by Joël Plouffe
May 10, 2017
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's attendance at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Fairbanks this week, as the United States hands over the council's chairmanship to Finland for the next two years, draws national and global attention to the region.
Tillerson will be the first Republican secretary of state ever to attend an Arctic Council ministerial meeting in the 20 years since the council was established. (Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attended in 2011, was the first Democratic secretary of state to do so.)
As the ministerial in Fairbanks marks the end of the American chairmanship that began in 2015, one of Tillerson's main roles in Fairbanks will be to showcase the accomplishments of the former Obama administration's two-year "One Arctic" agenda that was largely focused on climate change.
As paradoxical as this situation may seem for the Trump administration, however, Tillerson's attendance at the ministerial suggests that the State Department's senior staff have been persuasive enough to make the case that the Arctic Council remains a key institution aligned with the U.S. national interest.
The key question now is whether Tillerson's attendance at the ministerial in Alaska is a one-off event or rather an indication that Trump's foreign policy in the Arctic will keep the pace of American bilateral and multilateral engagements of the past several years.
Climate change and the prospect of increased human activity in the circumpolar world seems to have altered how the U.S. federal government perceives the Arctic, as well as the United States' role in the region.
In the wake of the planting of a Russian flag at the middle of the Arctic Ocean in 2007, the region became an issue of increasing importance for the Bush administration, which in 2009 released a new U.S. Arctic policy. (Before that, U.S. Arctic policy had not been reviewed since the early 1990s.)
Bush's policy reaffirmed and expanded the core priorities from his predecessor Bill Clinton to reflect the climatic and geopolitical changes that were occurring. Faced with an emerging blue-water Arctic Ocean in America's Far North, this policy stressed the need for greater cooperation with other nations.
Released just before Bush exited the White House, the policy was left to Barack Obama to implement. Obama's administration enacted the 2013 National Strategy for the Arctic Region, and its ensuing Implementation Plan and Framework.
That strategy synchronized three priorities — protecting national and homeland security interests, promoting responsible stewardship of the region, and fostering greater international cooperation on Arctic issues.
Because of Bush's Arctic policy and Obama's implementation strategy, Washington has been collaborating ever more closely with its northern neighbors, including Russia, through various agreements that set precedent for U.S. foreign policy, including search and rescue, marine oil pollution, high seas fisheries regulations, and shipping.
Joël Plouffe is a managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He tweets at @joelplouffe.