In late July, the Trump Administration appointed James DeHart as the first U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Mr. DeHart has spent much of his 28-year career working to resolve conflict. He led the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan, directed the State Department’s Office of Afghanistan Affairs, and most recently as the top U.S. negotiator in defense cost-sharing talks with South Korea.
While Mr. DeHart’s post as Deputy Chief of Mission in Oslo provides him with three years of Arctic experience, it’s his expertise in armed competition and great power diplomacy that has gained attention. His appointment follows an unusually combative speech made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at last year’s Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Finland. Marking a stark departure from the traditional conciliatory remarks of past secretaries, Secretary Pompeo detailed the dangers of Chinese investment and Russian military mobilization to U.S. national interest in the region, and issued a stern warning to Russia and China: respect American interests in the Arctic, or face the consequences.
There’s just one problem: in the Arctic, cooperation consistently prevails over conflict. It’s a region where transnational governance is based on dialogue, mutual interest and respect for Indigenous rights. The U.N. Law of the Sea dictates who owns what, and the Arctic Council remains an active forum for cooperation, coordination and interaction amongst all Arctic states. Even as tensions simmer between Russia, the West and China further south, the North continues to prove itself to be a place where risk of conflict is minimal.
Yet while there is no new Cold War in the Arctic, the area is witnessing an equally catastrophic crisis: climate change. The northern polar region is warming at about three times the rate of the rest of the world. This July, Arctic sea ice hit an all-time low. In June, heat waves rippled across the area, with the Siberian Arctic town of Verkhoyansk recording an all-time high for the Arctic Circle of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. And Arctic wildfires now rage so fiercely that they have burned from one summer through the winter and into the next summer without dying.
Climate change is not some distant threat in the North. It is already an everyday, life-threatening reality. The four million people who call the Arctic home live in a continual state of emergency, facing threats to their family’s health, to their food security and to local economies that support global fishing, mining and shipping industries. DeHart’s impressive capabilities of negotiating status of force and defense cooperation is critical to lead in conflict-torn regions like Central Asia. It does not prepare him to coordinate U.S. policy in a region where climate change, not armed conflict, is the number one threat.
With a vacuum of leadership, inadequate investment and no strategic vision for the region’s future, the United States is often described as a reluctant Arctic nation. The U.S. cannot afford to maintain its ambivalence toward the Arctic in a rapidly warming world. We need a whole-of-government approach to address today’s economic, emergency response, and human security challenges. I argued as much in testimony before the House Committee of Homeland Security last fall.
But we do not have time for a U.S. Arctic coordinator who has to learn on the job. We need leadership driven by regional expertise, experience and respect—someone who not only understands Arctic-specific challenges like thawing permafrost and sea ice melt but can also lead regional cooperation amidst these increasingly common climate disasters. Such seasoned Arctic leaders already exist in the many well-qualified Alaska Native diplomats who serve in Indigenous people’s organizations that have Permanent Participant status at the Arctic Council. These leaders already represent U.S. citizens in Arctic Council negotiations, understand the gravity of climate impacts and make informed policy decisions based on the nuanced, localized knowledge that comes from living in the Arctic.
Past and current U.S. chairs of organizations like the Inuit Circumpolar Council; Gwich’in Council International; and Aleut International Association offer a robust pool of capable candidates to coordinate U.S. Arctic policy. These individuals can build a more inclusive dialogue on diplomacy, policy and government investment in and for the Arctic, and ensure that decisions made in Washington, DC, are made with reference to addressing the climate change impacts that are already costing billions of dollars in damages, devastating family livelihoods and inflicting irreplaceable cultural loss further north.
In his first public appearance as U.S. coordinator for the Arctic region, DeHart noted that “80 percent of success is showing up.” But we need more from our leaders than just showing up. We need our leaders to act, ambitiously and boldly, to define America’s role in the North. By choosing DeHart to lead U.S. Arctic policy, we’re preparing for the wrong threat. At a time when the region is undergoing abrupt and dangerous climate changes, it’s a mistake we cannot afford to make.