An Arctic treaty has been rejected by the region’s leaders. Again

Academics will tell you the idea of an Arctic treaty sounds terribly exciting. Diplomats think it is just terrible.

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Norwegian foreign minister Ine Eriksen Søreide addresses an audience in Tromsø, Norway, on January 27, 2020 (Terje Mortensen / Arctic Frontiers)

Blame Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1987, during the waning days of the Cold War, the final leader of the Soviet Union suggested that the Arctic, until then locked up as the domain of his own country and its rivals in the West, be opened up into a zone for scientific cooperation and the promotion of peace.

A decade later, in 1996, his idea came to fruition with the formation of the Arctic Council as a club primarily for Arctic countries and their Indigenous populations. Non-Arctic countries are let in, but as observers, back-bench members who can take part in the heavy-lifting but are left out of the council’s formative discussions.

Since its founding, the eight-member council has added observers on a regular basis; to date, 13 countries and 25 organisations have been admitted. There is room for more, according council diplomats, who say anyone who is willing to make a contribution to the region is welcome.

[Iceland begins its Arctic Council chairmanship with a focus on observers]

Their caveat is that observers who don’t contribute will be thrown out. But the council recognizes that dissatisfaction can go both ways. And, in recent years, it has done more to involve observers. Likewise, efforts are underway to reconsider how the organization goes about its business. This might see non-Arctic states granted an expanded role, but, suggests Marc Lanteigne, a Tromsø, Norway-based academic, such measures are unlikely to end discussions about the need for an “Arctic treaty.”

The idea of an Arctic treaty, as Lanteigne notes in a recent commentary, is one that comes up from time to time.

What it would entail depends on who is proposing it, though military matters are one constant. They are not a part of Arctic Council’s remit, and coming up with a way to talk about them would, argue proponents, prevent misunderstandings from escalating into conflict.

“Dialogue on touchy military issues in the Arctic is becoming increasingly important” for avoiding a militarized Arctic its equally dangerous opposite, an Arctic devoid of any sort of “security and stewardship,” argued Abbie Tingstad, a scientist with the RAND Corporation, a hugely influential Washington think-tank, in a commentary on Defense One, a news outlet.

The latter, she wrote, is troublesome, since it opens the door for countries from outside the region to justify an increase in their own regional capabilities.

Opponents of a treaty argue it would be superfluous; there are no territorial disputes, and most of what such a treaty would seek to prevent against, is, they say, covered by existing agreements. Agreeing to an Arctic treaty of the sort that governs the Antarctic and grants equal rights to all parties, would entail Arctic countries giving up sovereignty, making it a non-starter for their leaders, according to Lanteigne.

As a result, discussions about a treaty are often little more than thought exercises. Last month, however, Bobo Lo, an Australian academic and former diplomat, forced the issue when he brought it up on the main stage of Arctic Frontiers, a big annual conference.

Rather than proposing that the Arctic’s cart be overturned entirely, Lo suggested finding a way to supplement existing structures. Those structures work now, he admits, but could become less effective at coping with “new and unpalatable realities” — mostly countries less interested in playing by established rules, in the Arctic or elsewhere.

Ine Eriksen Søride, Norway’s foreign minister, who later appeared on stage with Lo, rejected the suggestion.

“I don’t think there is a need for it (a treaty, ed.). And I think that what we have to continue to do is to actually put a lot of emphasis into the cooperation that we have, as we did through the period of the Cold War,” she said.

Off the record, diplomats from other Arctic countries were more emphatic and less diplomatic.

The answers come as little surprise, but Lanteigne warns that they represent an understanding that is becoming outdated. As countries’ economic interests in the region grow, they will become less willing to accept an arrangement that gives them minimal say.

“The concern is always that China will build its own clubhouse,” he said, suggesting that the so-called “Polar Silk Road,” an element of Beijing’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, could be turned into an Arctic club of its own.

It is only speculation — China, to date, has shown itself willing to play by the rules in the region — but Lanteigne points to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which China founded in 2015, as an example of how Beijing is willing to create its own rules rather than abide by an existing system that doesn’t further its goals. After some initial hesitation — and hefty American opposition — 75 countries, including Canada and much of Europe, are now members.

“It’s not as unthinkable as it might seem,” he says. The comments that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made ahead of a meeting of Arctic Council foreign ministers in May 2019, casting doubts on the legitimacy of China’s interests in the region, may be the sort of thing that could precipitate a Chinese decision to turn away from the established order, Lanteigne reckons.

“In that sense, Pompeo was being counterproductive,” he said. “If Beijing feels Pompeo was putting them on notice, then their next step might be to pick up their ball and leave. Then it would be interesting to see which countries follow them.”

[How US policy threatens existing Arctic governance]

Discussions for and against an Arctic treaty, according to Peder Roberts, a historian specializing in the Arctic, are more than just a case of the haves against the have nots.

“The end of the earth isn’t quite as far away as it used to be,” he said. “Whether it is economic or scientific, you see countries arguing that climate change has made the Arctic a place that affects the rest of the world.”

In general, Arctic countries accept this, he says, and, indeed, they welcome the participation of non-Arctic countries in the region.

“The bigger disagreement is about where to place them at the table,” he said. “So, it’s a relevant discussion, but if there is no compelling reason why Arctic countries would agree to something like a treaty, then it’s unlikely to ever really begin.”