The Arctic: Cooperation or Confrontation?

By Erica Dingman

To most North Americans, the Arctic is a distant location—a land of frigid temperatures, pristine beauty, and polar bears. Few are aware that the Arctic is a literal (and littoral) crossroads of the 21st century, where concepts of state sovereignty and human and environmental security intersect with the challenges and opportunities related to climate change. And it is fast becoming one of the most geopolitically critical and ecologically unstable global regions, as the environmental consequences of climate change and the hunt for new energy sources challenge stakeholders to unravel the complexities of an emerging world. Rapid loss of sea ice, melting permafrost, and glaciers affect not only security defined broadly, but also raise the possibility of increased marine transportation for both commercial purposes and tourism. Increasing access to potential hydrocarbon deposits will further challenge stakeholders to address the concerns of commercial interests.

While this brief synopsis on the state of Arctic affairs may give the impression that we are headed for a heightened state of alert, the truth points towards a more cooperative future. Arctic nations have been working through unresolved boundary disputes. Scientific research is often conducted through collaborative cross-border missions. The exploitation of natural resources is increasingly being balanced against a desire to protect the environment. Cooperation has become a far greater driver in Arctic relations than rivalry and confrontation.

One example is that of the United States and Canada, who have had a longstanding dispute over where to draw the line defining their border in the Beaufort Sea. While each country uses different parameters to stake their claim, in the summer of 2010 the United States and Canada collaborated for the third consecutive year on mapping the seabed of the Beaufort Sea. Unlike prior years, the 2010 survey included a sonar probe of the contested area. The findings will be useful to representatives of both governments, who started talks in July 2010 aimed toward resolution of overlapping interests in the Beaufort.

Russia is also in the midst of resolving offshore boundary disputes. On September 15, 2010 Russia and Norway signed the bilateral Treaty Concerning Maritime Delimitation and Cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean, after four decades of tough negotiation. Norway’s Parliament ratified the treaty in February 2011, and President Medvedev sent the Treaty to the State Duma, which is expected to ratify it. Several Russo-Norwegian joint military exercises are slated for this year, and the two states have pledged to protect the environment, keep fish stocks at a sustainable level, and possibly cooperate on the exploitation of trans-boundary oil deposits.

These cooperative efforts should serve as an example to other Arctic nations, demonstrating that difficult, drawn-out negotiations can result in a win-win outcome.  Within days of the Russia-Norway treaty, Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Jonas Gahr Støre jointly penned an article for the Toronto Globe and Mailtitled “Canada, take note: Here’s how to resolve maritime disputes.” The two ministers wrote that the experience created “enormous value” in terms of the bi-lateral relations and for the “international community at large.” They went on to say that “when states consider their interests in a long-term perspective, aiming for sustainable solutions” the potential advantages far outweigh the individual gains.

Yet this spirit of cooperation does not seem to apply when a significant non-state actor becomes involved in Artic issues. The Inuit, whose homelands include Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia, formed the Inuit Circumpolar Council [ICC] in 1977. The United Nations has recognized the ICC as a non-governmental organization. However, it is also a political actor. At the Arctic Council, which meets bi-annually, the ICC actively participates under the status of a Permanent Participant. However, in 2008, the Arctic coastal states (known as the Arctic Five)—Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States—met outside the Council and produced a document known as the Ilulissat Declaration, in which the five states effectively appointed themselves the managers of the Arctic and explicitly rejected the concept of a “new comprehensive international legal regime” for the region.

Finland, Iceland, and Sweden expressed their displeasure, as did the ICC. Duane Smith, then the President of ICC Canada, called for the Inuit to have “a seat at the table.” The following year, the Inuit released A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic, which was both a statement of indignation and a proposal for an alternative form of decision-making. The Declaration noted that “the 2008 Ilulissat Declarationon Arctic sovereignty by ministers representing the five coastal Arctic states did not go far enough in affirming the rights Inuit have gained through international law, land claims, and self-government processes.”

Specifically, the ICC cited the Arctic Five for disregarding their fiduciary obligations toward Inuit. Moreover, by meeting independently of the Arctic Council, the Arctic Five neglected the organization’s role as a forum for cooperative negotiations in matters concerning all Arctic nations and Arctic indigenous peoples. Inuit concerns are not necessarily incompatible with state interests, and the Inuit believe that Arctic policy-making should be built around partnership. 

Erica Dingman is a freelance writer and researcher whose work focuses on the Arctic, Inuit, and Canada/United States relations. She holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School.

Photo courtesy of flickr user nasa hq photo.

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