Arctic guise? So U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Svalbard…what difference does it make now?


Even if he wasn’t one of the most traveled and heavily briefed persons in the world about international issues, he offered specific and extensive comments about the impacts of climate change in the Arctic before arriving. And the quotes to the press by both visitor and host were near carbon clones of those following visits by other world leaders.

So what of substance did come from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s five-hour visit to the archipelago Thursday?

For starters, consider the following: of the roughly 3,400 words spoken during a joint media appearance by Kerry and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg in Oslo the day before his visit, about 200 focused on the archipelago and climate change – mostly stating the visit was happening. Another 280 were devoted to illegal fishing and overfishing, which are somewhat related since it was a topic of substantiative discussion during the visit.

“Kerry is very interested in preserving global wild fish species and he also wants to be informed about the positive results it provides to listen to scientific advice when it comes to fisheries,” said Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende, who visited Svalbard with Kerry, in a separate media appearance. “We know that there are almost no cod left on the Canadian side of the Atlantic, due to strong overfishing for years. Norway has, however, managed to preserve stocks in the Barents Sea, precisely because politicians have listened to professional advice.”


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, discusses research activities with a scientist working in Ny-Ålesund during a visit by Norwegian and U.S. leaders Thursday. Photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department.

The rest of the remarks in Oslo were dominated by security issues, many of them involving Russia. Which may, for better or worse, also be where the most consequential results are seen for Svalbard as well as the rest of the world concerned about the fate of the Arctic and the countries playing key roles. The U.S., along with many European Union and NATO countries have expressed concern Norway is woefully unprepared for aggressive action by Russia and, while Solberg repeatedly emphasized she plans to bolster military spending significantly, she said other Western nations also need to increase their support.

But the U.S. Congress now led by the Republican Party – which is expected to retain its hold on at least one of the two legislative bodies after this fall’s election – has been leery of supporting anything related to climate change and science, and may be similarly reluctant to ramp of signs of support for Norway in the Arctic turf war.

“Rather than acting like a big brother at a time when the Russians are seen as playing games in Svalbard, it makes more sense that the Americans will emphasize areas of Arctic co-operation on things like maritime security, coast guard services or development,” Svein Vigeland Rottem, a senior research fellow with Fridtjof Nansens Institutt in Olso, told The Arctic Journal.

The U.S. is already involved in numerous conflicts, some involving Russia, “But the Arctic isn’t one of them and Washington is interested in keeping it that way,” Rottem added.

“You can say this is more than a courtesy call since both sides want to show that they are on the same page when it comes to things like climate and economic development,” he said, referring to Kerry’s two-day to Norway. “But we’re not going to see Washington making as big a deal out of this as Oslo.”


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits the museum in Ny-Ålesund to meet with researchers in the settlement. Photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department.

As for the visit itself, Kerry and the rest of the entourage landed at Svalbard Airport at about 9 a.m. and departed for Ny-Ålesund about five minutes later. Kings Bay AS, the company responsible management of the research settlement, described the entourage’s visit in a brief statement at its website afterward.

“The security was tight during the visit,” the statement notes. “The group started with a visit to the museum, where they met with scientists to discuss the work being done in Ny-Ålesund. They then walked down to the harbor for a boat trip on Kongsfjorden. They ended their visit with a working lunch in the Amundsen villa.”

Paul Wenzel Geissler, an anthropologist at the station studying birds and the effects of global pollutants on them, told the science website GlacierHub in an e-mail he was “holed up” writing notes during the bulk of the secretary’s visit.

“Not because I hold any grudges against him, but because the presence of armed men on the higher buildings made me a little uncomfortable, and the fact that we were not allowed to carry weapons that day prevented me from going out of town,” he wrote. “So, the closest I got to the event was being startled and subsequently calmed down by a camouflaged, though smiling, soldier with automatic weapons on his heavy neck jumping down the Polar Institute staircase, just as I thought myself alone in the building.”

Geisser described Kerry’s questions to other researchers as “pleasant.”

“‘Who of the assembled scientists has lived up here longest?’ Then: ‘What are you actually doing?’ And even: ‘How do you catch the birds, and which are most difficult to catch?’ The latter question afforded a colleague, studying a particularly hard-to-catch top predator, to bring up legacy and emerging pollutants in Arctic seabirds – one of the key scientific issues here in the world’s northernmost community (however exactly that is defined). Happy that this massive threat – not just to seabirds – was raised in this sort of climate change dominated event.”