Expanding to new territories, capturing new sources of wealth and influence always was at the center of aspirations of people, states, and capital. The Arctic is probably the last such frontier for human expansion, with the potential of tremendously rich awards for everyone who will be able to access them. There is a treasure hidden under the icy hat of the Arctic and (so far) largely un-used transportation routes above it. With ice melting faster than expect, the economic bonanza is just opening with precious mineral resources, crude oil, natural gas and gold. The hydrocarbon deposits in a deep-water area of the Arctic Ocean are estimated at 15-20 billion tons. The Arctic also has deposits of nickel, copper, tungsten, gold, silver, manganese, chromium and titanium. 11% of Russia’s GDP and 22% of her exports are already produced in the Arctic. This is not all. Other economic benefits include new shipping lines opening up as the ice melts, which also provide access to new fishing areas. The Northern Sea Route, a major national transportation route, links the Russian Far East to western areas of the Russian Federation. But market lenses are providing only one perspective to look at the Arctic. It is also in our interest to look from a different perspective at a very fragile environment that can be easily damaged beyond our nightmares, at ways we can easily ruin the life of indigenous people, and at a situation which has the potential to easily breed conflict.
Because of this diversity of factors – opportunities and threats - there is a need for fine-tuned international coordination on almost everything what we do there. This is in no small part due to the Arctic’s fragile environment, the specificity of the livelihood of the Arctic indigenous population, and the natural dangers of the North. So far the most important space for consensus building in that area is an Arctic Council. This year marks the fifth anniversary of its formation. When in 1996 Canada invited to Ottawa representatives of eight countries with territories in the Arctic, things looked much simpler than today as we simply did not know as much about complexities and opportunities ahead. The main purpose of the Council was to have a mechanism for eight governments and representatives of their indigenous population (that have a special status in the Council in form of so-called Permanent Participants) to talk about common problems and potential solutions, coordinate activities, and share information and research. Looking from that perspective, the Arctic Council is not only needed today, but its founding members should consider how to expand its membership and status as the only place that concerns about environment, sustainability of socio-economic development, and governance issues can be discussed so broadly.
Piotr Dutkiewicz, Professor and Director, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
But things have also changed since 1996. Climate change and new technologies made it possible to think more realistically about new transportation routes and extraction of resources (both in the water and under the ice). Naturally, Arctic nations have started to make plans on how to compete for those. Competition does not like crowded places and consensus building; competition in particular does not like newcomers and outsiders. That is why when some countries applied either to change their low-key status of Observers to the more influential title of Permanent Members or to gain a status of Observer (China, the EU, Italy and Korea applied) they did not receive a warm welcome. What people, companies and states all like is to have minimal regulations over their heads, but the Arctic needs much more than that and needs it quickly to avoid potential disasters and conflicts. We need at least some clear policies and regulatory frameworks. So there are basically two solutions: either to discuss empowerment of the Council and allow it to be more policy oriented, more robust, better known, better funded and more efficient (that is to say as well more politicized and thus even more complex) or to move some important conversations about key issues to other places.
The list of “things to do” is long and the process in discussing them quite complex. From delimitation of sovereignty over an extended continental shelf, international Arctic governance, marine environment protection, use of the sea, mechanisms for a peaceful resolution of competing interests and a sustainable development of its territory just to name the key areas. The big question is whether the Council in its current form and mandate is up to the tasks. So far every member officially supports it, but the cracks are spotted not only on the Arctic ice. Last year (March, 2010) Russian, Norwegian, Danish, U.S. and Canadian foreign ministers met to discuss Arctic issues in Quebec, Canada within the framework of the so-called Arctic Ocean Coastal States (only five of them were present instead of eight Arctic Council members). As Finland, Iceland and Sweden were missing, the Arctic Big Five (regrettably, without too much of the representation of their indigenous population) were quite comfortable discussing (during closed-door meetings) national sovereignty, law, and governance issues. Many thought that the spirit of the Arctic Council was on the edge of being compromised, which raises a big question on how to balance national and cross-national interests in the Arctic. It also proves that so far national interests trump everything else.
Russia, with its vast expertise and Arctic know how, plays a very important role in the Arctic Council, but it needs to secure other channels of influence as well, both bilateral and multilateral; if it wants to, Russia can be an extremely effective negotiator (the territorial agreement with Norway is the best example); if it wants to, Russia can move quickly forming economic partnerships in the Arctic (as shown by the BP-Rosneft deal). Thus there are reasonable hopes that Russia will be a powerful partner in protecting not only her national interest, but also the Arctic environment and its people, and supporting sustainable development in this last human frontier.
Piotr Dutkiewicz is Professor and Director, Centre for Governance and Public Management Carleton University
Add to blog
You may place this material on your blog by copying the link.