The Arctic has in recent years received outsized attention in international discourse. A perceived last frontier of uninhabited and ungoverned spaces – of which it is neither – ripe for great power competition – for which there is little appetite.
In this special issue on International Relations Theory, the Arctic is examined through the tenets of IR Theory with a firm grasp of the region’s complexities, diversity and fairly clear-cut position in international legal hierarchies.
Not only is the Arctic a home to over 4 million people, it is also a relatively well defined space from the perspective of international governance. All landmass falls under the national jurisdictions of the eight Arctic States or their sub-national jurisdictions. All sea falls under either national jurisdictions or is governed by the tenets of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, under the auspices of which a number of bilateral and multilateral agreements have been made. The Central Arctic Ocean is the largest area of high seas in the Arctic. Surrounded by the exclusive economic zones of the Arctic States, it is as well subject to international governance through the legally binding Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, signed in Ilulissat, Greenland on October 3, 2018, and entered into force on June 25th, 2021.
The Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental forum for the region, serves to promote cooperation and coordination among its members, the Arctic States and its Permanent Participants which represent the Arctic Indigenous peoples. It also serves as an interlocutor to the Observers to the Council, including non-Arctic states, governmental and non-governmental entities.
Thus despite the sometimes high strung exclamations to the contrary, so far all is well in the Arctic when it comes to international cooperation and collaboration. The primacy of national sovereignty combined with observance and respect for the rules and norms of international law, all give substance to the policy of maintaining peaceful cooperation and coexistence so steadfastly pursued by the governments of the Arctic.
This does not mean the region is without its challenges, including but not limited to crowded housing, food insecurities, limited health service in remote communities, lack of connectivity, insufficient infrastructure and ever more rapidly warming climate. Sustainability, economic challenges or opportunities, the impact of climate change, geopolitical rivalries, environmental degradation, all impact a fragile and important region, often disproportionately.
The Covid-19 pandemic has in fact highlighted some of these challenges. Political developments on the national and international level do so as well. To maintain the Arctic as an area of peaceful coexistence and cooperation will become an ever-increasing challenge, not least due to the increasing complexities of the challenges we who call the Arctic home are facing.
For Iceland, managing these challenges, during its two year Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, combined with a global pandemic, was not always easy. It is, however, a task successfully completed. Not least due to the fact that everyone involved kept their focus, recognizing that failure was not really an option. In the end, at the Reykjavik Ministerial at the end of May 2021, an ambitious Strategic Plan for the next ten years of the Council’s work was agreed, collectively and by consensus, accompanied by a comprehensive Ministerial Declaration highlighting our shared challenges and achievements. It certainly provides a positive gateway to the next two years of the Russian chairmanship of the Council.
The security dimension remains outside the scope and function of the Arctic Council. Rightfully so, as it would without any doubt impede its other work. That does not preclude us from finding an eventual appropriate home for those deliberations. That will be one of the tasks for the next months and years, and indeed, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov, at the Reykjavik Ministerial, called for the resumption of meetings among Arctic Chiefs of defense.
In this collection of essays and articles you will find interesting, illuminating and challenging observations and insights for anyone intrigued by the Arctic from any angle, be it environmental, societal, economic or geopolitical – a resource and inspiration for further deliberation.
For any scholar of International Relations Theory, the compilation provides a vibrant insight into our region from a theoretical perspective not often seen – a foundation from which to study and reflect on the dynamics we see.
To Dr. Zellen and his students and colleagues who have accomplished this excellent work and provided their keen insights I offer my congratulations and sincere appreciation for being allowed to bask a bit in the glory of their collective achievements.
Iceland’s Senior Arctic Official
November 2019 – June 2021
In 1996, government officials of eight States, who would later be known as the “Arctic 8”, gathered in Ottawa alongside representatives of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (now Council), the Saami Council and the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation (now RAIPON) to sign the Ottawa Declaration on the establishment of the Arctic Council. To the few attentive observers and experts present at the time, the Arctic environment was already undergoing drastic physical changes. Arctic collaboration, however, was not high on the agenda. A forum bridging the gap between politics and Arctic scientific research was therefore regarded as a means to develop cooperation on environmental issues.
As the world of Arctic governance celebrates the council’s 25th anniversary, it does not come as a surprise to see an array of both monographs and edited volumes looking back at how this high-level intergovernmental forum has managed to put itself at the centre of Arctic affairs. Published last year (2020), Rottem’s The Arctic Council: Between Environmental Protection and Geopolitics gives a rather thorough overview of the history and work of the Arctic Council. It is a careful retelling of the Council’s well-documented journey from a body solely focused on environmental matters in the late 1990s and early 2000s to one that finds itself at the forefront of international cooperation in the Arctic. In the now typical style of Palgrave’s Pivot series, which often offers concise and to-the-point introductions to specific specialised topics in around a hundred pages, the book manages to explore the nuance and diversity of an organisation whose prime focus is the production of relevant Arctic knowledge.
The Arctic Council is, of course, only one element of Arctic governance. Many other more regional and subregional fora spring to mind when thinking of Arctic cooperation (e.g. Barents Euro Arctic Council, West Nordic Council, Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation Program, Northern Forum, etc). However, few have found themselves under so much spotlight as the Arctic Council has. Studies and publications about the council’s role in Arctic governance, such as The Arctic Council, have therefore become common occurrences. Across five different chapters, the book weaves Rottem’s own broad experience and knowledge of Arctic issues with the history and challenges facing regional cooperation.
Readers interested in the functioning of the Arctic Council will, without doubts, relish reaching Chapter 4 where Rottem advocates for ways in which the Arctic Council could be reformed to foster closer coordination. Of course, the conversation around reforming the Arctic Council is not a new one. For instance, a few years ago, Exner-Pirot et al. and Smieszek published their research assessing the Council’s strengths and weaknesses in light of the 2019 strategic plan. Acknowledging that both efficiency and effectiveness are key for the AC going forward, these recent publications suggested concrete recommendations to improve the Arctic Council’s form, function, and funding streams. In the same vein, Rottem’s The Arctic Council regards structural changes as key for the high-level intergovernmental forum to keep its place as the main venue for discussions around the future of Arctic governance (p.73).
Once again, rooting its analysis in calls for past reforms and ensuing reports, the book identifies some proposals to streamline the Council’s work. According to Rottem, the recurring challenges for the AC are the lack of clear long-term vision and strategy that could offer certainty and continuity to the Council’s work (p. 86). Amongst his suggestions, the author makes the case for appointing an expert panel tasked to overview potential structural changes, discuss and recommend steps to improve coordination, avoid overlaps between Working Groups and reorganise the Council’s structure. The idea of a clearer strategic vision is pivotal to Rottem’s book. His other suggestions, the creation of an Arctic Summit and holding SAO meetings in capital cities for relevant organisations to attend and partake in an “Arctic Week”, are both linked to give the Council’s a broader reach and better clarity going forward.
Beside chapter 4, which explores the above-mentioned recommendations, there is nothing significantly new about the book. Rather, it is an ode to the Arctic Council itself, as a platform navigating between the global and regional challenges of a changing region. Early in the book, Rottem expresses the hope that having read it, readers would have gained some understanding of the Arctic Council (p. 2). With The Arctic Council, not only does Rottem provides some understanding of the Council, but he also manages to brush a complex and nuanced portrait of its crucial role as a focal point for bringing a broad range of different stakeholders, not just indigenous representatives and state governments, to the same table, or at least to the same room. TheArctic Council provides a starting point for people interested in geopolitics, from seasoned academics to undergraduate students, who are looking to dive into the world of Arctic affairs.
Andreas Raspotnik, in his new book “The European Union and the Geopolitics of the Arctic”, critically scrutinizes the decade-long history of successes, failures and attempts of the European Union in constructing its own legitimacy and credibility in the multi-layered geopolitics of its “northern neighborhood”, the Arctic. In doing so, the author attempts to define this “unknown” but yet a “component of the Arctic geopolitics”, that is to say the EU, and to provides his own response to the long-standing matter of which role the EU has to play in the region.
One immediate question that arises in the mind of those who are more familiar with EU’s studies, especially with regards to the Arctic, is not if the EU has an influence in the Arctic region, but whether the EU holds the actual capacity to act as an international actor in the given geopolitical context. Regardless of EU’s formal acceptance as an observer to the Arctic Council – now a symbolic token, as the EU can de facto observe, taken by too many as the ultimate proof of EU’s extraneousness to the region – this politico-economic Union of 28 Member States has shown clearly over the years both its negative and positive influence, yet influence nonetheless; though the question remains in which capacity. Raspotnik raises this question in his introduction, and skillfully adds another layer to this already complex picture, by using his study to “question [EU’s] broader role as an international actor with evolving geopolitical identity”. The study won’t provide the reader with a clean-cut answer, as the very last sentence of the book suggests – “[u]ltimately, the European Union attempts to act as sui generis geopolitical actor in the Arctic” – but it is a classic example of research where the journey itself is more relevant than the destination.
The main text of the book is structured in 5 parts which, excluding “Introduction” and “Conclusions”, compose the title of the book: II) Geopolitics, III) The Arctic, and IV) The European Union. This structure underlines the choice and need of the author for excavating and critically analyzing each of these concepts before providing – in an almost Hegelian fashion – a final synthesis. This book is indeed very well researched, and combines a vast literature of classic “Arctic Geopolitics” scholars, interviews, official documents and speeches given by EU representatives. Under several aspects – e.g. the use of explanatory “boxes” within the text and the careful contextualization of each new term used – this book could be positively marked as a textbook for students in geopolitics or European studies or a vade mecum for scholars, without ever providing a superficial account of the issue it addresses.
Raspotnik’s sets the start of his journey in 2007/2008, when high-level representatives of the EU and its member states – J.M. Barroso (former president of the EU Commission), Angela Merkel and Romano Prodi – all visited in different moments the new “Mecca of climate change”, Greenland, to experience first-hand the ice-cap melting. The Arctic was, in the meanwhile, experiencing a new moment in the global media, with the Russian flag being planted more than 4000 m beneath the North Pole, or the new record low in the Arctic Ocean’s sea-ice extent in September 2007. In addition, climate change – which will quickly turn into one of the strongest leitmotifs of the European Union’s narrative in the Arctic – was also having a new impetus in the same years and made it to the top of the G8 Summit agenda in Bad Doberan/Heiligendamm (Germany). Therefore, climate change, (potential) availability of resources, environmental and social challenges turned into a potential security issue for the EU, which, with the strong encouragement of Finland, added the Arctic to its “neighborhood’s radar”. In 2008, the EU formally started developing its own Arctic Policy.
This process took about 10 years, many documents and speeches, and for many observers it is not even yet fully finalized. The chapter dealing with this “policy-in-the-making” process is actually one of the highlights of this book. An overview that too easily risks turning into a repetitive and pedantic mantra – given the nature itself of the EU’s structure where documents/proposal need to bounce among the EU Parliament, the Commission and the Council (and repeat this itinerary several times) – was given new life. The author alternates the description of each step taken toward the development of an EU Arctic Policy with an “external reading”, combining in this way facts with his analyses.
The formal analysis used in the book, while accomplishing the need for providing a deep understanding of the EU’s role in the Arctic, runs into the same negative underestimation made by the EU regarding the role of indigenous people in the Arctic geopolitics. Reading this book, likewise most of the narrative and approaches used by the EU itself, the feeling is that the indigenous peoples of the Arctic appear more as a cameo – or a political/formal duty to be discussed – rather than part of Arctic geopolitics. In the description of the Arctic’s layered geopolitics, for example, a good overview is provided with regards to the “issue of eight national identifies”, but no mention at all is given regarding Indigenous peoples’ visions for their own territories. The role of Indigenous Peoples Organizations (IPOs) within the Arctic Council is only formally addressed and therefore minimized (“although the AC includes IPOs, decision making formally remains with its core members, the A8”), and the “seal-issue”, which ultimately costed the EU its formal acceptance as observer at the Arctic Council from 2009 to 2015 (then the Crimean crisis came into play) is dealt as a largely solved political issue, which formally and politically it is, but not in practice, at least for some of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.
This edited collection of essays is the product of a two-year project to assess and compare Chinese approaches to the Arctic with Finnish and/or EU approaches. These three entities are quite distinctive in population, politics and power and hence are not an obvious triumvirate. Nevertheless, the books’ chapters draw out interesting points of comparison. China is a relative newcomer to international relations and economic development in the Arctic. Backed by both military and economic clout, it triggers concerns amongst Arctic inhabitants and other stakeholders regarding its ambitions. Such worries are not helped by China’s closed political decision-making and limited official statements on its Arctic policies. This project, therefore, aims at increasing knowledge and understanding of China’s interests and expectations in the region.
The introduction to the book provides a good summary of the analyses that follow in the self-standing chapters which are themselves grouped into three Parts: Chinese Perspectives; Comparison between Finland and China; and Comparison between the EU and China. As a collection of essays, the book does not have a single or overarching thesis as such but a number of common themes are identified in the introductory and concluding chapters (by the 4 editors). One repeated them is climate change and pollution. Climate change is not coming to the Arctic: it is already here. China is the World’s biggest fossil fuel consumer and responsible for 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions (the EU, 11%). However, black carbon – a short term climate forcer – in the Arctic comes mostly from Europe. Europe is also a more significant source of the persistent organic pollutants (POPS) that end up in the Arctic (7). Another theme is economic development: even if the rights to exploit natural resources lie with the Arctic States and the peoples within them, the viability of doing so pivots on demand – and that demand is predominantly Chinese and European (8.)
The chapters go a long way to making up for China’s decision not to publish a comprehensive Arctic strategy or make regular and clear statements about its Arctic plans. China is not necessarily to be blamed for this: China is a lot more significant in the Arctic than the Arctic is for China, even if the book demonstrates that Chinese interest (and interests) in the Arctic have grown swiftly in recent years.
QIN Tianbao and LI Miaomiao’s chapter, “Strengthening China’s Role in the Arctic Council” calls for an official Chinese Arctic strategy but is itself rather more candid than an official State policy document is likely to be and as a result, probably more useful. The two authors make a rather bold proposal that China become a fully-fledged member of the Arctic Council (42), which will raise a few eyebrows amongst the more territorially sensitive of the Arctic States. Let’s just say that an official, published Chinese Arctic strategy is the more likely of the two scenarios in the near-term!
Ren Shidan turns to Chinese Arctic research and points to, amongst other things, frustration with Russia regarding access (53). She argues for freedom of research in the Arctic and rejects arguments that Chinese research is a foil for long-term plans to strip the region of resources. However, her concerns regarding Norway’s interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty (concerns shared by a number of European states) turn the chapter back to resource development (55-57).
Julia Jalo and Tapio Nykänen identify Chinese priorities in the Arctic based on World Affairs (a government-controlled magazine and unofficial mouthpiece). Only nine articles on the Arctic have been published since 2004 (indicating that the Arctic is still a relatively peripheral zone in Chinese politics). However, eight of these articles were published in 2008 or later, peaking when Chinese sought and accepted its seat as an observer at the Arctic Council in 2013, suggesting that interest is growing. The authors recognise that China is often viewed as a ‘threat’ in the Arctic, especially by those taking a classical realist approach, but they conclude that either China is indeed playing down its real intentions or that (more likely in their view) China is genuinely concerned about climate change and other environmental problems in the Arctic. In either case, they agree with QIN Tianbao and LI Miaomiao that a published strategy would help to clarify the situation.
Xiaoyi Jiang and Xiaoguang Zhou then consider maritime sovereignty and rights in the Arctic, looking in particular at the potential of the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to (or at least a supplement to) the Malacca route – even if they also note that Chinese shipping companies are adopting a ‘wait-and-see’ approach (96). They comment that China “has virtually no influence on the decision-making process at ministerial meetings” (of the Arctic Council)(90) and, like the other Chinese contributors, note that China is trying to be viewed as a partner in the Arctic rather than a threat (95).
Part II brings us to Finland with Lassi Heininen’s assessment of Finland, the EU and China and the asymmetry between them. Climate change – and China’s potential to take a lead role – is once again a key theme (107). Heininen sees common interests in shipping (Finland builds; China ships) (109); scientific research; resource governance and international cooperation (129). However, Finland and China also have shared interests in resource development in the Arctic (Finland produces; China buys) (118-120).
Tapio Nykänen presents the other chapter in this Part, using critical geopolitics to explore how the Arctic is framed in Chinese and Finnish Discourses. He agrees with the other writers that China is trying to build trust in the Arctic, seeking to present itself as a constructive partner (137). He analyses China’s position as a self-declared ‘near-Arctic state’, pointing out that geographically, it is extremely far from the Arctic Circle but arguing that instead it is geocritically close (140). Nykänen recognises China’s contributions to Arctic science but sees a political undercurrent to this: science is a ‘door’ through which China can claim a legitimate interest in Arctic governance (140).
Chapter Eight (Timo Koivurova, Waliul Hasanat, Piotr Graczyk and Tuuli Kuusama) is based on interviews with participants in the Arctic Council system, Chinese officials and scholars. It produces original, qualitative research on China’s position within the Arctic Council and identifies issues that would be unlikely to be uncovered by looking only at official publications. For example, the authors report that some Chinese officials are unhappy with the Nuuk criteria on observers (169)). They also identify a problem in the delegations which both lack continuity and do not always match the mandates of the working groups (175-177).
On fisheries, Sébastien Duyck sees shared interests in China and the EU – both being major fisheries jurisdictions and being outsiders seeking to ensure that their industries are considered in any new regime for the Central Arctic Ocean (Chapter IX). China, Duyck points out, is a ‘developing country’ and positions itself as a ‘leader’ of the G77 (196). Its policies on fisheries differ from the EU, being more defensive of High Seas freedoms and rational use, compared to a more conservationist (or even preservationist) orientated EU (197-198).
Adam Stepien considers China’s and the EU’s respective engagement with indigenous peoples. China maintains the questionable position that it has no indigenous peoples inside of China (222). On the one hand, this means that China is not unnecessarily concerned with establishing precedents that could complicate matters at home (cf its position on international straits and Arctic shipping) but on the other hand, means that it has no experience and limited understanding of the stakes for indigenous people. China talks the talk (for example supporting indigenous rights in the UN – as long as it is clear that they don’t apply to or in China! (223)) but its engagement is uncoordinated and inconsistent (216). Environmental impacts are once more brought to the fore as Stepien explains that European and Chinese emissions are a major threat to indigenous communities (210-211). The EU, recognising the Sámi as the only indigenous people within the EU itself, has a more proactive stance on Arctic indigenous peoples and is, in theory, supportive of indigenous rights (218). That does not mean, however, that the EU always gets things right.
Nengye Liu and Kamrul Hossain address navigation in the Arctic and highlight the dependence of China’s economic strategy on shipping (243). The Northern Sea Route (less so the Northwest Passage) holds the promise of faster, cheaper shipping untroubled by the politics of alternative routes but, for now, this is still only a promise. While the shipping companies take things cautiously, the government has published the first Chinese guidelines on Arctic shipping (244). Like Xiaoyi Jiang and Xiaoguang Zhou, they note that China did not get involved in the development of the Polar Code and wonder if Chinese delegates to the IMO could take a more active role (247). They also suggest that China work alongside Japan and South Korea to promote (and defend) its shipping interests at the Arctic Council (249).
The concluding chapter by the four editors draws together the main findings of the contributions, reiterating the centrality of climate change and the consequent expectations of a natural resources boom (253-254). They note the resistance of the Arctic Eight to (too much) non-Arctic State involvement and how the Arctic Council system keeps the most powerful outsiders – like the EU and China – relatively subdued (261). Like most recent academic work on the Arctic, the final conclusion is that the answers are there and can be reached peacefully. International law has the answer to most questions; and for the others, it has processes by which to find, peacefully, those answers.
Although a number of writers call for a Chinese Arctic policy or strategy, this book gives us much more than any state policy every could. The original research and analysis by both Chinese and European scholars helps readers understand the dragon and, hopefully, fear it less. Nevertheless, there are subtle differences in approaches, with the Chinese authors tending to play down China’s resource ambitions and emphasise science and environmental concerns with some of the European contributors implying that China’s scientific contributions are driven by those very resource ambitions. I would wholeheartedly recommend this collection to anyone working on international law, international relations or economic development in the Arctic. Well edited, it is an accessible read for students as well as more seasoned academics. Even were the Chinese government to respond to the call to publish a formal strategy, it will not replace the excellent scholarship in this book.
On pretty much any measure of international comparison, Iceland is a little fish. Nevertheless, its geographical location next to the Big Pond that is the Arctic Ocean has put in a position of influence in a region of growing international importance.
In this paper, I will explore Iceland’s influence in the Arctic region based on international relations considerations such as its political alliances; and based on international law: Iceland’s rights and responsibilities.
The paper presents the Arctic Council and Iceland’s role within it before turning to issues that are governed outside of the Arctic Council system, in particular, Arctic fisheries and maritime boundaries. The paper explains Iceland’s approach to Arctic cooperation in light of its published policy documents and explore the tools available to Iceland to defend its interests.
Iceland as a ‘Small State’
Small States seek shelter: usually on a regional basis. They make alliances to advance their objectives and protect themselves from the lions. On hard security issues, Iceland finds this in the folds of NATO. The Arctic Council does not address hard security issues at all – and despite some heated press coverage, Russia is not posing a military threat in the Arctic, to Iceland or anyone else. But Iceland also needs economic and environmental security which it has fostered through Nordic cooperation, EFTA, the EEA and, of increasing importance, the Arctic Council.
International relations provides a number of objective criteria on which to measure a State as ‘small’: population, territory, GDP and military. States may be small by one measure but not by another – for example, having a very large territory but a tiny military; or having a small population but a high GDP.
In a global context, Iceland is very small. Its surface area amounts to less than 0.07% of the Earth’s land; its population less than 0.005% of the World’s; its GDP is under 0.02%. And Iceland has no military as such.
But States are also big or small in a given geopolitical context: the Kingdom of Denmark is a small State in global affairs but not in the Nordic Council. Being ‘small’ or even ‘very small’ is a relative matter rather than an absolute. Therefore although Iceland is a very small State at the international level, within the Arctic Council system, it exerts an influence that belies its small territory, population and economy.
Iceland’s Relative Size in the Arctic Council
‘The Arctic’ has a number of different definitions for different purposes, even within the Arctic Council system itself. For example, the area covered by the sustainable development working group is based on human interests; the protection of the marine environment working group is only concerned with the seas; conservation of arctic flora and fauna is determined by ecosystems. In all cases, Iceland is included in its entirety even if almost all of it sits below the Arctic Circle. By contrast, for the purposes of the Polar Code, agreed through the global International Maritime Organisation (IMO), Iceland is entirely to the South of the protected area: this is based on considerations of the marine conditions – temperature and ice-cover especially.
The Arctic Council consists of the eight States with territory that stretches above the Arctic Circle: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States of America. In addition, there are six permanent participants: these are organisations of indigenous peoples from around the Arctic. Each is transnational in character. Five permanent participants represent peoples that inhabit more than one State: the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council and Saami Council. The sixth is the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and represents over 40 small-numbered indigenous peoples in Northern Russia.
When thinking about small State theory, how ‘small’ is Iceland in the Arctic Council?
Iceland is still very small when territory is considered: it is dwarfed by the Russian and Canadian Arctics. However, when looking at population, Iceland is not far from the average with a population of approximately 330,000 (see Figure 1).
However, these figures are based on assuming that the whole of Iceland is ‘Arctic’. This is indeed the position of the Icelandic government and important to securing its legitimate participation in Arctic governance. Foreign Minister Össur Skaphérðinsson stated in his introduction to the Icelandic Arctic Policy statement in 2009 that: “Iceland is the only state that is wholly within the Arctic area, as it is generally understand international affairs or at the Arctic Council.”
The current draft policy, Iceland’s Interests in the Arctic, goes even further and suggests that Iceland is somehow more Arctic than its neighbours – in which the vast majority of the population and the territory (but for the Kingdom of Denmark) lies well south of the 66th parallel.
Iceland is unique when we compare it to other nations that are geographically part of the Arctic. Most other countries, aside from Greenland, are predominantly South of the Arctic according to these definitions and their populations live mostly outside of the Arctic.
If we then stop to consider the observers at the Arctic Council, the Iceland once more disappears – over half the World’s population is now represented in some form at the Arctic Council.
Further, it is not just the observer States and intergovernmental fora that make Iceland look little: WWF, observer at the Arctic Council, has a membership in excess of 5 million people. These are not just people who happen by birth to be affiliated to a particular State; these are people who care enough about WWF’s priorities, including its Global Arctic campaign, to pay an annual subscription.
The History of the Arctic Council
So how can Iceland exert its influence at the Arctic Council? And why was it in favour of the great expansion of observers in 2013? To understand this, we need to explore the Arctic Council’s origins and the way it functions today.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the only international interest in the Arctic was how long it would take to fire an intercontinental missile across it. A diligent doctoral student in the 1980s (now a very well-known professor of law of the sea) was told by his supervisor that he was wasting his time writing about the Northern Sea Route!
Iceland invited Gorbachev and Reagan to meet for disarmament talks in Reykjavík in 1986 and although no agreements as such were agreed, it was sufficient – no pun intended – to break the ice.
It was Gorbachev who then came along with the olive branch: the speech at Murmansk in 1987 in which he identified six areas that he saw as ripe for cooperation:
A nuclear weapons-free zone in Northern Europe;
Reductions and restrictions on naval activity in Northern Europe;
Cooperative development of hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic;
“Cooperation of the northern countries in environmental protection”; and developing “jointly an integrated comprehensive plan for protecting the natural environment of the North”; and
Opening of the Northern Sea Route to international vessels.
Finland seized on this overture and initiated the Rovaniemi Process which in turn led to the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) in 1991. Pointedly, this initiative was established at a meeting of 8 ministers for the environment, not foreign ministers. The four original working groups, later joined by Sustainable Development and, under the Arctic Council, Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP), are all environmentally oriented.
The transition to the Arctic Council in 1996 was effected through the Ottawa Declaration. This change indicated a much broader range of interests: this was no longer solely a forum for managing shared environmental threats and clean-up activities – it was now, in theory at least, able to address any shared concerns with the explicit exception of military security. According to the Ottawa Declaration, the Arctic Council is established to “provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.”
But in 1996, the Arctic Council was still a fairly marginal institution and outside concern with the Arctic did not extend much beyond preservation of polar bears. Even in Iceland, there was little awareness of the Arctic as a geopolitical region as such or Iceland’s place within it. Iceland looked South to Europe and West to North American for trade but it did not really look North.
Between 1996 and 2000, the number of permanent participants rose from two to six and in the early 2000s, there was a slow but gradual increase in the number of observers. Iceland took the rotating chairmanship from 2002-2004; this also happened to be the time when international interest in the Arctic took off. By around 2005, the Arctic was gathering more and more attention in international relations, international law, development, economics and environmental scholarship and activism. The battle lines were being drawn between those that wanted it closed off as an international natural park; and those that wanted to exploit its apparently abundant resources (forgetting, perhaps, that Russia had been exploiting Arctic resources since at least the times of Stalin).
From about 2010 onwards, five rising Asian States, Italy and the European Union were seeking a formal place at the Arctic table: observership at the Arctic Council. This was awarded for the six States in 2013 and effectively for the EU at the same time but followed three years of intense lobbying efforts and heated discussions.
The Operation of the Arctic Council and Iceland’s Influence within it
How can Iceland, then, maintain its influence in the shadow of these giants? To understand this, we need to examine how the Arctic Council operates.
The Arctic States are the members of the Arctic Council and the associations of indigenous peoples are permanent participants. This is a unique format for an international body. The Arctic States and permanent participants sit together at Arctic Circle meetings and have equal rights to contribute to the agenda and debate. Decisions are made by consensus between the member States and in practice, usually the consensus of the permanent participants as well.
The Arctic Council operates at a number of levels (see Figure 2). At the top is the biennial ministerial meeting, the location of which coincides with the chairmanship (which changes every two years on a rotating basis). The Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs) are the member States’ ambassadors who meet alongside the permanent participants and observers twice yearly. A number of subsidiary bodies exist, principally the six working groups which are essentially scientific bodies that can present findings to the SAOs and ministerial meeting but whose policy recommendations must be endorsed by the Arctic States. The working groups are standing bodies but there are also time–limited Task Forces which address specific issues and now the Expert Group on Black Carbon.
Observers at the Arctic Council have much less influence than the members or permanent participants; in short, their role is to ‘observe’ and not to talk. To become and remain an observer, an entity must: bow to Arctic States’ sovereignty; recognize and commit to uphold international law, in particular, the law of the sea in the Arctic; respect the rights of indigenous peoples; demonstrate commitment, including financial commitment, to the work of the permanent participants; and show its capacity to contribute to Arctic interests, including scientific research.
Observers’ have limited rights at Arctic Council meetings and are expected to contribute principally through the working groups. Unlike the member States and the permanent participants, observers may not propose items for the agenda or raise points during Arctic Council meetings (ministerial or SAO meetings) although they are permitted to submit written statements. Even at the subsidiary bodies, the observers are sat apart at the ‘children’s table’, behind the main table and they may speak only after the States and permanent participants have had their say and even then at the discretion of the chair. Observers are also reviewed every four years but can be excluded at any time as their observer status only lasts as long as consensus exists amongst the ministers. In other words, it would require only one member State to exclude an observer. This means that observers cannot exert the influence they have in other international fora within the Arctic Council. To maintain their observerships, they must placate all the Arctic States and most of the permanent participants, most of the time. Iceland might be little but in the Arctic Council it wields a great deal more influence than China.
The Arctic Council punches well above its weight for what is structurally no more than a roundtable for discussion with no law-making powers or compliance mechanisms. Nevertheless, there are two very significant limitations on what it can do. The first is financial: it has no regular funding and seeks contributions on an issue-by-issue basis. This requires States – including observer States – being willing to front cash. Secondly, the consensus model means that it requires only one State to object to anything to take it off the table – whether that be the wording in a recommendation or the initiation of a project in the first place. Iceland can veto anything.
The Arctic Council has also successfully insulated itself from international tensions and disputes that have dampened East-West relations over the past few years such as the crises in the Crimea and Syria. While Iceland ties itself in knots internally over the Russian sanction regime, this is entirely curtained off at the Arctic Council meetings. When tensions have occasionally arisen between Canada and Russia, Iceland can sit back and enjoy the show; it is not forced to take a position. Also, Iceland, having no indigenous peoples of its own, can play the honest broker and be a neutral mediator between the permanent participants and States.
Alliances in the Arctic Council are fluid; there is no obvious ‘Nordic block’ as often occurs at the United Nations and Iceland will defend its own interests on an issue by issue basis. The consensus approach – or the ‘veto’ approach if you prefer – means that fixed alliances are not necessary; no State can be forced into a position that it finds unacceptable.
Beyond the Arctic Council
From Iceland’s perspective, as a very small State, the Arctic Council is a very attractive forum in which to advance its interests. Its official policy, to prioritise the Arctic Council as the key forum, mirrors that of Sweden and Finland, because it is here that the States have the most meaningful influence. A very small State has limited bargaining power in bilateral negotiations with much larger countries; but it also has minimal influence in global fora in which it is outweighed – and outspent – by major powers. Even worse is a forum in which Iceland is not represented at all.
The same consensus-based system that allows Iceland to protect its interests in the Arctic Council allows the other seven States to do the same – and allows them each to keep certain things of the agenda to be dealt with elsewhere. The so-called ‘Arctic Five’ have squeezed out Iceland over two issues: Arctic High Seas fisheries; and the delimitation of the outer continental shelf.
The Arctic Five
Iceland has a small Arctic coastline but it is does not itself border the Arctic Ocean per se. Its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is met by the Norwegian and Greenlandic EEZ’s in the North. Therefore although Iceland is an ‘Arctic Coastal State’ is it is not an ‘Arctic Ocean littoral State’ – i.e. it does not have a coastline or EEZ that borders the Arctic Ocean.
The Arctic Five – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the USA – meet occasionally outside of the Arctic Council framework, pushing to one side not only the other three Nordic State partners but the permanent participants as well. The basic justification for this is that the Arctic Ocean is a ‘semi-enclosed sea’ – a debatable claim geographically but one that gives those five States a special responsibility under the Convention on the Law of the Sea to manage the area.
This group met in Oslo in 2007, Ilulissat, Greenland in 2008 and Chelsea, Québec in 2010 to discuss the legal framework for the Arctic Ocean. The Ilulissat meeting culminated in a declaration which was a broad reaffirmation of State sovereignty in the Arctic, an endorsement of the law of the sea as the governing framework for the Arctic Ocean and a message to non-Arctic States that a treaty based on the Antarctic model of environmental protection and internationalization would not be accepted in the North.
Iceland registered its objections and emphasized the importance of the Arctic Council as the principal forum; but the Arctic Council cannot have a monopoly on any topic and nothing can prevent States from meeting and negotiating outside of the Arctic Council system.
The Outer Continental Shelf in the Arctic
The sexy issue in the Arctic today is the grand carve-up of the outer continental shelf. Iceland does not have a stake in this game because it does not have an Arctic coastline. In any case, while it might resemble a colonial land-grab with dramatic flag-planting and grand declarations of sovereignty, the system to resolve and allocate rights over the ocean floor is long settled. It is admittedly slow and laborious but in short: Canada, Russia and Denmark or Greenland will sooner or later sit down and resolve their overlapping map submissions through bilateral negotiations. There is no hurry to do this as all the resources of any near-term commercial interest are far from the contested zones.
In respect of Iceland’s continental shelf, the Dragon Area to the North by Jan Mayen is long settled as a joint development zone with Norway. Iceland has three potential areas of outer continental shelf that are being mapped and of these, the Rockall area to the South is contested as four States (the Kingdom of Denmark (Faroe Islands), Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom) jostle for exclusive rights; but this is not an Arctic issue (see Figure 3).
Fisheries are more interesting but not an immediate concern. Iceland has exclusive rights over fish stocks within its EEZ but it has to manage shared and straggling stocks and highly migratory species in cooperation with neighbouring States (see Figure 3). For the most part, this goes reasonably well though there is an ongoing sore point over the mackerel which has been gradually shifting Northward and Westward and competing with the cod stocks.
There are very good reasons to keep this out of the Arctic Council framework. The European Union is a key player in this dispute and the last thing any of the Arctic States want to do is give the European Union equal standing at the Arctic Council.
More speculative is the future governance of fisheries in the Arctic High Seas (see Figure 4). 
Currently, there are no fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean (the High Seas marked dark blue in Figure 4) as it is too far, and mostly ice-covered, to offer commercially exciting fisheries. Existing fisheries are all safely within the 200 nautical mile EEZ of the coasts. They are managed by the Coastal States and various regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs). The North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) NEAFC covers a small corner of the High Seas, but otherwise, the Central Arctic Ocean is an international commons.
The Arctic Five have taken the lead – again under protest from Iceland. High Seas are beyond the jurisdiction of any State and under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Fish Stocks Agreement, to prevent a ‘free-for-all’ and a tragedy of the commons, States with a ‘real interest’ should work together. The difficulty in the Central Arctic Ocean is that there are currently no fisheries and hence it is very difficult to determine who has a ‘real interest’ in the legal sense.
Where the High Seas are concerned, Iceland’s position is that it has just as much interest in the area as the five littoral States; the Arctic Five disagree and began negotiations amongst themselves. This concluded with a moratorium in July 2015 – a temporary ban on Arctic High Seas fishing until such time as scientific studies had evaluated the available stocks and their resiliency.
A moratorium agreed with the Arctic Five cannot bind other States which is why they invited five other entities to a discussion in Washington DC in December 2015 about future governance of living marine resources in the Central Arctic Ocean. The five littoral States attended, alongside five invited participants: The European Union, China, Japan, South Korea and Iceland: the ‘A5+5’.
Russia had expressed scepticism as to the need to include any other States at this point but nonetheless attended the December talks. This indicates the Arctic Five’s recognition that these are all entities with a ‘real interest’ as they are those most likely to have the potential for fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. It is also indicative of a view amongst the Arctic Five that no other State or entity has a ‘real interest’ – at least at this time.
Being left on the second tier alongside distant Asian States might be humbling for Iceland but an ‘Arctic Six’ is simply not going to happen. Iceland does have legal interests in the Central Arctic Ocean: but in law, these are no different to those of the EU or China. This is not an urgent matter as there is no immediate economic potential but Iceland nonetheless can be expected to protest any exclusion and to defend the role of the Arctic Council to prevent precedents being set for Arctic governance without its involvement.
The last hot topic in the Arctic that is outside of the Arctic Council system is shipping. Freedom of navigation is a fundamental principle of law of the sea that applies right up to States’ baselines. It is a global right that is managed at global fora, in particular, the International Maritime Organization that developed the Polar Code. Iceland has no special legal or commercial interests in the Arctic shipping. . Iceland’s EEZ has no ice-covered waters so it has no extended authority to protect its marine environment beyond that which applies generally under the Convention on the Law of the Sea. But that will not prevent it examining commercial opportunities should commercial shipping develop.
Iceland’s Arctic Policy
The priorities I have identified are reflected in the development of Iceland’s Arctic policies. Increasing governmental attention to the Arctic can be traced at least to the Icelandic chairmanship of the Arctic Council but this section will look only at the official policy formulations from 2009 onwards.
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Össur Skarphéðinsson set the ball rolling in 2009 with the report, Iceland in the Arctic. He followed this up by making the Arctic a key theme of his 2010 report to the Alþingi and then sent them a draft to develop into a formal policy (stefna) which the Parliament then took up and agreed with few changes in 2011.
In May 2015, the new government issued a draft for consultation: Iceland’s Interests in the Arctic: Opportunities and Risks, though this has yet to be finalized and the projected date has been repeatedly put back. The current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, put the Arctic once more at centre stage in his 2016 annual report to Parliament.
In all of these, we see an emphasis on multilateral approaches, the importance of the Arctic Council and the assertion of Iceland as an ‘Arctic coastal State’ that is a challenge to the legitimacy of the Arctic Five.
In Skarphéðinsson’s extensive first report, Iceland in the Arctic, international cooperation is the first priority with particular attention on the Arctic Council. However, the Barents-Euro Arctic Council and the West-Nordic region are also mentioned as important fora. In his 2010 report to Parliament on international affairs, the first region to be addressed is the High North and of the ten Arctic priorities, the first is:
to secure Iceland’s position as a coastal state and a key stakeholder in shaping the future development of the High North. Iceland should be considered a full-fledged coastal state on a par with such countries as the USA, Denmark (for Greenland), Canada, Norway and Russia.
This repeats an earlier rebuke to the Arctic Five for their exclusion of Iceland but it is also noteworthy that for all Iceland’s talk of the importance of the Arctic Council, it is not unduly concerned about the exclusion of Finland, Sweden or the indigenous representatives from the Arctic Five talks.
Defence of the Arctic Council comes later (Arctic priority 4) but all the priorities point to Iceland’s need for multilateral Arctic governance and the importance of securing of Iceland’s role within it.
Until such time as the current government agrees a new policy, the official Icelandic Arctic policy remains the 2011 Parliamentary Resolution. It largely follows Össur’s 2010 report though one interesting change is that the Alþingi changed the order, placing the Arctic Council first. However, it also highlights Iceland’s special status as a ‘Coastal State within the Arctic Region’ in priority two.
One surprising aspect of the draft of the latest Arctic policy is that it follows much of the previous approaches but makes very little direct reference, perhaps reflecting a desire of the governing coalition parties to present the Arctic as their project. It was these two coalition parties who held the reins when the Arctic first hit the radar of Icelandic politics and who actively pursued increased cooperation and investment in Arctic relations and research. The draft highlights once more Iceland’s Arctic credentials, now suggesting that Iceland is somehow more Arctic than the other States (in which most of the land and population are far South of the Arctic).
International cooperation is still the top priority, especially through Arctic Council. However, other fora are mentioned and special relations with Greenland and the Faroe Islands are promoted.
The opportunities (tækifæri) identified are very much business-focused: new fisheries, hydrocarbons and shipping; climate change is not presented as wholly negative. This is reminiscent of Berit Kristoffersen’s concept of ‘opportunistic adaptation.’
Indigenous peoples are overlooked in the report almost entirely; mentioned only once in the introduction, their rights and interests are ignored throughout, even in areas where proposed Icelandic activities can have serious impacts.
Most recently, in March 2016, the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, delivered his annual report to Parliament. The Arctic is once more the first region to be assessed. The 2011 Parliament resolution remains the key policy and there is no mention of development of the new strategy document (i.e. Iceland’s Interests in the Arctic).
Sveinsson seeks an increase in Iceland’s contributions to the Arctic Council’s activities, especially at the level of working groups, task forces and expert groups and points to the need to begin preparations for the Icelandic chairmanship that begins in 2019. The Arctic Council’s operations are explained in a fair degree of detail to Parliament (given the habitual nature of such reports) some detail (given the nature of such reports) in the following pages.
West-Nordic cooperation is also given special attention, indicating an interest in promoting further cooperation with the Faroe Islands and Greenland. This is a region or sub-region that is not given a great deal of attention in international relations but has the potential to grow in importance. In this context, Iceland is the ‘big State’ and the only one of the three countries to have decolonised from the Kingdom of Denmark (so far). However, the West Nordic Council is significantly limited in its activities in the absence of considerable investment: not easy to come by in three very small and cash-strapped countries.
The Arctic High Seas fisheries issue is not addressed directly in the report and no reference is made to the A5+5 December 2015 meeting in Washington DC. (This may have been a matter of the timing of the drafting of the report or it may indicate that the current foreign ministry no longer wishes to continue to fight this battle.) Nevertheless, within the section on Arctic cooperation, Sveinsson obliquely refers to the dependence on marine resources of the Icelandic economy and the importance for Iceland of ‘actively participating in international cooperation concerning ocean affairs’.
Making Sense of Iceland’s Priorities
The official Icelandic approach does not diverge widely from what might be expected from a very small fish beside a very big ocean. Multilateral cooperation is key and the Arctic Council is the preferred forum as it secures Iceland’s influence. Nevertheless, although Iceland objects to the Arctic Five, it would quite happily accept an Arctic Six – as long as it is in it. Iceland objects to its own exclusion and does not necessarily take a particularly principled stand in defence of broader multilateral cooperation.
However, Iceland has been open to the expansion of observers at the Arctic Council; some of these courted Iceland generously during the application period. Iceland needs its international partners beyond Arctic States but if Iceland can channel them through the Arctic Council, it prevents them from overpowering it.
Iceland continues to assert its interest and demand involvement in fisheries management. Iceland must be practical here and take part in the A5+5 – even if it would prefer an A6+4. The shelf is not so pressing and will be resolved in time. Iceland sees some commercial opportunities in shipping –but this is a very long game and will be managed through the IMO.
The current government’s approach to the Arctic is rather more commercially oriented that its predecessor as it looks to climate change as an opportunity (as well as a risk factor) and seeks to profit from the resources that the receding ice ostensibly presents. Nevertheless, those resources remain very expensive to access and develop irrespective of the state of the ice.
 See, eg, Alyson Bailes, Baldur Þórhallsson, and Rachael Lorna Johnstone, “Scotland as an Independent Small State: Where Would It Seek Shelter?,” Stjórnmál og Stjórnsýsla 9, no. 1 (2013).
 Össur Skarphéðinsson, Ísland á norðurslóðum, Inngangur, 2009 (translation by present author).
 Ministerial Committee on Arctic Affairs, Hagsmunir Íslands á norðurslóðum: tækifæri og viðsjár (draft), March 2015.
 Mikhail Gorbachev, Speech at Murmansk, 1st Oct.1987, available at <https://www.google.is/search?q=murmansk+speech&rlz=1C1LENP_enIS499IS499&oq=murmansk+speech&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l3.1838j0j9&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8> (accessed 4 April 2016).
 Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), Declaration of the Ministerial Meeting in Alta, Norway, 13 June 1997, available at <http://library.arcticportal.org/1271/> (accessed 4 April 2016).
 Ottawa Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council, 19 September 1996, available at < http://library.arcticportal.org/1270/> (accessed 4 April 2016).
 Arctic Council, Kiruna Declaration, 15 May 2013, 6, available at <https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/93> (accessed 4 April 2016).
 Arctic Council, Rules of Procedure, as adopted by the Arctic Council at the First Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, Iqaluit, Canada, revised by the Arctic Council at the Eighth Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, Kiruna, Sweden, available at <https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/940> para 19 (accessed 4 April 2016).
 Douglas C Nord, The Arctic Council: Governance within the Far North (Routledge 2016) 38 & 70.
 United States of America, Department of State, ‘Arctic Council Structure’ <http://www.state.gov/e/oes/ocns/opa/arc/ac/structure/> (accessed 4 April 2016).
 Arctic Council, Observer Manual for Subsidiary Bodies, as adopted by the Arctic Council at the Eighth Ministerial Meeting, Kiruna, Sweden, revised by the Arctic Council Meeting of the SAOs at Anchorage, Alaska, United States of America, October 2015, available at <https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/939> para 7.3 (accessed 4 April 2016).
Rules of Procedure, supra note 10, Rule 37 and Annex 2, Rule 5.
 Parliament of Iceland, Þingsályktun um stefnu Íslands í málefnum norðurslóða (2011) 139th legislative session, 28 March 2011.
 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, 10 December 1982, 1833 UNTS 397 (UNCLOS), Part IX.
 Ilulissat Declaration, Foreign Ministers of Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States of America, The Ilulissat Declaration, 29 May 2008, available at <http://www.arcticgovernance.org/the-ilulissat-declaration.4872424.html> (accessed 4 April 2016).
 Ron Macnab, Olav Loken and Arvind Anand, ‘The Law of the Sea and Marine Scientific Research in the Arctic Ocean’ Meridian Newsletter (2007-2008) 3, Figure 2 <http://www.polarcom.gc.ca/uploads/Publications/Meridian%20Newsletter/MeridianFall2007.pdf> (accessed 6 April 2016).
 UNCLOS, supra note 20, Part V; United Nations Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, 4 August 1995, 2167 UNTS 88, article 8(3).
 United States Library of Congress, Global Legal Monitor, ‘Canada; Denmark; Norway; Russia; United States: Fishing Declaration Covering Central Arctic’ 21 July 2015, available at <http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/canada-denmark-norway-russia-united-states-fishing-declaration-covering-central-arctic/> (accessed 4 April 2016).
 United States Department of State, ‘Meeting on High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean: Chairman’s Statement’ 3 December 2015, available at <http://www.state.gov/e/oes/rls/pr/250352.htm> (accessed 4 April 2016).
 IMO, ‘Shipping in Polar Waters’ available at < http://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/HotTopics/polar/Pages/default.aspx> (accessed 4 April 2016).
 Berit Kristoffersen, ‘Opportunistic Adaptation: New Discourses on Oil, Equity, and Environmental Security’ in The Adaptive Challenge of Climate Change, Karen O’Brien and Elin Selboe (Eds) (Cambridge University Press 2015).