Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende fears a potential race for resources in the Arctic. He also thinks it would be naïve not to discuss a potential spillover of other conflicts into the Arctic. Many of the solutions to these challenges are, in his opinion, to be found in a continued successful cooperation through the Arctic Council.
The Norwegian Foreign Minister meets High North News in Fairbanks, Alaska, soon after the closing of the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting. For two days, he has sat with seven other Foreign Ministers from the Arctic nations.
He has discussed and dined with both Sergei Lavrov of Russia and the American Rex Tillerson.
A successful meeting
In this interview, Børge Brende gives his view on the Arctic Council and on the cooperation in the High North.
- The meeting of the Arctic Council has been very successful. It also confirms the Arctic states' strong ownership of the Council. We are in the middle of a very demanding international situation where there is a lot going on, both in Syria, Yemen and also North Korea. Yet both Sergej Lavrov and Rex Tillerson chose to come to this meeting. It proves that the Arctic Council is a priority. Even though there are no conflicts or contradictions here, one still chooses to emphasize just that both through attending the meeting and through signing a Letter of Intent on further strengthening of research cooperation in the Arctic. That is very important, because everything should be based on knowledge when operating in Arctic areas.
- In addition to the meeting itself, there have also been deep political conversations about the road ahead. On Wednesday, we had a joint Foreign Ministers' Dinner, where we sat around the table discussing how to ensure that the Arctic remains a peaceful spot in the future too.Les artikkelen på norsk.
Sees warning signs
Nevertheless, Foreign Minister Børge Brende sees some warning signs already.
- Some are worried that future resource needs shall lead to a stronger pressure on the Arctic from players who are not a part of the Arctic Council today. There is an increased need for proteins and food, fisheries, minerals, oil, gas and energy. We must discuss how we are to relate to that. Within the Arctic Council, there is broad agreement on sticking to Public International Law and the Law of the Seas. That must be the foundation. The Law of the Seas is the foundation of this Arctic cooperation.
- Are you in reality saying that we are facing a new race for resources in the Arctic?
- For years, the issue of race for resources in the Arctic has been hyped, without reality really coming to that. However, I think we must keep in mind that the pressure on the Arctic can increase when the ice melts, new areas open up and the world grows from seven to ten billion people. There may very well be increased interest in the Arctic in the years ahead. The goal for the Arctic Council is that we do not develop such a race, that we have clear guidelines. We apply principles of preparedness. It must be sustainable. However, I do not think, based on the experiences we have in Norway, that we can turn the Arctic into a museum or a national park. The Arctic has resources that we must be able to harvest in a sustainable way in the future. There is broad agreement on this, in particular among the nations that hold large areas of the Arctic. I feel we speak well with both Russia, Canada, Greenland, Iceland and the USA about this.
Risk of contamination from the south
- Some fear that conflicts in other parts of the world may spill over into the Arctic. You touched on this during your talk at the Ministerial Meeting earlier today?
- I believe it would be counterproductive and naïve not to discuss this. We must be prepared for disagreements arising in the Arctic. Through being aware, it is easier to keep it from happening. And so far, we have succeeded in that.
- Yesterday, we had a dinner with the core Foreign Ministers of the Arctic Council, from Canada, Russia, the USA and the Nordic countries. There too, we agreed on cooperation having to be based on the Law of the Seas. Sergej Lavrov reminded us all that the USA has not ratified this convention; whereas the USA responded that they adhere to it, even if they have not ratified it. We also know that Russia has doubled its military capacity in the North since 2005. The Russians, on their side, have earlier been critical to NATO's drill capacity and similar issues in the North. However, overall there is broad agreement that cooperation marks the Arctic. The Norwegian-Russian cooperation on fisheries, Search and Rescue, environment and people-to-people cooperation is mentioned as a positive thing from Lavrov's side too.
EU still shut out
- Then there are many who knock on the Arctic Council's door. Nations that wish to be observers, but have no claims in the Arctic. We discuss how we can handle both that and increased presence of other nations in the Arctic. This was also a topic of discussion during the dinner.
- Does that mean that the issue of the EU's observer status in the Arctic Council is on the agenda once again? Has Russia changed its view on the EU?
- We have no indication of that. Russia's view is very closely tied to the sanctions. As long as the sanctions based on Russia's violation of public international law in the Ukraine remain in force, then Russia will chose to veto the EU in the Arctic Council.
- Sergei Lavrov came straight from discussions with Donald Trump in Washington and up here. It was very clear during the dinner that as long as we stick to what is in the Arctic; there is broad agreement on cooperation and an even closer cooperation.
- Do you manage to keep the other conflicts off the table during such a dinner?
- As long as you discuss Arctic issues, it is obvious that the conversation is characterized by agreement. However, when you sit together like that for hours, then of course other themes will come up too. And there, of course, views differ. Ukraine came up, as did the issue of further military armament. However, I think it is good that we sit around a dinner table and speak openly about areas in which we disagree. That we try out our arguments. It is a lot better than not talking about it. Politically, as for cooperation in the Arctic and other issues that came up, this was one of the more interesting dinners I have participated in for quite some time.
The most important dinners
- A short while ago you had dinner with Sergej Lavrov as well as with the Presidents of Iceland and Finland, in Arkhangelsk. Do the most interesting political dinners take place in the North these days?
- Both this dinner and the one in Arkhangelsk were among the most important dinners I have attended recently. With a limited amount of participants, it allows going in-depth and conversing about important issues. We had even better time and were fewer people in Arkhangelsk. However, what was very special yesterday was that we had the two 'superpowers' USA and Russia present at the table, in addition to Canada.
- In his speech during the Ministerial Meeting, Lavrov picked up the question about resuming the defense-political meetings in the North. How do you consider this suggestion?
- We have chosen to keep the 'hotline' between Norway and Russia. There have been discussions about how to handle this in a NATO/Russia context. To us, it has been important to keep the 'hotline' while at the same time send a signal that the military cooperation will not be unaffected by Russia's taking a bit of Ukraine. It is no problem to return to the old system if Russia exits East Ukraine.
- The Arctic Council has agreed on a rather extensive declaration during this year's summit. What does this declaration mean in practice?
- It has been important for us that the declaration should speak of the environment. There is no doubt that climate changes happen twice as fast in the Arctic as in the rest of the world. In addition, it was important to include a reference to the Paris Agreement.
The USA does what it pleases
- Was there much disagreement on these formulations? For those of us who were in the audience it was easy to get the impression that US Foreign Minister Rex Tillerson in his opening statement distanced himself from this part of the declaration. He clearly said that the USA is in no hurry to draw conclusions, and that the Trump administration in any case would chose the options it considers best for the USA?
- We know that there are important discussions going on in Washington on whether or not the USA shall remain party to the Paris Agreement, and with that, the obligations they have taken on. I am therefore glad the USA participated in a reference to both the Paris Agreement and climate in their statement. I did not read Tillerson the way you describe. I heard that the USA supports this declaration, and that is a good thing. At the same time, there is no doubt about where they stand on climate issues today.
- Do you think that the USA and Donald Trump care at all about what a statement from the Arctic Council says about the climate?
- There were discussions going back and forth, and the fact that the USA supports this declaration is a positive outcome. Nevertheless, there is a broader discussion going on in Washington right now, one about endorsement of the Paris Agreement.
- You agreed on the declaration more or less on the same day that the USA postponed important meetings about the Paris Agreement?
- I believe it is good that they take their time with this. It is good for the Paris Agreement that they did not draw any conclusions now. It goes to prove that it's complex. Tillerson said to me that the important thing now is for them to define and decide on what their climate and energy policy should be. Then come the discussions about the Paris Agreement. I do of course hope that they will stand by it. But we heard what Trump said during the election and should not be surprised.
- Finland will do a good job
- Through the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the USA has had a kind of focus on the Arctic for the past two years. All other member states seem to agree that the Arctic Council has been strengthened and become more efficient during the American chairmanship. What do you think will happen in the relationship between the USA and the rest of the Arctic when they are no longer in a place of leadership?
- Foreign Minister Tillerson has worked a lot with the Arctic earlier in life. I believe he has better knowledge and understanding of the Arctic than many others do. He understands both the importance and also what vast resources there are. If you are to manage these resources sustainably, it is important that you related to countries that understand the rules of the game, so that we do not end up with a race for resources. This must take place in an orderly fashion.
- I believe Finland has all factors in place to succeed with its chairmanship. They have a close and good dialogue with Russia. There is no doubt about that. The Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President are often in Russia. At the same time, they have stood firmly by the EU's policy of sanctions and the importance of public international law. When the Finns take on a task, they are very methodic in their work. With Finland chairing, there is a good chance for this work to continue. They will take pride in this, I am convinced, Foreign Minister Børge Brende says in closing.