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The Arctic Council: A Unique Institution in 21st-Century International Relations

July 5, 2017

Feature Series

The Arctic Council: A unique institution in 21st century international relations

Arctic in Context - World Policy Institute

“These are urgent times,” warned Carnegie Corporation of New York president Vartan Gregorian, “that require up-to-date, in-depth research to allow the vast learning reservoir of our universities to be of assistance to practitioners in the public and foreign policy domains.” This 13-part blog series about the Arctic Council attempts to do just that. In their contributions, International Policy Institute Arctic Fellows in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington endeavor to adapt in-depth research projects to policy-relevant articles. Their pieces examine the role of the Arctic Council in international relations outside the region, and why it is critical that practitioners understand the contours of this relatively new organization.

The Arctic Council is a unique international institution that influences how we think about regional governance, nation-to-nation relations with Indigenous peoples, energy issues, and the concepts of environmental protection and sustainability as central to global security. The Arctic Council challenges, pushes against, and inspires new ways of organizing international relations and fostering socially conscious decision making. This past February, Heather Exner-Pirot, in a blog posted on Arctic Now, suggested the Arctic Council should be nominated for a Nobel Peace PrizeShe pointed out that the Arctic Council is an incredible model for the international community—a model for diplomacy between what can otherwise be contentious international relations; for informed, pragmatic decision making; and for long-term goals that will serve the region into the future.

The Arctic Council is also the first international organization where the heads of Indigenous communities engage in policy discussions on almost equal par with ministers of foreign affairs. There is no precedent for this. How will the effective engagement of the Permanent Participants in the Arctic Council, which includes ongoing efforts to incorporate traditional and local knowledge into all of the functions of the Council, influence international affairs more broadly?

The Arctic Council has “broken the ice,” enabling the world’s largest international organizations to find new ways of involving Indigenous peoples in decision making. For example, as Elena Bell describes in her article, the honorable Leona Aglukkaq was appointed as the first Inuk chair of the Arctic Council from 2013 to 2015, bringing significant international media attention to the organization. Malina Dumas analyzes the role of the Permanent Participants as a possible model for the United Nations. Finally, Lucy Kruesel, in her assessment of the film Angry Inuk and its focus on the Inuit sealing economy, explores how the Permanent Participants are in the driver’s seat when evaluating applications for Observer status in the Arctic Council.

Other posts analyze how national and subnational entities are being influenced by the Permanent Participants and other Arctic Indigenous groups. Jay-Kwon Park argues that while South Korea may have joined the Arctic Council to influence Arctic affairs, the Permanent Participants are changing the way Korea engages in Council projects. Amy Delo uses the Arctic Council as a model for how Québec might become more effectively engaged with the Nunavimmiut in developing future iterations of its Northern policy, Plan Nord. Here the Arctic Council has laid a framework for what constitutes collaborative decision making and effective policy.

Energy has also become a topic of considerable debate, concern, and hope, especially in the Arctic. For varied reasons, including geographic challenges, modern sources of electricity, heat, and transport remain sparse in the region, a striking fact given that most polar nations are wealthy and technologically advanced. There is strong interest in the Arctic Council to improve this situation. This means bringing energy services to the far north while protecting the natural environment, meeting the practical and cultural needs of Indigenous peoples, and accepting the role of governmental and corporate interests. It’s a formidable goal.

Every two years, however, the Arctic Council holds the Arctic Energy Summit. It provides a remarkable forum where nations can meet, share information, and discuss or debate core matters. Yet the information is mainly domestic: Russian policies on Arctic oil and gas are not the same as Canada’s, and Norway’s avid offshore drilling program bears no relation to the current U.S. ban on such drilling. The Summit cannot avoid being a platform for sharing nation-specific material. Partly because of this, the question of how to provide energy services to Indigenous communities remains uncertain. One way forward is to find relevant issues where nations all agree. This is the approach taken in posts on the topic. Valerie Cleland highlights the universal concern over oil spills in the Arctic, while David Rivera and Ian Hanna emphasize the need for Arctic-wide rules and policies that relate to shipping and the infrastructure of Arctic ports. Finally, Michael Brown reminds us that oil markets are volatile, despite the abundance of resources, and cannot be judged as sustainable sources for long-term energy stability.

Energy matters for the Arctic will not be solved easily, or soon. The challenges are unique and, especially in the case of environmental concerns, intensified. Yet there is much expectation of progress—a merging of national and regional perspectives has already begun.

Improvements can also be made to the way the Council sets policy priorities. Despite noteworthy progress in many areas, certain policymaking aspects of the Arctic Council operate in contrast to its self-concept as “the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states, Arctic Indigenous communities, and other Arctic inhabitants.” As the member states rotate two-year chairmanship stints, each brings its own priorities to the Council’s agenda. Priorities of the Council thus change every two years, sometimes with little input from the other member states or Permanent Participants. This makes it difficult to focus on the most demanding issues or to maintain progress on any one of them.

It is a principle of sustainable policymaking that three participants must be present at the table: those who make the policy, those who will implement the policy, and those who must live with the policy. If any one of them is absent, the policy will falter in the long term, or will fall prey to extended delays, organized resistance, or unanticipated costs. Katie Gavenus, Rachel Freeman-Blakely, Steven Fry, and Brandon Ray touch on the Council’s internal tussles with this challenge as they discuss its attempts to integrate Indigenous and Western knowledge; ensure adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene in remote Indigenous communities; protect marine environments while fostering sustainable economic development; and provide visionary leadership in the Arctic.

There is no question that the structure and functioning of the Arctic Council can be improved, yet it remains one of the most innovative international organizations in the world today. The International Policy Institute Arctic Fellows look at the unique aspects of the Council, and make recommendations on how the organization might be strengthened. These are indeed urgent times. Climate change is having a dramatic impact on the Arctic landscape, infrastructure, culture, and economy. To help address these challenges, in-depth research that can translate into policy-relevant thinking for practitioners is surely a worthwhile endeavor.


By Nadine C. Fabbi, Scott Montgomery, and Eric W. Finke

Dr. Nadine C. Fabbi leads the International Policy Institute Arctic Fellows program in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and the Managing Director for the Canadian Studies Center.

Scott L. Montgomery is a geoscientist, author, and affiliate faculty member in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. His teaching focuses on energy geopolitics and climate change and the Arctic.

Eric W. Finke is an independent scholar and a mediator and facilitator for matters of environment, natural resources, and public policy. He is a certified mediator with a Master of Arts in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution and more than 30 years of environmental regulatory and policy experience.


*This article was originally published by the World Policy Institute.