Arctic Circle Roundup: Three Subtexts

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I’m just back from Iceland, having attended the first Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik and the affiliated Sixth Annual Polar Law Symposium in Akureyri. As conference planning proceeded, the latter sessions of the Polar Law Symposium got moved to Reykjavik and folded into the larger Arctic Circle meeting. And as things proceeded further, one of the joint sessions (to be precise, the one on the Law of the Sea, in which I was presenting) got rebranded as a plenary. So, I ended up presenting a fairly technical paper on the legal status of the Northwest Passage, designed for a small audience of 20-30 polar law experts, to an amalgamation of almost 1,000 industrialists, diplomats, and journalists. It was a strange session, made all the stranger by flag-planter extraordinaire Artur Chilingarov, realist Arctic analyst Scott Borgerson, and U.S. Ambassador to Iceland Luis Arreaga all staring me down from the front row (but, I should stress, not sitting together).

Much has been written about the Arctic Circle (including, I confess, a bit by me). The gathering was announced a month before the May 2013 Arctic Council minesterial meeting, at which member states were to decide the fate of six state and eight intergovernmental and nongovernmental entities that were seeking permanent observer status. The timing surely was not coincidental, and Arctic-watchers were speculating whether this new forum was being promoted to give added weight to the threat being made by permanent observer candidates that if they were not admitted to Arctic Council meetings they would take their interests somewhere else.

As it turned out, the states that were seeking admission to the Arctic Council were successful in their bids, so if the driver behind the Arctic Circle meeting was to highlight possibilities for an alternate forum to the Arctic Council, now a new justification was needed. I was struck by three subtexts at the Arctic Circle meeting, enabled, perhaps, by participants having been freed from the tensions surrounding the permanent observer status applications.

One subtext of the Arctic Circle meeting was that it provided a forum for Iceland to proclaim its identity as an Arctic nation. As Klaus Dodds and Valur Ingimundarson have noted, Iceland has for some time been asserting its Arctic Ocean identity, a problematic claim depending on one’s definition of what it means to be ‘Arctic’ since only a tiny island off the north coast of Iceland lies north of 66° 33’ 44”. At the Arctic Circle meeting, this identity was reproduced by several speakers, with the CEO of the Icelandic logistics company Eimskip upping the ante by declaring that Iceland was the world’s only wholly Arctic country.

A second key subtext was business. Corporate interests were ubiquitous at the conference and even non-corporate speakers – from government and indigenous communities – in many cases addressed the region’s investment potential. Whole sessions resembled trade shows, with executives from shipping, logistics, and shipbuilding companies presenting advertising videos on the products and services that their companies could offer. Much of the conference appeared to be bankrolled by companies that either sold their knowledge of the Arctic as an investment site (e.g. Guggenheim Partners investment banking and asset management consultants) or that sold services that could be used by those wishing to better ‘know’ the region (e.g. Google).

A third subtext, and one that has received relatively little attention in coverage of the event, was the outsized role of Alaska. Alaskan firms, politicians, and Arctic investment promoters were as prominent as those from Iceland in the conference’s organisation structure. This marked a significant change from other Arctic fora that are often dominated by Norway or Canada. As Alaskans have often bemoaned, many officials in Washington fail to recognise that the United States is an Arctic nation, and when they do recognise it the national interest is often framed as one of security and global precedent-setting rather than one of regional economic development. As such, the environment of the Arctic Circle, as an international forum separated from the state-centrism of organisations like the Arctic Council, was particularly conducive for Alaskan representatives. Not only were there a number of Alaskan plenary speakers as well as video presentations from Alaska’s two U.S. senators, but numerous Alaskan state legislators, local government officials, indigenous representatives, and businesspersons were in attendance.

Given that several of the key speakers were not used to playing in the Arctic geopolitics arena, there were a number of awkward moments, from the slick (and in some cases not-so-slick) presentations by shipping firms to the video address by Alaska Senator Mark Begich in which he inadvertently settled the Northwest Passage issue once and for all by calling it “Canada’s Northwest Passage.”

Will the Arctic Circle, as once feared, form a viable alternative to the Arctic Council? I have no idea what would have happened had the six observer state applications been denied in May, but, after Kiruna, it seems to me that worries about the Arctic Circle as a ‘challenge’ to the Arctic Council seem unfounded. As a business networking forum, Arctic Circle could conceivably eclipse the Arctic Council’s new Business Roundtable by offering an environment more insulated from state politics. However, some commercial issues require state involvement, so even here the Arctic Council has a special role. From my perspective, the Arctic Circle is better poised to challenge the Norwegian-sponsored Arctic Frontiers conference, as they are similar environments in which diplomats, investors, corporate representatives, activists, and researchers meet against a background of scientific presentations, policy analyses, and official government speeches. Certainly, there is more science (more social science, and especially more physical science) at Arctic Frontiers, but in many ways the science there only supports the diplomatic and business aspects of the conference, so not too much should be made of this difference. Perhaps a more significant difference that puts the two conferences into different “markets” is the registration fee: over €1,000 for Arctic Frontiers, but almost free for Arctic Circle. Of course, it remains to be seen whether outside funders will continue to subsidise the Arctic Circle’s costs.

Amidst the universe of Arctic policy/development/business conferences, it is debatable whether the world needs one more, even if each has a slightly unique emphasis. Certainly, however, as a one-off venture, the Arctic Circle meeting has served to remind the Arctic policy-making and business community, that the world does not consist simply of Norwegian oil companies, Canadian and Greenlandic indigenous activists, Russian shipping infrastructure managers, the U.S. Navy, and national governments. Icelandic logistics firms, Alaskan native corporations, Finnish shipbuilders, and Chinese shipping companies, as well as a host of regional and local governments and environmental organisations are also part of the equation. The Arctic Circle left us remembering just how big the Arctic is.

Phil S.

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9 thoughts on “Arctic Circle Roundup: Three Subtexts

    • I fear this is just a preliminary to the future rape of the Arctic. Notice the interest all of a sudden now that the glaciers are melting. The wealth lying there is of a fabulist imagination and these capitalist business concerns will do to it as they have done to everything else. Your Council or Circle is not going to get in their way. They will use you for PR until they decide to throw you under the bus. All nations will be grasping at any toehold they can get to plunder it.

      • Seymour: I think I agree with you more than you realise. I didn’t mean to imply that either the Arctic Council or the Arctic Circle is seeking to get in the way of capitalism. In fact, that’s explicitly what the Arctic Circle (and, increasingly, the Arctic Council as well) is all about. But I don’t think your image of ‘all nations [seeking] to plunder it’ is quite right. Certain nations still have explicit roles as gatekeepers, just as they do in the rest of the world (usually with respect to their own territories). However these gatekeepers then institute regulations (or deregulations) that facilitate investment from outside ‘plunderers’ as well as from their own capitalist enterprises.

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