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A Place for Non-Arctic Actors in the Arctic Council

A Place for Non-Arctic Actors in the Arctic Council

April 26, 2017

State-level participation in the authorship of AMAP reports from 1998 to 2005. Blue square nodes represent AMAP scientific assessment reports published during this period, green circle nodes represent Arctic Council Member states, and red circle nodes represent non-Arctic states. The thickness of the ties between nodes indicates the strength of the relationship of a state to a report measured by the number of contributing authors.

In partnership with the Arctic Yearbook, Arctic in Context is pleased to be running a series of interviews with the authors of the peer-reviewed articles that appeared in the 2016 edition. The authors with whom we will speak are among the Arctic experts whose research influences policymakers, business leaders, and media coverage. We encourage you to read further, and will provide a link to the full article at the end of each interview.


Largely considered something of a political backwater when it was founded in 1996, the Arctic Council has now gained considerable recognition by non-Arctic actors seeking to participate in the institution’s activities. However, there remains a lack of clarity as to how non-Arctic actors can best engage with the Council. Erica Dingman, a fellow at World Policy Institute and director of Arctic in Context, speaks with Jennifer Spence, who addresses the challenges of participation for outside actors and suggests points of entry for meaningful engagement. 

ERICA DINGMAN: As you noted in your article for the Arctic Yearbook, the increasing interest of non-Arctic actors in joining the Arctic Council has resulted in a spirited debate. How would you describe this debate?

JENNIFER SPENCE: One of the reasons that I wrote the article is because I think the debate is confused and complicated. It mixes the myth of what the Arctic Council and Arctic governance are about. It’s also based on some vague idea about what non-Arctic actors’ intentions are in the Council. I was trying to untangle these issues, provide more clarity around what we can understand empirically about the role of non-Arctic actors in the Arctic, and break down the myths about what their intentions might be, based on an assessment of their actual activity over time. I think we need a more nuanced discussion about what non-Arctic actors’ participation is like and what it could be like.

ED: To understand the extent of non-Arctic state involvement, you examined the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP). What are the key features of AMAP that made it a good vehicle for your social network analysis?

JS: I think what makes AMAP such a good case study is that it is so well established, as far as Working Groups in the Council go. It has a very solid body of work that is extremely well recognized. Its work has also been studied previously to understand its impact on international policy making. Often the reports of AMAP are used as examples of why the Arctic Council has been successful, especially when studying its credibility and legitimacy as an institution. It seemed to me like a really good place to start.

Moreover, It’s important that the information I needed to do this research is publicly available. It’s transparent. You can pull every report, collect all the data that you need, and be very public about the data that you have. Because AMAP has been so active, you are able to trace very clearly the participation of non-Arctic actors. When I wanted to focus on the role of non-Arctic actors over time, AMAP was an excellent case study to look at that participation empirically.

There disadvantages of using AMAP as a case study, too. It’s a strong example of what the Arctic Council is capable of doing with the right resources and capacity. That said, from a comparability perspective most of the other Arctic Council Working Groups do not have the resources and capacity that AMAP does, so it’s probably a best-case scenario for examining what the role of non-Arctic actors could be.

ED: Your analysis is divided into two time periods: 1998 to 2005 and 2006 to 2015. What determined that division? How did the level of engagement change between the two time periods?

JS: There’s a general recognition that the Arctic Council was a bit of a political backwater in its early days, so the work that it did and the interest that it received from outside the Arctic was really quite low, to the point that those who were invited from outside the Arctic to participate said, “thanks, but no thanks.” But around 2005 and 2006, through the work of organizations like AMAP, the prominence of the Arctic and the Council really changed. That’s why it was a good opportunity for me to test that assessment—to see if there really was a shift in interest and attention from outside the Arctic. From the data and the information presented, it is true that there was a notable shift in participation of non-Arctic states and non-Arctic actors after 2005. Looking at the change in dynamics, it was interesting to examine not only what they were participating in, but also how they were participating.

ED: What sort of events occurred that could account for that change?

JS: For better or for worse, it was around 2004 that people globally became more aware of climate change. The Arctic itself was a big contributor to that. It provides a very graphic demonstration of those changes so interest increased because of both the challenges that climate change brought to the Arctic region and its global effects. Climate change also opened new opportunities—interest in resource development and access grew. These different factors completely changed the level of interest from outside actors in the region.

ED: What obstacles might limit the engagement of non-Arctic states?

JS: The answer to this question comes back to why I chose to write this article. There’s a real lack of understanding as to how to participate in the Arctic Council. There are very high expectations of what it means to participate. This is visible as Observer states and Observer organizations try to navigate what it means to participate in meetings. This article will hopefully clarify where there are points of entry at lest at the Working Group level.

The Arctic Council itself has sent mixed messages about where non-state actors are welcome; often the message is that Observers are there to observe and take away information. But that conflicts with the message that Observers are part of the problem, so they should be part of the solution. They seek the mechanisms to be part of a meaningful conversation about what those solutions are. My research shows that there are mechanisms at the Working Group level where you can play a meaningful role in both knowledge generation and in policy advice. Ultimately it’s the policy advice form Working Groups, which will feed into political discussions at the Senior Arctic Official (SAO) level. This is something that non-state actors need to think more carefully about.

ED: In total, AMAP has produced 19 reports with contributions from an astounding 896 authors. This suggests that there is plenty of opportunity for non-Arctic actor participation in terms of scientific assessment and policy advice. How would you rate or describe non-Arctic participation?

JS: Overall there’s been an increase both in the number of participants and in the types of participants. What was interesting to me is that contributions to knowledge generation have been strong, but non-Arctic actors have been weaker in preparing policy advice, and that’s something they’ve expressed an interest in being more involved in. The actors that have participated at that level of discussion have not participated consistently and often the people who do participate aren’t the right people. Observer states will send someone from foreign affairs or the embassy who lacks the ability to meaningfully participate in the discussion. This can limit the value placed on non-Arctic participation in discussions. There’s also a huge turnover in non-Arctic representatives, so they are unable to build the relationships that are necessary at that level to be part of quality conversations. In effect, they’re relegated back to the role of observing when they have the opportunity to be more than that.

ED: The opportunity exists but they are just not taking it.

JS: Yes. But to be fair, the Council isn’t helping either because it’s so confusing and very few people really understand how the Council works. Observers are told to go to the Working Groups because that’s where the work really happens, but there’s not a lot of transparency about the process.  It’s understandable that they’d think their time would be more wisely spent and effective at the SAO level—it’s much more difficult to imagine that the best investment is at a lower level.

ED: How would you characterize that lack of transparency in terms of guiding non-Arctic actors?

JS: The assumption that the political level is the best place to be is a natural one. In fact, I’m not really sure that many people at the SAO level truly understand how the Arctic Council works. Because there is so much turnover at the top, they are not in the best position to understand how Observers can best be involved. It’s a bit of a merry-go-round. I think the Secretariat is doing a good job of building a better base of communication and understanding of what the Arctic Council is, how it works, and what it does. It will take time.

ED: Is there anything you’d like to add?

JS: One of things I’m thinking about now is the nature of the issues on the Arctic Council agenda. Some issues, like mental health and well-being in Arctic communities, are purely regional and really need to be driven by people in the Arctic themselves. But when you start talking about things like climate change, and the impact of the melting icecap in Greenland, there’s a regional component to it, but it’s really a global issue and the role of non-Arctic actors needs to be different in that context. I don’t think that the Arctic Council has landed on the right way to manage the different types of issues that it’s dealing with. It’s possible that it needs a more sophisticated governance structure that allows for a range of Observer involvement, depending on the nature of the issue that they are actually trying to manage. If non-Arctic actors really want to contribute meaningful policy advice and if the issue is global in nature, then the Council has to open the door for participants that can meaningfully contribute to those conversations.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jennifer Spence is a Ph.D. candidate and research associate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. She specializes in environmental governance in the circumpolar region and has 18 years of experience working for the Canadian federal public service in fisheries management, change management, and procurement.

Jennifer Spence’s full article, “Finding a Place in the Arctic Council for Non-Arctic Actors: A Social Network Analysis of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme,” which appeared in the Arctic Yearbook 2016, can be found here.

[Photo courtesy of Jennifer Spence]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.