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Governing the Far North: Assessing Cooperation Between Arctic and Non-Arctic Nations

Experts discuss efforts by Arctic and non-Arctic nations to cooperate on key governance, environmental, security, and economic issues.

Date & Time

Sep. 21, 2010
9:00am – 12:30pm

Governing the Far North: Assessing Cooperation Between Arctic and Non-Arctic Nations

Despite fears of an unregulated race for Arctic territory and resources, there is currently considerable international cooperation occurring to address key issues in the Far North, said Betsy Baker of Vermont Law School at an event hosted by the Canada Institute in collaboration with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and Environmental Change and Security Program. The program provided a timely forum to discuss efforts by Arctic and non-Arctic nations to cooperate on key environmental, security, and economic issues, and foster discussion on pressing Arctic governance questions. The event's first panel was moderated by Don Newman, former senior parliamentary editor, CBC News.

Assessing Cooperation Among Arctic Nations

The United States, said Baker, is currently engaged in international cooperation in a number of areas including, shipping, emergency response and rescue, science, seabed mapping, and joint military exercises. The majority of U.S. Arctic initiatives are conducted via the Arctic Council, an institution that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton favors strengthening. Baker maintained that the most effective form of Arctic governance would be a "bottom up" approach. Governing structures closest to the end users, she explained, are the most effective means of ensuring economic development and environmental security.

Baker noted that the lack of infrastructure and search and rescue capabilities represent the most pressing security concerns in the Arctic. Until this occurs, the international community will not be able to adequately respond to a potential oil spill or grounded vessel in the region. While some analysts have expressed concern over the militarization of the Arctic, Baker and other panelists downplayed the possibility of military conflict in the Far North as a significant concern. She suggested that science based diplomacy would be the best means to peacefully resolve disputes in the region.

Danila Bochkarev of the EastWest Institute in Brussels said that the development of sea routes (particularly the Northern Sea Route), border protection, and infrastructure development are among Russia's top Arctic priorities. Bochkarev noted that the Arctic region has increased in economic importance to Russia and currently represents 11 percent of its GDP and 80 percent of the country's discovered industrial gas. Aside from economic opportunities, melting Arctic ice has also allowed increased access to Russian territory, which is also viewed as a security concern by Russian officials. Other looming Russian concerns, noted Bochkarev, include the increasing internationalization of Arctic governance, competing claims for the Arctic continental shelf, and challenges to Russia's sovereignty claim over the Northern Sea Route. He maintained that Russia has committed to following the principles of the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty to peacefully resolve any territorial disputes.

Joël Plouffe of the Université du Québec à Montreal noted that Canada's recently published document, Statement on Canada's Arctic Foreign Policy, highlights the Harper government's desire to bolster economic development, protect the environment, strengthen its sovereignty claim, and improve governance in the Far North. Plouffe said that the Arctic policy document highlights Canada's commitment to foster bilateral relationships among Arctic nations, particularly the United States. He noted that Canada has always promoted international cooperation in the Arctic and was one of the founding members of the Arctic Council. Canada's Arctic policy, said Plouffe, also serves to fill a security gap in the Far North, an area of particular concern to the United States.

While Canada has demonstrated a willingness to engage coastal Arctic states on key environmental, security, and economic issues in the Far North, the Canadian government's willingness to work with non-Arctic states is less clear, said Plouffe. Canada, he remarked, has yet to decide whether it would like to create an exclusive neighborhood of Arctic states to resolve governance issues, or if it is willing to include non-Arctic nations in international meetings and Arctic forums.

The Perspective of Non-Arctic Nations

"[W]e cannot be indifferent to a region whose melting ice sheet, volumes of water, and temperatures have a direct impact on Germany and Europe," said Franz Thönnes, SPD Member of the German Bundestag. He explained that Germany and the European Union's (EU's) interest in the Arctic stem in part from the importance the EU places on the principles of stability and sustainability. EU interests in the Arctic also extend to the economic realm. Of particular interest to the EU, said Thönnes, are untapped Arctic oil and gas reserves and potential new shipping routes. He noted that the shipping route from Hamburg to Shanghai would be cut from 25,200 km to 17,000 km should the Northwest Passage become accessible. Given that Germany operates the world's largest container fleet, access to such routes would be of major importance to Germany and other European maritime countries.

Ted McDorman of the University of Victoria stated that from an international law perspective, the Arctic Ocean is legally no different than any other ocean. Like other oceans, noted McDorman, there are significant gaps in governance that will require international cooperation to address. These include setting standards for shipping vessels passing through Arctic water and waterways, collaboration on marine science, and how to manage the Arctic marine ecosystem sustainably. According to McDorman, while some aspects of Arctic oil and gas development, such as drilling, will fall under domestic jurisdictions, international standards will still need to be negotiated to address potential oil spills or other environmental repercussions that may affect other countries. McDorman questioned whether an international treaty modeled after the Antarctic treaty would make sense for the Arctic region, and he echoed comments by others that the idea is not supported by key Arctic players and is unlikely to move forward.

The Scandanavian countries vary in their level of Arctic engagement, said Timo Koivurova of Finland's University of Lapland. Finland is currently developing a new Arctic strategy, and Iceland remains adamantly opposed to an exclusive Arctic Five governance structure while supporting active EU involvement in Arctic affairs. On the other hand, Sweden remains relatively inactive on the Arctic policy front. Koivurova noted that there is a growing number of non-Arctic nations, including China, South Korea, and Japan, that are seeking to be a part of the Arctic Council.

Koivurova closed by asking whether the Arctic Council could be reformed in a manner that allowed Arctic nations to retain their status while allowing greater representation for non-Arctic nations. Such reform, said Koivurova, may be necessary given the increasing desire and number of countries vying for a voice on Arctic governance.

Drafted by Ken Crist.

Hosted By

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more

Canada Institute

Bound by common geopolitical interests and strong economic and cultural ties, Canada and the United States enjoy the world's most successful bilateral relationship. The Wilson Center's Canada Institute is the only public policy forum in the world dedicated to the full spectrum of Canada-U.S. issues. The Canada Institute is a global leader for policymakers, academics and business leaders to engage in non-partisan, informed dialogue about the current and future state of the relationship.     Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more


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