By Erica M. Dingman
Had you been a fly on the wall at the signing of the Ottawa Declaration in September 1996, you would have observed a low-profile event attended not by heads of state, but rather by ministers from seven of the eight Arctic nations and only a senior official from the United States. Media coverage was next to nil and the survival of this pan-Arctic forum was uncertain.
On May 11, 2017, at the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting, the occasion was drastically different. Heads of state were still not present, but the attendance of foreign ministers of all Arctic states attests to the high level of importance that countries now place on the Arctic. It is here that ministers and representatives of the Permanent Participant groups deliver carefully scripted remarks, noting the accomplishments of the Council and taking the opportunity to articulate an official position on issues such as climate change, now a primary draw for Arctic nations and non-Arctic nations to participate in Council activities.
Participants convened in Fairbanks, Alaska, to mark the official handover of Council leadership from the United States to Finland, the next country in line to serve a two-year rotation as Council chair. As the outgoing chair, the U.S. hosted the proceedings, led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In stark contrast to the past two years of U.S. Arctic Council strategy on mitigating the effects of climate change, Tillerson’s remarks were what at best could be described as non-committal. “In the United States,” he said, “we are currently reviewing several important policies including how the Trump administration will approach the issue of climate change.”
When Finland’s turn came to speak, Timo Soini, minister for foreign affairs, took a definitive position on climate change: “Global warming is expected to continue for decades, and we should understand the effects and act with determination. The Paris Climate Agreement is the cornerstone for mitigating climate change … Investing in low-carbon clean technologies simply makes sense. ”
Numerous other speakers championed the Paris Climate Agreement and addressed specific issues related to Arctic warming. From her position as a resident of Unalaska, Alaska, and a board member of the Aleut International Association (AIA), Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory raised the issue of ocean acidification and species migration, which threatens the ability of Aleut to harvest salmon. “Extreme weather events are making our waters increasingly dangerous to navigate,” she stated. “All of these things are real and they are happening right now. The data on the causes are irrefutable and we must not let politics interfere with the actions that must happen now and in the future.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov touched on his country’s intent to implement the U.N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and sought to allay security tensions that have arisen over the last few years. He called to reinstate the Arctic Chief of Defense Staff conference, which met in 2012 and 2013, bringing together senior defense officials from the eight Arctic countries, but has not been convened since. Lavrov stated, “Russia has been working hard to promote the development of the Arctic as a territory of peace, stability, and cooperation. There is no potential for conflict here.” Cooperation among Arctic nations is essential to Russia’s resource development strategy—the lion’s share of the Arctic’s undiscovered natural gas reserves lies in Russia’s far north. But resource development is also dependent on foreign investment and infrastructure. Accordingly, Lavrov expressed Russia’s interest in developing mutually beneficial economic ties and lauded the Council’s intent to work toward a pan-Arctic telecommunication network. The current system is rudimentary, neither meeting the needs of the people who live in the Arctic nor reaching the standard that will be required for increased economic development.
Notably, Lavrov did not attend the 2015 ministerial meeting when Canada passed the Council chairmanship to the U.S. At the time there was a good deal of speculation that his absence was associated with increasing tensions over the Ukraine conflict. Similarly, Tillerson’s presence at the 2017 meeting was far from certain, his attendance confirmed May 2—only nine days before it was scheduled to take place. Amid an ongoing debate in the Trump administration about whether or not to abide by the Paris Accord, Tillerson, former Exxon Mobil chief executive, represents the antithesis of the U.S. Arctic Council strategy that put climate change front and center. Lavrov and Tillerson met in Washington, D.C., days before heading to the ministerial meeting. Though there is nothing to suggest that the two discussed Arctic issues, it’s feasible that their discussion touched on Western sanctions, which have forced Russian companies such as Rosneft to put oil production projects on hold.
When the Arctic Council was established in 1996, it was purposely structured not as a treaty-based system, but rather as a forum with no legal obligations. In a 1999 paper to the U.S. government, legal adviser to the Department of State Evan Bloom described the Council “as a forum without legal personality, and thus not as an ‘international organization.’” Today the Council has overcome the restraints it had at its founding, and is now often referred to as an international organization. The Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic was signed in 2011 and went into force 2013, followed by the Agreement on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, signed in 2013. At the 2017 Fairbanks meeting, ministers from all Arctic nations signed the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, designed to ease the movement of scientists and data across international boundaries. Significantly, the document also noted “the entry into force of the Paris agreement on climate change and its implementation, and reiterating the need for global action to reduce both long-lived greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants.” Amid much uncertainty, Tillerson, representing the U.S. government, did sign the agreement. Reflecting on the meeting, Jim Gamble, director of the AIA, noted, “many of us were concerned about the outcomes of the meeting considering the new U.S. administration, but, at least for the Arctic Council, things turned out better than expected.”
In contrast to its meager beginnings, the high level of state representation and expression of cross-national interests suggests that the Council might evolve into an organization able to influence international outcomes. But for all the Council’s continued success with Arctic nations and indigenous peoples organizations sitting side by side, it is likely beneficial to maintain a degree of distance from state capitals. Arctic Council proceedings rarely, if ever, reach the heights of above-the-fold news. The New York Times report on the 2017 Fairbanks meeting appeared in the science section, and The Guardian placed it in the environment section. But perhaps this underselling is a good thing, because the Arctic Council’s work signifies that nations—even when they may be at odds with one another on other, headline-grabbing issues—can and do cooperate in matters of the Far North. In conversation with a Scandinavian U.N. diplomat a few years back, he remarked that it was good that Arctic issues were rarely raised at the U.N., suggesting that the Arctic is largely conflict-free. I have kept this observation in mind, noting that rivalries can, for the most part, be set aside when it comes to the Arctic. During this time of political and environmental uncertainty, let’s hope that the Arctic can remain above the fray.
Erica M. Dingman is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and director of Arctic in Context.
[Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Finland]
This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.