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Greenland’s Role in Changing Arctic Governance

Greenland’s Role in Changing Arctic Governance

June 7, 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, former World Policy Journal editorial assistant Natasha Bluth interviews Inuuteq Holm Olsen, the first Greenlandic representative at the Embassy of Denmark to the United States, and Jessica M. Shadian, the outgoing Nansen Professor at the University of Akureyri and a distinguished senior fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, University of Toronto. In their article, “Greenland & the Arctic Council: Subnational Regions in a Time of Arctic Westphalianisation,” Olsen and Shadian examine changing Arctic governance, which they argue is best understood through the process of Westphalianization. Today, interest in the Arctic region and Arctic politics is growing among non-Arctic states at the same time that subnational actors are gaining or seeking greater participation in the Arctic Council. Olsen and Shadian look at Greenland as an example of what future intergovernmental relations hold for Arctic issues, highlighting the tension between this growing interest in the region and Greenland’s diminishing role in Arctic decision-making.

NATASHA BLUTH: Your article considers international relations theory to investigate subnational regions in a time of Arctic Westphalianization. What is Westphalianization and what does it look like in the Arctic region?

JESSICA M. SHADIAN: I use international relations theory to look at the role of subnational regions, because traditional international relations theory focuses only on state relations and state cooperation. In conventional international relations, when you have a political regime, it is comprised of its member countries, as is the case in the African Union, ASEAN, or even NAFTA or the EU. Conventionally, states come together for particular reasons—economic, political, or security reasons—to figure out how they can better cooperate, rather than compete, and how they can work together strategically.

The Arctic Council is quite interesting because, alongside the eight Arctic states, there have always been the indigenous Permanent Participants (PPs), which have seats at the table and have played an important role from the Council’s inception. I would argue that over the last six to seven years, since Arthur Chilingarov planted a flag in 2007 at the floor of the Arctic seabed, the Arctic Council has become more and more state-centric in the way it operates. Yet, because the Arctic Council was not created through a treaty, it cannot create legally binding regulations. Instead, the eight states have been going outside the Arctic Council and working together to construct and sign binding resolutions. It is this sidestepping of the Arctic Council (where PPs are members) to make binding resolutions that I call the Westphalianization of the Arctic region. Some of the actions by the member states with the most accountability are those resolutions that are made under the auspices of the Arctic Council and by the Arctic states themselves, but not as official actions of the Arctic Council.

There’s a Westaphalianization in a sense in the Arctic region, but what is also happening is that subnational regions in and of themselves are becoming more politically powerful. They are starting to cooperate with one another, they have more financial grounding, and they have a lot more political autonomy, knowledge, and experience than at the beginning of the Arctic Council. But there is not a formal role for those entities in the Arctic Council. So, we see two competing forces. And within all of this, you have the PPs who are trying to navigate both trends because they comprise many of the subnational nations and are doing their best in trying to represent them. They’re also trying to secure their role in the Arctic Council, which is increasingly difficult as it requires the skills and legal competences of statecraft. In addition, more work means more financial obligations, and many of the PPs have very limited operating budgets (the recent signing of the Algu Fund, to ensure northern indigenous participation in the Council, will hopefully come to offset some of the financial challenges).

NB: You write in your article that the Arctic is “a region of regions.” What do you mean by this and how does it influence international law in the Arctic?

JMS: What I was saying here is that there are many layers of Arctic governance. Like I was saying about the Council, the Arctic encompasses the whole region, predominantly from a state-centered perspective. At the same time there is the North American Arctic and the European Arctic. Between those regions there are a lot of similarities, but in many significant ways they are very different from one another. Then there is the subnational level. For instance, there are Inuit living in Alaska and Canada, as well those living in Russia and Greenland, so there’s a lot of cooperation and familiarity among those subnational regions. The result is that some of these northern sub-regions have more in common with one another, even though they are in different states, than they do with their own state capitals. Essentially, it is a region of regions because it’s not just one region—your perspective depends on from where in the Arctic you are talking from and on behalf of whom.

This influences international law because the sub-regions are starting to become quite active. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it undermines international law, but non-state actors are influencing international law more generally. Non-state actors, as well as subnational and transnational collaborations, for instance, are increasingly acting on their own to create new rules and norms—forms of soft law—and ways of interacting. They may eventually help drive new international regulations, although that doesn’t always happen, nor is it necessarily the aim. International law is no longer the only way to govern or to ensure cooperation or accountability. These behaviors can happen through other means.

INUUTEQ HOLM OLSEN: I don’t think we should necessarily look at international law as being static. It’s something that has evolved over time, pushed in different directions. Just because sub-regional governments are active doesn’t mean they are going against international law. There are different ways of interpreting international law. Some, for instance, may be very conservative and only recognize independent states as legitimate players. But there’s room within international law. For instance, Greenland could, in principle, become a member of the World Trade Organization because the WTO allows entities other than independent states to join. That’s what we’re beginning to see more of—non-state players who are active and have an interest in the agenda as well as the content.

JMS: That’s very true. For instance, the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples brought non-state actors directly into the central institution where international law is created. The U.N. Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples is comprised of indigenous peoples who do not have their own state. That is certainly an expansion of international law.

NB: During the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2011-2013, Greenland and the Faroe Islands were excluded from the executive Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) meetings, though both had previously held seats beside Denmark. Can you briefly explain Greenland’s involvement in the Arctic Council and how it has changed over time?

IHO: Before the Arctic Council came into being, there was the AEPS—the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy—in which Greenland was very much active. This was the early 1990s, when there wasn’t a lot of attention given to the Arctic, so there was more space, I would argue, for Greenland to be an active participant.

Because of our location, we have a natural interest in what goes on in the Arctic. That’s why we were very active in the creation of the Arctic Council and continue to be so today. In 1996, the premier of Greenland, Lars-Emil Johansen, signed the Ottawa Declaration on behalf of the Kingdom of Denmark. We have sent several delegations, ministers from Greenland have attended the Arctic Ministerial Meetings as the head of delegation, and we’ve been the head of delegations in several of the Working Groups. Slowly, we have also acquired more leeway.

But in 2011, Greenland was removed from the executive SAO meetings—what we have described as the Westphalianization of the Arctic Council. Before, the sign at the table said  “Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland”—now, it’s the Kingdom of Denmark and our flag is no longer on display. This is something that infuriated the government of Greenland because we were no longer permitted to sit at the table as we had for many years.

NB: You write that Greenland’s Minister for Industry, Labor, Trade, and Foreign Affairs, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, has mentioned that Greenland is “more than a place that has to be protected and preserved.” Why is Greenland important for Arctic policymaking?

IHO: When everyone began to want to sit at the table and discuss Arctic issues, there were a lot of voices advocating environmental protection, the same way this issue has dictated policy for the Antarctic. But the important thing for people who live in the Arctic is that it’s not just something to protect and preserve—it also has to be developed, just like any other society around the world. There has to be economic development, better infrastructure, better access to health care and education—all the things that matter to people who live in New York or Washington, D.C.

That’s why it’s a prerequisite for any discussions about the Arctic that Greenland sit at the table. That’s always been our position and it’s fundamental because whenever there is development without the direct involvement of the people and the governments that are in the Arctic itself, that development will be skewed. Decisions taking place far away have an impact on the Arctic, and in order for development to be sustainable, the people and the governments in the area under discussion must be included in the process.

JMS: Not many Danes have traveled to Greenland. Similarly, the majority of southern Canadians or people from the lower 48 states in the U.S. have not been to the Canadian Arctic or Alaska. Many have the impression that no one really lives there. The residents are always an afterthought; over and over again, the media shows images that make the Arctic seem like a place with just icebergs and polar bears. There’s a comment in our paper from Bob Herron, an Alaska State House Representative from Bethel, Alaska, that the region is seen as a kind of snow globe—there is a persistent idea that the Arctic is just a wilderness that needs to be preserved.

NB: You also mention that a lot of officials working on Arctic issues haven’t actually been there either, or that meetings will take place in southern areas that are not easily accessible to Arctic peoples.

JMS: That’s true. There are a lot of policymakers working on the Arctic that haven’t ever been there.

IHO: It’s not unusual. There are institutions that have some authority over decisions about the Arctic, and even those who work within those institutions are complaining that people from southern cities are working on issues without much on-the-ground knowledge. It’s a very common story that you’ll hear whenever you go across the Arctic—people complain that institutions thousands of miles away are the ones that make decisions that are important to the people of the Arctic themselves.

JMS: When southerners influence the agendas of Arctic Council states, they’re making decisions and passing policy measures that affect communities in the north. Those policies, however, can at times be irrelevant or can even detrimental to the northern regions themselves.

IHO: On top of that, it’s often overlooked that the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting also makes decisions that most often have to be implemented at the local level. If there is going to be equal development, then this needs to be taken into account.

JMS: In terms of Alaska, my colleague, Lesil McGuire, a former member of the Alaska Senate and co-chair of the bipartisan Alaska Arctic policy, often reminds us that the first draft of the Obama administration’s Arctic policy did not include the word “people” anywhere in the document. Her comment reinforces the pervasiveness of the misconception that the Arctic only serves as a bellwether for climate change and is not an inhabited region. Subsequently, policies tend to aim to protect the Arctic environment even if in doing so there are negative implications for the needs, interests, and livelihoods of residents.

NB: What role do you envision Greenland playing in future Arctic relations, especially as new types of Arctic cooperation form outside of the Arctic Council?

IHO: I think the Council is still going to be the leading regional, intergovernmental forum. Greenland is will continue to be an active member wherever Arctic issues are being discussed. The positive thing about the newly established forums being created to address Arctic issues is that they are much less stringent regarding who can sit at the table—it’s much more democratic and less formal. There is more of a chance to influence what’s being discussed, and there is more opportunity to provide input as to how the Arctic should develop. The good thing is that a lot of new forums are being created that broaden access and allow people’s voices to be heard.

Today, the Arctic is changing in many ways and is becoming part of the globalized world, affected in part by the commercial interests of non-Arctic countries. New issues are being brought into the Arctic that are much less colonialist in form—central governments are not the only actors who have the power anymore. The Arctic is becoming a normalized part of the rest of the world. I think that’s also good for sub-regional governments that have an interest in the sustainable development of the Arctic.

JMS: Inuuteq was also recently involved in a meeting that gathered subnational governors, premiers, legislators, etc. from Alaska, Canada, and Greenland to see where they have common interests and how they can better cooperate. Shortly following that meeting was the first Arctic mayor’s roundtable, which took place during the May 2017 Arctic Council Ministerial meeting. I would argue that we will see more of such gatherings in the future. As that happens, we are going to see subnational efforts helping to shape the Arctic Council agenda. As subnational collaboration becomes increasingly organized, these actors are going to have a more outspoken voice and garner attention in the media, putting forth their ideas, interests, and agendas as to how Arctic governance and Arctic policies should play out and be enacted. Ultimately, that is going to have an influence on how the Council operates. After all, I do not think the member states will want to ignore the voices coming from their own northern regions.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Inuuteq Holm Olsen is minister plenipotentiary and head of representation at the Greenland Representation at the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C. as of Jan. 1, 2014. As of October 2015, he is also accredited to Canada. He advocates on issues pertaining to Greenland’s self-determination process and role in international affairs, development in the Arctic, and the effects of climate change and security issues.

Jessica M. Shadian is a partner at the Arctic Advocacy Group, a distinguished senior fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary History, University of Toronto, and the outgoing Nansen Professor, University of Akureyri. She has spent the past 13 years living and working throughout the European and North American Arctic. Her research and publications concentrate on the intersection between Arctic and indigenous governance and law, with a focus on resource and infrastructure development and search and rescue. Shadian is currently working in a project, in collaboration with the Aleut International Association, regarding the role of local communities in Arctic search and rescue.

Inuuteq Holm Olsen and Jessica M. Shadian’s article “Greenland & the Arctic Council: Subnational Regions in a Time of Arctic Westphalianisation” can be found here.

[Photo courtesy of Algkalv]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.