A new bill aims to create the US’s first high-level Arctic diplomatic office

The proposed legislation would create a new diplomatic office, the Assistant Secretary of State for Arctic Affairs.

By Melody Schreiber - October 8, 2021
James DeHart, who currently serves as the State Department’s U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic region, visits Exit Glacier, Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, near Seward, Alaska, with Benjamin Pister, the park’s director of resource management. (Hillary LeBail / U.S. State Department)

New legislation introduced to the U.S. Senate would create a new diplomatic position for the Arctic at the Department of State.

The bill would establish a new Senate-confirmed role, the Assistant Secretary of State for Arctic Affairs, in order to centralize U.S. Arctic leadership from the agency.

Unlike other Arctic nations, the United States does not have an Arctic ambassador.

Jim DeHart, who has almost three decades of diplomatic experience, is the U.S. coordinator for the Arctic region at the State Department, where he collaborates between offices and departments on Arctic policy.

Previously, Adm. Robert J. Papp, Jr., was the State Department’s Special Representative for the Arctic, but that position has not been revived.

“It’s high time that we have such representation,” Sherri Goodman, former U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense and senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, told ArcticToday. “It’s been a long time in the making. We absolutely need to up our game for American leadership in the Arctic.”

The new assistant secretary would establish a diplomacy strategy, cooperate with other nations, incorporate Arctic Indigenous knowledge and oversee several Arctic priorities, including natural resource management and economic development, scientific monitoring and research, and environmental protection and conservation.

Even some non-Arctic nations, such as China, have high-level diplomatic representation in the Arctic, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement, calling the absence “unacceptable.”

“It is important that the U.S. play an active and influential diplomatic role in the region,” Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, said. “It is pivotal that the U.S. establish this position in order to conduct the type of diplomacy necessary to preserve a peaceful, prosperous Arctic.”

The proposed legislation will elevate Arctic issues in U.S. halls of power, Dr. Kelly McFarland, director of programs and research at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, told ArcticToday.

The legislation “demonstrates the importance of the Arctic moving forward, in diplomacy and just in geopolitics in general,” he said, and it represents “a growing understanding” of the Arctic’s importance on Capitol Hill and within government agencies.

“It will allow Arctic policies and Arctic issues to be more front and center for policymakers to think about and to deal with, and I think that’s a good thing,” McFarland said.

Creating an assistant secretary position would also build out a bureau to support the position, including deputy secretaries and staffers specializing in environmental, economic, security and regional issues, among others, McFarland said.

The proposed legislation joins a slate of other recent Washington developments. In addition to co-sponsoring the new legislation, Murkowski has also worked to establish the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security, now led by retired Air Force major general Randy “Church” Kee.

The White House also recently revived the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which advances U.S. interests and action in the North, and President Joe Biden appointed several new commissioners to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission in a move hailed as a return to science-based policies.

“The Arctic is known to be a region of peace, but as maritime traffic and economic activity increase to the north, this stability must be maintained through careful, steady leadership and engagement with the rest of the Arctic community,” Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine and one of the bill’s cosponsors, said in a statement.