The End of the Arctic Council? Challenges to the Paradigm of Responsible Global Governance

The Arctic serves as a bellwether for global climate change, experiencing transformations much more rapidly and dramatically than the rest of the world.  An example of one of these changes is the melting of Arctic ice due to increased temperature, which has opened previously closed routes to navigation by sea.  Arctic ice melts could challenge the current structure of Arctic authority, by forcing a paradigm shift away from responsible global governance to a race for resources in the High North.

Image courtesy of United States Department of State via Flickr, © 2015, some rights reserved.

The Arctic Council is the current body responsible for managing Arctic policy.  It was established in 1996 as an intergovernmental institution with a chair that rotates among the Arctic nations.  The current chair is held by Finland until 2019.  All eight Arctic nations and six Arctic indigenous groups have permanent seats on the Council.  Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and China, hold observer status.  The Arctic Council has presided over a period of responsible global governance in the Arctic dating from the end of the Cold War to the present.  This situation was envisioned by Mikhail Gorbachev in his influential speech in Murmansk in 1987.  Gorbachev viewed peaceful cooperation in the Arctic as a key part of a global reduction of military tensions between the Americans and Soviets.  He argued that Arctic was part of a European or even global heritage that deserved protection from military activity and testing.  The Arctic Council took up many of these themes, and since its establishment in 1995 has remained a largely apolitical and scientific institution.  Despite the adverse reaction of the international community to Russian actions in Crimea and elsewhere, Russia has still been able to work with the rest of the Arctic Council on scientific matters, which is a positive sign for the Council’s future efficacy.

If the Arctic continues to melt, then the expanded waterways will fall under the purview of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which provides for free access to seas that fall outside of any nation’s coastal territory.  Exclusive economic zones (EEZ) may extend up to 200 miles from a nation’s continental shelf.  In the Arctic, there are multiple competing claims regarding undersea ridges that could be considered part of continental shelves.  In 2007, Russia planted its flag on the underwater Lomonosov Ridge, which provided symbolic support for its more scientific work in producing justification for a Russian EEZ in the Arctic.  The situation is complicated further because the United States is not a signatory to the UN Law of the Sea, although it usually complies with the treaty’s provisions.  In 1985, however, the American ship Polar Sea explored the Arctic on a path that infringed upon Canadian sovereignty, an episode that resulted in widespread outrage even between two largely amicable countries.

While the Arctic Council has succeeded in overcoming conflicts between its member nations, it is unable to deal with security issues should they arise in the Arctic.  Such concerns were explicitly removed from the Council’s purview in its founding document, the Ottawa Declaration.  The Arctic Council is designed to provide consensus based scientific solutions to environmental problems, not to solve political or military issues.  If climate change leads to increased competition and conflict in the Arctic, then the Arctic Council may have outlived its usefulness.  Contemporary rhetoric regarding the Arctic can be divided into two main conceptions of the future.  The first is a race for resources, where powerful countries such as the United States and Russia exert their political and military influence to extract value from the Arctic.  This situation may even suggest the necessity of creating a new legal structure to protect the Arctic from exploitation.  The second view is the continuance of responsible global governance.  The image of a reckless pursuit of Arctic wealth seems rather unlikely because Arctic resources are too poorly understood and too difficult to access to justify the dangers of potential military conflict.  Therefore, the Arctic Council and the UN Law of the Sea seem to provide a perfectly adequate legal framework to secure the health of the Arctic.

Predicting which of these theories is likely to prove correct is quite difficult.  However, the unique environmental role of the Arctic in the world suggests that it will not be easily susceptible to unconstrained exploitation.  Another important factor to consider is that the Arctic has a strong indigenous presence.  A scientific treaty agreement similar to that of Antarctica will likely fail because it ignores the fact that historically the Arctic has not been a terra nullius that belonged to the whole world.  Any successful solution to the emerging crisis will need to balance historical claims with global environmental needs.  The Arctic poses a difficult challenge for the global order, yet provides a unique opportunity to prove that international cooperation can work.  Only time will tell if diplomats and scholars are up to the task.


Banner Image: Image courtesy of CIA World Factbook via Wikimedia, © 2013, some rights reserved.