Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most Arctic of them all?

By Jeannette Lee Falsey, Alaska Dispatch News - May 18, 2017

FAIRBANKS — In 1976 the popular singer Gladys Knight made a little-known film called “Pipe Dreams,” set in Valdez during construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

The movie earned a tepid review in The New York Times. The soundtrack by Knight and her group the Pips is catchy, but far from famous.

But both recently resurfaced on the U.S. State Department’s Arctic foreign policy blog as part of a painstaking effort to connect each U.S. state to the Arctic.

Each of the eight Arctic countries that showed up at the Arctic Council meeting last week makes an effort to boost its reputation as a credible player in the north by playing up its closeness to the region and claiming it as a fundamental element of national identity.

Russia boasts about its extensive Arctic coastline, its history of Arctic exploration and conquest and the number of icebreakers it has. Finland notes that tough northern conditions gave rise to “sisu,” the Nordic nation’s special brand of perseverance.

Canada likes to highlight its relationship with its aboriginal citizens in the north, issuing its “Northern Strategy” for the region in English, French and Inuktitut, the Inuit language of northern Canada.

The United States has historically lagged in the exercise of Arctic chest-puffing, in part because its Arctic is physically a peripheral part of the country and is home to a tiny percentage of the overall population.

It would be hard to convincingly argue the Arctic has fundamentally shaped America’s identity and historical narrative. Rather, America’s Arctic is viewed as quirky and outside the mainstream, a permanently snow-covered place where people live in igloos or isolated cabins, do hard jobs and get around by dog team.

“It has been my experience that Americans do not embrace or fully understand the concept of being an Arctic nation and that is unlike what I have observed in the other seven Arctic countries,” said Adm. Robert Papp Jr., former U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic, in testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee in 2014.

In Arctic policy circles, the United States had a nickname — “the reluctant Arctic power” — for its slowness to, as one scholar wrote, “take the initiative in the area of international Arctic policy.”

The administration of former President Barack Obama tried to reverse that trend when the United States took over the two-year rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015.

The president visited Alaska with Secretary of State John Kerry and nearly every key federal official working on Arctic policy. The administration put on the GLACIER conference to highlight the importance of the Arctic to American interests.

“They really had to do some convincing on the international stage that they were an Arctic nation and had to remind the American public why it was so important that Obama was the first president to visit the Arctic,” said Victoria Hermann, president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, a nonprofit think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Last week, the United States passed the chair of the Arctic Council to Finland during a ministerial meeting in Fairbanks attended by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and foreign ministers from the seven other Arctic countries.

The Obama administration tried hard through a very pointed public diplomacy effort to show Americans, through the “Our Arctic Nation” blog, how the country is connected to the north.

Some ties were easier to trace than others. Georgia, where Knight is from, appeared to be a particular challenge.

Aside from “Pipe Dreams,” the Peach State’s strongest links to the far north include the Arctic Room at the Georgia Aquarium and a college student from Georgia who did a social media project for the Embassy of Norway, another Arctic nation, while attending American University in Washington, D.C.

Connecticut, meanwhile, appears to have a much stronger connection to the Arctic, with many graduates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in New London, ending up stationed in Alaska.

Hawaii shares two migratory species with Alaska, the humpback whale and the kolea bird (and is a go-to spot for vacationing Alaskans). Texas is home base to major companies that developed Alaska’s oil industry and are still active in it today.

How the administration of President Donald Trump will handle affairs in the region is not completely clear, but it appears that resources and individuals at the State Department are being moved into other areas of foreign policy.

Boosting Arctic credibility gives nations both within and outside the region more latitude to influence what happens there, according to Hermann. It also allows national governments to connect more closely with their indigenous citizens in the north who have a big influence on issues such as environmental protection, scientific data collection and resource development.

Non-Arctic states that are interested in the resource and shipping opportunities in the region have had to work particularly hard at drawing convincing ties between their countries and the north.

India argues the Himalayas are the globe’s “third pole.” China says the same about the Tibetan Plateau. Scotland has declared its status as a “near Arctic state” and its First Minister last year noted northern Scotland is “closer to the Arctic than it is to London.”

With all the Arctic posturing, perhaps Knight might be persuaded to tweak one of her classics to bolster the connection between the rest of the country and the Arctic.

“Midnight Train to Fairbanks,” anyone?