In the Arctic, the thaw of East-West relations in the 1990s led to deeper regional and sub-regional cooperation, and a strengthening of the stability of the region through the establishment of standards. This led in turn to the formation of a patchwork of standards that overlap and intersect: the proliferation of soft law standards was then the only way to put the states and other stakeholders around the table, in a region that has not yet been cleared of past tensions.
Few observers would have predicted that a body which so many limitations would have reached such results in terms of norm-making, considering that the Arctic Council (AC) is only 20 years old. The AC has often been viewed as politically ineffective, with lots of talk but little action on issues relating to its mandates of environmental protection and sustainable development. The AC is very far from being a perfect forum but despite or thanks to its “soft” structure, it offers a large place for local voices, which ensures its legitimacy, and it can better adapt over time by facilitating compromise.
This paper explores the central role of the AC in Arctic norm setting, stressing the specificities of the Council among the wide range of Arctic-norm producers, and demonstrating how its successes are linked to its soft law structure, as a major factor of legitimacy and socialization, and finally of normative power in the Arctic. It is the flexibility of the AC that contributes to its strength. Thus, despite the absence of any ‘hard’ power, the AC is the major norm setting instrument in the Arctic.