Blog: What to expect from the 2019 Arctic Council Ministerial

Heather Exner-Pirot is a Research Associate at the Observatoire de la politique et la sécurité de l'Arctique (OPSA) and the managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook. 

Tired of Brexit and Trump? Frustrated by protectionism and extremism? Set your alarm, grab some coffee and wrap yourself in the warm and fuzzy blanket that is Arctic politics on Tuesday. See what happens when the grown-ups are in charge. 

The Arctic Council is a collegial and sober organization, that likes to stay above the fray of geopolitical tussling. But every two years it is injected into the world of realpolitik, when the Foreign Ministers of the eight Arctic states get together to declare their intentions for the Arctic region.

Here’s what to watch for on May 7th as Arctic leaders gather for the eleventh time, in Rovaniemi, and Finland passes the gavel over to Iceland.

USA Playing the Spoiler

The story that will inevitably catch the most media attention is the USA’s role as spoiler over how and to what degree to sound the alarm on climate changes affecting the region.

The drama boils down to the wordsmithing of the Ministerial Declaration. In the peculiar world of diplomacy where “note with concern” is far down the spectrum from “recognize”, and where adding the word “very” is the verbal equivalent of moving up a DEFCON level, language denotes the most basic intentions of states. You can assume that the word “climate” will find its way into the document, as will “changes” – but will they be beside each other? And will the existence of the Paris Agreement, or any kind of effort to mitigate climate change, be acknowledged?

About the author

Heather Exner-Pirot is a Research Associate at the Observatoire de la politique et la sécurité de l'Arctique (OPSA) and the managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook.

She has held positions at the University of Saskatchewan, the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development and the University of the Arctic.

She completed her doctoral degree in political science at the University of Calgary in 2011. She has published extensively in Arctic and northern governance, human security, and Indigenous economic development. 

For the other seven states and the six Indigenous Permanent Participants, this kind of game playing, fifteen years after the release of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, is ridiculous. Almost everything the Arctic Council deals with, be it social, environmental or economic, is influenced by climate change in the region. To pussyfoot around it is untenable. To that end, the normally tight-lipped Council has been putting unprecedented public pressure on the Americans, from leaks by “officials familiar with” the Arctic Council (here and here) to a rebuke from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (here), to get on side.

America First

Arctic Council watchers will know a similar scenario played out in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2017, with the USA taking out, and then conceding, a reference to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Will Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be as receptive as Rex Tillerson?

On top of their climate change haggling, the USA is casting an additional indignity by scheduling a speech by Pompeo on US Arctic Policy on May 6th. It’s great to see the USA taking Arctic issues so seriously – Pompeo will also visit Greenland before returning home – but it’s poor form to steal the Finns’ and the Arctic Council’s thunder. Expect gratuitous references to icebreakers and China.

The Dean of the Arctic Council

The Arctic Council, more than most international fora, has its own unique culture and style. Without an understanding of its nuances, it will be hard for Pompeo to steer it in his desired direction.

Russlands utenriksminister Sergey Lavrov ønsker Hurtigruta skal gå til Murmansk
Sergey Lavrov is Minister of Foreign Affars of the Russian Federation. Photo by: Violaine Martin 

His task will be all the harder because he is up against a much more experienced and skilled diplomat: Sergey Lavrov. Lavrov is indisputably the Dean of the Arctic Council, with Rovaniemi marking his seventh Ministerial meeting since 2004 (he skipped the 2015 Iqaluit Ministerial after Canadian Chair Leona Aglukkaq threatened to use the occasion to chastise Russia over its incursion into Ukraine).

Pompeo will be aided by the fact that America’s Senior Arctic Official, Julie Gourley has been in her position since 2005, a rare tenure in the diplomatic world. Her institutional memory will soon be lost, however: she has announced she will retire after Rovaniemi.

Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

At the end of the day, the Arctic states will observe the niceties of international diplomacy when it comes to the Ministerial roundtable – the hour or so session when each delegation (eight states and six Permanent Participants) gets a handful of minutes to express their positions.

The Arctic Council is comprised of eight member states, six working groups and six Indigenous permanent participant organizations, as well as observer states and organizations. (Arctic Council Secretariat)

The Permanent Participants, on the other hand, are more inclined and freer to say what they really think. If you want to get a sense of the mood of the Council following the final negotiations, watch what they have to say.

‘Finnishing’ Strong?

Finland adopted the theme of “exploring common solutions” for its Chairmanship. It’s fair to say the Arctic Council is still exploring. The Finnish Chairmanship is unique in that it supplies no big-ticket items, by way of an Agreement or a new subsidiary body for example.

Perhaps too much political energy was wasted early on with the idea of an Arctic Summit for Heads of State. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö did manage to bring both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump to Helsinki in July 2018, where he made an impassioned plea to more aggressively address black carbon. That appeal was almost completely overshadowed by allegations of Russian meddling in the USA’s 2016 federal elections and Trump’s response to them. An eight-party Arctic Summit with two of the world’s most toxic leaders, that would not address climate change, was not on the top of anyone else’s list of priorities.

- Husk, er det noen som etter hvert vil vite hva det faktisk betyr å ha kjernefysiske våpenarsenaler, så er det topplederne i de to stormaktene, Russland og USA. (Foto av Trump: Michael Vadon).
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

There was potential in a new Strategic Plan for the Arctic Council to sharpen its focus and enhance its impact, initiated under the American Chairmanship and thrust upon Finland to carry through. I am firmly in the camp of those who see a need for a good restructuring of the Arctic Council, which has outgrown many aspects of the 1996 Ottawa Declaration which established it. But it seems path dependence will preclude the Arctic Council from reinventing itself. Neither Moscow nor Washington DC has any appetite for a more ambitious or robust Council. The new strategic plan is not expected to be any kind of game changer.

Finland also identified connectivity, meteorology, education and environmental protection as top priorities for its Chairmanship. Watch for expanded meteorological cooperation, which SAO Chair Aleksi Härkönen has several times referred to as a “breakthrough”, to be the favoured narrative of Finnish Chairmanship achievements from those inside the Arctic Council. Whether anyone outside of the Council gets as excited about it is yet to be determined.

Delivering the Goods

The Ministerial, as always, will feature dozens of deliverables from the Council’s six Working Groups. The Council has teased the highlights here, which include reports, studies and summaries of such topics as contaminants, freshwater biodiversity, community-based oil spill responses, marine litter and teacher education.

One of the more significant, and thus political, efforts was around black carbon. Black carbon is a short lived climate pollutant. By reducing it – it mostly comes in the form of fine particulate matter generated by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass – you can have a big impact on climate change mitigation. The Arctic Council’s expert group on black carbon and methane sought to document national efforts to reduce emissions and give specific recommendations for further action. These efforts were stymied somewhat by Russia until very recently, but it looks like whatever domestic challenges it faced have been overcome, and the Summary will be complete in time for the Ministerial.

No Fuss, No Muss Chairmanship

We will all be looking for drama – a story – on Tuesday. But the real story will be the fact that the Arctic Council has sustained another two years without serious drama, amid a tumultuous and oftentimes antagonistic global political environment. The Arctic Council makes this looks easy. So easy that we expect it, and indeed take it for granted.

If maintaining peace and stability was easy, everyone would be doing it. The fact is, it’s the Arctic Council’s biggest deliverable, and everything else is a sideshow.

Tired of Brexit and Trump? Frustrated by protectionism and extremism? Set your alarm, grab some coffee and wrap yourself in the warm and fuzzy blanket that is Arctic politics on Tuesday. See what happens when the grown-ups are in charge. 

This article was written by Heather Exner-Pirot and originally published on Eye on Arctic. Republished with permission.