Changing Arctic Governance and Options for the Arctic Council

The Arctic Council. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State

By: Ashley Postler, Columnist

After becoming Arctic Council Chair in 2017, Finland elected to continue the institution’s “process of long-term strategic planning” set in motion under the previous US chairmanship.[i] Toward this effort, the Council will likely consider two priorities: reinforcing the member states’ collective position within the organization in the midst of expanding membership and maintaining regional stability despite a mandate that excludes hard security issues. While supporting these institutional priorities, the U.S. should also strive to manage non-Arctic states’ roles in the region and promote Arctic security while maintaining flexibility in the Council’s original structural design.

Origins and Successes of the Arctic Council

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 with the Ottawa Declaration by the eight circumpolar nations—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S.—who became the Council’s Member States. Geopolitical conditions at the time were favorable, and environmental protection and related issues, such as the clean-up of nuclear waste, were considered the most pressing areas for cooperation. As a condition for US involvement in the 1990s, the Council was established as a consensus-based forum and not a treaty organization.[ii],[iii]

Despite the Council’s lack of international legal authority, member states have successfully convened multiple legally-binding agreements outside the organization’s parameters. Additionally, the Council provides Arctic indigenous groups a high-level platform to consult on the organization’s activities as permanent participants. Moreover, the Council’s loose architecture is considered to have contributed to keeping the Arctic largely immune from tensions elsewhere across the globe since its establishment after the Cold War.

More Members, More Problems?

Due to the globalized nature of the effects of climate change, an increasing number of non-Arctic states deem the Arctic too important to leave regional governance to the circumpolar states,[iv] prompting many to seek and gain observer status in the Council. Council membership has now expanded to include 13 non-Arctic observer states, raising questions among the member states about how to maintain their decision-making authority while balancing the latter’s formal representation and interests.

A possible solution may actually be to foster increased inclusion for observers. With broader opportunities for engagement, observers could more easily be socialized to the Council’s institutional norms.[v] Observers’ adherence to such norms could make them more amenable to member states’ steering, and ensure that collectively the member states retain primary decision-making responsibility. Moreover, increased avenues for involvement could make observers feel more welcome in the Council, and less likely to seek membership in outside forums through which to influence regional governance beyond member states’ purview.[vi] Prior to China’s admission to the Arctic Council as an accredited observer in 2013, some Chinese scholars suggested that such membership was inimical to China’s interests, because “observer status [would] bring more obligations but fewer rights.”[vii]

Conversely, the risk is that increased involvement opportunities for observers could instead grant them increased power and influence within the Council at member states’ expense. To mitigate this risk, the Council should continue to vertically limit while laterally broadening observer engagement to ensure member states retain primary decision-making authority.

No Mechanism to Address Emerging Security Concerns

Another increasingly important challenge involves emerging military security issues in the Arctic, which the Council is prohibited from addressing per the Ottawa Declaration.[viii] NATO, which presently lacks an Arctic policy, is not an ideal choice to fill this void, since formal expansion into the Arctic would likely be met with pushback by Russia.[ix] Taken together, these omissions leave the region vulnerable to tension and conflict.

In particular, Russia’s Arctic military buildup and accompanying rhetoric over the past decade has fostered insecurity among its Arctic neighbors. Of growing concern is China’s mounting Arctic FDI foothold which grants it increasing soft power and influence in the region. The burgeoning Sino-Russian partnership in the Arctic compounds these concerns. The geopolitical situation in the Arctic is thus more tense than it was when the Council was established, and warrants serious contemplation of security concerns.

Any reform to “broaden the Council’s remit” to include security issues is generally dismissed.[x] A workaround to this limitation might be to elevate the Council’s delegatory capacity, encouraging it to recognize what it does well, and limit its “role to functions which only it can perform.”[xi] Security issues might therefore be delegated to organizations like the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF).

Several years prior to its establishment in 2015, the ACGF was conceptualized in a CSIS report as needing to “focus first and foremost on information sharing” and cooperation—including with the private sector—to support certain Council agreements such as those pertaining to search and rescue and oil spill response.[xii] This model enables the Council to better direct its limited resources toward projects it alone can manage. However, the ACGF faces some limitations, for example, “sensitive information cannot be shared as between NATO members,” and individual coast guard mandates are not always compatible with an overarching Arctic security vision.[xiii]

In 2016, a subsequent CSIS report introduced the prospect of transforming the Council into an Arctic OSCE-type institution covering economic, human, and security “dimensions” at play in the region.[xiv] Naturally, such a “redesign” would require “an extraordinary amount of political will and diplomatic energy…[that] does not exist currently.”[xv]

Perhaps, then, the OSCE itself could offer a medium.[xvi] The eight Arctic states already all belong to the organization; should the OSCE seek to join the Council as an observer—particularly one with a mandate to address security issues—, it might be less encumbered by observer guidelines and better poised than the rest of its cohort to pursue institutional engagement opportunities. For example, it could spearhead a Council working group on Arctic security, and include other observers. This could bring security issues into the Council’s purview more meaningfully than delegating responsibility to another organization, without having to restructure the Council’s mandate or architecture. It could also serve to reinforce member states’ collective position in the organization relative to its growing membership, which will be critical for the Council to navigate and manage increasing international interest in the Arctic in the coming decades.


[i] “Finland’s Chairmanship Program for the Arctic Council 2017-2019,” Arctic Council, 2017, 17,

[ii] Heather Exner-Pirot et al, “Form and Function: The Future of the Arctic Council,” The Arctic Institute, February 5, 2019,

[iii] Evan T. Bloom, “Establishment of the Arctic Council,” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 93, No. 3 (July 1999), 721,

[iv] Oran R. Young, “The Arctic in Play: Governance in a Time of Rapid Change,” The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law (2009), 430.

[v] Piotr Graczyk et al, “Preparing for the Global Rush: The Arctic Council, Institutional Norms, and Socialisation of Observer Behaviour,” 126, in: Governing Arctic Change, K. Keil and S. Knecht (2017).

[vi] Ibid 131.

[vii] Peiqing Guo, “An Analysis of New Criteria for Permanent Observer Status on the Arctic Council and the Road of Non‐Arctic States to Arctic,” KMI International Journal of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Vol. 4, Iss. 2, December 2012, 21.

[viii] “Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council, (“Ottowa Declaration”),” The Arctic Council, Ottowa, Canada, September 19, 1996, see footnote #1, page 6,

[ix] Av Ragnhild Grønning, “NATO reluctant to engage in the Arctic,” High North News, November 24, 2016,

[x] Oran R. Young, “The Arctic Council at Twenty: How to Remain Effective in a Rapidly Changing Environment,” UC Irvine Law Review, Vol. 6 Iss. 99 (January 2016), 109,

[xi] Heather Exner-Pirot et al, “Form and Function: The Future of the Arctic Council,” The Arctic Institute, February 5, 2019,

[xii] Heather A. Conley et al, “A New Security Architecture for the Arctic: An American Perspective,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2012, 38,

[xiii] Andreas Østhagen, “The Arctic Coast Guard Forum: Big Tasks, Small Solutions,” The Arctic Institute, November 2, 2015,

[xiv] Heather A. Conley and Matthew Melino, “An Arctic Redesign: Recommendations to Rejuvenate the Arctic Council,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 2016, 17,

[xv] Ibid, 18.

[xvi] Rachael Gosnell, “An Arctic Role for OSCE?” University of Maryland School of Public Policy, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, March 30, 2018,

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