BYLINE: Tara Sweeney served as the chair of the Arctic Economic Council from 2015-2017 under the U.S. chairmanship rotation. She is served as U.S. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2018-2021. She is currently the Principal & CEO of Tack 71 Strategies and lives in Alaska.
Quviasugiñ Annigivñi (Happy Birthday) Arctic Economic Council!
In September of 2014, the Honorable Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Minister for the Arctic Council in 2013-2015, convened a working session alongside her colleagues from six of the eight other Arctic Nations to construct the foundation for the Arctic Economic Council, a hallmark accomplishment of Canada’s Arctic Council chairmanship. The goal was to create an assembly that would provide a business perspective to the Arctic Council on how their policy considerations would impact the economy of the North.
As a representative for the Iñuit Circumpolar Council, seven years ago, I traveled from Alaska to Nunavut to join Arctic business leaders for this work session.
I remember traveling for two days only to deplane in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, and feeling like I was at home in Utqiaġvik. Despite the nearly 4,000 KM journey, as I walked through the community, I saw people who looked like me and my relatives, who spoke a dialect of my mother’s tongue, and who enjoyed the same connection to the bounties and spirituality of the land and sea. I became grounded in my surroundings, taking in an air of familiarity that would give me a sense of peace and purpose to engage with my fellow colleagues on how best to move forward with an Arctic business association.
The next few days would be a fruitful exercise in diplomacy, negotiations, inclusiveness, and vision. Representatives from Russia, the United States (Alaska), Canada, Iceland, Kingdom of Denmark (Denmark, Greenland and Faroe Islands), Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, the Iñuit Circumpolar Council, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Saami Council and the Gwich’in Council International gathered to organize and share their visions for the soon-to-be-formed Arctic Economic Council (AEC). As Canada prepared to hand over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council to the United States, it was important to have the chairmanship of the AEC mirror that same rotation.
Tom Paddon of Canada served as the first head of the AEC executive committee. Other members of the inaugural executive committee included Tero Vauraste of Finland, Evgeny Ambrosov of Russia, Erling Kvadsheim of Norway, and me. AEC Canada began the transition to the United States, and in April 2015, I was honored to be selected as the incoming chair of the AEC under the U.S. chairmanship rotation.
In its infancy, the AEC needed to establish its organizational and legal structure, processes and protocols, membership tiers and benefits, secretariat location, and platform focus areas. Thankfully the Norwegian business community, including the Norwegian Confederation of Industries, Norway Oil and Gas Association, and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, volunteered Norway to host the permanent secretariat office and fully fund the first three years of operation. This generosity empowered the AEC executive committee and members to move forward with setting the structure and agenda for the AEC without the financial stresses that can plague any forward momentum.
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, Børge Brende, and I raised the AEC flag in Tromsø, Norway for the first time on an overcast and windy day in September 2015. This signified the opening of, and the permanent home for, the AEC secretariat office.
Under the U.S. chairmanship, the AEC proceeded to stand up an international association; it ratified its foundational documents to provide clarity on how to engage with the AEC; it created four working groups, adopted a three-year strategic plan, and hosted meetings in Washington, D.C. -Tromsø, Norway- and, St. Petersburg, Russia; and hosted the first of its kind Top of the World Broadband Summit, held in my hometown of Utqiaġvik, Alaska.
In 2015-2016 I traveled over 480,000 KM representing AEC across the globe. I traveled across Europe advocating for responsible Arctic policy considerations from nations outside of the Arctic, keen on applying geopolitical pressure to gain a strategic advantage in the circumpolar North. Throughout those travels, there was a strong desire to promote the Arctic as a region of peace. Going back to my earlier memories when in Iqaluit, importance of this underlying message remains to be true.
Businesses and nations south of the Arctic, look north and see the potential for investment or strategic partnerships. Arctic nations then, and today, continue to apply geopolitical pressure for strategic positioning. Regardless of association, whether North or south of the Arctic Circle, it is imperative that those who choose to engage in the Arctic understand that it is a region of peace. Further, it is important to understand that the Arctic indigenous communities share a similar ethnography and language, so any policy engagement must lead with the people of the Arctic.
It is important to remember that the overarching need for the AEC was to provide the appropriate dimensionality to the considerations before the Arctic Council and other stakeholders. In the Arctic, we are more than governments and permanent participants. We are survivalists, small business owners, family units, employers and employees in extractive industries, conservationists, maritime logistics and ice-breaking companies, restaurant owners, clothiers, subsistence marine and terrestrial mammal hunters, herbalists and gatherers, artists, linguists, reindeer herders, commercial harvesters, engineers, aviators, investors, professionals, innovators, scientists, educators, and residents of often extremely remote communities with infrastructure challenges like running water, flush toilets, equal access to healthcare, broadband connectivity, public safety services or reasonable costs of living. We are tied to the land and the sea for our identities, spirituality, mental and physical health, for economic development and growth, and our nationalities.
There are four faces to the Arctic: The Russian Arctic, the Nordic Arctic, the North American Arctic, and inlayed in those three geographic masses is the Indigenous Arctic. It is equally as important to remember that when considering Arctic policy, investment or infrastructure development, a one size fits all approach does not work.
Venture capitalists, traditional commercial lending institutions, regulators and global citizens considering investment opportunities should refrain from succumbing to political pressure born outside of the Arctic. This pressure aims to shut down or target a portion of our economy that aids the smallest of communities provide heat or food to its residents during the most inhospitable seasons.
The metric used by the financial sector to drive investment behavior is dangerously close to a one-size-fits-all approach, which can be punitive and regressive for remote circumpolar Arctic communities. For example, within the last year many banks and investment houses in Europe and the United States took visible stands and made public statements that they would no longer engage in “project financing” of some energy development projects in the Arctic, specifically the U.S. Arctic. This position resonated with specific Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) investors, but the reality is there has not been a significant degree of project financing for U.S. Arctic energy development; to date, it has largely been private venture or self-financed. These types of public statements gave the appearance that these institutions were distancing themselves from Arctic development, but it did little to change their business paradigm.
Instead, Arctic infrastructure development has slowed due to the fear of reprisal from shareholders and the public when investing or supporting industries that contribute to the well-being of Arctic communities. We have seen it in other places like Canada and Greenland.
This results in organizations harming the economy of the Arctic communities they aim to protect.
There may be long-term direct economic burdens carried by Arctic nations if policy, investment and infrastructure development continue to lag due to ideologues in Davos, New York City or Brussels who promote punitive measures that are blind to the negative total societal impact caused by a myopic approach. Simply put, if institutions have a genuine interest in promoting Arctic economic growth, security, livelihood, then take an “all of the above” approach when considering investment opportunities. The Arctic will be better for it.
As former Arctic Council chair Leona Aglukkaq, stated in September 2014, “The people of the Arctic are the world’s Arctic experts.” Do not underestimate the will, determination and knowledge of Arctic peoples, and our desire to ensure our communities have access to fuel sources to keep us warm, modern amenities like flush toilets and running water to keep us clean, reasonable costs of goods and living to keep us healthy, infrastructure to keep us connected, and a standard of education to keep us informed and curious.
The Arctic Economic Council has made tremendous progress over the last seven years. The strength in the organization is found in the will of the membership and leadership. Each country and permanent participant has contributed in meaningful ways, and the rotation of the chairmanship ensures that regional perspectives are shared, and from which are learned. This approach continues to strengthen the bonds between Arctic communities, and we all benefit from those types of collaborative efforts.
There have been many instrumental public and private officials who helped the AEC in its infancy. Government officials and business leaders serving from 2014 to present, those involved in the Arctic orbit know those leaders. There was a very small and effective army of dedicated staff behind the scenes who ensured conference calls were coordinated across multiple time zones, packets delivered, tended to administrative burdens, informed the public of the progress made by the AEC, and overall, kept the organization functioning at full capacity. They are rarely acknowledged but without them the organization would have been crippled during its formative years. I would like to acknowledge Anja Jeffrey, Anu Fredrickson, Bianca Johansen, Erling Kvadsheim, Benedicte Solaas, Geir Seljeseth, Lars Kullerud, Arne O. Holm, Guðmundur Petursson, Larisa Zubanova, Bridget Anderson, Marie Duriez, Ty Hardt, Tero Vauraste, Eero Hokkanen, Evgeny Ambrosov, Thomas Mack, Jimmy Stotts, Duane Smith, Susan Harper, Tom Paddon and, of course, Richard Glenn.
As we look to the horizon, the conclusion of the next decade will mark a full rotation of Arctic nation chairmanships. Congratulations to Canada, Finland, and Iceland for embracing this responsibility and successfully carrying out the duties under your nation’s rotation. I wish my colleague, Evgeny Ambrosov, and the Russian delegation all the best during their leadership tenure.
Looking ahead, I still envision the Arctic that is digitally connected; with a regulatory climate conductive to economic growth and ecological sustainability; growth in strategic partnerships; affordable energy sources; a thriving business region and incubator of innovation; and a premium on indigenous knowledge and engagement. By continuing to promote the AEC way through the principles of collaboration, partnership, innovation and peace, we can all realize a thriving, robust and healthy Arctic.