For a region of only about four million people, the Arctic has received a huge amount of attention over the last 15 years or so. This notice is not surprising because no other region faces greater consequences from climate change, as it is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Global warming has led to a decline in sea ice, which has spun dreams about exploiting long inaccessible Arctic natural resources; news headlines talk about  a “scramble” or “cold war” that is apparently building. We are left with the sense that conflict is percolating beneath rapidly melting ice. It is a region with only eight states – Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – one of which increasingly challenges the international order as it slides toward authoritarianism (Russia) and another of which seems increasingly hostile to multilateralism and climate action (the United States). However, governance of the Arctic region is robust because there are multiple forums for collaboration that persist in the face of tension, which means the potential for serious conflict is low. 

The state of Arctic governance 

There is no shortage of international institutions that provide forums for Arctic conversation and collaboration, the preeminent of which is the Arctic Council. It is the only Arctic-specific body that includes all the regions’ states as members. It was established in 1996 amid a surge in post-Cold War collaboration to create a venue to share information and carry out joint projects, such as environmental assessments, pollution action plans and public safety exercises. It makes decisions by consensus and has a rotating chairmanship.  

The Arctic Council also is preeminent because it is the only international institution that gives Indigenous peoples’ organizations state-like powers, namely a form of membership as permanent participants. It also provides a role for non-Arctic actors that have an interest in the region, too, as the Arctic Council has 39 observers. In this role, states, international institutions and non-state actors  with an Arctic research program or other interests can participate in the Council’s work with the approval of member states (as per Arctic Council, 2013). 

The Arctic Council describes itself as an international forum, and scholars have compared it to informal institutions such as the G8 or G7. However, such comparisons do not give credit to the full institutional breadth of the Council. It has a formal mandate, expressed in the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, to “provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues.” The only issue area explicitly off-limits is military security. Today, the Arctic Council  has a standing working group structure, along with a permanent secretariat (opened in 2013). It has been a venue to negotiate formal international agreements on three occasions over the last ten years. In contrast, the G8 has not developed a permanent secretariat, administrative capability or standing working groups, nor has it served as a policy-making body in the same way as the Arctic Council. However, the formal mandate of the Arctic Council emphasizes that it should focus on “particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic”. Its most recent work record reveals that nearly every current project has some environmental component (110 out of 126 projects, calculated using Arctic Council, 2019). 

Other bodies that play a niche role are the Arctic Economic Council (a business council that began as an Arctic Council initiative), Barents Euro-Arctic Council (a regional sustainable development institution of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden), Barents Regional Council (a group of 14 sub-state actors of the Barents region), Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians (a biennial meeting of Arctic legislators with a standing committee) and the Northern Forum (an organization of 13 Arctic regional governments). The European Union, Nordic Council and North Atlantic Treaty Organization each have an active Arctic program. The International Maritime Organization provides regulation of Arctic shipping, exhibited in its 2017 Polar Code. This abundance of institutions means that, should the Arctic Council falter, other international institutions exist that provide a forum for collaboration, enhancing the robustness of Arctic governance. 

Three challenges to the Arctic’s Regional Governance Structure

There are three challenges that could alter the Arctic’s regional governance structure over the coming decade. Firstly, the worsening relationship between the West and Russia following the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s international election meddling have also been felt in the Arctic. Russia has taken a more aggressive posture in the region, for example expanding its military capabilities at its Northern Clover military base as well as announcing plans for five new missile submarines and up to ten new Arctic ships. Speculation as to Russia’s motivations posits a scheme to bolster its status as a great power or boost President Vladimir Putin’s domestic popularity. A positive sign is that Russia still participates actively in Arctic governance; thus far, the more aggressive behaviour has had little outward impact on its Arctic Council participation, as the Russian government still attends meetings and participates in projects. Regardless of the motivations, any expansion of military bases or build-up of arms has the potential to escalate into miscommunication and armed conflict. 

The second challenge comes from the United States as priorities by the Trump Administration in the region have been a recent source of tension. Every two years, the Arctic Council produces a declaration with general points of agreement and collective goals. They usually are fairly routine, general documents. The most recent such attempt in 2019 failed because the United States refused to sign any declaration that discussed climate change. The refusal signaled a clear change in the foreign policy of the United States under the Trump Administration not to give even broad support to action on climate change mitigation. It was the first time the Arctic Council had attempted and failed to create a declaration; Trump Administration officials had even signed a very similar declaration two years ago. The action signals a break between Canada, the Nordic countries and even Russia against the United States in the Arctic region. It could reduce the United States’ participation in regional governance over the next decade should the Trump Administration win re-election and the Arctic Council continue to emphasize action on climate change. 

Lastly, unresolved boundary issues are a source of two related challenges . First, as laid out by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, states have the right to exploit natural resources on their extended continental shelves to a maximum distance of 350 nautical miles. Governments are currently attempting to define these limits. Some of the claims overlap; in 2019, Canada’s government put forward a claim that overlaps with Russia and Denmark’s claims. Second, under the Law of the Sea, Canada and the United States officially dispute under which part of the convention the Northwest Passage fits. In May 2019, the Trump Administration bluntly asserted the United States’ position that the Northwest Passage is an international strait because it connects two international bodies of water, as opposed to internal waters (due to its lack of navigability) as Canadian officials argue. The United States’ assertion would give its ships unfettered access to the passage. So far, dialogue has occurred to deal with disagreements. The United Nations has been the venue to discuss these issues, namely the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. In addition, the states that border the Arctic Ocean have held three conferences to assert their commitment to resolve disputes peacefully (in 2008, 2010 and 2018). These disagreements remain concerning because, throughout history, boundary disputes have been a cause of conflict. Should governance efforts fail, larger issues could emerge. 

Changes to Arctic Governance

There are several factors that could change regional cooperation in the Arctic over the next decade. However, tensions in the Arctic region are still relatively low despite various political challenges. Clearly, relations between the West and Russia will be an issue in the next decade. Tensions could continue to rise, which might lead to Russia reducing its participation in international institutions of the Arctic, or even withdrawing from governance mechanisms. Yet, there is reason to believe that this possibility will not occur. Co-operation by Russia in the region is still strong. It continues to attend Arctic Council meetings and sponsors 30 projects, many with other Arctic states, including the United States. This co-operation ensures that a forum exists to mitigate tensions and shows that Russia’s government has not totally walked away from co-operation. 

As mentioned, declining interest in climate change by the United States could lead to a split in Arctic governance during the coming decade. The United States could scale back its participation in the Arctic Council if its recent actions signal a larger trend. Yet, behind the scenes, co-operation has been stronger than the Trump Administration’s latest behaviour might indicate, indicating its support for the institution. The United States currently sponsors more than half of the Council’s projects, including a great deal of work on climate change. This fact shows that states are still working together in the region despite some outward rhetoric. 

As discussed, failure to resolve boundary disputes could escalate tensions. It could lead to withdrawal from international institutions or isolationism. Yet, so far, states have sought to resolve issues in a peaceful manner, complying with international law and the United Nations’ dispute resolution process. The Arctic states have even carried out joint scientific missions to make their claims. This action shows that mechanisms to avoid tensions through international law are working. 

Major changes in the region are coming in the next decade due to climate change. Can all of these mechanisms for governance and international action effectively respond to climate change? Such a question begs a far less optimistic analysis.Despite international efforts and emissions reduction commitments, temperatures in the region continue to rise. Warming is destroying infrastructure, altering the ecosystem, threatening coastal communities, endangering resident health and challenging the traditional economies of Indigenous peoples. Arctic governance institutions will be forced to deal with adaptation to these changes. To mitigate climate change, the Arctic states, and the word community as a whole, would need to commit to a decarbonized economy immediately. With the Trump Administration’s recent resistance to even acknowledge climate change, such action seems extremely unlikely. 

In conclusion, governance of the Arctic region is robust, orderly and sound. There are multiple forums for cooperation. These forums have survived and thrived through conflict and tension. There is no indication that any state might withdraw from any of these forums, or that the future of any institution is in question. These possibilities exist, but do not seem to be the most likely outcome of current governance efforts. If trends continue, the Arctic Council will survive and even grow; other institutions will endure; collaboration with Indigenous peoples will expand; states will comply with voluntary international law, and; willingness to work together in the region will continue even if it ebbs and flows. We can be critical of the likelihood of regional climate change mitigation; but, at the very least, institutions exist to discuss the issue in the future.

Andrew Chater is a fellow at the Polar Research and Policy Initiative and an Assistant Professor at Brescia University College. He is the 2018-2019 Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Arctic Studies at the University of Washington.

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