Angling to raise the profile of Arctic diplomacy, Maine’s two U.S. senators are pushing legislation to create a new job at the U.S. State Department overseeing Arctic affairs.

The new position would, if approved by Congress, establish an assistant secretary of state position to lead and conduct American foreign policy related to the northern region of the globe.

Sen. Angus King Contributed photo

U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who has long advocated more attention to Arctic issues, said the proposal would, for the first time, guarantee an ambassador-level official would interact with other nations on a growing number of critical issues.

King has talked for years about the opportunity a melting Arctic may provide for Maine, which has three deep-water ports that could service ships heading from Asia to the East Coast, through an increasingly usable Arctic route.

“I believe we’re going to see an explosion of trade,” King told Auburn students last winter.

In introducing the bill with King, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a Republican, said, “the United States is the only Arctic nation that does not have diplomatic representation in the Arctic at the ambassador level or higher.”

“In fact, even non-Arctic countries, including China, have this designation. As an Arctic nation, this is unacceptable,” she said in a prepared statement.

“The old saying goes ‘where you sit is where you stand,’ and not having a formal seat at the diplomatic table with a Senate-confirmed official means we have less standing in the region,” said King, who co-chairs the Senate Arctic Caucus with Murkowski.

“As the security environment changes so must our leadership, and we need an official to advance and protect America’s Arctic interests,” King said.

The U.S. has had a coordinator for Arctic issues since 2014, but nobody at the ambassadorial level, which requires Senate confirmation of a presidential appointment.

“As we continue to look ‘North to the Future,’ I urge my congressional colleagues to pass this forward-looking legislation with clear, tangible diplomatic and economic benefits,” King said.

The Congressional Research Service this month issued an updated report that says the “diminishment of Arctic sea ice has led to increased human activities in the Arctic, and has heightened interest in, and concerns about, the region’s future.”

Map of the Arctic U.S. Department of State

It said that, “record low extents of Arctic sea ice over the past decade have focused scientific and policy attention on links to global climate change and projected ice-free seasons in the Arctic within decades,” changes that “have potential consequences for weather in the United States, access to mineral and biological resources in the Arctic, the economies and cultures of peoples in the region, and national security. “

“The geopolitical environment for the Arctic has been substantially affected by the renewal of great power competition,” the report added. “Although there continues to be significant international cooperation on Arctic issues, the Arctic is increasingly viewed as an arena for geopolitical competition among the United States, Russia and China.”

The bill defines the Arctic countries as the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, who make up an international body created in 1996 called the Arctic Council.

Original co-sponsors of the bill introduced by Murkowski and King are U.S. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Cramer said in a prepared statement that “the Arctic is an issue of national security to our nation. It’s incredibly important the United States remains fully engaged in the Arctic.”

“As the region gets busier, it is crucial the U.S. has a representative to play an active and influential diplomatic role in the region,” Cramer said. “Our bill provides exactly that.”

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