The Growing Role of ‘Track II’ Organisations in the Arctic

[Photo by Pixabay]
As the Arctic begins to be viewed in international relations as a distinct region, due to both its changed environmental conditions and the increasing economic opportunities which have captured the attention of many states well south of the Arctic Circle, regional organisations have also been pushed into the spotlight.

Adding to the political complexities of the region has been the sharp erosion of diplomatic relations between two major Arctic powers, the Russian Federation and the United States. While the US under President Trump has yet to articulate a specific Arctic strategy, the Vladimir Putin government continues to push forward with various forms of Arctic economic and military development. This included both an announcement by the Kremlin this week that polar studies would be assuming a higher priority in the country, and the recent news that a Russian floating nuclear power plant, the first of its type, had arrived in Murmansk before continuing on to the Chukotka region adjacent to the Bering Strait in the Russian Far East, where it will provide power to remote areas.

To date, although Russian/Western diplomatic conflicts since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 have only marginally spilled over into Arctic diplomacy, the matter continues to be the equivalent of ‘Banquo’s Ghost’ in many regional gatherings. In addition, as the main government organisation in the region, the Arctic Council, faces several imminent issues. These include the possibility of another list of potential observer governments when the next Council ministerial takes place in Rovaniemi in May 2019.

The question of the roles of Arctic versus non-Arctic states in regional governance, especially as the region opens up to increased economic activity, is another possible ‘grey rhino’ issue testing diplomacy and politics in the far north. With these questions in mind, examiningforms of Arctic cooperation beyond the governmental level is becoming more important in understanding the challenges to greater cooperation in the region. A study of ‘Track II’ organisations in the Arctic, and their current and potential roles, is therefore very useful in gaining a better understanding of where the far north may be heading regarding cooperation (or rivalries).

Posters at Arctic Frontiers, University of Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Track II diplomacy is commonly defined by informal dialogues, often via conferences or like events, which bring together academics and scholars, researchers, think tanks, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and journalists/media specialists, covering particular geographic or policy areas. Often such dialogues also include the participation of governmental representatives, but with the general idea that their views are their own and not necessarily those of their administrations or agencies. Track II initiatives have often been useful in addressing traditional and non-traditional security issues affecting a given region.

It is not an accident that Track II events are frequently held in the Asia-Pacific [paywall] and Middle East/Southwest Asia, given their distinct diplomatic and political landscapes. In both of these regions, ‘Track I’, (meaning government-to-government), dialogues are sometimes hampered by differences over security policies and even diplomatic recognition. Track II events often address political and security concerns too politically difficult to be debated on the state level.

The advantages of Track II approaches include the possibility that useful information generated by it can be ‘pushed through the ceiling’ to the Track I level, and later shaped into official policy. Track II can therefore by an informal ‘brain trust’ for governments. These initiatives can also be used as informal communication outlets which can supplement official links, and in some cases, substitutefor missing ones. Track II mechanisms also have the advantage of being more flexible and resilient, especially in cases of non-traditional diplomatic or strategic matters.

Often the degree of informality in Track II encourages amore robust sharing of ideas and createsa social space for the further sharing of information and the development of ‘confidence-building’ measures. However, one shortcoming of Track II is the possibility they may become simple talking shops, disconnected from the actual decision-makers, especially if there is too great a division between the Track II and the governmental actors over policy directions. There also remains much debate over the degree to which Track II actually shapes state policy.

In the Arctic, there has been a prevalence of sub-governmental Arctic dialogues, but many of them fall more specifically into the category of ‘Track 1.5’ meetings, meaning initiatives with a greater degree of government participation, including up to the leadership level. Two of the most recent examples have been the Arctic Circle, created in 2013 in Reykjavík to bring together Arctic specialists from many different disciplines, and the older Arctic Frontiers, which has been held in Tromsø since 2007 and is commonly divided into policy, scientific and business streams.

There have also been more country- and subregion-specific themed conferences and events, including breakout Arctic Circle sessions such as the recent business-oriented conference in Tórshavn, as well as the US-based Arctic Encounter Symposium and the China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre (CNARC), which will be meeting in Tromsø this week. Each of these brings together governmental and non-governmental specialists in the Arctic for information sharing, and in the case of the larger Arctic Circle and Arctic Frontiers, there have also been occasions where government policies have been unveiled, taking advantage of the informal atmosphere.

There have also been examples of ‘Track III’ [pdf] dialogues related to the Arctic, meaning those in which there is a greater focus on academic discourse and relatively less government participation. Examples of these include the High North Dialogue which takes place annually in Bodø, the various thematic networks assembled by the UArctic collective of universities and institutes, as well as the former Trans-Arctic Agenda conferences in Reykjavík.

Although the Arctic has not experienced the same security challenges as the Middle East or the Pacific Rim, Track II has assisted not only in developing new policy ideas related to Arctic governance and problem-solving, but has also providedimportant lines of communication between Track I actors. As noted above, despite Russian relations with the West showing no signs of improvement, the Arctic is one area where engagement can continue between Russian specialists and their American and European counterparts.

Arctic Circle conference at Harpa, Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As well, during the diplomatic freeze between China and Norway between 2010-16 after the Nobel Prize incident, most bilateral government contacts were cut, but polar conferences such as Arctic Frontiers and CNARC were examples of multilateral cooperation where representatives from the two countries could continue to meet and share data. The holding of this year’s CNARC conference in Tromsø was another sign of the ongoing ‘thaw’ in Sino-Norwegian relations as well as the possibility of increased Arctic cooperation between the two states.

Also, with membership in the Arctic Council reserved for the eight Arctic states, Track II initiatives and their variations have also provided windows for non-Arctic states to both gather information about the region and to potentially form their own policies. What remains to be seen however, is whether Track II-type organisations will also lead to changes in the Arctic Council and potentially other Track I regimes. The Council itself was created in 1996 as a result of the successful creation [pdf] five years earlier of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), which included support from various non-governmental sectors, especially in the scientific realms. As debate continues over potential new forms of Arctic governance, the growing list of Track II-type actors examining Arctic issues and policies may see their own visibility rise as both Arctic and non-Arctic states rush to keep up with changing events in the region.