Over the past twenty years, climate change, advances in offshore drilling and icebreaker technology, rising gas and oil prices, and the end of a Cold War stalemate have brought the Arctic to the attention of leaders in business and politics. The Arctic has increasingly been painted as a zone of dramatic opportunity that is on the cusp of devolving into a dangerous field of competition and avarice. This attitude, which is regularly broadcast in the mainstream news media, is well encapsulated in the ominous titles of a plethora of recent books with titles such as Arctic Gold Rush; Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom; and The Scramble for the Arctic: Ownership, Exploitation, and Conflict in the Far North.

Many observers familiar with the region have already noted that the predicted “booms” in Arctic resource extraction and shipping may be overstated. In some instances, the break up of pack ice and the loss of permafrost may actually make Arctic ship borne navigation, mining, and urbanization more difficult. Even in instances where climate change will facilitate intensified economic activities, the integration of the Arctic into national economies and territories will be extremely difficult and costly, and it is not likely to take effect in a concerted way until a host of further technological and economic changes occur.

Just as the Arctic “boom” scenario is overstated, the parallel “doom” scenario is equally fallacious. In fact, far from being a region poised to devolve into cutthroat anarchic competition, the Arctic is emerging as an arena of uniquely collaborative and innovative problem solving. The basis of this success is multifaceted, including a flexible approach to sovereignty in a region that defies easy state territorial claims; deference to existing international law; and the empowerment of the Arctic Council as a multilateral governance forum that incorporates the perspectives and interests of state and non-state actors from within the region and beyond. Based on these developments, it seems fitting to debunk the dominant Arctic “doom” scenario and propose that attention instead be turned to the Arctic as a success story in collaborative governance, one that could possibly serve as a model for other parts of the world.

The “Doom” Scenario

Current Arctic doomsayers point to the region as the site of the biggest great power ”land grab” since the late 19th century scramble for Africa. They note that research vessels of the five Arctic rim states – Canada, Denmark and Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the Unites States – have recently been surveying the seabed beyond their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in order to stake claims to the vast majority of the region’s seabed resources. These actions were portrayed in a markedly dramatic light when, in 2007, a manned submersible planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole.

Shortly thereafter, in Ilulissat, Greenland, representatives of the five Arctic rim states – the “Arctic Five” – issued a declaration that expressly rejected the need for an international governing body or regional treaty. To the extent that any rules were needed to regulate commercial activities in the Arctic Ocean, the Arctic Five contended that the framework set out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would suffice. The so-called Ilulissat Declaration asserted that the dominant foundation for governing the Arctic should be the sovereign state, operating unilaterally in its own territory. Such a declaration clearly did not sit well with the non-rim Arctic states or the indigenous people that call the Arctic their home. These excluded parties interpreted the Ilulissat meeting as an abandonment of hard-won collective governance in the region, providing a select few states with the means to claim the Arctic for themselves.

The Arctic region has consequently been identified as a site of expanding geopolitical confrontation. Whereas the Cold War stand off in the region was a relatively controlled stalemate between superpowers, today multiple parties are involved in an array of disputes, and this presumably increases the chances that one of these conflicts might spin out of control. Canada and Denmark, for instance, maintain a running disagreement over the ownership of Hans Island, a tiny rock island between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Canada and the United States dispute a potentially oil-rich swath of the Beaufort Sea. Norway has ongoing quarrels over the extent of its sovereign rights off the coast of its northernmost territory, Svalbard, which maintains a unique and somewhat ambiguous territorial status.

Beyond these border disputes, countries in the area also maintain sharp differences over the status of specific portions of the North. For instance, Canada opposes the United States’ assertion that the Northwest Passage is an international strait, while the United States opposes the straight baselines that Canada, Denmark, and Norway have drawn to define the internal waters of their respective archipelagoes. The region is also host to a number of other disagreements that, although not explicitly territorial, have geopolitical implications, such as the Canadian and Greenlandic defense of seal hunting, which has soured relations with the European Union where the practice is banned.

Unscrambling the Scramble for the Arctic

It is highly unlikely, however, that any of these “conflicts” will actually devolve into serious diplomatic rifts, let alone violence. Indeed, several of these disputes are being resolved through amicable, cooperative agreements. The “scramble” for the Arctic seabed is, in fact, being carried out according to an orderly process mandated by Article 76 of UNCLOS, under which geological and bathymetric findings that would support a state’s territorial claims are filed with an international scientific body operating under the auspices of the United Nations. In many instances, scientists from “competing” countries are sharing data and working together to map their respective countries’ outer-continental shelves. Norway has had its submission already accepted, without much fanfare or resistance, and Russia, whose initial claim was rejected, has obliged by returning to the exploration stage to gather more data.

Furthermore, it should be stressed that the Arctic Five are not attempting to increase their sovereign territory, but merely the zones in which they would have exclusive rights to mineral resources that, for now at least, are decades away from commercial exploitation. Even what could be construed as the most blatant territorial grab in the Arctic – the planting of the Russian flag beneath the North Pole – was far from the colonizing claim decried by doomsayers. The media refrained from mentioning that this “political stunt” was, in fact, a private expedition, sponsored by a Swedish pharmaceutical magnate and an Australian adventure tour operator. Furthermore, in its international communications the Russian government made clear that the flag planting had no legal significance but rather was a national celebration of a technological achievement, akin to the flags that have been planted by explorers who have “conquered” similar extreme locations, like the moon or Mount Everest.

Likewise, although the Ilulissat Declaration was an affirmation by the Arctic Five that no additional governance institutions or treaties were needed in the region, the Five have since clarified that their stance is entirely compatible with the strong role being given to institutions like the Arctic Council. Significantly, the Arctic Council, which also includes the non-rim Arctic states (Finland, Iceland, and Sweden), offers meaningful powers to indigenous peoples and non- governmental organizations (NGOs), thus making it a progressive and important multilateral governance forum in the region. Indeed, just a year after Ilulissat, in Chelsea, Québec, the United States in particular asserted that the Arctic Council was the appropriate forum for discussing and implementing non-security-related Arctic issues. Then, at a 2011 ministerial meeting in Nuuk, Greenland, representatives of the eight member states plus Greenland and the Faeroe Islands agreed to a number of additional steps to strengthen the Arctic Council, including the establishment of a permanent secretariat.

Disagreements with regard to Arctic sea-lanes have also been exaggerated. It has been argued that efforts by coastal states to manage emergent shipping routes could lead to just the kinds of territorial claims that spark diplomatic, and even military, confrontations. However, even as, for instance, the media reports Canada’s ever strident claim that the Northwest Passage is its internal waters, Canada and other nations in practice are throwing their weight behind a relatively depoliticized “soft law” solution that would protect coastal states’ Arctic waters through a strengthening of the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code.

The strengthened Polar Code will allow states in the area to actively police their environmentally fragile adjacent waters in the name of international standards, not territorial sovereignty, and thus provide a means for managing increased shipping while reducing possible tensions between coastal states and their Arctic and non-Arctic neighbors.

Lastly, while boundary disputes in the region remain, they are generally well managed. Arguably the most contested of these disputes, the maritime boundary between Russia and Norway, was resolved in 2010, when the two countries agreed to draw a new boundary line down the middle of the disputed area. There are signs that the United States and Canada may be close to agreement in the Beaufort Sea, while reports in the Canadian press this April similarly suggested that Canadian and Danish foreign ministries were close to an agreement in which disputed Hans Island would be divided in two between the two nations.

Therefore, the Arctic, far from being a region of tension and conflict, is actually a region of exceptional amity and cooperation, thanks to various informal and semi- formal institutions of bilateral and multilateral governance.

What Works in the Arctic

A key reason for the successful execution of Arctic governance lies in the recognition that the region does not easily integrate into the standard system of territorially defined sovereign states, often known as the Westphalian system. Since the earliest days of European exploration, the Arctic has most often been perceived as a place to pass through, not to colonize. These conceptions were soon complicated by the realization that the Arctic could not be crossed so easily, and that indigenous peoples were already using the space in a semi-nomadic manner that integrated land, water, and ice. Today, the Arctic continues to present unique challenges for policy makers in distant national capitals, who seek influence in a region that is difficult to police or settle and even more difficult to “improve” through agriculture, industrialization, or other intensive land uses based on the investments that typically characterize economic development.

Faced with the difficulty of expanding state territory to the Arctic, states in the region have made various attempts at constructing the Arctic as an exceptional space. We acknowledge that these have not always been cooperative. Early in the 20th century, for instance, Arctic states, particularly Canada and Russia, sought to promote a “sectoral” approach to the region, whereby each Arctic state would control all space from its eastern and western extremes to the North Pole, regardless of whether the space within that sector was land or ocean. Although echoes of this perspective still persist in the Arctic, the sectoral principle generally has been abandoned in favor of one that acknowledges the fundamental distinction between land and water that exists everywhere else in the world, that is, between spaces that can and cannot be fully incorporated into state territory.

However, with the acceptance of this fundamental ontology of Arctic space, states have also creatively incorporated a number of adaptations to account for the Arctic’s exceptional characteristics. The range of alternatives practiced in the Arctic include some that limit the bundle of rights normally associated with state sovereignty; others that extend a degree of incorporation to frozen coastal waters; and still others that give voice to indigenous, corporate, and NGO actors whose understandings and uses of Arctic space are not limited to a binary distinction between claimable land and un-claimable water.

Perhaps nowhere else in the world have states been so willing to bend the fundamental tenets of sovereignty in order to achieve a level of governance in a region that defies the simple replication of standard forms of European political organization and development. Such flexibility has a long history in the Arctic. For instance, historically, British sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic was mediated by the relatively autonomous territorial control exercised by the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the North Atlantic, The Spitzbergen Treaty of 1920 gives Norway sovereignty over Svalbard but with certain provisions that limit Norway’s control over economic resources. In several countries in the region, indigenous peoples have established significant levels of autonomy.

Additionally complicating these gradations of sovereignty, northern peoples often assert circumpolar bonds that transcend state structures and cross state borders, as in the case of the Barents Euro-Arctic Region, which brings together non-state, state, and suprastate (the European Union) actors for regional governance. Furthermore, UNCLOS, the key text establishing the international law of the sea, establishes a special regime for the Arctic, in Article 234, in which coastal states are granted additional powers within their EEZs because of the exceptional navigational hazards and environmental fragility that characterize partially frozen waters.

Today, perhaps the greatest innovation in governance can be found in the Arctic Council, which was established in 1996 with the mission of “provid[ing] a means for promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states, with the involvement of the Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.” The founders of the Arctic Council recognized that without cooperation among states, and without the active participation of non-state stakeholders, governance in the region would be impossible. It was also recognized that without a functioning and cooperative governance system the Arctic indeed could devolve into, if not anarchy, an environment that would be hostile to indigenous livelihoods, political stability, economic investments, and social development.

To this end, the Council and its programs have been guided by a shared governance structure and consensual decision making among its eight Arctic member states. Although the Council does not afford its Permanent Participants – the six Arctic indigenous peoples’ groups – equal decision-making powers as accorded its member states, Council decisions are made only in full consultation with the Permanent Participants.

Issues of ongoing common interest are implemented through the Council's six permanent working groups and task forces. These groups include representatives from member states' governmental institutions and from the framework organizations of the Arctic indigenous peoples. Each working group carries out its particular projects and initiatives with the involvement of representatives from diverse NGOs and invited specialists. Through the Council's working groups, the environmental and social consequences of climate change, the evolving needs of the Arctic region's inhabitants, and the challenges of governance and development in the Arctic environment continue to be addressed in cooperative and innovative ways.

Most recently, in May 2011, the Arctic Council came one step closer to being a policy-making body when it coordinated the drafting and signing of the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue. This agreement establishes a framework for “strengthen[ing] aeronautical and maritime search and rescue cooperation and coordination in the Arctic” in recognition “of the challenges posed by harsh Arctic conditions on search and rescue operations and the vital importance of providing rapid assistance to persons in distress in such conditions.” The Agreement divides the Arctic’s air and sea space into sectors, each of which is allocated to a specific Arctic state for search-and-rescue purposes only, and institutes a series of measures to facilitate cooperation among all eight Arctic Council states on search-and-rescue operations.

Clearly this form of multilateral oversight is not in any way an abandonment of state power. Rather it occurs in recognition that a reworking of the relationship between state, territory, and people is required in the Arctic environment. Arctic Council working groups are dependent on voluntary contributions from states, and the Council’s decisions are not binding. Indigenous groups likewise understand that the relatively strong regional governance structure implemented in the Arctic Council is not so much an alternative to state sovereignty, but rather a mechanism for interpreting and implementing sovereignty in the Polar North. For instance, the Declaration on Sovereignty issued in 2008 by the Inuit Circumpolar Council – one of the six permanent participants and the key non- governmental representative of the Inuit people – explicitly recognizes the sovereignty of states in the region, even as it asserts that the actual practice of sovereignty needs to take into account the specific environmental and social circumstances that prevail there. In short, the Arctic Council has achieved an unprecedented foundation for governance in the region precisely by providing a mechanism for adjusting the usually hard and fast structures of sovereignty to the particular social and geophysical conditions of the region.

Learning from the Arctic

The modern state system emerged from feudal Europe, where lords ruled over peasants who were permanently tied to pieces of land and where cities were emerging as hubs of commerce. Clearly, the situation in the Arctic today is very different. Notwithstanding changes in the region that are occurring due to climate change and technological innovations, the Arctic is still a region where populations are sparse, opportunities for localized development are few, and state control is exceptionally uneven. Although the authority of states in the region goes unquestioned, even by most indigenous peoples who simultaneously claim identities that exist within and across state borders, the basis of state authority is necessarily being reworked.

Therefore, the Arctic, far from being a site of conflict, is an arena of exceptionally creative and effective governance, which is all the more impressive when one considers the obstacles that normally would prevent the extension of the state system to the region. Indeed, this makes us wonder if the Arctic could serve as a model for other regions of the world that, for geophysical, demographic, or cultural reasons, may not be suited for a standard Westphalian model of state sovereignty. Numerous areas are routinely described as “ungoverned,” “ungovernable,” “lawless,” or “anarchic.” These regions, such as the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, or Afghanistan, are characterized by nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples who have been, at most, only partially incorporated into the state system, maintaining identities apart from those of the nation-states that claim to govern their territories. These regions too are frequently beset with environmental harshness and inaccessibility that limit opportunities for economic development and political stabilization – at least as these are typically conceived by modern states.

Of course, there are limits to a comparison between, say, the Inuit of Greenland and the Somalis of the Horn of Africa. One crucial discrepancy is that in Somalia formal colonialism has ended while in the Arctic it could be seen as ongoing. Another is that the resources flowing to the Arctic region, backed by wealthy industrialized states, are very different from the resources available to some of the regions mentioned above. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider what it would be like if a regime similar to that in the Arctic, which incorporates a recognition of a region’s geophysical and social environment in order to create a degree of interstate cooperation and direct involvement by non-state entities, were applied to other seemingly “ungovernable” zones.

To be clear, this is not an assertion that the Arctic model is itself without limits. It certainly is possible that as the current governance system succeeds in making the Arctic a stable space for development it may unravel, leading to something more like the unilateral governance system that characterizes the rest of the world. Additionally, as an organization like the Arctic Council is faced with demands from a growing number of non-included stakeholders it is perpetually faced with game-changing potentials. For example, the Arctic Council could become excessively exclusionary so that the governance model is actively undermined from without, or it could become so watered down in its accession to expansion that governance becomes dysfunctional from within. Attempts to weave between either of these suboptimal outcomes can be seen in ongoing debates within the Arctic Council regarding which states and non-state entities should be granted observer status – or, permanent participant or member status – as well as debates regarding whether the Council should be given greater policy-making powers, more stable sources of revenue, and a more permanent executive structure.

Additional tension is likely to emerge as the Arctic Council evolves from a multifaceted governance forum into a collaborative governance institution and, more generally, as the Arctic region becomes incorporated within the international state territorial system. However, the most striking aspect of these transitions in Arctic governance is how smoothly they are occurring. In large part, this is because the state and non-state actors who are driving the transitions recognize that the tangle of evolving, overlapping, and conflicting political, economic, social, and environmental forces in and around the Arctic Ocean requires innovative and cooperative governance to better promote the sustainable development of the extended region.

In his 1986 book Arctic Dreams, naturalist-author Barry Lopez stresses that the far North, while often written off as inhospitable, has also been seen as a place of hope. In Greek mythology, the Arctic “Hyperborea,” or “The Land Beyond the North Wind” was regarded as an Eden of plenty inhabited by a long-lived and contemplative people who lived happy lives free of war. This legend, in turn, inspired the Russian Arctic expeditions sponsored by Catherine the Great and in more recent times motivated individuals like 20th century explorer Vilhjalmur Steffanson. Today, this portrayal of the Arctic as a challenging but potentially rewarding arena of opportunity has seen a new resurgence as greater access to possible polar natural resource wealth and viable shipping routes has moved the Arctic from “periphery” to “frontline.”

Yet, as pundits tack between “Arctic boom” and “Arctic doom” scenarios, we should remember that the Arctic is not an empty wasteland that is solely the object of multi-million dollar mining projects and great-power land grabs. Rather, the Arctic has emerged as a site of innovative political experimentation where national governments, indigenous peoples, and non-governmental actors are exhibiting exceptional creativity in adapting to a complex and dynamic set of cultural and geophysical environments. Consequently, new and progressive practices and institutions are materializing to guide the region through future challenges. The world could do well to learn from the Arctic example.



Philip E. Steinberg is a Professor in the Department of Geography at Florida State University and Marie Curie International Incoming Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London. Hannes Gerhardt is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences at West Georgia University. Jeremy Tasch is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Planning at Towson University. The three authors are jointly leading a US National Science Foundation-sponsored project on Arctic Territorial Imaginaries and are co-authors of the book Contesting the Arctic, to be published by IB Tauris.