March 26, 2012
How does a region go from being a major focus of military confrontation to one of the most fascinating models of international cooperation in less than two decades?
This is a question Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the sitting President of Iceland, was delighted to answer at the concluding session of a two-day conference held at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Over the course of his lifetime and his impressive public service career, President Grímsson has witnessed the sensational evolution of the Arctic region. It has transformed from one of the most potentially destructive places in the world – the military center of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union – to a prime example of cooperation across national and institutional boundaries.
“The superpowers that once divided the world have now become the supporting pillars of this remarkable cooperation,” President Grímsson explained during his keynote remarks. “It shows you can transform the worst of enemies into the best of partners.”
The conference, which focused on the political, economic and environmental implications of the warming Arctic, was organized by the Murrow Center of The Fletcher School with cooperation from CIERP, the Institute of the North in Anchorage, the Rasmuson Foundation and the Government of Norway. The dialogue brought together media, business and government leaders, including Senator John Kerry (D-MA), and centered on the challenges, crises, failures and urgent tasks that may confront the Arctic Council.
The eight-member Arctic Council “has moved center stage in constructive cooperation on a number of critical issues, including how to plan the opening of new sea routes and measuring climate change,” observed President Grímsson.
The council has operated under a political system that is more democratic than any other international or regional organization, as it formally involves indigenous people and non-governmental organizations at the highest levels of policy making. In addition, President Grímsson noted it has become a “new intellectual frontier of research, science, discovery and international scholarly cooperation.”
The governance of the Arctic region is of particular relevance in global geopolitics because the region holds 30 percent of the world’s untapped energy resources. Decisions regarding how these resources will be utilized may be made using this new framework.
President Grímsson identified six elements to explain why the Arctic Circle has successfully developed a new model of international cooperation: the non-bureaucratic nature of the organization, its democratic aspect, new diplomatic norms that allow for greater communication across ranks, an emphasis on science-based policy, absolute equality among member states and the future orientation of the tasks.
The Arctic’s untapped mineral resources are not the only reason for the region’s significant role in today’s international arena. The Arctic countries are also leaders in the clean energy field, with Iceland, for example, moving from 80 percent dependence on imported oil to 100 percent self-sufficiency in its electricity needs through clean energy. These advances have even attracted the attention of China, which considers Iceland a main partner in the geothermal transformation of its heating capabilities.
Joining President Grímsson on the session’s panel were Pontus Melander, Minister Counselor at the Embassy of Sweden; Mead Treadwell, Lieutenant Governor of the State of Alaska; and Alexander Pilyasov of the Center for Arctic and Northern Economies in Moscow.
In response to the keynote speech, Mr. Melander pointed to one of the main challenges facing the Arctic Council. Given the numerous applications for observer status – from countries including China, South Korea and Italy, as well as some corporations – the organization will have to find a way to preserve its uniqueness and effectiveness while not being perceived as an exclusive club. Pilyasov questioned whether the council should continue to remain relatively isolated, given the innovative ideas coming out of its member countries.
Lieutenant Governor Treadwell raised the main criticism directed at the Arctic Council – its “lack of teeth” – and offered that the numerous agreements crafted over the past decade speak for themselves.
“Maybe it’s about time we achieve constructive cooperation through handshakes rather than teeth,” added President Grímsson, generating a convinced round of applause from the audience.
-Article by Elia Boggia, MALD candidate F13
Read the conference report, "Hothouse in the Arctic," and the associated report on the Arctic Triangle Index.
Additional media on President Grímsson's visit and the larger two-day conference:
The Daily Climate on Senator John Kerry's conference keynote
Conference coverage by the Global Post