In the Field

The Arctic Circle expansion

By Beate Steinveg

Since its establishment in 2013, with the purpose of including all interested stakeholders in the dialogue on the future of the Arctic, the Arctic Circle’s outreach and scope has grown impressively. More than 2000 participants from 60 different countries attend the 2019 Assembly. The Arctic Circle organization also continues its global expansion of the Arctic dialogue through the Forums arranged word-wide twice a year. In 2020, Forums will be hosted in Berlin and Tokyo, and one is being planned in Paris in 2021. 

In this way, former President of Iceland, now Chairman of the Arctic Circle, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson brings the global to the Arctic, and the Arctic to the global. In just a few years, the Arctic Circle has become one of, if not the, most important arenas for discussions and collaboration among those engaged in the Arctic. While the conference is an excellent arena to meet likeminded people from all over the world, it should be viewed as more than just a meeting place.

The Arctic states dominated this year’s opening session, with the Prime Ministers of Iceland and Finland, H.R.H. Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, the Premier of Greenland, Kim Kielsen, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Faroe Islands, US Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry and the Governor of the Yamal region in Russia.

At the same time, the Arctic Circle is an arena for non-Arctic states to participate in the Arctic community, to present their interests and priorities in the region. Country Sessions dominated the first Assemblies, including presentations from Britain, France and Japan in 2014, China and Germany in 2015 and Switzerland in 2016. This year’s conference continues providing a stage for all interested stakeholder, regardless of geographical position. The EU, China, Singapore, Japan and others are given the opportunity to present their visions for the Arctic. 

Issues having characterized international affairs lately also dominated the opening session. Mr. Gao Feng, Special Representative for Arctic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China was asked whether China would consider rebranding itself after US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, denounced the use of the “near-Arctic state” identity at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi in May earlier this year. The answer was no. Far or close, we all have to take action to combat the effects of climate change. But we are close, he said. 

President Donald Trump’s recent interest in buying Greenland was also brought up under the question and answer session with Premier Kim Kielsen. He was asked by a US representative from Bloomberg whether he had consulted with his people regarding how much money they would actually receive if Greenland accepted the bid. To which he answered: “You cannot exchange Greenland for money”, receiving enthusiastic applause from the audience. 

The “near-Arctic state” controversy and the case of Greenland illustrate how the Arctic is of global interest, and how the Arctic is elevated on the international agenda, through economics and politics. In a world increasingly characterized by great-power tensions, trade wars, military invasions and distrust among powerful players, cooperative arenas for dialogue become are absolutely vital. The Arctic Circle is one such arena. 

There are plenty of sobering topics on the agenda at the Arctic Circle, including the impacts of climate change, environmental consequences of glaciers melting, mental wellness challenges. At the same time, the Arctic Circle is importantly an arena for optimism, where organizers of hundreds of sessions engage participants in constructive conversation on issues such as renewable energy, innovative technology, sustainable tourism development, the empowerment of community action. It is a forum where young voices are promoted, and where regional leaders from the US and Russia engage in dialogue.

Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir was clear in her message of the collective responsibility of the international community to keep the Arctic peaceful and stable. In the combat against climate change, individual efforts are necessary but not sufficient. Furthering this line of thinking, Prime Minster of Finland, Antti Rinne, pointed out in his opening remark that the Arctic has attracted global importance and attention, which makes multilateral cooperation important.

Yet, the Arctic Circle’s existence is not enough. The 2000 participants need to follow up what is presented at the Assembly, and bring back the knowledge obtained to their work. Hopefully, hearing from those living in the Arctic, especially Indigenous Peoples, leaves an impression with participants that stimulates concrete actions. Because, as repeated from the conference stage, we don’t have much time if we are going to prevent the Arctic region from being irreversible changed.

Beate Steinveg is PhD-student in political science at the University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway. My research interests are within international relations and Arctic governance include agenda setting, stakeholder salience and regimes. My PhD-project concerns the broader impacts of conferences on the governance system in which they are situated. Specifically, how conferences have an impact on the Arctic governance regime complex, balancing between the interests of sovereign Arctic states, emerging non-Arctic stakeholders, and the operations of cooperative arrangements.