What to Know about the New White House Executive Order on Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic

While much of the domestic and foreign analytical focus has been on the president’s State of the Union address, you may have a missed a White House Executive Order (E.O.) released today, which creates a new mechanism to coordinate U.S. Arctic policy. Here is what is important to know:

Q1: Why do we need an Arctic E.O. now?

A1: There are three factors that drive the timing and release of this E.O. First, the United States is preparing for its turn as chair of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of eight Arctic coastal and near-coastal states, as well as indigenous representatives, beginning April 25, 2015. This is the second time the United States has chaired the organization (its last stint was 1998–2000). In its efforts to provide leadership and guidance on the international level, the United States first needed to better organize itself domestically. Secondly, policy differences have increased between Washington and the State of Alaska—the very reason the United States is an Arctic nation—revolving around the focus and priorities of U.S. Arctic policy, with Juneau seeking a more proactive economic development approach and Washington preferring a more climate and environmentally focused agenda. The final and perhaps most compelling reason is the profound change in the U.S. Arctic itself, as Alaska has warmed twice as rapidly as the rest of the United States over the past 60 years, requiring the United States to prepare for and improve its resiliency to this dramatic change.

While U.S. strategic interests and policy priorities in the Arctic are fairly straightforward and have been consistent for decades, Arctic policy coordination is an entirely different and far more challenging endeavor, consisting of upwards of 39 different federal departments and agencies that have some role in Arctic policy formulation and implementation. For example, there are currently six separate White House working groups that coordinate some aspect of Arctic policy, ranging from scientific research to maritime security.

This E.O. also recognizes that adding more layers and levels of governmental coordination simply wasn’t advancing U.S. Arctic policy; instead, the current process created more meetings with a growing number of attendees without actionable outcomes.

Q2: What does the E.O. say?

A2: The E.O. creates an “Arctic Executive Steering Committee,” which will “provide guidance to executive departments and agencies (agencies) [sic] and enhance coordination of Federal Arctic policies across agencies and offices, and, where applicable, with State, local, and Alaska Native tribal governments and similar Alaska Native organizations, academic and research institutions, and the private and nonprofit sectors.”

The chair of the Steering Committee will be the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Dr. John Holdren or his designee. The vice chair will be the national security adviser, Ambassador Susan Rice or her designee. The other members of the Steering Committee will be senior officials from the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ); the Domestic Policy Council (DPC); and subcabinet (deputy secretary) officers from the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Energy, and Homeland Security; the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; the Environmental Protection Agency; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; the National Science Foundation; the Arctic Research Commission; the Office of Management and Budget; the assistant to the president for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs, or his or her designee; and other agencies or offices as determined appropriate by the chair of the Steering Committee.

Even in this “slimmed down” format, the Steering Committee represents 21 departments and agencies—an improvement from 39! Yet, perhaps the most important element of the Steering Committee’s creation is not its size but its level of seniority. Engaging deputy secretaries on a range of Arctic issues is a quantum leap from where the U.S. Arctic policy lies today—mostly at the deputy assistant secretary and senior director levels. Hopefully, difficult policy and budget decisions can be made more effectively at this higher level.

Q3: What will this Arctic Steering Committee do?

A3: The E.O. states that the Steering Committee will “provide guidance on prioritizing Federal activities, consistent with agency authorities, while the United States is Chair of the Arctic Council, including, where appropriate, recommendations for resources to use in carrying out those activities.” The most immediate action the Steering Committee will take is to create (yet another) working group that will report to the Steering Committee by May 1 and identify areas of policy overlap, as well as gaps, and present recommendations to resolve these challenges.

The most important words regarding the Arctic Executive Steering Committee are: prioritize and resources. Prioritization of Arctic issues is an enormous challenge. The January 2014 White House “Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region” was 32 pages long with a very long list of Arctic “to-dos.” The question of identifying new resources to implement U.S. Arctic policies is an even greater White House challenge, which has been conspicuously missing in nearly all U.S. government strategies related to the Arctic. This is where a very senior group must make tough choices on which Arctic priorities to fund during the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council and beyond.

Q4: What else is important to know about this E.O.?

A4: After reviewing the E.O., two things stand out: first, the United States is clearly a science power in the Arctic; this is where we spend the bulk of federal funds—an estimated $500 million to $1 billion on science and research in the polar regions in 2013—in pursuing greater scientific understanding of the dynamic changes in the Arctic. By appointing the Office of Science and Technology Policy as the chair of the Steering Committee, the White House is further emphasizing and strengthening the role of science and research in the Arctic.

Second, this E.O. must address the growing divide between Washington and Juneau over the future of the U.S. Arctic. Alaskans have not felt that they have been sufficiently consulted on the U.S. chairmanship agenda for the Arctic Council and believe that Washington has not satisfactorily addressed economic and infrastructure development issues in the U.S. Arctic. A balance must be found between environmental protection and sustainable development; however, U.S. Arctic policy has not yet identified where that balance should be.

Q5: How successful will this E.O. be?

A5: Constructing a very senior-level committee to make tough choices on U.S. Arctic policy priorities, as well as ensuring that they are properly resourced, is an enormous step forward, and the Obama administration should be applauded for this important step.

Results from this organizational change, however, will not be immediate and in the near term may present more confusion than policy cohesion. It will take time to organize the Steering Committee, reduce excessive bureaucratic overlap, and rebuild trust and shared policy objectives between Juneau and Washington.

It is also unclear what role the newly created U.S. special representative for the Arctic region will have in relation to the Steering Committee. It is likely that Special Representative Robert Papp will serve as the “executive officer” to the Steering Committee, in essence becoming the “go-to, day-to-day” interagency coordinator, which would leave Admiral Papp with less time to focus on chairing Arctic Council meetings and related events.

Q6: Is history repeating itself with this E.O.?

A6: Ironically, yes. In 1971, President Richard Nixon issued a National Security Decision Memorandum (NSDM-144) on the Arctic. The then-classified memo was sent to a mere seven departments and agencies and directed them to form an “Under Secretaries Committee” to review and forward action plans related to “increasing mutually beneficial international cooperation with Arctic and other countries” on a full range of issues from economic development to scientific research. It also created the Interagency Arctic Policy Group, which still exists today. It is hoped that the Arctic Executive Steering Committee will be able to streamline, reduce redundancies, prioritize, and appropriately resource Arctic policy as the United States looks ahead to the beginning of its Arctic Council Chairmanship.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions isproduced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Heather A. Conley