Do Americans know they live in an Arctic nation?
The top U.S. diplomat representing the nation’s Arctic interests says America’s lack of knowledge about the region limits the United States from playing a bigger role there.
“There’s a disconnect,” says Robert Papp, the U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic.
Papp says Americans don’t consider themselves citizens of an Arctic nation, probably because most of them don’t know much about Alaska.
“All the other Arctic countries are connected to the Arctic,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s in their culture. But the United States is probably the least connected to their Arctic because we are physically disconnected, Alaska is.”
John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, agrees. He wonders, half-seriously, if that’s at least partly due to how Americans see Alaska depicted on many maps.
“Honestly,” he said, “I will show a map of the U.S., and Alaska is often much smaller than Texas and is usually off the coast of Baja, California.”
Farrell says most of the nation’s leaders in Washington, D.C., share the public’s ignorance of the far north.
“Being inside the Beltway down here, it’s just a constant effort to try to … remind everyone that we are an Arctic nation, that this is an important topic,” he said.
Farrell says anyone who’s dealt with Arctic issues knows about that lack of awareness, and how it makes it more difficult to gain support for projects in a time of tight budgets and competing interests.
“Like with everything in this town, it’s just a competition for bandwidth,” he said.
But Farrell says not much is known about Americans’ overall attitudes about the Arctic, because there’s been almost no research on the subject. Until now.
“There’s a general sense that Americans don’t think of themselves as (citizens of) an Arctic nation. But that is anecdotal,” says Zachary Hamilla, a former Naval intelligence analyst who’s researched the Arctic for several years.
Hamilla is now a political science adjunct at Portland State University and he runs his own research organization, The Arctic Studio. And he’s about to launch a nationwide survey of Americans’ knowledge and attitudes about Alaska and the Arctic.
“The goal of this project is to start down the path of developing a broader understanding of ‘Do Americans think of themselves as an Arctic country?’ ”
Hamilla says he hopes to release a report on his surveys early next year. And he hopes his project, which he funded through an online Kickstarter campaign, will lead to more in-depth studies on the issue.
Editor's note: this story has been lightly edited for online publication.