Despite its soft law status and limited organizational capacity, the Arctic Council has proven more successful than most of us present at its creation in 1996 anticipated.
What are the sources of this success? What are the prospects for the future in a rapidly changing Arctic that is linked more and more tightly to the global system? Are there ways to improve the Council’s performance going forward?
The key to the success of the Council lies in its generative role. It has performed well in identifying emerging Arctic issues (eg impacts of persistent organic pollutants, challenges to social welfare), framing them for public consideration, and moving them up on the Arctic policy agenda. In the process, the Council has played an influential role in developing a policy discourse highlighting the Arctic as a distinct region that has emerged as a zone of international peace and sustainability. These are formidable accomplishments for a body that lacks the authority to make formal decisions, much less the capacity to implement them.
What then lies ahead for the Council during an era in which global forces loom large as determinants of the fate of the Arctic? Prominent among these are environmental challenges (eg greenhouse gas emissions), economic swings (eg world market prices of hydrocarbons), and geopolitical shifts (eg the rise of China, the renewal of geopolitical tensions). The Council has little capacity to influence, much less to control, these forces. Yet, it would be wrong to conclude that the Arctic Council has been overtaken by events, so that we will look back and see it as a mechanism that proved useful in the aftermath of the Cold War but was marginalized by increasingly powerful global forces as we move deeper into the 21st century.
The way forward is to embrace the Council’s generative role and adapt it to the challenges of the next phase. The Arctic remains a zone of peace, despite initiatives that some see as provocative. We do, however, need a narrative that clarifies and explains the peacefulness of the Arctic as a region, while acknowledging shifts in the deployment of military forces and initiatives involving new infrastructure driven largely by domestic considerations. Similarly, the Arctic has the potential to become a showcase for sustainability in a human-dominated world, but this will also require the development of a new discourse, one that builds on the idea of stewardship as the key to sustainable human-environment relations. It may also require adjustments in the Council’s organization to emphasize the pursuit of sustainability as the paramount goal.
None of this requires transforming the Council into a ʻnormalʼ intergovernmental organization. It would be a mistake to try to do so. However, it does highlight the importance of setting priorities strategically and framing all major initiatives as contributions to the exemplary role of the Arctic as a zone of peace and sustainability.