Russia may be best placed to exploit the Arctic’s potential for oil and gas, but its fellow Arctic Council members have their own agendas to pursue.
Words Ian Wylie
Illustration Cajsa Holgersson
The primary alliances and rivalries in the Arctic Council work along hemispheric lines, explains Regina Joseph, a super forecaster on the Good Judgment Project. Canada and the United States share vested interests in energy, transport and fishing — but they also are at odds over the question of sovereignty in the Northwest Passage.
The Scandinavian and Nordic nations weave in and out of alliances depending on the stakes, from energy and mining to transport and fishing. “As geopolitical situations demonstrate Russia’s willingness to ignite conflicts with ex-Soviet satellites, Finland and Sweden have increased their interest in strengthening NATO ties, which potentially puts them on a collision path with Russia,” says Joseph.
Norway has worked hard to maintain good relations with Russia, and has expressed concern over Putin’s growing militarisation of the region. “Canada and Russia tend to be the two countries that most often seem to disagree, but I think this is actually more a result of them both having pretty outspoken politicians,” says Mia Bennett, a geographer who writes the Cryopolitics blog on Arctic developments. “In fact, the two countries share an interest in having their Arctic passages designated as internal waters, rather than international straits.” Even so, Norway recently adopted economic sanctions in response to the Ukraine conflict, disrupting the 500-year-old trade between the two neighbouring nations.
These alliances and rivalries may shift again once the US takes over chairmanship of the Arctic Council from the Canadians in May 2015. Until recently, the US has preferred to take a backseat in the Arctic. “The US punches well below its weight in the Arctic,” says Bennett.
“This has caused problems with politicians from Alaska, who would like to see the federal government do a lot more on everything from economic development to appointing a US Arctic ambassador.”
Even so, there are signs that Arctic matters are becoming more significant to Washington — notably Hillary Clinton’s decision to be the first Secretary of State to attend an Arctic Council ministerial meeting. “With US chairmanship, I think we will see a shift in the Arctic Council’s priorities away from a focus on economic development for people of the North, as the Canadians put it, and back to climate change and the environment,” says Bennett, who is optimistic about US–Russia relations in the Arctic. “The two nations do a lot of work together, especially with regard to the environment and scientific research. The US seems less fixated on defending its territorial integrity in the Arctic.”
“The Arctic Council has been very effective, and overall, the Arctic is a model of international cooperation and collaboration.”
The US has already played a key role in convincing its colleagues that more outsiders should be brought to the Council’s table. China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore were granted permanent observer status in May 2013. Though they are unable to vote on decisions, observers are invited to the majority of the Arctic Council’s meetings.
The admission of the five Asian states came only after strong arguments in which some members — Russia and Canada, in particular– were notably less than enthusiastic. The US played a big part in overturning this opposition; it’s possible that American chairmanship may also lead to greater roles for the new non-Arctic observer states. The US prefers a ‘big tent’ policy to internationalise the Arctic, enabling more countries to share benefits and assume responsibilities in the region.
This extends even to China, although Washington is warier of Beijing’s appetite for multilateral co-operation in the Arctic, in light of its more aggressive posture in East Asia.
But as economic development intensifies and new players arrive at the table, Arctic institutions may need to take on greater oversight. Carolyn Kissane from New York University’s Center for Global Affairs remains positive, but believes more could be done. “The Arctic Council has been very effective, and overall, the Arctic is a model of international cooperation and collaboration, but there needs to be clearer consequences for not moving forward in a responsible and sustainable way and this needs better defining,” she says.
“In many ways, international law is behind the curve when it comes to the Arctic. Energy exploration in the largely untapped Arctic region could heighten international tensions and the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body, and the treaties and agreements in place may not hold up to territorial sovereignty conflicts.”