Who’s in charge of Arctic policy?

Who’s in charge of Arctic policy?

As icecaps melt, opening up new shipping routes and access to natural resources, the Arctic is fast becoming the new frontier of international policy making, the recent subject of some high level attention and a "test case" of our ability to deal with the great transnational issues of our time.

So who’s in charge? As it turns out, that’s an awfully complicated question to answer. An alphabet soup of federal agencies and officials play on the issue, with the top dogs being Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who went to Canada for a conference on the future of the Arctic, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

But beneath them, a web of councils, task forces, and interagency policy groups are tackling Arctic issues, with overlapping efforts that come at the problem from different ways. Technically, a State Department official named Julia Gourley, is the "senior U.S. Arctic official," which means she represents America at most meetings of the Arctic Council, the main related international forum.

But even at State, there are a host of officials who play big roles, including bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science’s Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones and Deputy Assistant Secretary David Balton. Balton is the lead U.S. negotiator for the Arctic Council’s first agreement, on search and rescue. Undersecretary Robert Hormats’ bureau is also active on both energy and trade issues that intersect with Arctic Policy.

At the Defense Department, the key guy is Navy Rear Admiral David Titley, whose official title is "Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy." At the White House, the National Security Council’s Tom Atkin has the lead, but there is also Arctic policy development going on at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

CEQ’s Nancy Sutley is leading an Ocean Policy Task Force, which is calling for more attention to the Arctic and is working on ways of implementing the overall policy left by the Bush administration. That task force will eventually give way to a new National Ocean Council, which will be co-chaired by the CEQ and OSTP.

The Energy Department comes in when pipeline issues are in play and Interior is responsible for issues relating to Alaska land, much of which is federally administered.

On Capitol Hill, GOP Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, known as the "senator from the High North," is the one to watch, as she pushes for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which was submitted to the Senate back in 1994, but stagnates there due to the obstruction of some GOP Senators, such as James Inhofe, R-OK.

And no discussion of foreign policy can ignore the influence of Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who gave a major address on Arctic policy last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"We consider ourselves an Arctic nation and we have important strategic, economic, environmental, and other interests which will only become more acute as climate change transforms the Arctic," Steinberg said, "The Arctic is kind of a test case of the ability of the international community to meet the international challenges of the 21st Century. And how we address this and our success in addressing this… really are going to foreshadow our ability as an international community to deal with the great transnational issues of our time."

CSIS issued an impressive report on Arctic Policy at their all-day conference, written by Heather A. Conley and Jamie Kraut, which argues for aggressive U.S. leadership on the issues, to mitigate possible disputes with Russia, or even Canada. "Protracted disagreement among the Arctic littoral states could cause individual Arctic nations to become increasingly assertive in their resource and territorial claims, which has the potential to lead to the militarization of the Arctic."

A State Department official said that while Arctic policy seems to be spread thin throughout the federal government, there is a consolidation happening, with State leading the interagency Arctic Policy Group. And the Clinton trip shows that Arctic Policy is now moving up to the highest level of concern for foreign policy officials in not just the U.S., but in all the other relevant countries as well.

"You wouldn’t even have had foreign ministers talking about these things 10 years ago, maybe not even 5 years ago," the official said, "There’s a lot going on this region of keen interest, such that even foreign ministers now are working hard to figure out what to do about it."