Many in the foreign policy community have discussed and analyzed the Obama administration’s supposed “pivot” towards the Pacific nations. The countries of East Asia are economically dynamic, growing in influence, and are therefore increasingly important in any U.S. foreign policy. Yet, there are some setbacks in dealing with these nations, especially when it comes to human rights and environmental issues. For instance, the Chinese environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, recently said, “I’ve heard that there are four major embarrassing departments in the world and that China’s ministry of environmental protection is one of them.” So, the nations around the Pacific Ocean offer vast economic opportunities, but their environmental performances leave much to be desired. What if there was an international organization that offered both economic prospects and environmental focus? Well, with over $21.1 trillion in combined GDP, the Arctic Council is one such organization.
The Arctic Council currently has eight member states: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, the United States, and Canada, the current chairman of the organization. Annie Bergeron-Oliver of iPolitics reported on May 21 that “as Canada takes back the reins of the Arctic Council nearly two decades after it was first established, Japanese officials, who have observer status, are calling for the government to begin discussions on the council’s shift in focus from science to business.” And why not? Shipping in the Arctic northern sea route is expected to increase by enormous amounts, and the region is rich with natural resources, like oil and natural gas. The United States would be wise to increase involvement in the Arctic Council, in order to benefit from the economic potential of the area.
In addition to its economic benefits, the Arctic Council also does important work with regard to the environment. With working groups like “Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna” and “Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme”, the organization maintains a heavy emphasis on issues unique to the Arctic. Therefore, even though the Council may begin to explore the potential of the region’s natural resources, its green priorities mean that such exploration will move forward in a balanced manner. Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, wrote the following in The New York Times:
What we are doing in the Arctic Council is unique, and it might well be that this model could be used for other maritime areas of the world in the future. Firmly based in established principles of international law, but with particular responsibilities for the directly adjacent nations.
It’s an important example of diplomacy ahead of the curve.”
Other nations are beginning to see the wisdom in Arctic diplomacy. Ellen Bork, Director of Democracy and Human Rights for the Foreign Policy Initiative, wrote in May that “Beijing hopes to maximize its influence in the Council, as that body takes on more importance in managing the vast Arctic…” In order to counter China’s rising influence in the area, the United States should make the Arctic Council a diplomatic priority.
In the end, though the United States is shifting from Atlantic to Pacific in foreign policy, it can emphasize both environmental protection and economic growth by looking to another ocean: the Arctic. And the Arctic Council may just be the best means for doing so.
And did I mention that the United States will, starting in 2015, be chairing the Council?