.” This focus on climate change is what will most distinguish the U.S. chairmanship from the Canadian one.

In his remarks at the Iqaluit ministerial, Kerry laid out the three interconnected themes of the U.S. chairmanship:

“First, addressing the issue of climate, the impacts of climate change. Second, promoting ocean safety, security, and stewardship. And third, improving economic and living conditions for Arctic communities.”

Canada’s aim – improved economic and living conditions in the Arctic – has been bumped down to third place, while climate change has moved up to first. In comparison, consider the remarks of the Canadian chair, Leona Agglukaq at the Kiruna ministerial in 2013, right as Canada took over the chairmanship from Sweden. She articulated her country’s focus on the economy, noting, “With the help of our Arctic Council partners, we will focus on creating economic development and sustainable northern communities.” She did not mention climate change a single time in her speech, whereas Kerry referenced it ten times.

Importantly, the U.S. also frames Arctic climate change – and, in fact, the Arctic – as a global rather than regional issue. Kerry even mentioned China, perhaps throwing a bone to the Chinese observers (and annoying Canada in the process). He expressed,

“As the observer states know well, all countries have a reason to care about the future of the Arctic. It’s a critical part of the global climate system, literally ensuring a stable, livable environment from Barrow, Alaska, to Beijing, China, and the fact is it is rapidly changing. How we as Arctic states, and indeed as a global community, respond to those changes over the coming months and years can literally make all the difference.”

In contrast, two years ago in Kiruna, while acknowledging the positive impact of observers, Agglukaq asserted,

“We must also make absolutely certain that with the addition of more observers, the role or the voice of the Permanent Participants of the Arctic Council is not diminished or diluted in any way.”

The U.S. wants to address climate change in the Arctic, and it wants to do so in concert with other countries. The country realizes the necessity of a global framework for dealing with what is essentially a transformation of the global environment that has faster, more amplified impacts at certain locations around the world, including the Arctic. Kerry did mention supporting Arctic Council efforts like the Framework for Action on Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions (more details in this PDF), but he gave more emphasis to worldwide efforts like Global Ocean Acidification Observer Network and COP 21, the United Nations climate summit that will happen in December in Paris.

In addressing Arctic climate change, the actions of old and newly industrialized countries like the U.S., China, and India (which Kerry also mentioned in his speech) may be more important than the actions of the Arctic Council. Kerry might have made reference to China specifically in his remarks because the U.S. understands that climate change cannot be addressed without the cooperation of the world’s largest economy and biggest carbon dioxide emitter. The newly established U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, established under the U.S.-China climate change agreement, could have just as much of an impact on what happens to the Arctic environment than the Arctic Council – and that is what the Canadians, I think, may be afraid of as the U.S. takes over the chairmanship.


[1] Congressional Budget Justification Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. p. 50.


As U.S. assumes chairmanship, what's next for Arctic Council?

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