The Arctic Council has evolved significantly, and often in its lifespan as an institution, from a diplomatic curiosity to a scientific clearinghouse, and from a policyshaping to an increasingly policy-making body.
But throughout the past twenty years, criticism of the body has remained relatively constant: it 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. It has made volumes of recommendations without much in the way of implementation, cataloguing or evaluation of results.
However valid these criticisms are, they discount the very real achievements the Arctic Council has made in the region. If policy implementation has not been a strength, there can be little doubt the mere fact of the Arctic Council has made the region more stable and secure in the post-Cold War period. Regional norms around environmental protection and the inclusion and respect of local and indigenous perspectives have been institutionalized in the Arctic Council and subsequently far beyond. The Arctic Council is not based on laws and agreements, but it has built a foundation on shared norms and values. This has proven a boon to the organization.
Weaknesses or Strengths?
True to the expression, the Arctic Council’s greatest weaknesses are also its greatest strengths. It has often been criticized for not discussing issues of traditional security. But this intentional omission has allowed it to compartmentalize itself from broader geopolitical events such as the interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. In addition, the Arctic Council has provided the space necessary for those types of discussions to occur, even if it was not the platform for them. After the Search and Rescue (SAR) Agreement was signed in 2011 under the auspices of the Arctic Council, the Canadian military led two meetings of the Arctic Chiefs of Defence Staff. While these have been suspended since the Crimean crisis, cooperation on SAR has continued, leading to the establishment of an eight-nation Arctic Coast Guard Forum in October 2015.
A Victory for Soft Security
The Arctic Council has focused on issues of soft security, such as environmental protection and sustainable development. This has meant that the region is defined not by a zero-sum mentality, but rather by efforts to achieve absolute gains for all. In this, the Arctic Council has led the way to a kind of regional exceptionalism in international affairs. It proves that cooperation between Russia and the West, state and non-state actors, and traditional knowledge holders and scientists is not only desirable but possible. If it is not perfect, well, that is only compared to the ideal. The Arctic Council is a model for global governance, and it is only getting started. The Arctic Council has also been disparaged for its sometimes painfully slow progress on the big issues. Case in point is the long, drawn-out process on determining who would or would not be accepted as observers in the forum following rising geopolitical interest in the Arctic after 2007. For environmentalists its weak implementation of environmental protection regulations has been problematic. But this is a result of the consensus-based nature of the Council’s decision-making, meaning that everyone is on board when decisions are eventually made and the sense of common purpose and ownership of Council activities is strong. This style of governance seems to have limited the kinds of cleavages one may otherwise have expected between indigenous and non-indigenous stakeholders, Russia and the West, and the Barents region versus more remote Arctic regions.