Op-ed: The Need for New Arctic Exceptionalism?

Arctic Frontiers 2022.
President of the Saami Council, Christina Henriksen, spoke at Arctic Frontiers 2022. (Photo: Trine Jonassen)

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Reflections from the Arctic Frontiers 2022;

Outstanding international experts have with regret stated that Arctic exceptionalism no longer exists. The Arctic Frontiers sessions 2022 manifested unanimous confusion about further cooperation in the region after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This year, Russia chairs the Arctic Council (AC), the key regional forum.

Seven member-states suspended their participation in the activities of the AC for the reasons of the global political split. No one in the audience had clear ideas on how to proceed from the current situation and if the transition of the chairmanship to Norway next year will make sense for the AC.

Another point where the Arctic Frontiers panelists were unanimous is that with no Russia, there is no ‘the Arctic Council’. The expelling of Russia does not create a new pathway for the Arctic either. Opportunities for cooperation in the A7 format certainly exist, but their effectiveness will be limited.

The loss of the Russian Arctic as a cooperative part will unfold challenges that can become irreversible for Arctic people and the environment.

It is likely to expect the gap in sustainable development, disruption of people-to-people cooperation, and indigenous peoples' and family ties. It is also possible to assume more complications for solving the nuclear and industrial pollution in the Arctic seas and the shore, and for sure the much more obstacles to the green transition in the region.

After 2014, reassurance measures were fading away.

One more thing is the loss of competence. The easy-to-say idea of cooperation with individual scholars instead of dealing with Russian institutes works fine for many social disciplines. However, it is not feasible for natural science where researchers need access to the field and data that in most cases are provided by the state funding and control.

Finally, the deeper involvement of non-Arctic states, as the Arctic Frontiers panelists assume, will solidify their positions in the region and fasten the split of the unity into two rival blocks. In this op-ed, we discuss the need and grounds for the new Arctic exceptionalism.

What was the ‘Arctic exceptionalism’?

The so-called ‘Arctic exceptionalism’ could be formulated as the circumpolar states' will to pursue cooperation despite the disagreements in other areas. Under the flag of keeping the Arctic as a ‘zone of peace and cooperation’, the eight circumpolar nations initiated the Arctic regime with its key platform of the Arctic Council.

The approach proved itself effective to solve common challenges, yet it has never been perfect for comprehensive cooperation. One internal deficiency of the ‘Arctic exceptionalism’ was the actors’ perception of the irrelevance to invest in security dialogue.

The bilateral meetings and platforms on the issue covered a limited set of problems, and the lack of dialogue has always been keenly felt. After 2014, reassurance measures were fading away. Nevertheless, the Arctic Council kept its political and humanitarian focus, and the declared zone of peace in the Arctic remained valued.

It is worth noting that this is not the first-ever pause in the Arctic Council's work.

The regional ties were helping to mitigate the security dilemma within the constellation of other fora, which now all tend to follow the line for the disruption of the dialogue.

The great merit of the Arctic cooperation was the increase in knowledge of the region's issues including the climate change effects. After all, Arctic states including Russia introduced the goals of the green transition domestically and started the reformation of the regulatory system.

The Polar Code and the boost of alternative energy industries in the region were visible breakthroughs. Even amid all the discontent of environmentalists and still the lack of pace to meet up with the global warming trend, the turn to the green raised hopes.

The Arctic states faced more nuanced issues of harmonizing economic measures with the indigenous people's lives and of side effects of some technologies earlier considered eco-friendly. The course for the sustainable Arctic was at the top of negotiations. A few months ago.

Current moment for the Arctic cooperation

It is worth noting that this is not the first-ever pause in the Arctic Council's work. Earlier, the running of meetings or operating of working groups has already experienced compelled stops, including after 2014. Same regards to transborder relations and trade.

After the stringent rules, interaction has already taken a nosedive, including for scientific meetings.

The most recent and still ongoing reason was the COVID-19 outbreak with its border restrictions and quarantine measures. After the stringent rules, interaction has already taken a nosedive, including for scientific meetings. Those measures that were taken with a public controversy of their reasonability and effectiveness to control the disease spread had two malign outcomes.

The first one is the raised public control with a semi-military aftertaste of the lockdowns, curfew, and attending gatherings by the vaccine pass. The second one is the volens nolens acceptance of no international cooperation as new normality.

Against this backdrop, one can argue that if not for the pandemic, that could be more difficult to cut ties with Russia so drastically since the damage to people and scientific projects would be more salient. Now it does not seem that harmful.

After February 24, ties turned to be frozen to an extent that people-to-people contacts were limited to person-to-person interactions if those are feasible at all. From the A7 point of view, continued cooperation will be a sign of agreement with the Russian state, which will impact the actors’ reputation.

As a result, the vigorous political dissent with Russia obstructs the official cooperation with organizations, harms the earlier untouchable areas as setting fish-quota, and in the end, the nascent dialogue between people as well. Finland and Sweden make a prompt decision to enter NATO which changes their established attitude toward the neighborhood ties with Russia.

The next question is what it will look like.

As with any history-building, all the things happening now in the European arena are not to be reversed anytime ever. With the lack of global predictability, the Arctic actively loses its mitigating privilege with all the bilateral leverages and multilateral negotiations such as the Arctic Frontiers conference.

Nevertheless, no matter how relevant and effective the strategy of ‘tit-for-tat’ is, with the immediate comparable response to the opponent, the outcome never lies within its mechanical logic. As the game theory shows, at a certain point, the actors must start the dialogue. The next question is what it will look like.

What a new Arctic exceptionalism could be?

As the Arctic Frontiers experts narrate, to resume and, moreover, establish cooperation from scratch is always more burdening than maintaining it. The same is true for any international regime.

If assuming the Arctic states’ shared interest in preserving the achievements made so far and keeping the Arctic Council and other relevant formats alive, the options should be in the search for the downsized versions.

The new exceptionalism, if occur, should keep in the same line to secure the trend to the Arctic green development and human security and the pathway to dialogue in the future. At the same time, for the sake of the Arctic, it is likely necessary to leave outside the parentheses not only military but also high politics.

Many of them are struggling to explain the loss to the public.

The two obvious questions are how to make the first step with no damage to the intransigent repute and moreover, who should make it? The answer should hardly be about the state or group of states. However, the Arctic Frontiers 2022 probably has a cue for both questions.

The area that was in the limelight during the event was science diplomacy, which remains the precious bridge for dialogue and cooperation. Several sessions and side-events, extensive networking, and the book launch of the series “Informed Decisionmaking for Sustainability” outlined the capacity of science as diplomatic means.

Arctic scientists experienced the disruptive consequences of the pandemic stopover for their projects and collaboration, including in natural science. Now they are observing the abrupt of the remaining most valuable cooperative initiatives. Many of them are struggling to explain the loss to the public.

Scientists have the best knowledge of the climate change posture in the region. They oversee the horrifying outcomes for the future years with no collaboration on global warming, fisheries, biodiversity, indigenous population, humane health, and gender and social equality. There is a burning need to hear a joint call from scholars to the members of the Arctic Council. With important support from permanent participants presenting indigenous peoples’ voice, the call can stimulate low-tension diplomacy.

Who will speak about peace during wartime?

It could also be further reason to think of the documents able to set the temporary rules of conduct. This could be a memorandum between the AC working groups, signed by high representatives of the Arctic states, confirming the shared incentive to safeguard the Arctic environment and community spirit for future generations.

Another option could be the elaboration of the protocol for cooperation on projects that will ensure the political agenda is aside from interactions between scholars and scientific teams. We assume relevant to think of an innovative grouping that will value the humane and deference amid the geopolitical struggle.

The search for new institutional forms of international cooperation could help to sustain the Arctic regime of dialogue and mutual understanding for the future.

As Gunn-Britt Retter, the Head of the Arctic and Environmental Unit of the Saami Council, mentioned at the conference: “Who will speak about peace during wartime?”

The more precise question for us, the people living above the circle, is “Who will speak about the Arctic?"

When circumstances remove the luxury of conventional peace, it is crucial as ever to cherish the heritage we hold. Green transition, sustainable development, humane capital – all the above belong to the list of shared values of all the eight Arctic states. In this light, it is probably not that matter, which 'side' is the ball on if it is on the side of the Arctic.

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