President-elect Biden should take two key steps to strengthen international cooperation in the Arctic

By boosting the Arctic Council and Arctic Ocean governance, the incoming administration can make the Arctic a more stable place.

By David Balton - December 16, 2020
Foreign Ministers attend the Arctic Council summit at the Lappi Areena in Rovaniemi, Finland May 7, 2019. (Mandel Ngan / Pool via Reuters)

Editor’s note: This op-ed is the first of a series offering Arctic policy recommendations to the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden. Follow our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter) or subscribe to our daily newsletter to be the first to read new installments. 

President-elect Joe Biden has an opportunity to reclaim a U.S. leadership role in the Arctic.  That role that has eroded in significant part due to President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to acknowledge the serious effects of climate change in the Arctic, and of Arctic climate change on the rest of the planet. By renewing the U.S. commitment to deal seriously with climate change, the Biden administration will regain legitimacy, and can use that legitimacy to push for stronger Arctic institutions.

Some perspective is in order. Since the end of the Cold War, Arctic governments and stakeholders found numerous ways to pursue their enlightened self-interest by cooperating with each other on matters of mutual concern. This mode of cooperation persisted­ — even accelerated — for much of the past decade despite serious tensions between Russia and the other Arctic states concerning other regions and other issues.

More recently, however, the tenor of international relations in the Arctic has changed.  “Great Power Competition” — generally a shorthand for friction between the United States, Russia and China — has cast a pall over the Arctic, making cooperation more difficult. Russia and China each bear some responsibility for the worsening circumstances.

So does the United States.

The “America First” approach to foreign policy of the Trump Administration sprung from a disregard for, and even an antipathy toward, multilateral regimes and arrangements of the sort that had proliferated in the Arctic in the past two decades — the very regimes and arrangements that had helped to keep tensions in the Arctic low and manageable.

On climate change, the United States under President Trump broke ranks with other Arctic states and, indeed, with the international community at large, by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement and weakening domestic measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The 2019 Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting ended in disarray when the United States blocked adoption of a declaration it could not accept because it contained language on the need to combat climate change.

President-elect Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement upon taking office in January and has offered an ambitious agenda for addressing climate change at home and worldwide. These steps will bring U.S. climate policy back into line with those of most other nations, including those in the Arctic.

By doing so, the Biden Administration will also have the chance to take up another stalled agenda — strengthening Arctic institutions so as to enable them to address mounting challenges in the decades to come. Specifically, the Biden administration can seek to:

    • Strengthen the Arctic Council system. The Arctic Council, despite its remarkable evolution, needs a long-term strategic plan, adequate and predictable funding, and a consolidated secretariat. Its current structure, put into place in 1996, may need revision in order to respond to future needs of the region. The council should also become more accountable, by instituting a practice in which its members regularly report on their implementation of decisions that the council has taken.
  • Improve overall governance of the Arctic Ocean. The reduction in Arctic sea ice has made the Arctic Ocean dramatically more accessible. Commercial shipping has already increased, particularly along Russia’s Northern Sea Route, with further increases expected.  The Arctic Ocean remains poorly understood and poorly charted, however. Current arrangements and rules relating to the Arctic Ocean — including those generated by the Arctic Council, the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code, the Arctic Fisheries Agreement, and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum — may not prove to be either sufficiently robust or sufficiently well-coordinated to manage increasing human activity there in coming years.  The U.S. could lead efforts to improve this regime by proposing the creation of a marine science body for the Central Arctic Ocean and, sometime thereafter, of a marine management body for the Central Arctic Ocean.

David Balton is a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He previously served as the U.S. Ambassador for Oceans and Fisheries.

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