Klaus Dodds

The first meeting of the Arctic Circle grouping (or more accurately a 'new assembly for international co-operation on Arctic issues') will take place in the Icelandic city of Reykjavik in October 2013. I won't be able to attend so will have to console myself with a more virtual presence. Looking at the official website (http://www.arcticcircle.org/), and monitoring the tweets from the official twitter site of the Arctic Circle grouping (https://twitter.com/ArcticSummit), it would appear that preparations are mounting for this autumnal meeting. What might this 'assembly' achieve and why might it matter? This short commentary offers some tentative answers.

We should remind ourselves, firstly, of the published mission statement of this grouping before reviewing the background to its creation. The rationale for the 'assembly' is described in the following terms:

 

The mission of the Arctic Circle is to facilitate dialogue and build relationships to address rapid changes in the Arctic. With sea ice levels at their lowest point in recorded history, the world is waking up to the challenges and opportunities this presents for all of us. We aim to strengthen the decision-making process by bringing together as many international partners as possible to interact under one large "open tent".

When this mission statement first emerged it did cause some alarm because of the direct inference that 'decision making' and 'international partners' need to be both improved and brought into contact with one another in the context of the Arctic. The reference to an 'open tent' remains an intriguing one – an analogy that does not quite work as well as it might in English. While an open tent might suggest greater possibilities for access, it might paradoxically be more susceptible to being blown away in inclement conditions.

The integrity of a tent needs to be monitored and the mission statement is rather vague about who or what might control access and stability of the said 'open tent'.

On April 17, 2013, the President of Iceland came to the National Press Club in New York to discuss this initiative further.1 President Grímsson is a veteran politician. He is serving a fifth term as president, and holds a PhD in political science. Previously he was a Finance Minister and a member of the Icelandic Parliament. The timing was significant. Iceland had signed a free trade agreement with China (15th April 2013) and entered into various negotiations with Chinese and Icelandic organizations including oil exploration and shipping. The presidential talk also coincided with Iceland's growing interest in being understood by others as an Arctic Ocean coastal state.2 President Grímsson's talk was significant as he told his audience about the growing 'visibility' of what he termed a 'global Arctic'. Significantly, he told his audience about his private meetings with South and East Asian political leaders who all mentioned their interest in the Arctic, and desire to obtain Observer status at the Arctic Council. The Arctic Circle initiative was, as he concluded, driven by recognition that 'the Arctic is not just our Arctic, it is a global Arctic and what happens there will have fundamental consequences for every nation in the world'.

In the question and answer session, President Grímsson was asked about the difference between the Arctic Circle and the Arctic Council. His answer, significantly, made reference to the fact that Observers to the Arctic Council are not allowed to contribute to the formal debate of the Council. In contrast, the Arctic Circle would facilitate debate and dialogue, which would not privilege some actors more than others. He spoke of the Arctic Circle being a democratic 'open tent' and was intended to be a facilitator for others to participate including the Northern Research Forum and Polar Law Symposium.

The timing of this New York-based event was of course significant. Delivered approximately a month before the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Kiruna, the press coverage in the aftermath of the presidential address explicitly linked this initiative as a clarion call for a broader recognition of the extra-territorial interests of other states and business corporations. On May 15th, under the chairmanship of Sweden, the Arctic Council membership admitted six new states, China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, to join the six states, nine intergovernmental organizations, and eleven non-governmental organizations that already had 'permanent' observer status in the Arctic Council (AC). Swedish foreign minister and meeting host Carl Bildt told The New York Times (16 May 2013) that the expansion 'strengthens the position of the Arctic Council on the global scene'.3 The decision to admit all the prospective states to observer status took its toll on other applicants including non-state organizations such as Greenpeace and the Association of Oil and Gas Producers. The candidature of the European Union was postponed. At the Kiruna meeting, Greenpeace staged a protest against Arctic oil and gas drilling and has committed itself to continue its high profile campaign.

So what has the Arctic Circle initiative achieved at this stage? One conclusion would be that the timing of this initiative contributed to the increased likeliness of new observers such as China and Japan being admitted in May 2013 to the Arctic Council, a result of President Grímsson's public championing of these new states (he never once mentioned Italy in his speech) and willingness to engage with business organizations. Indeed, the admittance of these new observers in some ways consolidates a privileging of states regardless of their geographical relationship/location to the Arctic. Moreover, the Arctic Council has committed itself to creating a Circumpolar Business Forum (to be launched in 2014). In a speech delivered by Patrick Borbey, chair of the Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs), it was noted that, "the goals of the Forum include bringing circumpolar business perspectives to the work of the Council, advancing Arctic-oriented business interests, sharing best practices and engaging in deeper cooperation. The initial focus of the Forum will be on the extractive industries sector and related sectors such as shipping and infrastructure".4 Would this have happened had not the Icelandic president made it clear in his speech that businesses/corporations would be welcome in a new Arctic Circle?

Looking ahead to the October meeting, I think the significance of this inaugural event (it is hoped it will be an annual affair with a rotating Arctic location) is that it is simply happening in the first place. Depending on the attendance list and the scope of the event, we might garner further clues to its longer-term future. The UK government has confirmed, for example, that there will be an official British presence. More substantively, we may well see that the Arctic Circle initiative contributes to new pressures on the Arctic Council to grant further recognition to observer states such as China, UK and Japan in ministerial meetings and elsewhere. Giving observers greater scope to contribute to the formal debates of the Arctic Council might prove a decisive issue. The Circumpolar Business Forum's emergence in 2014 will also be interesting to observe to assess whether this will give greater recognition to the interests of corporations in the formal business of this inter-governmental forum. Paradoxically, perhaps, the Arctic Circle initiative has done considerable 'work' in Arctic politics even before the inaugural meeting – recent applicants such as China are no longer ad hoc observers of the Arctic Council after all.

Notes

  1. Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson address at a National Press Club Luncheon April 15, 2013 available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wW0p_Eh94PI
  2. K. Dodds & V. Ingimundarson. (2012). Territorial nationalism and Arctic geopolitics: Iceland as an Arctic coastal state. Polar Journal 2: 21-37.
  3. P. Steinberg & K. Dodds. (2013). The Arctic Council after Kiruna. Polar Record. Published online 13 August 2013. Available at: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8970062
  4. Presentation by Patrick Borbey,
Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials. Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) Conference. Anchorage, Alaska
Thursday, July 18, 12:00. Available at: http://www.arctic-council.org/index.php/en/document-archive/category/454-canadian-chairmanship-representation?download=1800:patrick-borbey-sao-chair-speech-18-july-2013.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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