The diplomatic race for the Arctic

Leona Aglukkaq, the Canadian MP for Nunavut and Minister of Health, has been named the Chair of Arctic Council for Canada’s upcoming chairmanship in 2013. Photo: Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian PressThe headline “The Race for the Arctic” has been a favoured one for newspaper and magazine writers, from Time magazine and Forbes to Business Week and Der Spiegel.  Most of this is hyperbole: while there is growing interest in the Arctic, projects in the region take years to plan and license, and billions of dollars to build; slow and steady will win this race.  But amid the talk of oil bonanzas and new shipping lanes, an interesting competition has opened up on the diplomatic front.

Iceland’s Arctic Council chairmanship from 2002-04 was the first chairmanship with a substantive impact, with the release of both the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and Arctic Human Development Report in 2004.  Perhaps inspired by what could be done through the Council, Norway led a joint chairmanship with Denmark and Sweden from 2006-2013, and opened up a temporary Secretariat in Tromsø (which has since become permanent).  Some jockeying was thus apparent.

Diplomatic one-upmanship

But it was the Russian flag-planting in August 2007 and Ilulissat Declaration in May 2008 that sparked real international interest in the Arctic, and a pattern of diplomatic one-upmanship. In September 2008, Russia set out its Fundamentals of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic in the Period up to 2020 and Beyond.  In October 2008, the European Commission released its Communication on the Arctic.  In January 2009, outgoing President George W. Bush released his last Presidential Directive, NSPD-66, outlining US Arctic policy.  NATO hosted a meeting on Arctic security in January 2009. Norway released an updated Arctic strategy, New Building Blocks in the North, in March 2009 and Canada it’s Northern Strategy and Statement on Arctic Foreign Policy in August 2009.  Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Sweden came around to the inevitable a little bit later, with Finland launching its policy in June 2010; Iceland in March 2011; Sweden in May 2011; and Denmark in August 2011. 

This was a pretty remarkable course of events, not only in the fact that it happened at all – every country in a region putting out an official regional policy within three years of each other – but in what they said.  In addition to climate change, indigenous peoples, oil & gas, and shipping, they all made a point of demonstrating their commitment to international cooperation.

The role of non-Arctic states

All of this has been well documented, and if it’s not well known in the general public, then those who follow Arctic politics are certainly familiar with it.  But the diplomatic race is far from over – it now includes non-Arctic states, this time with ambassadorships instead of policies. 

Canada was the first country to have a dedicated circumpolar ambassadorship, first held by Mary Simon from 1994-2003.  However the position was retired by the Harper Government under her successor, Jack Anawak, much to the chagrin of the chattering classes.

But it was not long until other Arctic ambassadorships began popping up.  Poland, an observer in both the AEPS and Arctic Council, and a longtime supporter of Arctic science, appointed Jakub Wolski as Arctic Ambassador in 2006.  From there, it has cascaded:


Poland – Ambassador (Jakub Wolski)


Russia – Ambassador at Large, Arctic Cooperation (Antonin Vasiliev)


Finland – Arctic Ambassador (Hannu Halinen)

France – Polar Ambassador (Michel Rocard)


Sweden – Arctic Ambassador (Gustaf Lind)


Iceland – Ambassador for Arctic Affairs (Hjalmar W. Hannesson)

Spain – Ambassador for Polar and Oceanic Affairs (Marcos Gómez Martinez)


Denmark – Arctic Ambassador (Klavs A. Holm)

Singapore – Special Envoy to the Arctic (Tony Siddique)

Canada – Minister for Arctic Council  (Leona Aglukkaq)

(See the original list at Arctic Yearbook 2012).

Looking forward

What does this mean?  From a peace and security-loving perspective, the fact that states are competing in the field of international cooperation is a good sign that the Arctic is not likely to be a theatre for conflict anytime soon.  Also, it shows that international diplomacy is a lot like high school and no one wants to feel left out (and have to sit at the lunch table in the corner next to North Korea). 

Leona Aglukkaq, the Canadian MP for Nunavut and Minister of Health, has been named the Chair of Arctic Council for Canada’s upcoming chairmanship in 2013.  In addition to being Ambassador to the Arctic Council, she has also been named Minister for the Arctic Council in Canada’s federal cabinet.  Can it be long before Moscow and Oslo have discussions on appointing their own Ministers for Arctic Council?

If one-upmanship is a pattern in the Arctic, which it seems to be, we can also expect treaties to get their due in the coming years.  Denmark had the landmark SAR Agreement; Sweden will have a treaty on oil pollution preparedness.  Canada is being gifted with the expected culmination of IMO negotiations on a mandatory Polar Code during their chairmanship, and have named “safe and secure shipping” as one of three pillars for their chairmanship as a result.  What does this leave the United States with in 2015?  I’m putting an early bet on fisheries.

Heather Exner-Pirot

Heather Exner-Pirot is the Managing Editor of the Arctic Yearbook, a Fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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