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Networks and the Future of the Arctic

Spring / Summer 2010 Features

Networks and the Future of the Arctic

Networks and the Masters of a New-Century ‘Hot Spot’ – the ArcticThe solutions to the complex challenges of the ‘New Arctic’ will lie in the intricate games – strategic dances – among states, companies, Indigenous peoples, NGOs, international organizations and other dynamic interests

Who Governs? That was the title of the classic 1961 study of power politics by Robert Dahl. At the time of its publication, it had a profound impact on political analysis because it showed that decision-making was not solely a function of formal structures of governments, laws or even state constitutions, but rather resulted from the dynamic interplay of public and private actors, with the weight of influence primarily residing with economic stakeholders. In more recent times, Dahl’s insights on the role of non-governmental actors in decision-making have been vindicated by the increasing importance of civil society groups – particularly as political agendas change to take into account issues of cultural divides, human rights and environmental degradation.

These insights are not limited to the study of local or domestic politics. Indeed, global political analysis is now replete with studies that show how multinational corporations, global economic or financial associations or institutions, and networks of NGOs can provide the impetus for change in a variety of multilateral fora. While the discourse of international affairs is – to be sure – still largely centred on the role of the state, there is growing recognition that a state-centric system is no longer alone managing transcendental global issues, and that there must be alternative forms of governance. In the case of climate change, where the failure – most recently at Copenhagen – to find agreement among the various governments to control fossil fuel emissions is a matter of deep political, economic and moral concern, a rethinking of ‘who governs’ is clearly in order.

The recent excellent contributions to GB by Michael Byers (in the Winter 2010 issue) and Charles Emmerson (online at www.globalbrief.ca in March of this year) on the crucial question of the impact of climate change on Arctic governance limit themselves to considerations of legal or governmental analysis; they do not attempt to assess the full scope of the complex political, cultural, security and economic interests at play in the Arctic. As a result, the seeming divide between the two authors on whether conflict or cooperation will be the norm of future Arctic governance misses some pertinent and serious areas of assessment – leading ultimately to an incomplete set of policy options.

Byers’ basic view is that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sets a broad legal framework that will guide cooperative action between the nation-states that border the Arctic Ocean. Furthermore, recent agreements between the so-called Arctic Five (A-5) nations on how to divide the continental shelf and begin working on a search and rescue agreement bode well – according to Byers – for the future. Emmerson, on the other hand, disputes that these are sufficient grounds for predicting a trouble-free Arctic, and makes the strong case that other interests – namely those of China, Japan, South Korea and the EU – will want in on the action, especially when the melting Arctic ice opens the possibility of tapping into vast reserves of oil, gas and minerals – to say nothing of the strategic importance of new polar sea routes. In this respect, Emmerson is dead right: it is hard to imagine that the coastal states can maintain the Arctic as their own preserve and keep other significant powers out. The treasure trove is just too rich for commodity-hungry societies to abide a closed shop. A broader international regime will be required.

Of course, there is more at play here than just state-centred interests. The Arctic has become a ‘hot spot’ for corporations seeking energy wealth as they invest billions in the region; they will expect governments to advance their interests as well. The same is true for the shipping industry. Scientific and academic study teams are playing a very crucial role in determining the impacts of climate change, and in mapping underwater terrain to bolster the claims of nation-states to resources and control, while NGOs and environmental groups, along with several high-level commissions, are promoting region-wide ecological governance schemes.

All of this points to the most significant driver of disagreement and conflict: the divide between those who see the Arctic as a resource-rich area ripe for exploitation and extraction, and those who are deeply concerned that such development will lead to degradation of the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem – leading to serious consequences for the entire global environmental system. Already, the US Department of Defense is predicting this as a national security issue – this as pressure increases in the Arctic to supply diminishing energy resources. And there is evidence of similar framing of the issue in other national capitals.

Rethinking Arctic governance from a non-traditional perspective gives Indigenous peoples a strategic position that could very well determine the outcome of this basic divide. They have begun mobilizing to protect their homeland, their culture and their right to participate in decisions affecting their futures. Indeed, one of the most important developments in advancing Indigenous interests was their inclusion as Permanent Participants of the Arctic Council – the first multilateral forum to adopt such a stance. And this is why Indigenous peoples have taken great exception to being excluded from meetings involving the A-5. Indeed, at the most recent meeting hosted by Canada, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, objected to the lack of participation by Indigenous representatives. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, for its part, registered its own strong protest – reminding governments that the Inuit are the original inhabitants of the Arctic. Moreover, there are increasing and long-overdue efforts underway in most circumpolar states to recognize Indigenous rights to self-government and to a greater say in what happens in their ‘home.’ Bref: This assertion of Indigenous participation in decision-making for the Arctic may very well be the counterpoint to the more rapacious demands arising from sovereignty- and nation state-based conceptions of Arctic governance.

So, while Byers and Emmerson make important and valid points, they do not go far enough in examining the highly complex, diverse interests at play in this new ‘great game’ – nor do they give due attention to other factors that compel innovative and imaginative approaches to the governance challenges in the Arctic; to wit, how to promote, collaboratively, Arctic energy security, environmental protection (imagine a disaster scenario similar to the recent British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico playing itself out in the Arctic!) and the rights of Indigenous peoples, to name but a few issues, in order to avoid conflict and fragmentation of purpose and application.

There is obvious demand for more effective international teamwork to meet the challenges of Arctic governance. Still, many governments continue to resist multilateral cooperation. The philosophy of ‘go-it-alone’ is alive and well. A new strategy for Arctic governance must therefore encompass a shift in consciousness toward global networks, and recognize that the challenges of the region are not limited to national concerns – and, indeed, that these broader concerns cannot be addressed solely by the governments of nation-states. These are challenges that require broader awareness, international cooperation and innovative ideas.

One idea gaining credence as an alternative to the state-centric approach is the notion of network governance. This idea began to emerge in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when policy-makers were looking to replace the rigid Cold War paradigms of national security, and to instead promote the principle of ‘human security’ – the prime goal of which was the protection of people, not of the state.

The creation of the Landmines Treaty (the Ottawa Treaty) in 1997 and the International Criminal Court in 2002 via the Rome Statute were early expressions of this line of thinking. Coalitions of like-minded states combined with NGOs and international institutions, such as the International Red Cross, to overcome the resistance of established powers in order to create both new norms and new institutions to advance human security objectives. The 1999 intervention in Kosovo was the catalyst that led to the eventual articulation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle. Adopted by world leaders in 2005, R2P places new conditionality on the practice of state sovereignty, and promotes the capacity for collective action for the protection of people (when a state is either the culprit or fails to protect its people) from four types of crime: war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

Networked governance is a tool that recognizes and allows all stakeholders to be part of the decision-making process. It supports collaboration across national boundaries, promotes multinational use of best management practices, as well as the adoption of successful protocols developed by the world’s best experts. Enabled by the revolution in information technology, it is a governance model formed by the partnership of a new constellation of actors that share ideas and resources to mobilize change – often with extreme rapidity – on a variety of shared global problems. These actors include governments, civil society groups, international bodies, and groups of individuals who are using the Internet and modern network theory to effect such change – in extremis, compelling or driving compliance with cross-border norms and standards.

In fact, this capacity of networks to become agents of governance can be seen in the multiple ways in which private entities set out rules to govern international behaviour – rules that eventually become accepted and adopted by governments. The 2007 book, Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency, for instance, points to how the rules set by a global consortium of accountants governing international business were incorporated by governments and became standard practice.

To be sure, network-style governance is emerging – perhaps par excellence – in the environmental protection of designated regions. For example, several African states have formed the Congo Basin Forest Partnership to combat illegal logging and enforce anti-poaching laws. The partners include 12 countries, scores of NGOs, such as Conservation International and World Wildlife Fund, various private companies and a host of government agencies.

The networked governance model could well be used in the same way in the Arctic to build consensus and long-term capacity among the various interested state and non-state actors by directly addressing newly emerging priorities, and seeking to reduce conflict among participants. It would allow for the integration of various levels of government, NGOs, private sector, industry and Indigenous peoples, without superseding the primary role of nation-states.

The network-building, on this model, would certainly have to begin with the Arctic Council, which is already a prototype for collaborative governance. When it was first created in 1996, the Council was intended to be a true partnership, where Arctic states and Indigenous peoples could develop a vision for the Arctic, and a forum where national agendas could be harmonized and cultural diversity encouraged.

As mentioned, the Arctic Council was the first multilateral institution that had Indigenous peoples at the table, along with all circumpolar countries with connecting links back to groups like the Nordic Council. It established the University of the Arctic, utilizing Internet technology to bring together an international cooperative network based in the circumpolar region – consisting of universities, colleges and other organizations interested in promoting education and research in the North, and empowering Indigenous peoples and other Northerners through education, mobility and shared knowledge.

The Council sponsored the first major study on the impacts of climate change, and has continued to be a forum where this crucial issue is debated. It is also engaged in expanding scientific and social data, involving working groups from all circumpolar countries. It clearly has evolved into an embryo of network governance, and represents the type of cooperative, collegial institutional thinking that is needed to address the hyper-complex issues that the new Arctic presents.

And yet, in recent years, the Arctic Council has faced a lack of resources and an increased tendency by member countries to bypass it as a forum for serious discussion and decision-making. It appears that coastal states are more concerned with mapping out their undersea shelves, planting flags at the bottom of the ocean or fighting over tiny islands. These states have also taken a step backwards by excluding Indigenous people from meetings of ministers from select Arctic coastal states. The A-5 have been reluctant to reach out to other governments that have strong interests in transportation, trade and resource development. These are disturbing portents.

In order to properly bring together the broad spectrum of Arctic interests and perspectives to develop solutions to the shared challenges in the region, the coastal states must take some necessary steps. First, Indigenous groups must be active participants in the discussion, and not excluded. Second, the EU, China, South Korea and Japan must play a greater role in Arctic governance issues, as they too benefit from UNCLOS. They should be brought in as an observer group, and should be engaged in respect of how to establish cooperative rules of the game to govern shipping and resource management in the Arctic.

Given the global stakes, the Arctic issue should be front-and-centre on the forward agendas of the G8 foreign ministers. Canada, Russia and the US are G8 members, as are Britain, France, Germany and Italy – the four most influential members of the EU. Japan is a shipping and fishing power. Indigenous leaders must be given a seat at the same table, and NGOs should be given a voice. The remaining Arctic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – could be invited as guests. A broader representation of interests and perspectives at the summit would provide a starting point for better cooperation, and would legitimize Arctic policies in the eyes of non-Arctic states.

Of course, large international meetings alone – no matter how many seats are at the table – will not bring about the change that is needed. What is instead required is a new course that is reflective of the new world order and its various challenges for humanity.

Networked governance recognizes that world affairs in the 21st century are being conducted in an era of ‘netpolitik,’ where diplomacy and international politics are being transformed by the power of the Internet – succeeding the old Realpolitik-power-based politics. In the spirit of building consensus and reducing conflict, networked governance in the Arctic would allow governments, NGOs, scientists, the private sector and industry to provide their input into policy-making, and have a role in implementing management goals. It would also empower Indigenous peoples as rights-holders of the Arctic in decision-making and in mobilizing change.

Indeed, there is an opportunity here for governments and the private sector to support an information technology infrastructure that will allow all participants to fully engage in Arctic governance. Imagine if Indigenous communities were able to communicate and collaborate constantly through video-conferencing or telepresence technologies; the impact on policy development and legislative compliance would be significant – to say nothing of the impact on linguistic and cultural preservation.

To begin this network-building, the circumpolar countries should each establish an Ambassador of Circumpolar Affairs – preferably one of Indigenous background – who would facilitate a network of agents developing cooperative arrangements, and liaise with Indigenous communities, the private sector and civil society groups to stimulate their participation in network collaboration. There should also be more concerted effort by non-state groups working on cooperative areas of ecological activity to assert what they see as proper norms and standards, and to develop forms of monitoring and disclosure to ensure active transparency in decision-making. These non-state groups can lead the way in showing the need for the Arctic Council to begin the pioneer work of how to treat the region as a single ecosystem, using ecosystem-based management – especially through marine spatial planning. This is one effective way to assure accountability of state action, and to bring into play the full participation of non-state actors.

The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster only demonstrates the need for a transparent network of governance and accountability in the Arctic. In fact, it suggests the need for a temporary ban on oil drilling in the Arctic until a common set of rules, safeguards and accountability measures is established. And, as Michael Byers has recommended, the Arctic Council could serve as the facilitator to ensure that all parties in the network have influence in the process leading to the establishment of these standards.

As in the case with the Antarctic, the Arctic should be a region of diplomacy and cooperation. A new, all-encompassing treaty for the Arctic is not necessarily the answer, but new policies could be developed using the networked governance model in the context of frameworks like UNCLOS, and in cooperation with the Arctic Council, NGOs, scientists, Indigenous peoples and other relevant institutions. There is even an opportunity to begin work on how to make the Arctic a true place of peace by advancing the idea of the region as a non-nuclear zone, as many disarmament advocates have suggested. Indeed, skilled statesmanship and cooperation could make the central Arctic waters ‘the next pole of peace.’

These are just the earliest phases in the exploration of new pathways to move forward in this landscape of uncertainty. This exploration demands the mentalities of the 15th century adventurers who were not the defenders of the status quo, but who instead were ready to leave the comfort of protected waters. For there is a distinct opportunity in the immediate decade to write a new chapter in the evolution of an appropriate 21st century answer to the said question: Who governs?


Lloyd Axworthy is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. He was Canada’s foreign affairs minister between 1996 and 2000. He is currently a commissioner on the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue and Commission on Arctic Climate Change.

Dan Hurley is Senior Executive Officer at the University of Winnipeg, and was chief of staff to Canada’s minister of the environment from 2004 to 2006. He is also a delegate to the Aspen Commission.

(Illustration: Ryan Snook)

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