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Evaluating the Arctic Council at 20 (Or 27!)

When the Arctic Council came into being with the signing of the Ottawa Declaration on Sept. 19, 1996, its survival was far from a foregone conclusion. Now, after 20 years in operation, the time has come for reflection. Founded as a consensus-based forum for cooperation, coordination, and interaction between Arctic states and, significantly, with the participatory inclusion of Arctic Indigenous communities, the Arctic Council was resplendent with post-Cold War optimism. Yet, the founding principles of the Council alone obscure the complexity and lengthy negotiations that mark the day-to-day operations of the Council. World Policy Institute’s Arctic in Context initiative presents a series of expert assessments of the Arctic Council at its 20th anniversary. –E.M.D.

By Rob Huebert

The Arctic Council officially turns 20 years old this year. In some ways, it can be considered even older. The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) was an entity created in 1989 that pioneered much of the work conducted and continued by the Arctic Council. But regardless of whether we think of the Council as being 20 years old or 27, it still represents a significant advancement in the management of international relations in the Arctic region. At first glance, it has been a tremendous success when one considers the total lack of cooperation in the era that preceded both the AEPS and Arctic Council. Admittedly, the bar was set very low; throughout the Cold War period there was no multilateral cooperation and the Arctic remained one of the most dangerous regions of confrontation in the world. 

The Arctic Council has experienced a number of significant successes. It has been responsible for bringing together representatives from the eight Arctic states as well as the northern indigenous peoples to examine and consider issues of mutual concern. It has become successful enough to attract the attention of non-Arctic states such as China and Japan. These non-Arctic states have been persistent in seeking observer status on the Council because they understand its utility and success. There have also been successes in regards to the creation of specific agreements, such as one that deals with search and rescue cooperation in the Arctic. The working groups and task forces that do the real work within the Arctic Council have also produced a series of outstanding reports that have improved our knowledge on key environmental issues pertaining to the Arctic.

A review of the Arctic Council demonstrates a wide range of specific successes. However, the real objective of creating the APES and then the Arctic Council was to facilitate better cooperation among the Arctic states. The intentions of the Finns, who led the creation of the AEPS, and the Canadians, who subsequently championed the creation of the Arctic Council, were not to create a new body to deal with specific Arctic environmental issues, but rather to improve and facilitate international cooperation in the region. The Arctic Council’s individual successes and outcomes are important, but has its work resulted in a more peaceful and cooperative Arctic? This is a more difficult question to answer.

Analysts who use a liberal internationalist theoretical framework argue that the discrete successes of the Arctic Council do go beyond the specific results of Council actions. By demonstrating the ability to work together, the Council has created a normative expectation of cooperation among the representatives. Thus, when conflicts or disputes occur, they are viewed as outliers. Any such problems are then treated as issues to be resolved in order to allow the system to return to its perceived norm of cooperation. Second, from a functional perspective, it is expected that cooperation will by nature led to more cooperation. Officials get to know each other and build up trusting relationships. When problems do arise, their legacy of working together allows them to directly address the issues. Or, if they are not able to immediately resolve a problem, they will know who to contact within their own governments to facilitate a solution.

It is abundantly clear in applying this framework to the Arctic Council that the body has played a very significant role in improving the cooperative nature of international Arctic affairs. Since the end of the Cold War—with the creation of the AEPS and then the Arctic Council—there has been a trend toward greater cooperation that goes beyond the Council itself. This can be found in a wide range of examples, including the effort to determine the outer limits of the continental shelf and negotiating an international fishing regime for a possible ice-free Arctic Ocean. In many cases, the same senior officials are involved in both the actions of the Arctic Council and these other initiatives. They are important issues, and it is easy to see how the negotiations could have taken place in a more negative environment. One only has to look to the South China Sea for evidence of how difficult these talks can be and how the environment can easily move beyond one predicated on cooperation to one of distrust and hostility.

Thus, it would seem that the Arctic Council can be seen as an unqualified success in terms of its specific outcomes, but even more importantly in playing a central role in fostering a cooperative international Arctic regime. Unfortunately, there is another side to the evaluation of the last 20 (or 27) years of the Arctic Council—one that is much more problematic. There are larger geopolitical strategic issues that threaten many of the Council’s achievements. There is a possibility that the Arctic Council will simply be unable to curb or influence the slide back into distrust in the region as military issues and action regain importance. The realist perspective, which emphasizes the role of strong states’ core national security concerns, allows for cooperative behavior only as long as the main players’ security interests are not threatened. But once those interests are challenged, cooperation is lost and there will be a return to conflict as a means to solve problems.

When Canadian officials initiated the move to transform the AEPS into a more politically robust entity, they were hoping that the new body would be able to address all political issues concerning the Arctic, including security issues. However, the United States and some of the other northern states were hesitant about allowing such a politically active body. As a result, the Arctic Council’s formal mandate was limited to environment-oriented issues, a field where the AEPS had already developed a constructive regime. Furthermore, issues relating to military security, whaling, and other politically sensitive subjects were explicitly excluded from its mandate. In part, this meant that the Arctic Council was designed to address issues where there was a good chance of success. On the other hand, it meant that it never had the opportunity to deal with the more contentious security issues that began to re-emerge in the mid-2000s.

At that time, the Russian economy was recovering from the devastation it suffered after the collapse of the USSR, and Vladimir Putin’s administration was beginning to consolidate political authority and control over the country. As a result, the Russian government began to rebuild its military capabilities in the Arctic. When it intervened with military force in Ukraine in 2014, the ramifications of the seizure sent shock waves through the cooperative regime that had developed in the Arctic. Even though the other Arctic states attempted to act as if they were isolated from these geopolitical tremors, it was clear that was not the case. Both Sweden and Finland experienced Russian air and maritime intrusions as the Russian government attempted to ensure that those two countries would not join NATO. At the same time, the Americans, Norwegians, and others have increased the tempo and intensity of military deployments and exercises in the region. This has been matched and exceeded by the Russians.

Could the Arctic Council have made a difference if it had been given a mandate to deal with these political issues? Probably not. With its limited mandate, it has succeeded as long as overall relations remained positive in the region. However, it ultimately remains irrelevant to addressing the more serious geopolitical issues that will ultimately determine whether cooperation or conflict comes to define the entire region.

Ultimately, the 20th (or 27th) anniversary presents a mixed legacy for the Arctic Council. There is no denying the important contribution that it has provided in addressing specific Arctic issues, particularly those related to the environment. There is also evidence to suggest that it has played a significant role in fostering a cooperative spirit among the Arctic states … as long as greater geopolitical forces remained contained. But there is mounting evidence that as relations between the major powers in the Arctic deteriorate, the Council will not be able to hold back unfortunate developments. Is it fair to criticize the Arctic Council for something it was never designed to address? Perhaps not. But then again, what will the successes of the last two decades mean if there is a return to the dark ages of the Cold War? How then will it be evaluated? One hopes for the best, but this may not be the case.

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Rob Huebert, Ph.D. is an associate professor with the Department of Political Science and a senior research fellow with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, both at the University of Calgary.

[Photo courtesy of Lars Åke Andersen]

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