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Blinken To Head North On Arctic Trip

May 15, 2021
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Tomorrow, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sets off on a trip to Northern Europe to meet with Arctic partners and try to defrost relations with Russia. He will visit Denmark and Greenland and will attend an Arctic Council meeting in Iceland. Russia's foreign minister will be there, too. And there are lots of issues that they need to discuss, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the last Arctic Council meeting, the eight-nation group didn't even issue a statement. The U.S. didn't want any mention of climate change, and Pompeo mostly used his visit to bash Russia, a member state, and China, an observer. Secretary Blinken goes in with a different approach as the U.S. coordinator for the Arctic region, James DeHart, explains.

JAMES DEHART: For us, it's an opportunity to reset our leadership, and in particular on the issue of climate change.

KELEMEN: DeHart says this is also a rare chance to cooperate with Russia, which will soon take over the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council. David Balton, a former State Department official now at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says the U.S. needs to keep a wary eye on Russia's military buildup in the region. But the Arctic Council wasn't set up to deal with that.

DAVID BALTON: It is an organization that is premised on cooperating on other things, particularly the development of the Arctic, the environmental protection of the Arctic, increasing understanding of the Arctic. And it has done a good job on that front.

KELEMEN: Though he says relations with Russia are really bad right now, he suspects Secretary Blinken will look for common ground, especially on regulating shipping through the Arctic and disaster mitigation. Victoria Herrmann, who runs The Arctic Institute, a think tank in Washington, calls Russia a powerhouse of Arctic science. She, too, expects more cooperation.

VICTORIA HERRMANN: That means more collaborative funding between the two nations to understand how the Arctic is changing, how its ecosystems are changing, how that impacts not just Arctic communities but the rest of the world and how to better map the ocean.

KELEMEN: She says Iceland used its chairmanship of the Arctic Council to focus on the ocean and marine environment. Russia may have a different priority as it takes over.

HERRMANN: There is probably going to be an increased focus on sustainable development for northern communities and a focus on economic development. Because it is Russia, that will likely include extraction of oil and gas and also rare Earth minerals.

KELEMEN: That's another reason why the U.S. needs to stay engaged, says Betsy Baker, a Wilson Center analyst based in Alaska. She says the Arctic Council provides Americans with useful information.

BETSY BAKER: They're really kind of a research operation, and one of their purposes is to say, this is what's going on in a part of the world that you may not be paying attention to.

KELEMEN: She says the Trump administration's approach was disruptive.

BAKER: The Biden administration has the opportunity to say, this is a new start. We're returning to what's been the longstanding recipe for success in the Arctic Council, which is to focus on what we have in common and not on the tensions that divide us.

KELEMEN: There will be plenty of time to discuss those tensions. Secretary Blinken will have his first face-to-face talks with Russia's foreign minister on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting. The turmoil in the Middle East may also draw Blinken's attention away from his focus on the Arctic. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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