WANTED: America as a Sustained, Engaged, and Committed Arctic Nation

WANTED: America as a Sustained, Engaged, and Committed Arctic Nation

The United States is often described as the reluctant Arctic nation, whose potential to become a circumpolar superpower remains largely unrealized. With no strong fleet of icebreakers, no membership in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and no strategic vision for the region’s future, the U.S. lags behind every other Arctic nation states. In stark contrast to Russia’s 41 icebreakers, the U.S. fleet can only boast of two operational vessels; and all seven other Arctic nation states have ratified UNCLOS, leaving the U.S. in diplomatic isolation. Put bluntly, the United States is currently a weak Arctic power – a position which will undermine its military, energy, and economic security and limit its role as a respected leader in the Arctic.

In August 2015, Americans saw a glimmer of hope in their leaders’ embracing the obligations and opportunities of being an Arctic nation. President Obama’s midsummer trip to Alaska for the GLACIER Conference was followed by circumpolar scholars with cautious optimism. The conference was Washington’s most pointed attempt to visually elevate American leadership in the region since the founding of the Arctic Council – the high-level intergovernmental forum tasked to cooperatively address issues faced by the region – in 1996. The gathering was not only lead by President Obama, but as a U.S. State Department-hosted event, foreign ministers from across the Arctic joined the President to highlight international and domestic priorities in the region.

As Obama sojourned north to become the first sitting American president to visit the Arctic, announcing new climate pledges and diplomatic promises along the way, an air of anticipation surrounded him – anticipation that the United States was finally on the cusp of embracing its polar potential. Unfortunately, this hope for an American Arctic nation became a blip of U.S. regional engagement rather than a catalyst for deeper commitments.

After a concerted effort by the Obama Administration to put the Arctic on the U.S. geopolitical map, the U.S.’ chairmanship of the Arctic Council ended with little fanfare in May 2017. Upon his inauguration, President Trump dismissed the U.S. Arctic Executive Steering Committee, established by President Obama in 2015 on the eve of the U.S. Chairmanship to coordinate inter-agency Arctic policy efforts. Soon thereafter, America’s de facto Arctic Ambassador, U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., was also dismissed.

Today, Admiral Papp’s office still sits vacant, and there remains a vacuum of leadership, funding, and strategic guidance for America’s role in the North. At a time in which the region is undergoing abrupt and dangerous climate changes, the United States cannot afford to maintain its ambivalence toward the Arctic.

The annual U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Arctic Report Card, released this past December, delivered an unambiguous finding. The impacts of climate change are already forcing the circumpolar region to undergo an “unprecedented transition” in human history. As air and sea temperatures warm at unprecedented rates, the Arctic has lost 95 percent of its oldest documented sea ice. Following the 2018 UN Special Report and the 4th U.S. National Climate Assessment, the Arctic Report Card was only the latest installment in a protracted series of dire climate science reports. The geopolitical challenge raised by these reports is clear: the dramatic changes brought about by global warming pose the greatest threat to the stability of the region. Despite the urgent nature of the issue, the United States continues to be a reluctant Arctic actor. Yet, it does not have to be.

 To act ambitiously in the Arctic means acting ambitiously on both mitigating the causes of climate change and adapting to its inevitable impacts. Just as the Green New Deal envisions a sweeping set of economic stimulus programs in the United States that addresses climate change and economic inequality, so the U.S. leadership in the Arctic demands a forward-thinking vision for an inclusive, equitable, and low-carbon circumpolar economy for the 21st Century. To overcome its Arctic reluctance and address the geopolitical threat posed by climate change in the North, the United States must embrace courageous leadership, strategic coordination domestically, and cooperative action regionally that can guide the Arctic away from being financially reliant on fossil fuel extraction and towards creating a diversified, resilient economy. 

 The three policy points outlined below are low-risk, high-yield opportunities. There already exist current legislation and governance structures upon which to build a robust leadership position for the United States in the Arctic.

Embrace courageous leadership by re-establishing a Special Representative for the Arctic

 Empowering an Alaska Native leader to nationally guide decision-making in the Arctic would support proactive policy on geopolitical, climate, and economic issues rather than reactionary resolutions. The regional agenda of the Special Representative should be aligned with investments being made nationally, so that the visionary concept put forth by the Green New Deal’s  for all-out national mobilization to decarbonize the economy does not stop at the 49th parallel. Unlike Admiral Papp’s former symbolic position, the new Special Representative for the Arctic must be endowed with agency, funding, and ownership over Arctic-related decisions. The Climate Security Act of 2019, introduced by Senator Bob Menendez and co-sponsored by ten other Democrats in mid-March, already proposed such a reinstatement. The proposed Special Representative offers an opportunity to designate a dedicated conduit through which to channel the expertise and influence of other Arctic political entities committed to the growing security, environmental, and maritime challenges in the region, like the Arctic Senate Caucus.

Pursue strong, strategic coordination domestically by establishing a stakeholder-led, science-driven Arctic Steering Committee

The guidance of the Special Representative is unavoidably limited in its capacity to influence how much cross-agency support they receive. To ensure the United States takes a whole-of-government approach to solve the geopolitical challenges of climate change in the Arctic, agency, department, and tribal leadership must be co-owners of America’s Arctic vision and partners in policymaking. The Arctic Policy Act, introduced in December 2018 by Senator Lis Murkowski, offers a first step in this direction. The proposed legislation would permanently establish an Arctic Executive Steering Committee within the Department of Homeland Security to provide the coordination necessary across agencies to advance an integrated plan for the Arctic. This Committee, first introduced in 2015 by President Obama and dismissed in 2017 by President Trump, is augmented in its second life by two new advisory bodies to advise the Arctic Executive Steering Committee. A Bering Sea Regional Tribal Advisory Group, composed of elected officials representing regional Alaska Native Tribal governments, and an Arctic Advisory Committee, composed of members representing eight Arctic regions. Both ensure that the voices of Alaska Native communities are included in the development of federal policies and priorities affecting the region at large.

Both the Arctic Executive Steering Committee and the Special Representative for the Arctic are previously introduced legislation. Together, they offer low-hanging-fruit options to kickstart the U.S. role as an Arctic nation in the short-term that could and should be passed by Congress in the immediate future. However, addressing the human, military, and environmental security threats caused by climate warming requires more than the passage of these two bills. In order to truly address geopolitical threats in the North and accept its duties as an Arctic nation, the United States must lead on climate action within its own Arctic space and across borders.

Augment America’s commitment to leading on climate action in the region, both at home and abroad

Creating a strong reputation for credibility regarding the commitment to invest in low-carbon economic growth, climate-resilient infrastructure development, and calculated collaboration across borders on environmental treaties provides the necessary next-step for American Arctic leadership. Like the Special Representative and Steering Committee, momentum exists upon which to build. 

Domestically, the Green New Deal offers an opportunity to lead in the American Arctic by mitigating climate threats through a “10-year mobilization” to reduce carbon emissions in the United States. The United States could extend its vision in sourcing 100 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable and zero-emission power, digitizing the power grid, updating building efficiency, and overhauling transportation to Alaska. In a state where many communities are diesel reliant off-road and off-grid settlements, this is not an easy task. However, committing federal technical and financial resources that empower U.S. Arctic communities to overcome energy and climate security risks would send a strong message to other Arctic nations about the United States’ ability to lead by example.

Internationally, the United States can show climate leadership by committing to reduce black carbon emissions in the Arctic. Black carbon is the soot produced by burning fossil fuels and biomass, which increases snow and ice melt by darkening their surfaces and, in turn, increasing their retention of warmth. Roughly one-third of warming in the Arctic is caused by black carbon emission of Arctic Council members, including the United States. Under the Trump Administration, America has pulled out from joint reduction targets through the Arctic Council. This was a grave mistake and a missed opportunity for straightforward cross-border cooperation. The United States can show regional leadership by reversing this decision and re-committing to its target reductions for black carbon.

The proposed policy commitments outlined in this commentary are not blue-sky proposals. They are tangible and targeted options for overcoming the geopolitical challenges of climate change and enhancing American Arctic leadership. However, they could only be achieved by a driven, bipartisan effort.

Climate change impacts are already costing billions of dollars in damages, undermining national security, devastating regional economies, and inflicting irreplaceable cultural loss on the four million people that call the Arctic home. In 2019, the United States has the potential to act courageously and cooperatively across the Arctic by taking advantage of the low-hanging opportunities presented here. It is now up to Congress to adopt these measures and push America further into its still unrealized Arctic leadership position. However, if it chooses to continue the path of Arctic reluctance, then every American will face the consequences of the impending Arctic thaw.


Victoria Herrmann is president and managing director of The Arctic Institute, a think tank dedicated to Arctic security research. As a National Geographic Explorer, she traveled across the United States in 2016-17 interviewing 350 local leaders to identify what’s needed most to safeguard coastal communities against climate change impacts. Her current project, Rise Up to Rising Tides, is creating an online matchmaking platform that connects pro bono experts with climate-affected communities to help safeguard heritage. Victoria teaches sustainability management at American University; science communication at the University Centre of the Westfjords, Iceland; and public speaking at National Geographic Sciencetelling Bootcamps. She was previously a Carnegie Endowment Junior Fellow, Fulbright awardee to Canada, a National Academies of Sciences Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellow, and Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where she received her Ph.D. in geography.