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As Ice Melts, the Arctic Warms Up to a Global Presence

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Beaufort Sea, northeast of Barrow, Alaska

Though diplomatic relations with Russia are cooling globally, one region stands out: the Arctic. The members of the Arctic Council — Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States (Alaska) – are making impressive diplomatic progress in the North. Here, the Russians and their neighbors are marking the end of an often icy relationship that has persisted even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Meetings of the Arctic Council and other summits take a friendly and businesslike form, with politicians and businessmen intermingling. The Arctic thaw is translating into a diplomatic thaw – a thaw that is benefiting all parties involved. Perhaps the time is ripe not only for a Nordic model, but also for an Arctic model for diplomacy.

Over the last few years, enormous Russia has amped up relations with comparatively minuscule neighbors such as Norway, seemingly benefiting the smaller party; Russia’s usual power politics are clearly not as prominent in the area. Most surprisingly, Russia’s relationship with the NATO countries Canada, Denmark, Iceland and Norway is blossoming. These relationships stand in stark contrast to Russia’s problematic relationship to post-Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia or the Baltic NATO members, to mention a few. The reason for this, ironically, may be that the Arctic NATO member nations used to be Russia’s enemies during the Cold War. As a result, dependency upon “Mother Russia” was never established, which enables the Arctic countries to negotiate with Russia on a relatively even footing. The threat of inclusion or exclusion from a Russian trade union is not a major concern for Russia’s resource-rich Arctic neighbors. In other words, Russia’s bargaining power is completely different in the Arctic than near its southern or western borders.

In dealing with smaller neighbors, Russia’s attitude has often been one of domination, and airspace and maritime borders have often been a source of conflict. In the North, on the other hand, a historic border agreement in the Barents Sea was signed in 2010, effectively ending a diplomatically complex process that began in 1970. The historic agreement will allow potentially vast oil and gas fields in the Barents Sea to be exploited, which has previously been impossible because of the unresolved border issue. In the World Economic Forum report on the Arctic, the region was commended as “a powerful example of international collaboration, with the Arctic countries largely conforming to standard international treaties (e.g. UNCLOS), regional forums (e.g. the Arctic Council) and regular diplomatic channels to resolve their differences.” As a result, the growing alliances of Arctic nations are resolving key points of contestation long before they are aggravated, creating strong precedents for peaceful dialogue and trade.

Increasingly large global players have stepped in to take advantage of the North’s untapped potential. Most notably, Russian Novatek, French Total and China National Petroleum Corporation made a final investment decision in December 2013 for the liquid natural gas project Yamal LNG. Their collective investment — $28 billion — is, according to some, the biggest proof of the viability of extracting Arctic resources on a large scale. It is also an example of China’s increasing interest in the Arctic. China became a permanent observer to the Arctic Council in 2013. Another sign of Russia’s willingness to cooperate was when French oil and gas company Total was tapped by Gazprom, the insular state-controlled gas giant, as a co-developer of the now-stalled major Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea. Shtokman is the largest offshore natural gas field in the world and is assumed to hold over 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The developments in the North are not solely related to oil and gas; trade routes are also opening up as a result of the melting of the polar ice cap. The Northeast Passage, also known as the Northern Sea Route (NSR), a long-time dream of Nordic, Dutch and British polar explorers, has finally opened for business. In 2013, more than 71 ships traversed the Northern Sea Route. The attraction of the route is mainly that it cuts travel time to Asia by at least a quarter if traveling from Northern Europe. With today’s high oil prices, this generates significant savings. Although only open four to five months a year, the NSR would still be particularly important for resources being extracted in the North for consumption in Asia. The summer availability of the NSR turns a freight disadvantage into an advantage during the ice-free season. Even before transportation in the Arctic has taken on real economic importance, special regulations for shipping in Arctic waters are in the works. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations’ agency responsible for shipping, is developing a mandatory Polar Code. The code would serve as an Arctic supplement to the already existing international maritime laws. This piece of legislation is intended to set the scene for sustainable development in the North and will make the possibility of a “Wild North” more implausible.

What all these Arctic deals have in common is that everyone stands to gain from effective communication and cooperation, and that gridlock is everyone’s loss. The Northern Sea Route, for example, would be valuable to cut travel time for Western European shipping, but it is also a great way for Russia to bring business and life to a desolate and largely poor, but also resource-rich, northern area. Interestingly, much of the progress is rooted in concrete and economically motivated deals. The Arctic thaw not only is making new trading routes open, but also is creating a precedent of peaceful diplomatic agreements between the Northern states.

Although the Arctic regions are sparsely populated and could be expected to be less influential than countries like Russia and China, organizations like the Arctic Council have demonstrated an unusual commitment to and capacity for non-aggressive conflict resolution. The Arctic Council has proven itself an effective tool for creating the framework for an ecologically and economically sustainable development of the future Arctic. Its members have worked together towards the same goals ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and the official establishment of the council in the 1996 Ottawa Declaration. The indigenous people represented on the councils have proven that governments can work together internationally with indigenous people, instead of against them. Several indigenous organizations have representatives in the council: the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and the Saami Council.

The kind of diplomacy seen in the Arctic is probably possible because of the more pragmatic nature of the negotiations. Until recently, the short-term stakes have been relatively low, and the rewards have been in a distant future. With long-term business decisions forming the bulk of the special interests in the North, diplomatic relations take on a similar focus. By leaving many decisions to individual economic actors, you ensure a pragmatic and less adversarial approach in the Arctic.  Regardless, a solid foundation of mutual trust in the North will definitely be valuable in a future where the Arctic may play a major role in global trade routes and resource extraction.

About the Author

Edle Astrup Tschudi is a junior concentrating in Slavic Studies (Russian and Russian literature). She comes from Oslo, Norway, but has also lived in Switzerland. She enjoys fried food, good company and Netflix.