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The Arctic Council: A Path Forward

ArcticCouncilThe Arctic Council held a landmark meeting this week, complete with notable attendees, major decisions, and significant agreements. The US sent Secretary of State John Kerry, demonstrating increased focus on Arctic issues even as they remain a non-signatory to the UNCLOS treaty. The group expanded its membership by granting 6 Permanent Observer positions to China, Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore, and Italy. The council of 8 Arctic nations (The A8) also signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, which commits countries to prepare for environmental protection and cooperation in emergency situations. This meeting, held in Kiruna Sweden, demonstrated the expanding interest from both Arctic and non-Arctic countries, but more importantly demonstrated success in international cooperation regarding geopolitical and environmental concerns.

The US, traditionally laggard in commitments and preparations for Arctic change, stepped up its presence and participation in two major ways. First, Secretary of State John Kerry attended the meeting, suggesting earnest engagement from the US. Second, the US released its National Arctic Strategy (pdf here) asserting national security, stewardship, and international cooperation as primary objectives. While a refreshing step forward for the US Arctic policy, its focus on security interests and associated economic interests has been heavily critiqued for lacking firm commitments or stated environmental goals.

During the meeting, the Council evaluated applications for Permanent Observer Status, and granted access to 6 new states, most notably China. China’s adamant pursuit of an Arctic foothold has been rebuffed by Norway and Iceland in recent years over economic and social issues, but their persistence has paid off. The European Union was not so successful as they have been granted a conditional appointment pending resolution of a seal products ban, opposed vigorously by Canada. These issues highlight the increasing weight of Arctic interests as they are now being used for geopolitical leverage.

My final note is one of actual impact, opposed to the political posturing mentioned above. The Council concluded with the signing of Spill Response Accord whereby the A8 nations commit resources and promise cooperation in responding to Arctic emergencies. The success of the Arctic Council in establishing a forum for transnational discussions stands as an exemplar of international negotiations and provides not only progress in dealing with global scale changes, but also hope that nation states are in fact capable of acting on global challenges.

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