U.S. Leadership in the Arctic: U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic, Adm. Robert Papp, Jr.

March 12, 2015 – Brookings Institute, Washington, DC
U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic, Adm. Robert Papp, Jr., voiced his support for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty and touched on its impacts on a Yukon/ Alaska boundary dispute at a Brookings Institute event on March 12. Recognizing many people from the prior events, Adm. Papp wanted to differentiate this Arctic talk by focusing on the Arctic Peoples.
Adm. Papp said the dichotomy between cultivating and applying Arctic policy upon people who live in the Arctic could be best exemplified by a recent exchange in Kotzebue, Alaska, during an Arctic listening session. A federal “seal expert” was sent to the meeting, whom a traditional seal hunter asked, “So you’re the seal expert? How many seals have you eaten?”
While stationed in Adak in 1975 during his first year serving with the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Papp lived among Alaskans and worked pro-actively with Alaska Native communities. He said he believes there are better practices to engage residents and use Alaska Native knowledge, which has ensured human survival in the Arctic for thousands of years. To learn more, Adm. Papp said Alaska State Rep. Bob Herron of Bethel will coordinate a visit to his western Alaska district in the coming year.
Adm. Papp said he was concerned about lawmakers’ lack of experience in the Arctic and how this may impact policy. While individuals, such as Adm. Papp, have been hired or appointed because of their experience in the region, part of the public diplomacy mission of the U.S. State Department is to expand empathy for challenges faced by Arctic peoples. Tourism doesn’t establish credibility on the Arctic, Adm. Papp said. During Sen. Murkowski’s Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee hearing on March 6, some Senators would say, “Oh, I took a cruise to Alaska, so I know all about the Arctic.” That doesn’t count, of course. Adm. Papp emphasized bringing attention to Alaska’s “tyranny of time and distance,” pointing to the vast distances between remote villages in the Arctic and major hospitals and airports.
Adm. Papp respects Alaska Native participation in the decision-making process; the impact of climate change on subsistence is a major factor that needs to be taken into consideration.
Adm. Papp described how the U.S. participates in the Arctic Economic Council (AEC) differently than other participants. The AEC was established by Canada during its chairmanship of the Arctic Council, and first met last September. Because the other seven Arctic nations have a large degree of state ownership of industries, and the U.S. government does not, the U.S. appointed the Alaska Chamber of Commerce as the lead participant in the AEC. Participation is still in the planning stages.
Questions for Adm. Papp
The Brookings moderator asked, “There are crisscrossing signals from President Obama with his executive orders to highlight Arctic strategies, block off oil development on the coastal plain while allowing development elsewhere, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is seeing reduced production. Do you think Americans view Alaska as a land of opportunity or as land that should be closed off as a national park?” Adm. Papp said Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s hearing the previous week brought attention to those concerns. Only 50,000 Americans live in the Arctic and most of the U.S. is 3,500 miles away from them. With the rest of the U.S. highly disconnected, one of the goals for the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council is to bring attention to climate change and the resulting need for funding to address new challenges and build necessary infrastructure.
Marideth Sandler of Sandler Trade LLC introduced herself as a former staff member for Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, serving as the Alaska representative to the Arctic Council in 1995-2002. She asked, “Where are Alaskans (and) Gov. Walker in the policy making process? Are they represented in the Arctic Council with an equal voice?”
Adm. Papp said the Arctic Council is more about international policy than domestic policy, but meets with Alaska legislators and the Alaska Congressional Delegation frequently. Ms. Nikoosh Carlo, former executive director of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, will join the U.S. State Department and continue formal consultations with Alaska Native groups.
A Polish Embassy representative asked Adm. Papp to expand on talks with Russia, and to specify a minimum level for U.S. icebreaker capacity. Adm. Papp said the other seven Arctic nations stand together on sanctions against Russia, but continue communicating with Russia on Arctic issues. Russia’s military rhetoric hasn’t been helpful. The U.S. has the intelligence capabilities to find out the realities behind Russia’s rhetoric. The question is really about Russia’s capabilities, and its legitimate needs. Regarding icebreakers, Adm. Papp responded the U.S. should commission at least one more icebreaker before talking about building four or 10 more. U.S. needs to exercise a binding search and rescue agreement with Arctic states, as well as oil spill response. Adm. Papp is open to sharing responsibility with other countries such as Canada to lower the cost.
Eli Kintisch of Science Magazine asked about Arctic monitoring capabilities. Adm. Papp said the State Department has mapping and sensor capabilities and is working on optimizing satellites and navigation capabilities for higher latitudes.

About The Author

Andrea Wagner