Has the Arctic Lost a Champion?
by Michael Corgan
For over 150 years, the United States has been an Arctic power. And yet, that region has remained as far from national political consciousness as it is from the national capital. The United States has never reached the same level of commitment of effort and resources to this region as most others in the eight-member Arctic Council. Why hasn’t a keener national interest developed despite the accounts of those many thousands of Americans who study, explore and write about it? In my opinion, it is because the Arctic does not have a US champion to compel attention to the region’s place in our national consciousness. By a champion, I mean someone- like Rachel Carson for the environment, or Jacques Cousteau for the oceans- who can compel attention to an important and endangered part of our world. The Arctic faces extreme challenges that will affect the entire world, and a prominent American advocate to fight on its behalf is a key piece to solving the puzzle.
Following Secretary of State William Seward’s Alaska Purchase in 1867, the Arctic and Alaska came into national attention only fitfully: the gold rush of 1898, expeditions to the North Pole by American explorers, the brief World War II occupation of some Aleutian islands by Japanese forces, and the transit under and surfacing at the North Pole by US Navy submarines in the late 1950s. When President Obama became the first US president to visit the Arctic in his last year in office, it seemed there was a chance for a greater American awareness of the region. However, the current administration has demonstrated little interest.
This American apathy has become especially problematic as the Arctic today demands solutions to truly existential problems: the sea ice is melting and temperatures are rising. Melting permafrost is causing seaside towns, as most are in the Arctic, and their infrastructure to simply collapse. Climate change occurs in the Arctic twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. The United States is, by capability, wealth, and location, best placed to remedy these ills. However, the current administration is populated by climate change skeptics and headed by a President who seems primarily concerned with American “energy dominance.” It seems unlikely, therefore, that a new Arctic “champion” will emerge from the executive branch. Enter Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Senator Murkowski has taken an interest in Arctic affairs beyond merely where they have to do with Alaska. She is not an avowed climate change skeptic and has shown considerable concern for the well-being of the indigenous people of that region. There are also thousands of Americans in academia, scientific and environmental communities- even business- who value the Arctic and want to see it preserved. But of all the people in the ‘Arctic aware’ community in the United States, none is better placed to become a possible champion than the senior senator from Alaska.
However, although Senator Murkowski appeared to be a possible champion, when the Republican Tax Bill came up for a vote, she secured a quid pro quo that seemed to contradict her Arctic awareness and championship. She agreed to vote for the bill if off-shore and restricted-area oil drilling was approved for Alaska and other states, a result that Congressional Republicans had tried and failed to achieve for over 26 years. “This is a great day to be an Alaskan” she boasted, when drilling was approved. Does this mean that the United States has lost its only Arctic champion? I don’t think so.
Senator Murkowski was above all true to her constituents, whose interests she is obligated by law and honor to uphold. She is, after all, a senator from Alaska, not the Arctic. Unfortunately, what this implies is that we cannot look for an Arctic champion from our political leadership. A true American Arctic champion likely has to be someone who is a Washington outsider.
Global Arctic history gives us compelling examples of who such a person might be. For example, Norway can point to a pair of explorers, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. One of the more unusual and indefatigable champions of the Arctic was Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian explorer born of immigrant Icelander parents and educated in the United States. From 1906 until well into the 1940s, Stefansson was everywhere promoting the Arctic region, calling the Arctic Sea “the true Mediterranean of the world.” In the 1930s, he lobbied President Roosevelt and spent time in the Soviet Union promoting further Arctic activities. He might have had more success in the US had he not spent so much time in the Soviet Union and thus arousing suspicions about his political outlook. Sadly, however, he seems to have been one of a kind.
So where might we find an American Arctic champion? It would have to be someone who commands public attention like the explorers of old, perhaps a figure like an Elon Musk or an Oprah Winfrey, but who also understands the region. However, no one now seems capable of filling such a role. For the interim, the US must rely on someone who does command national attention and who does understand the region. That someone likely remains Lisa Murkowski. Although she is an Alaskan first, she is closer to an Arctic champion than anyone else on the horizon. In time, perhaps a new Vilhjalmur Stefansson will emerge.
We haven’t lost an Arctic champion, we just haven’t developed one yet.
Image "Polar bear looks out over a barrier island on the arctic coast of alaska" Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/ Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
Michael T. Corgan is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. He specializes in American government institutions, international security studies, and Icelandic government and politics. He has participated in extensive government service in political and military planning (especially NATO). In his naval career he was a Surface Warfare Officer with two combat tours, an instructor at the US Naval Academy, the Dean of Academics for the Vietnamese Naval Academy of Nha Trang, a Professor of Strategy and of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, Political Advisor to the Commander of the Iceland Defense Force, and head of the NROTC Unit at Boston University.