Paratroopers with the 6th Engineer Battalion board a C-17 Globemaster at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson before exercise Arctic Pegasus on May 1, 2014

Paratroopers with the 6th Engineer Battalion board a C-17 Globemaster at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson before exercise Arctic Pegasus on May 1, 2014 U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Zachary Wolf

Why the U.S. Needs an Ambassador to the North Pole

The country is about to gain a whole lot more responsibility in the Arctic region that Russia, China, and others are vying to control. By Marina Koren

It sounds like a joke at first.

Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner and Rick Larsen introduced a bill last week to establish a U.S. ambassador-at-large for Arctic affairs. In other words, someone to represent the nation at the North Pole.

The wisecracks are boundless. Could this create a power struggle with Santa Claus? Would polar bears serve on the ambassador's staff? Has Rudolph released a statement?

But appointing a U.S. ambassador to the Arctic is a legitimate request—and a smart one, too.

The U.S. is a member of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum created in 1996 to facilitate cooperation among nations whose landmass extends into the North Pole. The group, which includes Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland, focuses exclusively on issues like environmental protection, trade routes, and fisheries at the top of the globe—and leaves politics out of it.

That's how it's always been. But the north can't ignore tensions farther south forever. At a weeklong summit in March, the council's Canadian representatives said they were keeping a close eye on their Russian counterparts' remarks in light of the ongoing Ukraine crisis. And next year, the United States, the leading skeptic of Russian motives, takes its turn as the chair of the Arctic Council.

"We need someone with ambassadorial rank to show that the U.S. is serious about being an Arctic nation," Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said in a statement. "As Russia continues to act aggressively, including making claims in the Arctic, and as China states its own interest, the U.S. must coordinate its Arctic policy and protect its domestic energy supply at the highest level."

Currently, 20 different federal agencies, including the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Science Foundation, are charged with handling Arctic policy. The legislation would streamline that work under one ambassador, who would serve as Arctic Council chair until 2017.

No country has yet laid full claim to the Arctic region, which includes the North Pole and is home to 15 percent of the world's oil and a third of its undiscovered natural gas. But several nations have tried to extend their sovereignty there, which requires proving that their continental shelves extend more than 230 miles into the Arctic Ocean. Last year, China and several other Asian nations applied for a seat at the Arctic Council.

The council's governing nation can sometimes create friction with the other Arctic states. Last December, Canada, the current chair, announced that it plans to submit a claim for additional Arctic territory, including the entire North Pole. Its Arctic rival, Russia, responded immediately. The next day, President Putin ordered more troops to the region.

By Western measures, Russia hasn't played fair at the top of the world. By Russia's reckoning, the West is the problem. In 2009, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev argued that "the United States, Denmark, Norway, and Canada are conducting a common and coordinated policy to deny Russia access to the riches of the [Arctic] shelf."

Under Dmitry Medvedev, Moscow's agenda was a relatively peaceful one: It resolved a territorial dispute with Norway and worked out policy issues with other Arctic powers. Putin's Arctic rhetoric, however, has been hawkish. He hopes to restore the country's Soviet-era power in the region by modernizing abandoned airfields and building natural-resource infrastructure by 2020.

The U.S. has not yet ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which means it is not eligible to file official territorial claims, through Alaska, in the Arctic. But the Obama administration has hinted about a bigger agenda in a region whose melting ice is revealing tremendous economic and natural-resource opportunities.

In February, the State Department announced it would appoint a special envoy to the Arctic, but no names came up. "President Obama and I are committed to elevating our attention and effort to keep up with the opportunities and consequences presented by the Arctic's rapid transformation—a very rare convergence of almost every national priority in the most rapidly changing region on the face of the Earth," Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time.

A new U.S. chairmanship and ambassadorial team would come in handy against an aggressive Russia. The country's intervention in Ukraine makes clear that the Kremlin is ready to fight for its national interests anywhere—including the North Pole.

This seems to be an issue Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Cosponsors of Sensenbrenner's and Larsen's bill include Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Betty McCollum, D-Minn. In the Senate, Mark Begich has been pushing for more representation in the polar region since 2008, and the Alaskan Democrat has introduced legislation for an increased U.S. Coast Guard presence there.

"When I first arrived in the Senate five years ago, I got a lot of puzzled looks when I mentioned the Arctic," Begich said recently. "With unpleasant reminders of the Cold War and the vast potential for resource development in the region, a military presence is more important than ever."