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The Arctic: A Region of Regions

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 Jessica Shadian

When the Arctic Council first came into being 20 years ago, its very configuration was a sign of the times. It was established in the infancy of a post-Cold War world filled with a widespread sense of optimism for global peace. Alongside the political reunification of the East and West were newly emerging political bodies, from NGOs to sub-state and transnational actors, hoping to participate in an emerging global order. The Arctic Council acknowledged the significance of the region’s subnational and transnational indigenous groups and took the unprecedented step of including three (now six) permanent indigenous observers (Permanent Participants) at the negotiating table.

Since those early post-Cold War years, the world has changed. The once-pervasive sense of optimism is at a low and the Arctic Council is entering into its own period of “Westphalianisation,” namely through binding agreements involving the eight Arctic states. The processes leading to those agreements did not require participation by the Permanent Participants or local Northern governments, and in some instances the Permanent Participants were absent altogether.

While the Arctic Council is slowly evolving into an intergovernmental regime, the political power that subnational regions and Permanent Participants have attained in Arctic and global governance cannot not be set aside. Their institutional power ranges from land claims agreements and legislation for greater indigenous political autonomy to cultural rights in Europe and Self-Rule in Greenland. In most cases, their connections extend beyond the Arctic Council and are woven into the complex fabric of Arctic politics. While there may be only one Arctic political region at the global intergovernmental level, the Arctic is very much a region of regions.

When the Arctic Council was created in 1996, the Permanent Participants earned a formal place at the negotiating table. That structure was viewed by many as a way to represent the interests of indigenous peoples residing in the Northern regions of the eight Arctic states. The Arctic Council’s most recent binding agreements, however, were made by the eight Arctic states, whose capitals are often located very far from the North. The capitals have very different realities and priorities than Northern governments and peoples. It is often foreign ministers and civil servants working in the southern capitals who serve as Senior Arctic Officials and Arctic Council Ministers. (Canada is a long-standing exception, with a member of parliament from Nunavut, Leona Aglukkaq, serving as Canada's Minister for the Arctic Council and the Council’s Chair from 2013 to 2015, as well as Mary Simon and Jack Anawak both serving as Ambassadors to the Arctic.)

Consequently, subnational Northern regions are increasingly finding that they need to go through southern capitals to be heard at the Arctic Council. For some Northern and Arctic regions, there is a growing sense that the Arctic Council is speaking on their behalf and making decisions that affect them without their representation. Those regions believe they have little choice but to implement what has been decided. As the Arctic Council transitions from a high-level forum to an intergovernmental forum, the legacies of colonial practice are coming to the surface.

At the same time, new forms of Arctic cooperation outside the Arctic Council are emerging or being renewed. Some commentators have gone as far as to question whether or not such entities complement or even compete with the Arctic Council. A number of examples include Arctic Frontiers, the Arctic Circle forum, the Arctic Economic Council, the Northern Forum, and the World Economic Forum: Global Agenda Council on the Arctic.

The Northern Forum, for instance, brings together Northern sub-regions to address common issues. It was founded in 1991 out of a belief that subnational regions should play a greater role in policy. When the Arctic Council was formed in 1996, the Northern Forum became an observer, but with its creation interest in the Northern Forum dwindled. With the onset of binding agreements among Arctic states in recent years, however, subnational regions have paid renewed attention to the Forum. Alaska, for instance, has formally re-joined. Driving its participation in this type of regional body, Alaska has its own financial and development vision as an Arctic region and has even created its own Arctic policy with an agenda that is distinct from that of the U.S. federal government. Beyond Alaska, there is a growing sense among Northern leaders that the Arctic Council does not provide an adequate voice for subnational regions, and those regions are increasingly interested in promoting their interests at the regional and international policy levels. The Northern Forum is once again viewed as a possible means to realize those aims.

The Northern Forum and other bodies that are connected to the Arctic Council and seek to influence its work comprise just one category of institutions that the Council must take into account as its own mission and purpose evolve. Other Arctic initiatives underway are entirely separate from the workings of the Artic Council. One instance was the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Arctic (GACA) and its partial connections to Guggenheim Partners’ efforts to invest $1 trillion into Arctic infrastructure. The GACA committee, which included representatives from industry, policy, and academia as well as an indigenous representative, was tasked to consider the economic facets of a changing Arctic, specifically in the context of global investment in the region. The group completed an Arctic investment protocol to help pave the way for public-private investments in infrastructure development. Though the GACA group has ceased operations, Guggenheim Partners (a member of the GACA group), in close collaboration with the Arctic Circle forum, has plans to carry on with completing an Arctic Infrastructure Inventory and an Arctic Permanent Investment Vehicle.

Guggenheim Partners’ potential investments in infrastructure projects could create the business opportunities in resource extraction, tourism, and overall economic development sought by Northern regions. The impact of major capital investment in the Arctic, however, raises questions about the relationships between global financial institutions and the Arctic Council. For instance, rather than coming from the Arctic Council, the separate GACA group created a circumpolar protocol for how businesses should conduct themselves in the region. That protocol is now being promoted by Guggenheim Partners as it travels the world in search of investors. The Arctic Council is currently working on its own studies and declarations—and perhaps even binding agreements—regarding the sustainable development of the Arctic. How those efforts sit in relation to a GACA-inspired investment protocol which, due to the position and wealth of those promoting it, has much greater political power, a further reach, and thus a greater chance to impact the region remains to be seen. A $1 trillion investment into Arctic infrastructure has the potential to have far more influence on and relevance for local Arctic communities and governments than new Arctic Council declarations or even binding agreements passed by its member states.

The growing number of institutions sitting apart from the Arctic Council make bare the vastly changed terrain of Arctic politics over the past 20 years. It is too soon to tell whether or not these new developments will complement or compete with the Arctic Council. Thus far, global investors have been big on words and fanfare but virtually non-existent in terms of action. The Arctic’s subnational governments will continue to work toward having a greater say in matters that are of interest and relevance to them, and the Permanent Participants are looking to establish their own permanent financial vehicle to ensure adequate participation in the Arctic Council. Nevertheless, the Arctic Council member states are turning to conventional state-driven politics to strengthen their governing power. It is worth reflecting, then, on whether or not the minimal demands that come with formally binding agreements might be undermining the reach of the Council. The Arctic Council needs to decide what role it wants to play in an Arctic today that is different from the one that existed when the Ottawa Declaration was signed 20 years ago.   

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Jessica Shadian is a Nansen Professor at the University of Akureyri in Iceland and a senior fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto.

[Photo courtesy of Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström]

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