As the Arctic ice cap is melting, the region is growing in importance for both the five countries on its coasts and the rest of the world. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the US are staking out their claims in ways both peaceful and aggressive to secure access to the Arctic’s assets, while Iceland, Finland, and Sweden are participating in multilateral discussions through the Arctic Council. The success of collective governance of the Arctic’s resources depends on the commercial value of the resource and who it primarily interests: states, indigenous groups, or NGOs. Although countries seek to exercise sovereignty in the Arctic, the international nature of the region’s resources will inevitably require multilateral governance. The question remains whether the Arctic Five or the Arctic Council will dominate.
Resources that have little commercial value will be easiest to manage. As early as 1965, the Arctic Five declared polar bears an “international circumpolar resource,” which led to a multilateral agreement on their conservation. Whereas polar bears compel international cooperation, precious commodities like oil and gas provoke sovereignty claims. Greenland has recently gained greater autonomy from Denmark thanks to abundant hydrocarbon reserves. Yet the entire circumpolar region’s oil and gas cannot be drilled until border disputes are resolved. For this reason, conflicts benefit conservationists while hindering corporations. For thirty years, the US, Canada, and the state of Alaska have disputed sovereignty in the Beaufort Sea. Alaska may try to sell leases to oil companies, which could force the two countries to resolve their dispute. Thus, even regional-level governments could play key roles in the Arctic, but the Arctic Council is really their only potential forum, and it could be overshadowed by the Arctic Five.
The melting ice is also opening up dramatically shortened shipping routes. Russia is modernizing ports along its Northern Sea Route, while the newly-renamed Canadian Northwest Passage is under development. Countries dispute whether these straits are sovereign or international, which could create problems as shipping increases. To make the routes safe and efficient, the Arctic Five should allow an international regulatory body to intervene. UNCLOS could be a good starting point, as the littoral statse have already demonstrated that they respect its authority, going through it to settle overlapping territorial claims.
The strategic unimportance of the Arctic’s polar opposite, Antarctica, allowed the continent to be demilitarized and devoted to science. The same cannot be said for the Arctic. Russia is creating an Arctic Group of Forces and Canada is looking to purchase three icebreakers, while the US has declared the Arctic a national security interest. Even Denmark is planning to create a military contingent solely dedicated to the Arctic. Sovereignty will predominate in military affairs, yet to counteract these tensions, states should focus on areas of cooperation. The Canadian Coast Guard and Danish navy, for instance, worked together as part of Northern Deployment 2009 to practice search and rescue, which is far more productive than Canadian and Russian squabbles over fighter jets near each other’s airspaces.
Underscoring the Arctic’s global importance, countries which have no geographical links to the region like China, South Korea, and the EU have attempted to become permanent observers of the Arctic Council, only to be turned down. If Iceland joins the EU, though, the latter will acquire a foothold in the Arctic and gain permanent membership in the Council, and Brussels could become a new pole of Arctic power. The EU could bring a different perspective to the table as well since its overarching priority is protecting the Arctic environment while allowing for some sustainable resource exploitation.
With all of these disputes, multilateral cooperation in the Arctic has rough waters ahead. The Ilulissat Declaration of 2008, which declared there was “no need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean,” marked the start of a potential power struggle between the Arctic Five and the Arctic Council, which also includes indigenous groups and NGOs. On March 29, Canada will host a summit for the Arctic Five, which could exacerbate tensions between the two groups. Yet in the end, the Arctic Council should be used as a model for international cooperation, as it is more inclusive than any organization based solely on the littoral states. Excluding actors from discussions only increases conflict and leaves vital opinions out in the cold. Since Russian icebreaker captains, Alaskan oil prospectors, and Inuit whale hunters all interact in the Arctic, cooperation that is multilateral, multilevel, and inclusive is essential to making the region sustainable.
Mia Bennett is a fourth-year undergraduate student in Political Science and European Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She focuses on the politics of Arctic resource management and is interested in the application of GIS technology to Arctic dilemmas.
Related Material from the Atlantic Community:
- Paal Sigurd Hilde: Norway and the Arctic: The End of Dreams?
- K. S. Yalowitz & R. A. Virginia: The Arctic Region: Great Game or International Cooperation?
- Klaus Dodds: Sea and State Change