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Denmark's Arctic strategy points to polar consensus

Heather Exner-PirotEye on the Arctic

Last week, the Kingdom of Denmark (Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands) released its Strategy for the Arctic. This marks a culmination of a three year period in which each of the circumpolar states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, as well as the EU – established new Arctic policies in face of the region’s rapidly evolving geopolitical situation. While this in itself is significant, the most startling thing is the level of consensus articulated in these nine Arctic policies. For all of the region’s diversity of interests, values, resources and cultures, when it comes to Arctic policy everyone is saying pretty much the same things.

  • Security – A lot of domestic interest in the region, particularly from Canada and Russia, revolves around issues of sovereignty, and the half dozen or so boundary disputes in the region have been the source of minor regional tension. The region also retains some of the East-West mentality carried over from the Cold War, with the North American and European states often viewing Russian ambitions in the Arctic with suspicion. All of the countries except Sweden feature Arctic security and defense prominently in their policies, but they similarly accept that there is very little possibility of any actual military conflict in the region. Indeed, the policies generally reflect discourses on human security – environmental, cultural and economic threats. Traditional and human security are not treated as mutually exclusive in the Arctic consensus, but as inter-related and reinforcing issues, especially in light of climate changes. Similarly, defense of sovereignty and a desire for enhanced international cooperation exist side by side within the policies.
  • Environmental Protection – A significant interest of states and their constituents when it comes to the Arctic is protecting the environment. There is a strong sentiment, particularly from Europeans and the European Union in particular, that the Arctic is a pristine environment that needs to be protected. Countries with large indigenous populations tend to be more pragmatic and favour sustainability rather than preservation. More so than anywhere else, in the Arctic, science is king. Significant credence, and influence, is granted to scientists and their reports, especially within the context of climate change and how to deal with it. Foreign policies for other parts of the world rarely acknowledge the role of science and scientists to the degree that the circumpolar states have in their Arctic policies.
  • International Cooperation – Despite media headlines to the contrary, the Arctic is a particularly stable region, and all of the states have affirmed their commitment to peace and international cooperation in their policies. The main approach to this is enhanced engagement in the Arctic Council, the high level ministerial forum of the eight circumpolar states; and adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which outlines the process for continental shelf claims. Boundary dispute resolution has also been given priority. Other areas for cooperation identified in the various Arctic policies include search and rescue (institutionalized in a legally binding agreement in May 2011), oil pollution preparedness and response, and shipping regulations.
  • Sustainable Development – The potential for resource exploitation in the Arctic, particularly oil and gas, looms large in the policies of those states that have large untapped resources. However the policies are written within a context of sustainable development – taking advantage of the wealth of the Arctic while ensuring regulations are put in place across the Arctic to mitigate any environmental consequences.
  • Indigenous Peoples – Related to the theme of sustainable development is a concern and respect for indigenous peoples in the Arctic, and the intention of having resource exploitation in the Arctic benefit, not harm, their socio-economic well-being. Many of the policies also discuss efforts to help preserve and strengthen indigenous culture and agency.

The Arctic consensus is a reflection of what states view as the most important issues in the Arctic. It is reassuring, for those who favour greater international cooperation, that the objectives are so closely aligned. It is also a reflection of the influence of the Arctic epistemic community. The Arctic consensus is really their consensus.

Releasing policies is not as good as fulfilling them. Inevitably, the intent of the policies will be watered down in practice. But it is another sign of how far regionalization has come in the Arctic in a short 25 years, and a hopeful sign that the Arctic states will find ways to jointly address regional challenges.

Heather Exner-Pirot is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary, interested in Arctic security, circumpolar relations and northern governance issues. She is a former program assistant with the University of the Arctic Undergraduate Office.

This analysis is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations. The views are the writer's own.