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Binding the Northern Powers in Law

Spring 2017 Nez À Nez

Binding the Northern Powers in Law

Proposition: A bona fide Arctic Union should be created

Zachary Paikin is a Junior Editor of Global Brief (in favour): At this important crossroads in global geopolitics, the world’s circumpolar countries should band together to advance regional integration by forming an Arctic Union. This institution would not be as profoundly interconnected as the EU, but would still possess a number of important innovations to distinguish it from the existing Arctic Council. These would include an enhanced mandate that focusses on security-related issues, increased promotion of intercultural exchanges between member states, the creation of more institutions of higher learning in the region, more frequent ministerial meetings, the establishment of a permanent administrative capital (including a larger secretariat and a commission that can propose joint policy initiatives), and possibly the formation of a development bank to fund environmental, scientific, education, infrastructure and indigenous-related projects in the region.

There are three important reasons for which this is the appropriate time to broaden the scope of regional cooperation in the global north. First, Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and the resulting Western sanctions have made it abundantly clear to the Kremlin and to the Russian people that Russia is not a part of the West. Recent events in Ukraine – including the war in the Donbass – represent the culmination of two and a half decades defined by rival conceptions of order between Moscow and the liberal West. Russia clearly believes that it was excluded from the European security (and even economic) framework after the end of the Cold War. Left out, it has not always felt that it had a stake in preserving it. An Arctic Union that includes a focus on high-level issues like regional security would help to reintegrate Russia into international society as an equal and legitimate partner, thus reducing the risk of geopolitical conflagration in other regions.

Deteriorating relations between Russia and the West could result in the permeation of the Arctic by powers external to the region. For instance, if an insecure Moscow feels compelled to deepen its geopolitical cooperation with Beijing, it could opt to invite China to play a more substantive role in Arctic affairs.

Second, deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, if left unaddressed, could result in the permeation of the Arctic by powers external to the region. For instance, if an insecure Moscow feels compelled to deepen its geopolitical cooperation with Beijing, it could opt to invite China to play a more substantive role in Arctic affairs. This would represent a lost opportunity for Arctic states to pool their resources, speak with one voice, and thus enhance their clout in dealing with the rest of the world. It would also pose a threat to the collaborative spirit that has characterized the circumpolar region’s inter-state relations in recent decades – a spirit that has largely been the consequence of the conscious insulation of the Arctic from extra-regional geopolitical issues. The conclusion here is clear: act now to strengthen regional cooperation, or risk opening a Pandora’s box of issues in the years and decades ahead.

Finally, the Arctic Council was established at a time of unqualified American unipolarity. At the time, as Washington was embarking (consciously or not) on a project designed to transform the foundations of global order, the US did not wish to be constrained by an institution that included a security-related mandate. Today, the new American administration has proposed a different approach – one that includes repairing a damaged relationship with Moscow, as well as redefining American interests and grand strategy in an increasingly polycentric world. Bref, the global geopolitical situation has changed significantly in the 20 years since the Council’s creation, and international institutions must adapt to the challenges of today and tomorrow. An Arctic Union would represent a bold step forward in this regard, and would help to lock great powers into a legal regime and peaceable logic, which in turn could set the tone for comparable 21st-century regimes in other regional theatres.

Liudmila Filippova is Program Manager at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow (opposed): Amid global geopolitical turmoil, what the Arctic really needs is strengthened regional governance. However, the creation of a new regional institution – to wit, an Arctic Union – will not serve this cause. The basic reasons for the Arctic Union’s irrelevance at the time of this writing include improper timing, the sensitivity of security-related issues, the proven record of the Arctic Council to date, and indeed the reasonable prospects for the Arctic Council to evolve into a stronger, more effective institution.

In the 1990s, Canada’s initiative in creating the Arctic Council met with strong resistance from two Arctic nations – the US and Russia. The US, the sole superpower and the only global policeman at the time, carried the burden of international obligations and showed little enthusiasm for a new Arctic institution. For its part, Russia suffered from reduced global standing and economic weakness, and thus did not feel secure at the prospect of interacting directly with five NATO members in the context of the proposed institution. As such, the compromise that was the Arctic Council could not have deviated far from the establishment of an international forum that operates by consensus, does not require large financial or organizational contributions, and keeps security issues outside of its mandate.

The current situation is somewhat similar. The new US administration appears more preoccupied with pressing domestic challenges than with foreign policy issues. This, incidentally, may explain some of the alleged affinity of President Putin for President Trump. A new Arctic institution is the last thing on Washington’s strategic mind right now. As for Moscow, the Ukrainian crisis has confirmed to its strategic classes that Russia was never perceived as being a part of the West – that is, the security (and economic) architecture created after the end of the Cold War was never truly inclusive of Russia. NATO’s enlargement to the east, despite the collapse of its primary rival – the USSR – gave Russia the feeling of an ever-present threat close (and ever-closer) to its borders (a perception and threat assessment that precedes the Putin government). Meanwhile, any kind of rapprochement between Russia and the former Soviet republics – its closest neighbours and manifest areas of strategic interest – was condemned as lacking legitimacy and as dictated unilaterally by Moscow. It is therefore far less likely, under the current sanctions regime and amid the crisis of confidence between Russia and the West, that Moscow would have a change of heart and consider forming a security union – even in the Arctic – with predominantly NATO member states. Moreover, Canada, which is a definite driving force in the Arctic, does not seem to have particularly strong strategic reasons to advocate for a new institution that may erode the value of the Arctic Council (which is of Canadian genesis, to begin with).

For its part, the Arctic Council has far exceeded expectations and managed to adopt a central role in regional governance. Inclusion of non-state actors – particularly indigenous peoples – has been an asset for this high-level forum. And yet putting security issues on the agenda of a new Arctic Union would militate against the involvement of non-state actors. Besides, again, there is a prevailing view that the Arctic Council has been a success precisely because security issues have been excluded from its mandate.

Currently, there is no potential for military conflict in the region, and making security issues a part of political discussions in respect of that theatre may well yield the reverse effect. Instead of building trust, it may paradoxically issue in rising public hysteria about a ‘global war’ over the Arctic.

What’s more, although Russia and the West may disagree on the Crimean question, Russia has thus far been a responsible player in the Arctic and fully compliant with international law. Currently, there is no potential for military conflict in the region, and making security issues a part of political discussions in respect of that theatre may well yield the reverse effect. Instead of building trust, it may paradoxically issue in rising public hysteria about a ‘global war’ over the Arctic. By contrast, restricting international efforts to the resumption of meetings between the chiefs of staff of the eight Arctic states, under the aegis of the existing Arctic Council, could have a positive impact on regional security.

Finally, there is no reason for which the Arctic Council may not itself evolve into an institution with a more expansive mandate in terms of intercultural exchanges and scientific collaboration, an enlarged bureaucracy, and possibly its own development bank. The Arctic Council presently has a permanent secretariat and a limited budget. Moreover, Canada’s chairmanship of the forum resulted in the establishment of the Arctic Economic Council, which is intended to facilitate business contacts and economic development in the region. In addition, both Arctic and non-Arctic states anticipate a legally binding agreement on regional scientific collaboration, which should be signed in Fairbanks by the end of the US chairmanship of the Council this year. In other words, there is a good chance that a de facto ‘Arctic Union,’ sans security mandate, may be just around the corner simply by virtue of the natural (‘organic’) development of the Arctic Council.

ZP: You are right to uphold the role that non-state actors, including indigenous peoples, currently play within the Arctic Council’s framework. However, it is wrong to suggest that putting security issues on the table would necessarily sideline these groups. The UN, for instance, is an international institution that tackles high-level security issues while simultaneously working to advance indigenous rights. Its attempts to develop international legal norms on the latter front, as codified in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is a case in point. In fact, adding new dimensions to institutional cooperation in the Arctic could ultimately provide new avenues for non-state entities to participate in the circumpolar regional framework. To strengthen Arctic security is to enhance it for all of its inhabitants.

This is a highly opportune time to develop an institutionalized security framework for the Arctic. As Georgetown University’s Angela Stent has noted, relations between the US and Russia have been troubled in recent decades partially due to a dearth of serious institutional links between the two countries, relying as they have on little more than good personal chemistry between the occupants of the White House and the Kremlin. Never in the post-Cold War era has there been an American president more open to cooperation with Moscow as Donald Trump, which would suggest that his administration may be more amenable to the idea of an Arctic Union than those of many of his predecessors. And even if Washington fails to look favourably upon the creation of an Arctic Union at first, it should be remembered that the US had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Arctic Council two decades ago. As you rightly note, that initiative has been a resounding success.

Although many of the members of the Arctic Council are NATO states, circumpolar countries have so far been largely successful in shielding the region from the effects of geopolitical disputes in other theatres. For instance, following the arrival to power of the Trudeau government in Canada, Ottawa and Moscow managed to compartmentalize their disagreement over the status of Crimea and hold a conference on how to strengthen their cooperation in the Arctic (building directly on the major track-two conference in Toronto, organized by the Institute for 21st Century Questions, GB, and the Canadian Forces College in the summer of last year). Another reason for which Russia-West ties have suffered in the post-Cold War era is that Moscow has felt as if Washington has all too often treated it as a junior partner in top-level international decision-making. Far from being apprehensive, Russia and Russians – according to a 2011 Ekos survey, over 80 per cent of them – would warmly welcome the possibility of participating in a security-related Arctic institution as an equal, respected partner. Canada, for its part, requires some form of pooling of sovereignty or resources if it wishes to increase its international clout. The choice for Arctic states here is therefore manifest: develop a common security framework that enshrines their role as the custodians of the region, or risk having the regional agenda permeated by external actors such as China or a broader coalition of NATO states. In the latter scenario, Arctic states would at best see their regional influence diluted, or worse still, have the geopolitical climate in their own backyard poisoned by confrontation and containment strategies.

Times change, and institutions must change with them. The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was ultimately superseded by the Arctic Council when it became clear that a more comprehensive framework for circumpolar cooperation was required. Entities like the EU, through their development of common security and defence policies, are today making it clear that even soft power-oriented actors must possess at least a modicum of hard power. The creation of an Arctic Union would represent an important symbol – not only to the effect that circumpolar countries are serious about speaking to the world with a united voice on issues of the highest order, but also that institutionalized cooperation has a bright future in an increasingly uncertain world.

LF: I must object to three basic statements that you have made. First, though the election of Donald Trump as US president certainly offers a window of opportunity for the improvement of Russia-US relations, it is still questionable whether President Trump is open to cooperation with Moscow in an entirely unprecedented way. For one thing, while Trump demonstrates a more pragmatic (less ideological) approach toward NATO, he is still committed to increasing US military capabilities. In particular, anti-missile deployment close to Russia’s borders has been a well-known stumbling block in Russia-US relations. Ivan Timofeev, a leading Russian analyst affiliated with the Russian International Affairs Council and the Valdai Discussion Club, is on the record in forecasting that Trump will likely support the modernization of the US nuclear arsenal and further development of an anti-missile defence system in Europe. He will, as such, need to work hard to prove his deal-making skills and persuade the Kremlin that these actions do not pose a threat to Russia’s national security.

Second, the importance of interpersonal relationships between heads of state for Russia-US relations is often overstated. In the past, there were instances of Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton getting along, as with Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush, and even Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. Still, initial optimism did not prevent the eventual deterioration of Russia-US relations once a crisis emerged and clashes of interests became more evident. Of course, the personal chemistry between the presidents of Russia and, say, Turkey or China might well matter immensely for Moscow-Ankara or Moscow-Beijing relations, given the clear top-down structures of the strategic decision-making systems in these countries. In the US, however, the president must constantly reckon with a system of constitutional checks and balances. This means that even if President Trump proves to have affection for President Putin, Congress, which currently does not have many supporters of Russia among its members, will most probably put any US-Russia rapprochement on hold.

Third, as mentioned, there is no clear indication that President Trump will pay significant attention to Arctic governance issues. Outside of Alaska, the Arctic still appears to be of marginal interest in US foreign policy circles. It was the US chairmanship of the Arctic Council that finally brought the region to President Obama’s attention. Moreover, Trump’s election campaign seemed to suggest that he aims to reduce his country’s spending on security institutions. He is therefore unlikely to look favourably on the creation of an Arctic Union – at least at the outset.

Overall, the future development of the Arctic will depend largely on the advancement of Russia-Canada, rather than Russia-US, relations. The Arctic is a part of Russia’s and Canada’s national identities, the situation in the region has direct implications for the national security of both countries, and the national interests of the two states in the Arctic coincide in a number of aspects. If Russia and Canada manage to come up with a joint initiative, other Arctic players will certainly consider it. In addition, Russia could and should work more intensively with Finland during its upcoming chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

Bref, this is no time for a traditional security institution in the Arctic region. The extensive security agenda suggested by the proposed Arctic Union may well disunite the Arctic states. Besides, I am convinced that the gradual evolution of the Arctic Council is a viable alternative to an Arctic Union. To be sure, the Arctic Council should before long develop a law enforcement role in the region, and its mandate should incorporate many additional non-military security issues. But real military issues should be discussed in other single-purpose fora and formats.

ZP: I agree that there exist structural constraints that will limit the scope of a Russo-American rapprochement. These range from the domestic, such as the presence of numerous Russia-wary voices in the halls of power in Washington, to the international, including the closer ties that Beijing and Moscow have established in recent years. But international affairs function in relative terms. The question is not whether the conditions are perfect for the establishment of an Arctic Union, but rather whether they will ever be better than they are today.

Indeed, Washington does not have the same level of strategic interest in the Arctic as Ottawa and Moscow. But this is precisely why the region is fertile ground for a new institution. Deep American engagement is not necessary at the outset when it comes to the creation of an Arctic Union. Quite the opposite: America’s lesser focus on circumpolar affairs allows Canada and Russia to take the lead in shaping the region’s future. As you note, these two Arctic coastal giants share many interests, including the desire to have their sovereignty over strategically valuable sea lanes recognized. International relations in the world’s northernmost region are naturally less developed than in theatres across the globe where states have been interacting for far longer. The Arctic region can thus be understood as possessing a normatively ‘thin’ character. This means that, unlike elsewhere where ideological and other alignments place constraints on states’ strategic options, Canada and Russia have far greater marge de manoeuvre in the Arctic. This contrasts markedly with, say, the Atlantic theatre, where the rapid expansion of the liberal-normative sphere after the dissolution of the Soviet Union has placed Canada and Russia at odds with each other. Bref, not only is an Arctic Union possible, but its establishment would represent a major leap forward for the ability of Ottawa and Moscow to advance their respective interests in the global north.

Symbols matter, as does nomenclature. The manner in which the security component is incorporated into the Arctic Union’s framework will naturally have to be carefully considered. But the use of the term ‘Council’ encourages states to continue to think of the existing institution as a low-level intergovernmental forum. The substance of an Arctic Union may be just as important as the psychological effect that its creation would have on its member states, and on global affairs more generally. This Union would assist its member countries in enhancing their strategic capacity beyond the Arctic region, help to calm tensions and build trust in the Atlantic theatre by providing a high-level forum in which Russia and Western states can cooperate on substantive issues, and serve as a crucial template for other regions – starting perhaps with the Asia-Pacific region, if not in Western Asia – in need of similar international regimes by demonstrating how great powers can institutionalize and pacify their relations.

LF: It seems that we both agree that the conditions for the establishment of an Arctic Union may not be perfect – for my part, to say the least. The relationship between Russia and the West, including between Russia and its Arctic neighbours, seems to have reached a post-Cold War low. Despite sporadic manifestations of thaw, anti-Russian rhetoric is still omnipresent in Western media and political circles. Anti-Russian sanctions, including those on imports of technologies related to deepwater oil exploration and production, are still in place. Moreover, many high-level bilateral institutionalized dialogues have not resumed their work. (The fact that the track-two conference in Ottawa last November, and before that the major international conference in Toronto in June via the Institute for 21st Century Questions, GB and the Canadian Forces College, were such milestone events is illustrative of the need to have more such exchanges). It is true that Arctic states have largely managed to insulate the Arctic’s regional institutions from the influence of disagreements over non-regional affairs, but building an entirely new institution will not be feasible due to the lack of mutual trust and political will necessary for long-term cooperation among the states.

Let me disagree with you by asserting that I believe that geopolitical changes may well bring about a more relaxed and positive environment for the reform of Arctic governance in the future. Igor Ivanov, past foreign minister of Russia, has argued that the role of the US in world affairs will decrease not only during the Trump presidency, but also beyond it. This means that the window of opportunity for reform of global governance institutions may not be narrowing at all. Even if the sanctions levelled against Russia will not be lifted anytime soon, official communication channels will have to be fully restored and must work properly in order to lay the groundwork for any discussion of a new Arctic institution.

The key point is that, whatever the global context, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of legitimate and respected regional institutions like the Arctic Council – rather than diluting their value through the creation of alternative multilateral platforms – should be the top priority for Arctic states, at least over the next decade. Though Arctic states may consider the region to be a source of traditional security threats, those threats certainly do not represent the most acute challenges for the region. Ensuring ecological (or environmental) safety and responsible economic development in the Arctic through the provision of strong proactive and reactive mechanisms for managing specific risks is a key task for today. Involving non-regional players in constructive dialogue over the Arctic’s development is another apposite objective. Today, despite its success story, the Arctic Council is not capable of offering solutions to all of these problems. And yet it could do so if it had the appropriate mandate and the necessary operational resources. Money matters, and in the context of global economic weakness, resources should be invested in more secure and solid assets. The Arctic Council is clearly one such asset – especially when compared with a not-yet-formed Arctic Union.


Zachary Paikin is a Junior Editor of Global Brief.

Liudmila Filippova is Program Manager at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow.


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