The independent resource on global security

Arctic cooperation must become more inclusive

July 2011 saw the lowest extent of Arctic sea ice for that month since satellite measurements began in 1979. An increasingly accessible Arctic, and the economic and other potential benefits it offers, has sparked new interest in the region, not only among those states with territory in the Arctic but also among a range of non-Arctic states and organizations. To date, the Arctic states have sought to deal with Arctic matters among themselves, while keeping non-Arctic countries and organizations at arm’s length. Such an approach risks raising tensions over the Arctic and could prove strategically and economically counterproductive.


Legitimate interest—legal limitations

Although there are considerable environmental risks involved with the exploitation of the Arctic, the receding sea ice could make accessible not only a wealth of natural resources but also unprecedented opportunities for sea traffic. The implications of this go far beyond the Arctic states. If Arctic shipping routes become commercially viable it will bring the markets and manufacturers of Asia, Europe and North America closer together. New fishing grounds, carefully regulated to prevent overfishing, could provide valuable food supplies to countries around the world. Economies dependent on fossil fuels, such as China, and countries like Germany and Japan that are turning away from nuclear power, are significant potential markets for the region’s oil and gas resources.

Many officials in non-Arctic states—as well as a large part of the public in Arctic countries—seem to believe media reports that portray the Arctic as a modern Wild West, where states are locked in a potentially confrontational scramble for resources. This misconception has led to inflammatory talk as well as calls for an international treaty to govern Arctic affairs. In reality, most of the mineral resources thought to exist in the Arctic lie within the uncontested exclusive economic zones of the five Arctic Ocean littoral states: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States. In the few places where territorial claims overlap, disputes are well managed.

The regime for governing the changing Arctic is, however, only in embryonic form. For cooperation to improve, the Arctic states need to clearly communicate that the Arctic has an emerging set of institutions capable of managing the region’s development and resources in a fair, transparent and law-based way. At the same time they should recognize the value—in fact the necessity—of giving non-Arctic states more of a voice in Arctic affairs.


The Arctic Council—exclusive club or open house?

The main organization for Arctic cooperation is the Arctic Council, which consists of the five Arctic littoral states along with  Finland, Iceland, Sweden and several organizations representing the region’s indigenous populations. Decision-making power is limited to the council members, but non-Arctic states and organizations can be granted the right to participate in council meetings as observers.

The council has, however, resisted defining clearly the role of the observers and the process by which new observers can become part of the organization. Only six non-Arctic states currently have permanent observer status, all of them European. The last ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, held in Nuuk, Greenland in May, failed to reach consensus on applications from China, Japan, South Korea, Italy and the European Union (EU). Some have suggested that existing members want to establish the ‘rules of the game’ in the Arctic—notably delimiting territory—before allowing in powerful outsiders. Applicants to the council will now have to wait at least another two years for a decision.

The Arctic Council is in danger of being perceived as an exclusive club, taking major decisions about the Arctic with little regard for the concerns and interests of non-Arctic states. The existing approach risks creating the conditions whereby non-Arctic states could simply disregard the arrangements, rules and codes of conduct that the Arctic Council creates for the Arctic and instead work outside existing frameworks. Furthermore, the council’s poor record on external communications allows misconceptions about the Arctic—and the basis on which rights to its resources can be exercised—to persist.

Towards cooperative and peaceful cooperation

The Swedish chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which runs for two years from the Nuuk ministerial meeting, has already committed to trying to finalize a long-awaited strategic communications plan for the council. In the meantime, the council could also do more to utilize current media interest in the Arctic and make itself a natural part of any discussion on the issues within its remit. This would not only improve its international profile, but it would also contribute to a more nuanced, better-informed debate and reduce the risk of misunderstanding, myth and ignorance.

The opening of the Arctic region is an historic opportunity to fashion a genuinely multilateral approach to the development of the region in safe, sustainable and environmentally sensitive ways. For this, the Arctic Council will need to become a forum not just of the Arctic nations but for all countries and organizations with a genuine interest in the region. Arctic countries will clearly have stronger interests and a greater say in the future of the Arctic, but other voices must also be a part of the dialogue.

The role of observers should be clarified and applicants for observer status should be provided with a clear process and timetable. This is not just a matter of building confidence and good relations based on mutual respect and understanding; many countries outside the Arctic also have extensive experience in polar research and great knowledge in areas including the environment and climate that can be better utilized by the council’s scientific working groups.

Sweden should seek to use its chairmanship of the Arctic Council to resolve the issue of participation, in accord with its stated approach of inclusiveness towards observers. Sweden could make this issue a priority for the November 2011 meeting of Senior Arctic Officials in Luleå. Progress here would lay the groundwork for the adoption at the next ministerial in 2013 of a decision on the role of observers and the application process for observer status. Success in this area would mark the Swedish chairmanship as opening a new era for the cooperative and peaceful development of the Arctic. 

SIPRI's work on the Arctic

The three-year SIPRI project Managing Competition and Promoting Cooperation in the Arctic examines key political and security issues linked to the development of the Arctic region. Current areas of research under the project include arms in the Arctic, competition for Arctic resources, the role of non-Arctic states, and Arctic regional security. It is made possible by a generous grant from the Foundation for Strategic and Environmental Research, MISTRA.