U.S. creates Arctic 'special representative' position

The U.S. State Department plans to create an Arctic representative position to highlight the growing importance of that region.

U.S. one of the few Arctic nations without an ambassador for the region

Arctic Council leaders, including Canada's Leona Aglukkaq, second from left, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, third from right, pose for a photograph in Nuuk, Greenland, in 2011. (Patricia Bell/CBC)

The U.S. State Department plans to create an Arctic representative position to highlight the growing importance of the region.

In letters sent to Alaska's two U.S. senators, Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, Secretary of State John Kerry said he planned to name a "high-level individual of substantial stature and expertise" to serve as Special Representative for the Arctic Region. He said he hoped to get input from both of them in creating the post and finding the right person.

"For a long time now, I've shared the view that the Arctic region really is the last global frontier, and the United States needs to elevate our attention and effort to keep up with the opportunities and consequences presented by the Arctic's rapid transformation," Kerry wrote in the letters, released by the senators' offices Friday.

"Properly managed, this region provides an opportunity for creative diplomatic leadership — but truly establishing and capitalizing on this leadership role will require making the Arctic region a higher U.S. priority; greater attention paid by senior policy makers; and, in keeping with President Obama's call for 'national unity of effort' on the Arctic, co-ordination of operational departments."

With the U.S. set to take over the rotating chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council in 2015, Kerry said he believed it was vital to elevate Arctic issues and interests within the State Department.

In a separate statement, Kerry said the Arctic has "enormous and growing geostrategic, economic, climate, environment, and national security implications for the United States and the world." He said the special representative, referred to by Begich as an Arctic ambassador, would play a critical role in advancing American interests in the region.

Kerry called the Arctic's transformation "a very rare convergence of almost every national priority in the most rapidly changing region on the face of the earth."

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Friday said she had no personnel announcements to make, but she might soon.

Begich, a Democrat, and Murkowski, a Republican, have been pressing for an ambassador or envoy to the Arctic.

'This is not to take anything away from what the State Department has worked on. But they are just so inundated with so many international issues (that) I believe the Arctic was slipping past us," he said.

Other federal departments also "were kind of on their own path and not really focused on the long-term benefit of the Arctic. So this will really hone it in," Begich said.

He said the position would not be ceremonial and his understanding is the special representative will have the authority and power to represent the United States on Arctic issues.

Begich said Friday that he hadn't heard a timeline for when an appointment would be made. "But they know we want this done sooner rather than later," he said.

Begich added that he doesn't think it would be necessary for the position to be confirmed by Congress.

Murkowski, in a statement, said the White House's efforts to seize on opportunities opening in the Arctic so far "have been a national embarrassment."

While she said she welcomed the administration devoting more energy to an Arctic agenda, she questioned whether a special representative would be "on par" with an ambassador, which she said most of the eight Arctic nations have. Murkowski said she would seek clarity from Kerry on that point.

Murkowski has been critical of where the U.S. stands compared with other nations staking their claims to the region, saying in the past that the U.S. is behind in its vision and thinking.

She sent a letter to the president earlier this week expressing disappointment with the White House's plan for the Arctic.

Murkowski said the plan did nothing "to advance our already lagging role in the region."

She noted that Russia and Canada have been aggressive in their plans and investment and that non-Arctic nations also are looking at opportunities that come with diminished polar sea ice.

"The United States has never been last in a race to the future, but absent any visionary leadership and meaningful resourcing, we will continue to take a back seat and fail to capitalize on all the Arctic has to offer," Murkowski wrote.

Begich said he would like to see the job filled by someone from Alaska who understands the diplomatic arena and different aspects of the Arctic and who can walk into a room and have the respect of other ambassadors because of their history of work on Arctic-related issues.

Begich said he had some names in mind, but he declined to share them.