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Is the Arctic Council Still a Visionary Leader?

This article is part of an Arctic in Context series featuring Winter 2017 Arctic Research Fellows from the International Policy Institute, in the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington. This Arctic research program is dedicated to improving the transfer of research and expertise between higher education and the policy world in the area of global affairs.

By Brandon Ray

Many thought he was sick; some feared he was dead. But in October 1987, after 51 days spent planning in seclusion, Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev emerged in Murmansk and gave birth to a new Arctic. Gorbachev envisioned the Arctic as a “zone of peace”—a place where the threat of nuclear attack that plagued the Cold War vanished, where countries could collaborate on Arctic science and share best practices for resource development and environmental protection, and where indigenous people had a role in shaping decisions. The idea of a peaceful area shared by East and West was a conceptual shift following failed negotiations over nuclear weapons and increased militarization in the North.

Within four years the Cold War had ended and countries were collectively engaged in environmental protection through the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. This vision was then expanded through the foundation of the Arctic Council. The Council’s initial strategic vision, outlined in the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, affirmed the organization’s commitment to the environment, sustainable development, and the well being of indigenous peoples—all parts of Gorbachev’s Murmansk speech. To this end, the Council has written many scientific reports on topics ranging from human development to climate impact, helped elevate the status of indigenous peoples worldwide, and raised broader global awareness of Arctic issues—reflecting Gorbachev’s early vision.

While the Council has been the model of a successful international organization, it is weakened by its lack of long-term strategy. A 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the Arctic Council offers an explanation. The report states that the U.S. State Department does not track the progress of the Arctic Council’s recommendations, as “the Council has not been a priority for State.” Since governments, like that of the U.S., are not effectively applying these reports to domestic policy, it is not possible for the Arctic Council to fully enact its proposals.

The GAO report lists 39 recommendations from the Arctic Council’s ministerial declarations from 1998-2013, though there are far more possible action items listed in these documents. For example, the GAO considers only one of the 33 paragraphs from the 1998 Iqaluit Declaration to be a recommendation, even though several of the paragraphs are directly actionable—one paragraph, for instance, urges the Arctic states to work toward early ratification of what later became the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and to encourage other states to do the same. While the U.S. signed the Convention in 2001, it has yet to ratify it. Similarly, only one of the 31 paragraphs from the 2011 Nuuk Declaration was considered actionable. The GAO also does not recognize recommendations contained in Working Group or Task Force reports, as these were too broad and numerous for State to handle effectively, given the limited resources of the department and the Council’s increased output. 

Ultimately, the broadening of the Council’s scope has made the visionary leadership of its early years more difficult to realize. Each member state has its own set of priorities both within and outside of the Arctic. Since the Ottawa Declaration, the Ministerial declarations have increased the length of their stated goals from nine to 45 paragraphs, focusing more on the operations of the Council and detracting from the strategic role of the Ministers. In addition, the Council’s rotating chairmanship detracts from a long-term strategic vision, as each country is granted a two-year period to carry out projects that usually fall within its national interests. These projects are not necessarily continued from chair to chair, and thus focus can ebb and flow on various matters. For example, the Arctic Council Project Support Instrument (a financing mechanism) was operationalized under the Swedish chairmanship, yet there has been little further discussion about this within the Council since the chairmanship rotated, although other financing mechanisms—including a fund to support indigenous participation—are now being considered.         

There are two simple solutions to this disconnect, either of which could help refocus the Arctic Council to achieve its mission at the national level. The first is to amend the structure of the Council’s Ministerial declarations, so the body of the declaration includes only strategic-level work and any plans for the future direction of the institution. This would stem from the Council’s long-term vision and could include the chair’s priorities during his or her tenure. Such a measure would bring the Ministerial declarations down to a more manageable size, and therefore more readily accessible to policymakers. The Council’s operational-level work could be included as an appendix or addendum. This way, ongoing work would still be acknowledged, and the declarations would provide a framework that countries can follow but takes into account each country’s limited bandwidth.

A second solution would be to reformulate and update the Council’s strategic vision. The Council is starting to move in this direction, as evidenced by the previous two Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) meetings. At the March 2016 meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, the Summary Report stated, “the next five years between the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the [Arctic Council] could be a significant time to work on more renewable energy,” recognizing a longer time horizon than a two-year chairmanship for ongoing and future projects. This discussion continued at the October 2016 SAO meeting in Portland, Maine, where an entire agenda item was devoted to the goal of developing a new strategic plan during the 2017-2019 Finnish chairmanship.

Given the extensive work the Council takes on as well as the overlap in thematic areas between Working Groups, there are ways to hone a strategic plan from the Council’s preexisting work that all members can support. The movement to clean, renewable energy is one such topic. The implementation of renewable energy has broad implications, ranging from reducing black carbon and methane release to reducing oil spill risk, improving physical health, and preserving biodiversity. These varied effects make the topic relevant to every Working Group. In addition, this energy transition has broad national support in the Arctic, as demonstrated by the 2016 joint statements between the U.S. and Canada and the U.S. and Nordic countries. The 2015 Iqaluit Declaration also recognized the importance of alternative energy and the collaboration it can promote across the Arctic, as do several Working Group projects—such as the Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy, Arctic Renewable Energy Atlas, and Arctic Energy Summit. Consolidating efforts on one thematic area would not only improve collaboration among the Working Groups but would also provide a more concentrated set of recommendations to which each of the Council’s member states have already agreed.

As the Arctic Council reexamines its future and how it can maintain its importance in a changing Arctic, it must draw strength from its precursors and founding documents: AEPS and Gorbachev’s Murmansk Speech. The structure of the Council promotes the two-way communication and flexibility needed to be a visionary leader. An updated vision does not need to be a drastic departure from the current workings, as evidenced by the work on renewable energy. However, focused communication will be the means through which the Arctic Council can accomplish its goals. In the upcoming year, the Arctic Council will re-envision its strategy; where will it be in another 20 years?

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Brandon Ray is a master’s student at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS) and the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington. He has a M.S. in atmospheric science.

Find the lead article to the series here.

[Photo courtesy of arctic_council]

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