Home Alone The recent Arctic Circle conference shows that not all accept the current regional order in the High North.
Written by Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, Assistant Professor at Center for War Studies
Have you ever been to a wedding without the bride and groom? A birthday without the birthday boy or girl? A baptism without a baby? That was the feeling that one had at the 2015 Arctic Circle, an enormous annual Arctic conference for policymakers, businesses, and scholars, which was just held in Reykjavik’s impressive Harpa Concert Hall last week. The conference, which aims to “increase participation in Arctic dialogue and strengthen the international focus on the future of the Arctic”, had all the makings of a truly international event and the more than 1,900 attendees included French president Hollande, China’s vice-minister of foreign affairs Zhang Ming, Prince Albert of Monaco, and Olafur Grimsson, the president of Iceland.
However, most of the important cast of characters – senior representatives of the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US) – were suspiciously absent. The Canadians, Danes, and Norwegians had stayed at home. Sure, the US was represented, but none of the key policymakers – Robert Papp (the US Special Representative for the Arctic), Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska or one of the under secretaries or assistant secretaries of state – were there. The Russian delegation stood out by actually including central figures like Artur Chilingarov, the Duma member who orchestrated the infamous 2007 North Pole flag planting. However, the overall impression was of parents leaving their kids alone to run the business.
Many participated at the 2015 Arctic Circle, but the senior representatives of the five Arctic coastal states were absent. Photo by Arctic Circle.
Arctic Circle represents a challenge the existing regional order. The current order was put into place around 2007-10 and it privileges the five coastal states in front of non-coastal Arctic countries (Finland, Iceland, Sweden), non-Arctic states (e.g. China, Japan, and the EU countries), indigenous communities, and NGOs. The conference is run by the Icelandic government (with support from various funds and businesses) and it creates a forum for discussing regional questions outside of the order’s existing forums: the Arctic Council and the Arctic 5 ad hoc ministerials. The outsiders get the spotlight at Arctic Circle, while the real power brokers stay at home.
To use a term coined by Morse and Keohane (2014), it represents an example of contested multilateralism – that is “the situation that results from the pursuit of strategies by states, multilateral organizations, and non-state actors to use multilateral institutions, existing or newly created, to challenge the rules, practices, or missions of existing multilateral institutions.” It allows the Icelandic government and other dissatisfied actors to signal their frustration to the Arctic coastal states by diminishing the value of existing institutions (regime shifting), while creating the potential for a rival institutional order (competitive regime creation). As Morse and Keohane show, history is ripe with institutions or regimes that collapsed due to such challenges.
The Arctic coastal states have responded by largely ignoring Arctic Circle (hence their absence). This is part of a larger strategy of exclusion, where the coastal states cement their position on top of the hierarchy of states by not allowing others to make decisions. One wonders if other strategies would have been more sensible. Why have the Arctic coastal states not themselves developed a conference on this scale? They all struggle with dissatisfaction from local communities who want economic development and political inclusion and a conference like Arctic Circle would have provided them an opportunity to create business opportunities in the region and giving voice to otherwise marginalized communities. Perhaps the Arctic coastal states have been too preoccupied with demonstrating their own centrality to recognize the gains that a little inclusion could have wrought.
Link to this article: http://www.sdu.dk/en/Om_SDU/Institutter_centre/C_CWS/Previous+Blog+Posts+BW#alone