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Time for Expansion: The Arctic Council at the Crossroad of Heightened Strategic Tensions and Climate Change

Arctic Council Ministerial meetings, held every two years, provide the foreign ministers of the Arctic eight and the political leadership of the six Indigenous Permanent Participants with an opportunity to engage in high level discussions on enhancing international cooperation in the region. Photo: Arctic Council

Thanks to its resources, its potential as a maritime shortcut between global trading hubs in Asia, Europe and North America, technological developments, and, above all, climate change, strategic competition is set to keep reaching new heights in the Arctic. Although the current situation is not as fragile as it once was during the Cold War, the anticipated intensification in the Sino-American strategic rivalry,1) Moscow’s newly acquired habit of violating international legal system,2) and increased commercial and military activities of both Arctic and non-Arctic nations herald the beginning of a new era; one that is already heavily marred in zero-sum thinking and therefore is considerably more prone to friction.3)

Given this anticipated state of affairs as well as the commonly acknowledged inadequacy of the existing defence and security arrangements in the region, the need for a well-thought out long term strategy for the region is now, more than ever before, apparent.4) To this end, the future trajectory of the Arctic Council and its institutional development is of paramount importance. Some scholars claim that regional institutions risk becoming irrelevant should they “fail to respond to the rate of change”5) while others warn of unsuitability of retaining exclusivity on the Arctic governance based on geographical proximity and simultaneously highlight the urgent need for either reforming the current “Arctic-oriented international organisations” or establishing new ones.6)

By taking its lead from these works and their findings, this article seeks to make the case for a reformed Arctic Council and the widening of its mandate; one that includes defence and security related issues. Its main argument is that reforming the Council, or more accurately expanding its mandate, does not represent a deviation from its initial purpose but in fact is a vital prerequisite if it is to be able to fulfil its key objectives of environmental protection and sustainable development. Concurring that insistence on exclusivity is bound to failure, moreover, this paper also contends that the Council, thanks to its large number of observer states, is the most suitable and/or natural venue for not only defence related discussions but also the wider issue of Arctic governance.

The Arctic Council: A Brief Background 

As the most prominent regional organisation, the Arctic Council is a consensus-based entity which aims at promoting peaceful cooperation with a particular focus on sustainable development, environmental protection, and knowledge sharing.7) However, it neither has a fixed operational budget nor an international legal status/identity and it also lacks enforcement mechanisms. Its policy proposals, therefore, mount to non-binding recommendations while hard security issues fall outside its institutional mandate thereby disallowing it to hold discussions on defence and security issues; an inability which has begun to come under sustained criticism.8) One important reason for this occurrence is the perceived direct link between (inter)national security and the Council’s focus areas – environmental protection and sustainable development – with climate change now being commonly considered a risk or threat multiplayer.9)

To be sure, exclusion of hard security from the Council’s directive has had its benefits for regional governance. In particular, it is due to this feature that its members have been able to “compartmentalise Arctic Council affairs from broader geopolitical tensions” between the West and Russia and continue their cooperation with Moscow.10) Still, as both regional and extra-regional actors increase their presence and stakes in the Arctic, chances are that disputes related to the issue of governance and sovereignty will flare up more frequently, and that the Arctic Council risks losing its relevance should it fail to revisit and revise its mandate; a sentiment that was indirectly hinted at by the former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.11) Add to this its inability to reach an agreement on a Ministerial Declaration during its last meeting in Rovaniemi12) and, more importantly, its failure to deliver on its own 2017 decision to articulate a strategic plan for revamping its priorities13) and it then becomes reasonable to be doubtful about the Council’s ability to continue to play a constructive role in regulating Arctic affairs in its existing format.

Climate Change, Capacity Building, (inter)national Security: Time for Expansion

More often than not, supporters of the status-quo argue that any push towards change would mount to a costly distraction for an organisation that is already under financial restraints while it would also introduce an unwelcome element of realpolitik thinking into members deliberations. This, so the argument goes, could hamper cooperation on other issues such as environmental cooperation.14) While this may have been true in the past, it is hard to see how such reasoning holds up in the light of the region’s fast changing environment.

To state the obvious, climate change is not confined to extreme weather; that is, it also has significant geopolitical implications with regard to transitions from fossil fuels, the changing value of strategic minerals needed by the renewable industries, and the security and resilience of the armed forces’ own assets including air fields and naval bases some of which could be threatened by the rising sea levels.15) Hence, responding to the anticipated effects of climate change on the region and the broader task of environmental protection would be impossible without being able to discuss defence and security implications of climate change. Not only are the two closely intertwined but they also feed off each other in the sense that they tend to inform, at least partly, states’ threat perceptions.16)

Climate change has already necessitated a need to upgrade sensitive or critical military and civilian infrastructure in the Arctic, as evident in the cases of Russia and the US, both of which have begun to upgrade their military, civil, and dual used installations in the region.17) Given their uneasy relations, Moscow and Washington will be wary of each other’s intentions even though they both appear to be implementing similar policies by building up their resilience and readiness as a preventative measure. Added to this is the fact that the growing presence of armed forces in the Arctic, which are identified as one of the largest polluters,18) means that there will be an increased need for the regulation of their use of fossil fuels.

Equally important, even if one was to discount the likelihood of expanded military activity in the region, the mere growth in commercial activity will bring the issue of defence and security to the fore. As states develop a fondness for hybrid military tactics, put differently, it is reasonable to assume that they might use commercial means as a disguise for military/security purposes.19) This implies that increased commercial activities too could have direct military/security implications for the Arctic states.

Closely linked to the issue of increased commercial and military presence in the region, is the nexus of climate change and resource/transport security. Today, all the Arctic states, albeit to varying extents, have begun accelerating work on expanding their extractive capacities and the means for their distribution in the global market. For instance, environmentally conscious Sweden is doubling down on the region’s potential for becoming a global resource basket. Keen on reaching growth markets faster, one of the main reasons behind Stockholm’s push for increased investment in mining project and transport/rail connectivity between its Arctic mining towns and Norway, via Finland,20) is its commercial interest in utilising the Arctic to expand its footprint in the Asian markets as a reliable supplier of mineral goods.

As these projects progress and more resources from the region come online, the likelihood of prolonged interstate disputes cannot be discounted in spite of the fact that states have an economic interest in avoiding such scenarios. This is more so the case in the current climate of great power rivalry whereby geopolitical considerations are likely to supersede and/or defy market sentiments. As a result, if the resources, or access to them, are deemed critical to national security, states would not hesitate to use aggressive means in an attempt to secure their access. To this effect, disputes could occur over a number of issues of which the following three are the most prominent ones: 21) perceived disproportionate extraction by one party from a shared field; contested offshore areas with significant energy or mineral resources and the establishment of EEZ; and the access to bodies of water that are deemed essential for the transportation of goods and materials, especially if the current disagreement between Russia and the US over NSR’s legal status persists.22)

Mitigating and/or minimising the risk of conflict, prolonged disputes, or miscalculation cannot be achieved for as long as there is no forum that could facilitate dialogue, transparency, and collective deliberation with regard to issues pertaining to transport security, sovereignty, and responsible behaviour. By expanding its mandate, the Arctic Council stands a good chance of providing a venue for overcoming “dialogue and transparency gaps”23) and use that function as a trust building mechanism thereby enabling the concerned parties to at least develop a better understanding of each other’s interests, sensitivities and priorities. In other words, the Arctic Council can provide a platform for high-table diplomacy24) or informal high level encounters where officials can exchange ideas and negotiate non-binding agreements before engaging in official deliberations at formal settings like the UN.

Finally, the Arctic’s inadequate transport and communication infrastructure as well as its pristine ecosystem have converted capacity building into a strategic priority for regional states and a useful channel for outside actors to gain and/or strengthen their presence and influence in the Arctic. A quick review of the most recent Arctic strategy documents of the Arctic states demonstrate that they all identify a need for technological cooperation and co-investments in order to build smart and green infrastructure in the region.25) This desire is reciprocated by non-Arctic nations which seem to view capacity building via co-investment as a shrewd tactic for both strengthening their foothold in the region and securing their vital commercial interests. This is best demonstrated in the cases of China, Japan and South Korea, all of which consider investment in the Arctic and contribution to its infrastructural development as a strategic and commercial booster;26) that is, doing so enables them to diversify their energy and mineral supply chains and justify their calls for a more participatory approach towards regional governance by underlining their financial stakes in various projects.

Host to a sizable number of non-Arctic nations, the Arctic Council can play a key role in assisting regional and non-regional actors to coordinate their capacity building priorities and efforts with regard to enhanced search and rescue capabilities, rail connectivity, and maritime security. However, doing so requires it to be able to discuss defence and security issues because most of the capacity building initiatives, at least those related to infrastructure, tend to have dual usage. For example, increased rail connectivity in the Arctic will not only facilitate the faster transportation of goods but it will also allow for a smoother transportation of military equipments and personnel. Furthermore, regional organisations like the Arctic Council are best suited for capacity building efforts because they provide a space for both experimental undertakings and informal exchanges. As such, they can be used as both venues for states with little or no previous experiments of cooperation as well as “networks of effective action” and knowledge depositories for future capacity-building endeavours.27)

Unattainability of Exclusivity 

Arctic states tend to be keen on minimising non-Arctic states participation in agenda setting practices pertaining to the Arctic governance. This desire for exclusivity, it must be noted, is indeed problematic28) not just because climate change is a transnational threat/problem but also because increased maritime activity in the Arctic will have consequences for the global economy. In an important sense, hence, it is unreasonable to insist on limiting participation to geographical proximity, and that venues such as The Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) or the Arctic Chiefs of Defence (CHOD) forum, while useful, will most likely prove inadequate in articulating long-term solutions for the sustainable management of regional affairs.

If climate change is a transitional issue in need of international cooperation,29) and if foreign investment and knowhow is sought after for sustainable development of the Arctic30) it is hard to see how non-Arctic states can be justifiably excluded from governance discussions in the Arctic. As the region becomes more accessible and more integrated with the outside world, it is, put simply, inevitable that more states with no territory in the region will seek to have a say over the course and/or direction of regional affairs. Resisting such calls will not just create unnecessary tensions but also incentivises the excluded parties to put their weights behind non-regional organisations and set up alternative groupings. This is clearly evident in China, Japan and South Korea calls for involvement of international organisations like the UN and IMO in discussing Arctic affairs as well as their establishment of what could be dubbed as a Northeast Asian Arctic Club.31)

And herein lies the danger of institutional polarisation which could stifle decision making and long term planning. Arctic governance would benefit if there is a singular venue where Arctic related issues can be discussed as opposed to a multitude of institutions with different membership structures. Once again, the Arctic Council is the ideal candidate for such undertaking. Not only it has accepted observer states but its Emergency Preparedness, Prevention, and Response Working Group, which “aims to promote pan-Arctic collaboration, capacity-building, and information-sharing related to Arctic emergencies across public and private domains”,32) can be used as a model for the involvement of non-Arctic nations in agenda setting practices.

More broadly, the Arctic Council is the only institution where smaller Arctic states can keep a check on their mightier non-Arctic counterparts’ conduct and priorities in the Arctic. Instead of blank opposition, therefore, they are better advised to utilise their current privileged position within the Council to work with Russia and the United States in setting the rules for the more active participation of non-Arctic states in the Council’s deliberations. By doing so, they would both retain their own relevance and also defer the prospect of emerging rival organisations since none-Arctic states would have less reason to set up alternative venues if they are given more rights within the Council. Their more active participation, lastly, can be regulated by making membership renewal conditional upon satisfactory conduct. Since observer status must be renewed every four years,33) put differently, it could be used as a tool to trim outside powers conduct within the Council and the wider region.


In discussing the future of the Arctic Council, it is, first and foremost, vital to openly acknowledge its accomplishments. From including indigenous people on a permanent basis, to facilitating the establishment of an Arctic University, the Arctic Economic Council, and Coast Guard Forum, the Arctic Council has done a remarkable job in maintaining peace and stability in the region.34) It has been able to do so by proactively contributing to various Arctic initiatives and pushing for their implementation.

Equally pivotal, however, is the fact that expansion of the Council’s mandate to include hard security issues will not contradict its founding spirit; rather, it will be in line with it. According to the Ottawa Declaration, the Arctic Council has the mandate to “address common Arctic issues”.35) A quick glance through the most recently released Arctic strategy documents of both Arctic and non-Arctic states reveal that they all share a common concern with regard to the rising tide of great power competition, the (national)security implications of environmental degradation and/or climate change, and increased state presence in the Arctic.

These, in turn, imply that traditional or hard security issues are now a common concern amongst both regional and extra regional nations alike. Similar to the 1980s when a chain of environmental disasters led to calls for the creation of the Arctic Environmental Co-operation,36) the perceived growing disquietude with traditional security and geopolitical contestations justify calls for the expansion of the Arctic Council’s mandate to include discussions on defence and security issues.

Nor will the ability to discuss defence and security matters lead to securitisation of Council’s other works and/or initiatives. Rather, it could prevent such an outcome. While defence and strategic considerations ought not to dominate and/or take precedence over environmental issues, there can be no denial that there is an element of strategic thinking embedded in discussions about climate change. Therefore, avoiding politicisation and/or securitisation of environmental efforts can be better achieved via an institution capable of facilitating the articulation of a balanced approach that is reflective of the nexus between hard security and climate change. The Arctic Council, with its strong environmental mandate, will be in a strong position to take the lead on such undertakings and prevent hyper-securitisation of environmental efforts if its members approve the expansion of its mandate.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Council’s capacity and successful track record in turning knowledge and expertise into policy advice37) constitute one of the most important reasons why it is essential to expand its mandate. Discussions on regional defence and security matters would immensely benefit from the Council members’ knowledge and familiarity with the region, its terrain, and its needs. Home to both indigenous representatives as well as regional and extra regional states, the Arctic Council is the most inclusive Arctic-focused organisation whose lack of legal identity and enforcement mechanisms make it the optimal platform for the conduct of high-table diplomacy; that is, unrestrained talks and exchanges amongst local, national, and regional authorities on policy matters. Thanks to its inclusive structure, put otherwise, the Arctic Council is the only entity that can articulate recommendations which are reflective of all the concerned parties’ needs and concerns.

All in all, insisting on the status-quo will most likely prove to be a receipt for decay and demise at a time when the region is undergoing rapid changes. Expansion of the Council’s mandate will certainly not be easy but, to borrow from Bill Clinton, “the price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change”.

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