Arctic News Roundup: 19-25 October

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) According to RÚV, Icelandic sea eagles have enjoyed a very successful year in 2020, mainly due to the large number of eaglet births. The species is now protected by Icelandic law. 

2) An article was published on High North News about how security issues are viewed from different angles in the wake of controversy over future visits of American nuclear-powered submarines to ports in and near Tromsø in northern Norway. These concerns were expressed in an interview with Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv, Professor at the Centre for Peace Studies at the University of Tromsø. Prof Hoogensen Gjørv argued that although Norway has its own national defence policies, the central government in Oslo, far to the south, nonetheless does not necessarily share an identical viewpoint regarding security priorities with the northern part of Norway. There was also the argument that ordinary citizens should be taken into better consideration by the central government when planning security policies.

3) According to CBC News in Canada, an exhibition on Indigenous cultures and climate in the Arctic has opened at the British Museum in London. The museum invited artists with Indigenous backgrounds to display their various works. One of the purposes of the exhibit, in place until February of next year, is to illustrate how Indigenous peoples in the far north have been coping with climate change.

4) As Eye on the Arctic reported, Sámi Language Week was celebrated in Norway, Finland and Sweden earlier this month. The event was aimed to raise further global awareness of the protection of the Sámi languages and many social sectors were invited to contribute. Even though Sámi languages and their dialects are commonly spoken in the Sámi region, (which includes the northern parts of Finland, Norway, Sweden and northeastern Russia), these language groups are still seen as endangered.

Damage Control: Arctic Policy After the US Election

[Photo by ArtTower via Pixabay]

by Marc Lanteigne

To say that United States foreign policy has experienced major upheavals, many of which have caused far more harm than good, over the past four years would be a serious understatement, and US Arctic policy has been no exception. Many of the Arctic initiatives developed under the administration of President Barack Obama, who was the first sitting president to visit the Alaskan Arctic in 2015, and a strong proponent of combating climate change in the far north, have either eroded or simply dismissed under the current administration.

Moreover, the progress the United States achieved under the Obama government in developing cooperation with major Arctic governments and institutions, including within the Arctic Council, has also been severely damaged on several fronts. In 2019, Washington began implementing a revised Arctic policy which focuses almost exclusively on hard power and the promotion of US interests above those of the Arctic community as a whole.

As with other aspects of current American foreign policy, transactional thinking and isolationism have superseded cooperation and multilateralism in the Arctic, at a time when the region is facing numerous challenges, including those which can be directly or indirectly related to climate change. Thus, as with many other areas of international relations, the election next month will have profound effects both on US policy towards the Arctic, as well as on many issues, including the effects of climate change and ice erosion, which the region as a whole is now facing.

The administration in power after what is already shaping up to be a highly contentious election process in the United States will be required to contemplate numerous changes to its Arctic policies and, in many cases, sooner is better.

Climate change is not going away

[Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash]

No other issue has placed the US out of step with other Arctic governments than its approach to climate change. Despite mounting evidence, including in the Arctic, to the contrary, the current administration has repeatedly insisted that this threat does not exist. 2020 marked the warmest Arctic summer measured, with levels of regional sea ice being reduced to their second-lowest levels, (2012 still holds that record).

In August this year, the last intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic at Ellesmere Island, split apart due to local weather conditions, and current modelling has led to predictions that the central Arctic Ocean may become free of ice in the summer months by 2035. This has had profound effects on the global environments, including in Alaska, as well as on Arctic and Indigenous communities. As a recent editorial in the journal Nature warned, the shift in focus by Washington away from regional scientific cooperation, including via the Arctic Council, would have serious detrimental effects. This view was echoed in an article this month in Foreign Affairs, which suggested that the US excessive focus on great power competition and ‘icebreaker gaps’ was a harmful distraction from the real threats of environmental degradation on Arctic communities.  

If the Democratic Party, led by former Vice-President Joe Biden, wins the upcoming election, this policy of climate change denial would likely be reversed, as the candidate has promised greater attention to the threats, and to establish an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, all while reversing the planned American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

It has also been concluded via a recent survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication that more Americans are expressing concerns about climate change, while the number of climate change sceptics is dropping. A shift in US policy towards addressing environmental issues in the far north would go far in addressing these emergencies and would allow for renewed regional cooperation on these matters which affect the whole of the Arctic and beyond.

Arctic Council cooperation: can the US walk the walk?

Although US government officials, including recently-appointed Arctic Affairs Director James DeHart, have repeatedly stated that Washington is seeking closer relations with its fellow members of the Arctic Council, the administration’s dismissive and sometimes belligerent policies towards other regional governments have created significant obstacles to that goal.

These rifts have run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. For example, the current occupant of the White House has made little secret of his scorn for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, hampering progress in bilateral cooperation. Over the past two years, Washington has seemingly been seeking to sweep aside an agree-to-disagree stance over the legal status of the Northwest Passage, which has been in place since the 1980s, and instead to challenge Ottawa’s policy of designating the NWP as internal waters. Elsewhere, the hapless attempt by the US government to outright purchase Greenland last year drove a wedge between Washington and Copenhagen, and there remains uncertainty over the long-term goals of the US towards the island.

As well, according to one of the numerous published exposés covering the excesses of the current administration, the US president was reportedly unsure whether Finland was part of the Russian Federation, (although he was effusive in his praise of Finns for their supposed policies of ‘raking forests’). Earlier this year, the US Ambassador to Iceland caused a local diplomatic incident when reports surfaced that he was insisting on carrying a personal firearm. (Gun ownership is strictly regulated in Iceland, gun crime is rare, the country has no formal military, and police are unarmed during their normal duties).

On top of these diplomatic problems, the after-effects of the norm-breaking, confrontational and gaffe-filled Rovaniemi speech by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019 still floats over Council deliberations like Banquo’s ghost. Next year’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Iceland will be closely watched, if only to see what stance the American delegation will take, but the bigger question is how, or whether, the US will engage the organisation once the chair position is passed to Russia, who will hold that designation until 2023. A pulling back of US engagement with the Council, or a widening rift between Washington and the other seven members, could severely damage the organisation at a time when the group’s leading role is most needed.

American ‘rules-based order’ Arctic policy: (dis)-organised hypocrisy?

[Image by succo from Pixabay ]

One often-repeated mantra by the current US administration is the need for Arctic and non-Arctic governments to follow a ‘rules-based order’ in the Arctic, which includes respect for international law. This call has rung hollow in several quarters however, not only because the term has been widely seen as a de facto synonym for ‘American hegemony’, but more specifically because US adherence to several rules, norms and laws in the Arctic in recent years has been sporadic at best.

In addition to walking away from the Paris Climate Accord, (a decision which this week was publicly criticised by Beijing, the largest country within the pact), the US has also continued to decline ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a stance which has seriously dented attempts by Washington to set rules on emerging Arctic sea routes.

The ‘Buy Greenland’ debacle did not help improve the impression of a US government which takes a cherry-picking approach to Arctic laws. One of the lessons learned from the incident was that the current administration was either ignorant or dismissive of the Denmark-Greenland 2009 Self-Rule Agreement [pdf], and specifically Article 21(1), (‘Decisions regarding Greenland’s independence shall be taken by the people of Greenland,’), which decrees that Copenhagen has no legal right to negotiate a transfer of sovereignty. Moreover, the entire affair perpetuated a stubborn myth that the Arctic is an unpopulated legal vacuum where ‘assets’ can be acquired or traded, (for example, it was subsequently reported that the administration was mulling over exchanging the US territory of Puerto Rico for Greenland).

Rules and norms in the Arctic have been developing at a more rapid clip, and the US has been in the middle of many successful regional agreements including the Polar Code covering civilian ship traffic in the Arctic and around Antarctica, the Central Arctic Ocean fishing moratorium, and cooperation amongst Arctic coast guards. This momentum should be kept up, but with the view that the US may need to more carefully consider compromises, and keep its unilateralism further in check, in exchange for a more stable far north.

The need to rethink Arctic security

[Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay ]

US thinking on Arctic security issues has changed course from a focus on climate change and human security to an emphasis on great power competition and the need to demonstrate greater hard power in the region to counter growing Chinese and Russian activities. However, there is still a lack of clarity regarding what the United States considers imperative in the region in terms of security, while signs are appearing that the current direction in Arctic strategic planning is resulting in many gaps in information. The current US government has called for a ‘fleet’ of icebreakers by 2029 to replace the two aging vessels which operate in the Arctic, a very tall order given the uncertainty of the American economy at present, and the uncertain  timetable of the country’s recovery from the pandemic.

At the same time, the economy of Alaska has been significantly hard hit by the cratering of global energy prices and the loss of tourism revenue caused by COVID-19. Alaskans will also be voting on the controversial ‘Ballot Measure 1’, which would raise oil taxes in the state. Critics have argued that the move would be at best a short-term solution, underscoring the problem of underdevelopment in the American Arctic.

Many areas related to ‘non-traditional’ security, which examine the security of individuals and communities, have persisted in the Arctic, including health and safety during and after the pandemic, access to food and basic needs, and economic opportunities, as well as human security issues affecting Indigenous Persons in the far north. Here again, the US is in a prime position to undertake a leadership role in the region, a role from which it has walked away in the past, in favour of an almost exclusive state-centric approach.

The China factor

[Photo by Zachary Keimig on Unsplash]

Of all the non-Arctic states which have sought to expand their interests in the region, including Britain, Germany, Japan and even Singapore, it is China which has raised the most concern, and increasingly the most ire, in Washington. As overall relations between the US and China continue to deteriorate, this rancour has begun to spill over into the Arctic, with policy statements from Washington frequently citing Beijing as a challenger to regional security despite Beijing not having challenged either laws or norms in the far north.

This is not to say that some of China’s policies in the Arctic, and towards some Arctic governments, have not been problematic. While Chinese Arctic cooperation with Russia is likely to fully resume after the global health crisis has subsided, Beijing has found that building a Polar Silk Road in other parts of the far north have been much more complicated. Sino-Canadian relations remain corrosive, and a planned Chinese investment deal in a Nunavut gold mine may be collateral damage. China’s relations with Sweden have also chilled over human rights and investment issues, and the previously strong relationship between Helsinki and Beijing may also be heading into trouble in light of a decision made by the Finnish government this week to cancel its extraction treaty with Hong Kong, in light of that city’s draconian new national security laws.

Nonetheless, US policies of unilaterally maligning China’s presence in the Arctic, and seeking to leverage Beijing out of the far north, are a non-starter. China may not be a ‘near-Arctic state’ in strict terms of geography, but it is now very much a regional stakeholder and will not be easily dislodged from that status.

The question now is how Washington will effectively engage China in the Arctic, and also whether Arctic affairs could be a conduit for keeping a communications line open in light of worsening Sino-US relations on other fronts. There is precedent for this, specifically during the six-year diplomatic freeze between China and Norway over the 2010 Nobel Prize incident. Despite a suspension of official bilateral relations between Beijing and Oslo, Arctic events, conferences and projects, including the China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre (CNARC) were one means by which the two states could maintain dialogues. By assuming a stance that China has no place in the Arctic, however, the US is slamming those doors and simply prompting Beijing to view Washington as an obstacle to be circumvented as Chinese Arctic engagement polices widen and deepen.

Moreover, signs began to multiply by the end of this year that the Chinese economy had begun a slow but steady emergence from the worst of the pandemic-induced recession, recording a GDP growth rate for the third quarter of 2020 at 4.9%, sluggish by China standards but a figure well out of reach by most Western economies.

If the United States remains unable to bring its coronavirus situation under better control, Beijing’s comparative global economic power may rise significantly next year, creating further problems for the Sino-American relationship, including in the Arctic. Thus, the US may need to rework its thinking about China’s Arctic presence to reflect the possibilities for engagement while examining future strategic challenges, including potential ‘dual-use’ activities in the region on Beijing’s part.

Where next?

[Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash]

The US remains a key actor in numerous Arctic affairs, and its presence, or lack thereof, will continue to shape the region in ways which at times cannot be predicted. The past two years have witnessed a considerable degradation of American Arctic policy which has often confounded Washington’s partners in the region. Climate change will continue to affect the region under current conditions, creating numerous effects which will spread through the far north and beyond.

The Arctic will be of growing interest to non-Arctic states, not just China, and so the need to balance Arctic and outside concerns becomes paramount, and the other balancing question, between environmental responsibility and emerging areas of economic development, is also very much present. All of these questions will not only affect state capitals but also approximately four million people, including Americans, currently living in the Arctic. A change of course in US policy is therefore greatly needed, and swiftly.

Arctic News Roundup: 12-18 October

[Photo by Steingrimur Jón Guðjónsson]

by Mingming Shi

1) The news service Vísir reported that in Iceland, young people from 16-24 years old, as well as foreign nationals in the country, are statistically suffering worst economically from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report issued by ASÍ, the Icelandic Confederation of Labour. Numerous immigrants in the country had been working in the tourism and related sectors, which have been severely damaged by the severe drop-off in global travel, a situation which has led to the high unemployment rates among these groups. ASÍ has also urged the Icelandic government to ‘establish a comprehensive employment policy’ in order to cope with the crisis.

2) According to The Local, the Government of Norway has promised that a free vaccine against the COVID-19 virus will be made available for free for all inhabitants of the country once it is ready for the public. This is estimated to take place early in the new year.

3) As Radio Sweden revealed, a report by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket) has argued that the Government of Sweden has not done enough to protect biodiversity in the country. This has included missing several key ‘Aichi Targets’ which were agreed upon a decade ago.

4) According to Norway Today, the Government of Norway now believes that an cyber-attack recently affecting email systems in the Norwegian Parliament (Storting) can be traced back to Russia. Prime Minister Erna Solberg warned that Oslo would stand firmly against future such incidents.

Interlude: Home Again with an Unexpected Surprise

Photo by Emre Camcıoğlu on Unsplash

by Mingming Shi

What is it like one returns home after being away for several months? Would one be happy to see home again, but with new family members already there? Recently, questions about returning home have been hovering over the mind of Gunnlaugur, a cat in Iceland.

As RÚV reported, Gunnlaugur [in Icelandic] is an orange cat living near Hofsós, a small and lovely village on the Skagafjörður Fjord in northern Iceland. One day in the middle of June, this adventurous feline went out as usual but didn’t return home at night, and then the legend began.

In the beginning, the family took the situation in stride [in Icelandic], because it is normal for Gunnlaugur to disappear for one to two and even three days sometimes, due to his roaming and hunter-like personality. However, this time, it was not a short trip as before. The family started to become concerned after a few days since he left home and looked everywhere they could to find him. Months after he went missing, the family finally gave up after numerous attempts and got two new kittens, even though they still missed Gunnlaugar very much. 

Miracles sometimes happen when things feel hopeless, which happened to the family of Gunnlaugur. By chance, a picture of the cat was found on Facebook from a person staying in Varmahlíð, another small town almost 50km from his original home, where he was taken care of by a nice lady. It was unclear how the cat could have traveled that far away. Perhaps he was transported by a car ride by accident, as the owners of Gunnlaugur, Freyja Amble Gísladóttir and her boyfriend, suspected.

Finally, Gunnlaugur made it home after such a long and unbelievable journey. Ironically but not surprisingly, the family wondered whether being reunited with his human family or having his favourite tuna food again was making Gunnlaugur more happy. However, the story did not have a typical happy ending, highly likely because Gunnlaugur does not live in Disneyland. This cat was reluctant to welcome the two new kitten family members and was even caught attempting to nudge them out. According to Freyja, there were hopes that the cats would eventually get along.

Arctic News Roundup: 5-11 October

[Reykjavík 101 photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) An article in Norway Today gave an overview on the Scandinavian countries, namely Norway, Denmark and Sweden, featuring sections on local geography, history, economics and other social and cultural aspects of these Nordic states.

2) The Barents Observer reported on the arrival of the Arktika, a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker, to the North Pole. After overcoming serious technical faults, the expedition began in late September when the vessel launched from St. Petersburg and sailed past the Norwegian coastline and the Barents Sea before reaching the northern tip of the globe on October 3rd.

3) According to CBC, the Armenian community in Yellowknife, Canada, gathered at the territorial legislature in the town, to raise awareness of recently erupted conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. According to some of the participants, the gathering was aimed to promote the recognition of the conflict, which reignited in late September, in their home country. 

4) As the Icelandic news service Morgunblaðið reported, Disney+, a popular streaming service of Disney, whose business also includes Iceland, does not offer an Icelandic language option for any of its programs. Some Icelanders, including those who work in the film industry, had expressed their surprise at the omission, and noted that dubbing films and series offered via the service would help protect and promote Icelandic in the country.