By Yereth Rosen
For former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp, newly appointed as the government’s top Arctic envoy, leading American circumpolar policy is somewhat akin to sailing in volatile conditions.
“One thing I learned as a sailor: You play the hand of cards that you’re dealt,” Papp said in an interview on Monday. Papp was appointed a month ago by Secretary of State John Kerry as the U.S. special representative for the Arctic.
Just as he navigated at sea in weather that was out of his control, Papp must now work around geopolitical storms as he prepares for the United States to assume chairmanship next year of the eight-nation Arctic Council.
That means figuring out a way to continue doing business on Arctic affairs with Russia — the nation with more Arctic territory than any other — despite strained relations over Ukraine and other issues.
U.S-Russia bilateral relations are likely to remain rocky for a long time, Papp said, but there’s hope for cooperation in the multinational Arctic Council, where all actions depend on consensus and common interests. No matter what happens between the two nations, the Arctic Council may be “a door that will stay open,” he said.
The sharp partisan divide in national politics is another factor out of his control, but possibly explains why he is a “special representative” rather than an ambassador.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, for one, has criticized the Obama administration for refraining from giving Papp the title of “ambassador.” Murkowski characterized the decision as a sign of neglect and disinterest in Arctic issues, especially since the other Arctic Council nations have Arctic ambassadors.
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