Traditionally the United States has attracted criticism as being something of an Arctic laggard; that it treated its Alaskan territories as more of a backwater than an opportunity, and had little interest in the many cooperative trends in Arctic politics. Arctic issues seldom seemed to filter back to distant Washington. However, it is clear that in the lead-up to America's chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the federal government has been paying more attention, and the new priorities and initiatives seem much more progressive than before. Stewardship is the new term for America's role in the Arctic, and this means more international cooperation, more room for indigenous inclusion, more focus on local communities and well-being, and so on.
It would be easy to dismiss it as mere rhetoric and hype for the chairmanship, but there are some signs that this increased interest in the Arctic is becoming institutionalized, starting with President Obama’s new executive order for a steering committee on interagency coordination on the Arctic to solve the cross-cutting and competitive issues that agencies had before. It is a slow start but a promising one. It would be nice to see a real Arctic-focused budget and some more concrete and extensive infrastructure proposals, but American policy makers are clearly becoming aware of Arctic issues, and changes are being made. Like all issues it has the risk of riding down the other side of the popularity curve, but with some concerted and sustained effort it may become a more important issues area with some teeth to it and more policy coherence.
One promising signal is that the Fulbright program, of which I am a current participant, recently released its Fulbright Arctic Initiative with funding to bring Arctic researchers together. Four American scholars and one scholar from each of the other Arctic states will go on exchanges lasting into summer 2016, and meet to exchange their findings and policy recommendations on themes ranging from water and energy to infrastructure and health. This is an important step. First, it provides an excellent opportunity for American scholars to build on their Arctic expertise abroad. In my experience, American scholars tend to focus on Alaska, but as the Arctic is a region facing similar challenges in different countries and cultures, it is important to exchange information on approaches and ideas. Second, it shows other Arctic states that the United States is getting more serious in its involvement in Arctic issues. Our participation has been lacking relative to other states, and for a global superpower it is a waste and does not help to build trust with our Arctic neighbours.
It is hard to tell if all this will last or turn out in a positive way. Cooperation and stewardship have as much the makings of buzzwords as actual goals, but the Fulbright Initiative is a step in fulfilling those responsibilities by exposing researchers to each other and to other institutions, and by further raising awareness of Arctic issues in the United States.
[Read the article in the Shared Voices magazine here.]