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Transformations in Arctic Council Agenda Setting

Transformations in Arctic Council Agenda Setting

May 10, 2017

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.


This week, Arctic in Context director Erica Dingman interviews Dorothea Wehrmann, a recent Ph.D. graduate in political science at Bielefeld University, and author of “Shape Changing Circumpolar Agendas: The Identification and Significance of ‘Emerging Issues’ Addressed in the Arctic Council.” Wehrmann examines the degree to which the Arctic Council agenda has evolved over the last 20 years, reflecting on the Council’s priorities of environmental protection and sustainable development. She further discusses how a business focus was introduced through the chairmanships of various Arctic member states, which provide an opportunity for the lead nation to shape the Council’s agenda in accordance with national interests, shifting perspectives and events that occur in the Arctic or elsewhere. As Wehrmann explains, the Arctic Council does not exist in a vacuum.  

ERICA DINGMAN: In your article you examine two originating priorities of the Arctic Council: environmental protection and sustainable development. You argue that while these remain priorities, both of these terms are broad enough to leave room for interpretation. How were these terms understood during the first decade of the Arctic Council and how are these terms understood now?

DOROTHEA WEHRMANN: In the article, I spoke about these as umbrella terms. With the chairmanship programs that I investigated, it was clear that the meaning of these terms has changed in the last 20 years of the Arctic Council’s existence. While initially, environmental protection related mostly to the elimination of contaminants, in the more recent programs the term relates more explicitly to Arctic biodiversity and ocean safety.

In the first decade of the Arctic Council, sustainable development was addressed under consideration of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and directly referred to the agreements negotiated at the 1992 U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development. But with regard to sustainable development, the chairmanship programs under analysis show that the meanings ascribed to sustainable development have changed over time. The Russian chairmanship program from 2004 to 2006, for instance, did work on sustainable development and the impact of pollution on the health and lifestyle of Arctic indigenous peoples. The program was grounded in an understanding that also came out in the second Canadian chairmanship program, which prioritized sustainable circumpolar communities. In the second decade of the Arctic Council, discussion of sustainable development also began to include the voices of outside observers. So here we see how sustainability and sustainable development has evolved over time. It has also reflected different priorities and national interests of the countries heading the chairmanship at a given time.

ED: As you note, the Arctic Council does not operate in a vacuum. What are the factors that affect the agenda-setting process?

DW: Before answering that question I’d like to focus on the word ‘vacuum.’ In discourses about the Arctic, the region is increasingly referred to as an embedded and embedding space. This understanding is also supported by scholars, who argue for the inclusion of both the Arctic perspective and the body of scholarship about the Arctic that is produced outside of the region in order to apply a multitude of perspectives that will influence how we discuss the Arctic and Arctic politics.

Chairmanships, in particular, provide an opportunity to shape the agenda of the Arctic Council in line with national interests. Leading the ministerial meetings that take place every two years, chairmanship countries are able to raise awareness of certain issues and structure the agenda in accordance with their interests.

Because the Council is a hierarchal organization, Arctic states not only have voting rights, but they also have a lot of steering capacity that other actors like Permanent Participants and NGOs lack (although these actors can participate in other ways).

Chairmanships are also not uniform in their activities. Clearly, in the first U.S. chairmanship, it was the state of Alaska that had much of the say, in particular because at that time, the United States was still perceived as only collaborating reluctantly with the Arctic Council. In contrast, the second U.S. chairmanship increased its focus on climate change, reflecting the federal government’s values at that time. This was quite distinct from the interests Alaska put forth in the first chairmanship and Alaskan officials were critical of the U.S. second chairmanship policy.  They felt that the Canadian government’s agenda was more representative of their interests, particularly its favorable stance on sustainable development for the people of the North.

Overall, the agenda-setting process is influenced by shifting perspectives, national priorities, and events like the planting of the Russian flag on the Arctic seabed, for example, which caused a huge media hype and then had an impact on discussions within the Arctic Council. But it’s also difficult to define what “national” interests are because the programs written during a given chairmanship are very much influenced by the individuals behind them. The environment in which the program is set also plays a role. Here I am speaking not only about global processes, but also about the topics that are prioritized in a global setting. In light of the attention that climate change has received in recent years, for instance, it would have been a bit weird to see climate change underrepresented in the second U.S. chairmanship term. Instead, the issue became  very visible and began to be seen as a priority, reflecting a shift in values.

Transformations in Arctic Council Agenda Setting

Topics prominently addressed in Chairmanship Programs

ED: During which chairmanship did you see an indication of a shift in the meaning ascribed to sustainable development?

DW: The shift was very noticeable during the Scandinavian chairmanship between Norway, Denmark, and Sweden from 2006 to 2013. Because it was a combined chairmanship, it led to greater continuity in policy, which allowed the program to focus more on structural issues that are otherwise very difficult to attack in a two-year period. One of the things that the program focused on was a procedure for outside actors to contribute to the Arctic Council.  The permanent Secretariat was also established in Tromsø. Lastly, there was a new drive to include business, industry, and the addition of new Observer states, marking the first time that outside actors were invited to participate in the Council. At least from the documents that I examined, it had not been addressed before.

There were plenty of forces that crossed paths during this time, including the ending of the 10-year period for Arctic states to submit their applications for extensions of their continental shelves to the U.N. Commission on the Limit of the Continental Shelf. While not yet proven, it also was a period when people not only from the Arctic, but also from outside the Arctic realized that there was huge resource potential in the region, especially as the lowest summer ice extents started to garner attention. This led to the creation of narratives like the “scramble for the Arctic” and the “last resource frontier,” building further interest. The Scandinavian chairmanship addressed this increasing interest from various actors in environmental changes and the development of resources, ushering in a shift [in meaning in regards to sustainable development].

ED: Specifically what line of reasoning have the various chairmanships used to justify an explicit business focus? Give as a few examples.

DW: Sweden, for instance, described the Arctic as a region heavily affected by ongoing climate change, technological development, and increasing commercial activities, framing environmental sustainable development as a core issue that would secure positive economic development for Arctic communities. During its chairmanship, Sweden initiated interactions with the private sector to strengthen sustainable development work, something that was reviewed positively at the following ministerial meeting. Furthermore, the 2013 Kiruna Declaration established a task force to focus on a circumpolar business program. Although the program is often ascribed to Canada, it was very clear that Sweden paved the way to develop this project .

Canada later promoted the idea of establishing the Arctic Economic Council. While it was framed or subsumed under the idea of responsible Arctic resource development , it emphasized that business will play a strong role in an economically vibrant future for the region.

ED: How have some of the Permanent Participants interpreted this new business focus?

DW: First, to qualify what I’ll say now, the chairmanship programs were of course developed by the Arctic states. I therefore realized that I could not draw conclusions about the Permanent Participants from the chairmanship programs. Thus, I also considered the documents provided by the Secretariat in the ministerial meetings. There are some papers—although not comprehensive—in which positions of Permanent Participants were expressed. From the documents I examined, the Permanent Participants typically stated that they welcomed the initiatives regarding corporate social responsibility. Some of them, however, like the Saami Council, emphasized the opinion that corporations should conduct business in such a way that respects the indigenous peoples’ human rights and benefits indigenous peoples and their economies.

In my analysis of newspaper articles published in Canada and the United States over a 25-year period, it was very clear that many indigenous peoples’ groups are opposed to the type of economic development introduced by outside actors because they fear that they will lose their territorial rights. This is also why they argue against environmental organizations—they fear that once environmental organizations have a greater say, they will be able to claim certain territories as marine protected areas, for instance, and indigenous peoples will have to leave them. Part of the concern is that international organizations might step in afterward and take economic advantage of these territories. This is not something I could extract from the documents provided by the Arctic Council, but at least in the case of Canada and the United States, it seems that this same fear resurfaces every once in a while and was mentioned by many different indigenous representatives.

This may also be one of the reasons as to why NGOs are still underrepresented in the Arctic Council—there is this fear from indigenous groups that the discourse in the Arctic Council will move in a direction that could become difficult for the Arctic states and Permanent Participants to control.

ED: How did Canada address this concern during its second chairmanship?

DW: What is very explicit in Canada’s chairmanship program is that they placed responsible economic development up front. The Scandinavian chairmanship outlined “corporate social responsibility,” but the Canadian chairmanship explicitly delineated “responsible economic development.” The global responsibility of climate change returned with the U.S. chairmanship. The more that responsibility is considered, the more the concept of “shared responsibility” emerges among the Arctic Council members and outside actors. Canada’s policy of “responsible economic development” can thus be considered as, while perhaps unintentionally or at least not explicitly, having further opened the door to outside actors.

ED: Canada was criticized, were they not, for digressing from the Scandinavian program?

DW: Right—the strategy was mostly perceived as meeting domestic needs; they did what Alaskans would have wanted in the second chairmanship of the United States. Canada sent officials to its northern territories to talk to the people, ask about their needs, and see what they wanted to be emphasized at the Arctic Council. But when Canada incorporated these notes into its Arctic Council chairmanship program, it was criticized for doing so; it was very obvious that they had emphasized national needs in an intergovernmental setting, which was considered opportunistic. For Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the chairmanship program was also about claiming Arctic sovereignty, which was also received negatively.

In contrast, the U.S. chairmanship program was very globally oriented as it focused on climate change and promoting the “One Arctic” theme, which emphasized the importance of shared opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities when it comes to the Arctic—a region that requires cooperation and partnerships, particularly between Arctic states and Permanent Participants.

ED: Relative to this new business focus, how have Council member states addressed the issue of outside actors?

DW: In the Danish program, for instance, the present dynamics of a changing Arctic were stressed, with emphasis on the planting of the Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole in 2007. Denmark took over the question of the role of Observers in the Arctic Council and started to rework the procedure because it did not yet contain detailed provisions of how to include the Observers. Denmark was not outwardly in favor of including more Observers in the Council’s work, although Observers were perceived as assets as long as they shared the Council’s objectives to cooperate and promote sustainable development for the people of the Arctic and the Arctic states.

In the Swedish chairmanship, the role of “outside actors” was enhanced when Sweden not only recognized increased international interest in the Arctic, but also identified corporate social responsibility as a priority. In practice, Sweden initiated interactions with the private sector to strengthen the Sustainable Development Working Group.

ED: What are the wider implications of this shift toward business?

DW: This shift toward business has grown into the Arctic Economic Council (AEC), which is related to but not subsumed under the Arctic Council, so it does not function like a Working Group. This is, of course, quite problematic because it means that certain pertinent issues are discussed outside the Arctic Council.

On the one hand, this weakens the Arctic Council because it means that members have lost control over the discussion of certain topics. To my knowledge, the AEC, for instance, is not obliged to provide full transparency or submit meeting transcripts. There are certain actors who are represented both at the AEC and the Arctic Council, such as Permanent Participants and Arctic Council member states, but this can pose problems for the Arctic Council; issues are discussed differently in both settings and it then becomes necessary to mediate between them. But ultimately, the Arctic Council is still the primary forum for negotiations on the Arctic.

We see that numerous other forums have been created in the past decade. On the one hand, this is positive because the numerous subsidiary groups that the Arctic Council has implemented also makes it difficult for all participants to attend and prepare for these meetings. This is an aspect of the Council that needs to become more efficient. But, at the same time, the development of Arctic-related projects could lead to various groups working on a parallel level, yet disconnected to one another. This becomes especially important in the Arctic, where one decision can have a large impact on many people. This lack of access to information also complicates sustainable decision-making.

The right direction could be to continue to develop the Arctic Council in a manner that tries to address the very different concerns of various actors. Perhaps it’s necessary to take these chairmanship programs as a starting point that can help us to discuss these issues more productively without causing further fragmentation of forums focusing on the Arctic region.

But I don’t want to only paint a negative picture. It is great that there are many people interested in the Arctic and it’s helpful to grow industry and innovation in the North. But conflicting meanings can be ascribed to the framework of responsibility, particularly if negotiations take place outside the Arctic Council. If so, there’s also a greater chance of losing sight of the environmental protection aspect of sustainable development.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dorothea Wehrmann recently finished her Ph.D. in political science at Bielefeld University and is affiliated with the Center for InterAmerican Studies and the Institute for World Society. Her dissertation, “Polar Entanglements? (Critical) Geopolitics of the Changing Polar Regions in Inter-American Perspective,” examines how ordering principles have evolved and guided policymaking concerning the Arctic and the Antarctic.

Dorothea Wehrmann’s article “Shape Changing Circumpolar Agendas: The Identification and Significance of ‘Emerging Issues’ Addressed in the Arctic Council” can be found here

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.