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Breaking the Ice: The Politics of the Arctic Council

The Arctic Council meets in the city hall in Kiruna, Sweden on May 15. (Photo: Jonas Karlsbakk)
The Arctic Council meets in the city hall in Kiruna, Sweden on May 15.  Source:, May 2014/Photo: Jonas Karlsbakk

Arctic policy has been frozen in United States political conversation for years. However, in May of 2015, the US will take over chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an understated organization for the Arctic. This comes in a time of expanding opportunities in the Arctic as well as rising tensions where caution is the lingua franca among states. The US needs to tread a careful line when facing eager non-Arctic states pushing for development. At the same time, however, it must balance the economic interests of the Arctic states against non-Arctic states.

The Arctic Council was established in 1998 as a forum to aid the formulation of multilateral responses to environmental problems in the Arctic. Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States make up the Arctic Council. Each country chairs the council for two years, and the US will chair from 2015 to 2017. The Arctic Council has focused primarily on the coordination of research, with its primary working groups titled as unobtrusively as “Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna” or “Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment.” To protect its focus on scientific and environmental organization, military and political issues are excluded from the Arctic Council’s mandate.

Yet, the Arctic’s changing climate is pressuring Arctic states to find new policy solutions in the Arctic. As the only multilateral forum focused exclusively on the Arctic, it has naturally become a target for political issues. Arctic Policy is now facing new obstacles in a changing landscape. The ice cap is collapsing; this summer had the sixth-lowest sea ice extent on record, and the Arctic cap previously reached an all time low in 2012. The retreat of sea ice means new opportunities, primarily in access to Arctic transport and resource extraction.

Prior to current ice recession, waterways in the Arctic were open for less than two months every year. But with the ongoing collapse of the Arctic ice cap, waterways are open 100 days a year, and more and more countries want a piece of the Arctic. There are two major Arctic waterways: the Northern Sea Route, running North of Russia, and the Northwest Passage, running through the Canadian Arctic archipelago and north of Alaska. The Northern Sea Route is seeing a substantial increase in the number of permits requested from foreign corporations, and Russia is attempting to commercialize this route as an economically viable alternative route between Asia and Europe.

The desire of non-Arctic states to get a share of the development up North should not be surprising. Non-Arctic countries are nipping at the heels of Arctic countries for spheres of influence and development in the Arctic. Many states are applying for observer status in the Arctic Council. There are currently twelve non-Arctic countries with observer status, but most parties agree that Arctic states will remain the sole voting members of the Council.

Lawson Brigham, Professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and former Chair of the Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment attended meetings of the council. “The non-Arctic members don’t get to do much at the meetings.” He notes, though, that non-Arctic states have an expanded role in the smaller working groups. Brigham finds there is “lots of networking going on” in the working groups of the council. While the non-Arctic states have a limited decision-making role, they are active participants in administrative activities.

The jury is divided on whether their role will be a competitive or a collaborative one. Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, notes that existing Arctic countries are protective of their influence. “The existing Arctic Council will probably try to limit these other players.” Given non-Arctic states’ desire for economic inclusion, however, “That is not likely to go over well.”

Others have a more optimistic view of the inclusion of non-Arctic states in the Council. Ted McDorman, Professor of International Law at the University of Victoria finds that “what all these [non-Arctic] states bring to the table is assistance and engagement in the research in the Arctic.” There is much to learn about the Arctic’s resources. The world still does not know the extent of the Arctic’s resource holdings, and development in this region will require new technologies. Learning about both requires goodwill.

The United States has a real stake in Arctic peace and knowledge. The world’s largest zinc mine, Red Dog Mine, is located in Alaska, and the US needs safe shipping routes for the brief period of the year when the routes are open. The waters north of the Arctic have significant estimated natural gas and oil deposits, but the US needs more knowledge about these deposits and how to drill safely there. Finally, there is significant potential for fisheries in the Arctic, but little is known about Arctic fish populations. The US has already acted on fishing, declaring a moratorium in 2009, that still exists today, in order to understand the routes and extant populations of fish in the Arctic. Canada enacted a similar moratorium this year. The US should follow suit in the other areas by prioritizing research rather than overzealous development. The Chairmanship presents an opportunity to promote such policies.

With rising tension in the Arctic, the United States should resist the temptation to use the Council for political debate. For now, peace and conversation appear to be goals that are desirable to all parties in the Arctic. Tension is growing, but that should not be an excuse to politicize the Council. By keeping the Council’s focus on science and sustainable development, the US sends a strong message that collaboration will be key to a mature Arctic economy. Lawson Brigham says, “The Council was designed to focus on science, and, for now, that’s a good thing.”

The United States has the power to carry on a legacy of economic development and sharpen the Arctic Council’s vision. The Arctic Council is the primary intergovernmental agency for Arctic issues, and while once a solely scientific organization, it has recently gained a new-found importance for international economic and political issues. While politics will assuredly play out in its proceedings, the US ensures its Arctic future by learning rather than fighting.

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