The Trump administration appoints a new State Department Arctic coordinator

It also appointed a new member and chair to the Arctic Research Commission. All three are relatively unknown in D.C. Arctic diplomacy and research circles.

By Melody Schreiber - July 29, 2020
James DeHart, then U.S. Department of State’s a senior advisor for security negotiations and agreements bureau of political-military affairs, speaks after a meeting with his South Korean counterpart on the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) at the public affairs section of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea November 19, 2019. (Lee Jin-man / Pool via Reuters)

After nearly four years without one, the U.S. State Department again has a top-level official devoted to Arctic issues.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration named James DeHart as the new head of Arctic coordination at the U.S. State Department.

Previously, retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Robert Papp held the post of U.S. special representative for the Arctic, from 2014 until his retirement in early 2017. That post was one of a number left unfilled by the new administration.

DeHart, a career diplomat, was most recently a senior adviser for security negotiations and agreements in South Korea. Before that, he served as assistant chief of mission in Afghanistan and from 2015–18, was deputy chief of mission in Norway.

His appointment comes as the Trump administration increasingly invokes a narrative that casts the Arctic as an arena of great power competition pitting the U.S. against China and Russia.

In a blunt speech on the eve of the ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent shockwaves through the Arctic community by highlighting what he described as Russia’s “aggressive” actions and China’s economic interest in the region.

Meanwhile, last month, the U.S. reopened its consulate in Nuuk, Greenland, a year after President Donald Trump reportedly sought to purchase the island and was rebuffed. On a visit to Copenhagen two weeks later, Pompeo emphasized the importance of maintaining ties in the region. “It’s a new day for the United States and Greenland,” he said then.

The Trump administration also called for a rapid expansion of the U.S. icebreaker fleet in June. In mid-July, Trump said in off-the-cuff remarks that the United States is looking to acquire as many as 10 additional vessels.

“I am fully confident Jim will lead efforts to advance U.S. interests related to safety and security, sustainable economic growth, and cooperation among Arctic States,” Pompeo said on Twitter.

DeHart assumed his Arctic duties immediately on Wednesday. He will report directly to Pompeo and Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun, advising them on all Arctic matters and leading and coordinating Arctic policy and diplomacy for the department, according to a State Department announcement. The position will span several U.S. departments and Arctic initiatives.

“A year or two from now, I think people are going to look back on the period of time that we’re in now and recognize it as a pivot point for us on the Arctic,” DeHart told the Wall Street Journal, later adding, “This is really an enduring commitment here that we have to the region, and I think that we’re all going to see this sustained.”

In addition to the State Department position, the Trump administration also announced two new appointees at the U.S. Arctic Research Commission: Jon Harrison, from California, who will be a member and chairperson; and Michael Newton, from Tennessee, who will be a member of the commission.

Both Harrison and Newton are newcomers to the network of academics and federal and state officials working on Arctic policy and research.

Harrison has served as the senior Trump administration official for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the State Department, but prior to that appointment, he worked in the private sector.