The U.S. State Department’s announcement that it will create an Arctic representative position is nice, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said, but it’s not enough.
“Even though I have been beating the drum on this issue, I have embraced this news somewhat reluctantly,” Murkowski, R-Alaska, said during her visit to Juneau. The senator is spending the week in Alaska and will speak to the Legislature on Tuesday. “‘Special representative’ is a position that’s kind of undefined. Will they be sitting in the staff chairs behind, or will they be afforded a seat at the table (at the Arctic Council)?”
The U.S. is expected to take chairmanship of the eight-country Arctic Council, which addresses climate and social issues, among others, of the governments and people of Arctic nations, in 2015. Chairmanship of the council changes every two years.
Murkowski said the U.S. is the only country with Arctic territory and no Arctic ambassador. Even China and Thailand, which aren’t Arctic nations, have ambassadors, she said.
“If this (position) is window dressing, (a) message is sent to the other Arctic nations, and non-Arctic nations, almost more importantly,” she said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he’s pleased with the position being created. He said one of the first things he proposed as a senator was the creation of an Arctic ambassador position.
“I think it’s a good step for the administration to recognize the importance of the Arctic,” Begich said.
The Arctic representative will have a staff and an office at the State Department, Begich said. The representative will coordinate all U.S. agencies that create policies affecting the Arctic and be the “spokesperson for the federal government around Arctic issues.”
“This person will work with the State Department and their whole focus will be to put the Arctic on the map and make sure we are represented equally,” he said. “They’ll make sure that we have a much more cohesive strategy.”
Murkowski said she wants to see a more clearly defined ambassador position and thinks the State Department is worried about stepping on the toes of U.S. ambassadors to Arctic nations.
“My impression is the State Department is concerned that ambassadors to other Arctic nations are going to feel like, ‘Some of my territory has been taken away from me,’” she said. “Folks within the State Department are worried somebody’s turf is going to get eroded.”
Begich said he believes the State Department chose to create the representative position rather than an ambassadorship because it will take less time to be approved by the Senate.
“Going through the process of the Senate (for an ambassadorship) might make six months to a year,” Begich said. “We’re two years out from the Arctic council, so we should move forward.”
Gov. Sean Parnell was “pleased to learn that a special representative for the Arctic region will be named,” Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said in an email.
“It is an opportunity to help focus federal efforts in advancing common interests in energy development and national security, as well as to position Alaska and the nation to take advantage of emerging opportunities in the Arctic,” she said.
Begich said he thinks the Arctic representative will pave the way for an Arctic ambassadorship down the road.
“This is a huge step in the right direction,” Begich said.
Murkowski said she wants to make sure Arctic efforts don’t stop here.
“There are far too many of my colleagues who view this as an Alaskan problem,” Murkowski said. “I’m going to keep being very critical.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.