Arctic Frontiers 2020: ‘Let’s Play Twister, Let’s Play Risk…’

The stage was set to talk Arctic. [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By Marc Lanteigne

This week’s Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø took place following a tumultuous 2019 in the far north, including growing evidence of climate change’s distinct effects on the region, various geo-political frictions, and questions about the role of science in far northern development.

The conference commenced during a month when Norway itself was going through a busy political season, including in the Arctic. Earlier this month, the national government of Prime Minister Erna Solberg was reduced to a minority coalition after the far-right Progress Party withdrew in protest over immigration policies. At the beginning of the new year there were several mergers between various fylker (counties) in the country, including the controversial creation in the Norwegian far north of Troms og Finnmark county.

As well, the Norwegian government this month won a politically sensitive appeal of a lawsuit filed by Greenpeace, with the environmental lobby group claiming Oslo was in violation of its own constitution [pdf] by allowing the expansion of oil drilling blocks in the Arctic Ocean. Norway’s commitment to green policies, while simultaneously seeking to further develop its oil industry has on occasion been viewed as a policy contradiction, reflective of the still-dominant role of the petroleum industry in the Norwegian economy despite lower prices and a volatile global market.

The main theme of the 2020 gathering, ‘The Power of Knowledge’, reflected the challenges of obtaining and transmitting information not only between Arctic communities which at times can appear very far apart, but also to the global community in its entirety. Arctic Frontiers, which held its first conference in 2007, has since developed a persona as being the comparatively more buttoned-down, (and pricier), elder sibling of other like-minded regional policy events, including the Arctic Circle in Reykjavík and Arctic Encounter in the United States, with a stronger focus on business interests but also acting as a conduit for much specialised scientific discussion.

A comment board set up outside the main hall at Arctic Frontiers [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As with previous conferences, the panels and plenaries were divided between those covering policy/business/economics and science/data gathering. The first set of plenaries were moderated by Stephen Sackur, host of BBC Hardtalk and a frequent emcee at previous conferences, and there was much focus at this event on local communities in the Arctic as well as business opportunities on the state and sub-state level.

There was noticeably less emphasis on regional politics and policy at this year’s event, with some conspicuous absences on the docket of presenters and commenters. No high-level Russian officials were in attendance, and while Greenland was omnipresent at the most recent Arctic Circle conference last October, few officials or representatives from the nation were in evidence at this event.

The first plenary did touch upon some difficult policy differences regarding governance and regional diplomacy in the Arctic. One noteworthy quote about the emerging role of great powers appearing, (or more to the point, reappearing), in the Arctic was that in the region, China was playing ‘go’ (weiqi 围棋), reflecting a longer-term strategy, while Russia was playing ‘Survivor’, seeking to hang on to its Arctic assets, and the United States was playing ‘Twister’, trying to occupy as many diverse spots at once. Vice-Admiral Scott A. Buschman of the United States Coast Guard had the difficult task of outlining American business interests in the Arctic, including the construction of new icebreakers and promoting regional economic ties, given the current US government’s evolving hard-line strategic approach in the Arctic, including challenging Canada and Russia over the sovereignty of maritime trade routes.

Mohn Prize 2020
Professor Anne Husebekk [left], Rector of UiT – The Arctic University of Norway, presents the 2020 Mohn Prize to Professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen [Photo by Alberto Grohovaz/ Arctic Frontiers 2020]
Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide commented on the impression given by a 2019 French Defence Ministry policy paper [pdf] on the Arctic which asserted that the region belongs to ‘no one’, noting that the Arctic region was hardly an unregulated periphery. She also challenged comments made by fellow panellist Bobo Lo, a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, who had suggested that the time may be approaching for debate about the establishment of an Arctic Treaty, (often a verboten subject in many regional policy circles). Ms Søreide countered by saying that there was great satisfaction with the current diplomatic and legal order in the Arctic, and such a dramatic addition to the institutional frameworks in the Arctic was not necessary. As for the various impacts of regional climate change, Mat Collins, Joint Met Office Chair in Climate Change at the University of Exeter, stated succinctly, ‘the more warmth, the more the ice melts,’ pointing to basic physics.

For the most part, however, the remainder of the first half of the event was devoted to economic opportunities and challenges, especially on local levels. This was reflected by remarks by Aileen Campbell, MSP and Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Scotland, who illustrated Scottish historical and economic connections to the Arctic, important at a time when the British government was putting the final touches on the Brexit process this month.

Keskitalo af 2020
Aili Keskitalo, President of the Sámi Parliament of Norway, speaking at the first plenary session of Arctic Frontiers 2020 [Photo by Terje Mortensen / Arctic Frontiers 2020]
sam_tan af 2020
Left to right: Sam Tan, Minister of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Social and Family Development, Singapore; Manuel Barange, Director of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division, Food and Agriculture Organisation – United Nations; Stephen Sackur, Host of ‘BBC Hardtalk’ [Photo by Terje Mortensen / Arctic Frontiers 2020]
Mikhail Pogodaev, Vice-Minister for Arctic Development and Indigenous Peoples’ Issues in the Russian Sakha Republic, (Республика Саха). Despite being a region of Russia, the territory of Sakha (Yakutia) covers an area slightly smaller than that of India, thus creating numerous economic challenges given the region’s small population (965,000), and isolation from the European regions of Russia. In addition, Mr Pogodaev noted that 37% of Yakutia is protected land, and that among the territory’s governance challenges has been the protection of local language and culture.

The problem of overcoming geographic barriers and isolation in other parts of the Arctic was often discussed, including in the case of Alaska where high food and transportation prices have been considered a hindrance to development, and in the Nordic-Arctic, where despite township level enthusiasm for more robust transportation links, including a long-discussed Kirkenes-Rovaniemi rail link, the costs and logistics of the rail line, along with environmental concerns and opposition from local Sámi communities, have meant that any short term construction is unlikely. Other sectors, including oil and gas, shipbuilding, and fisheries, (as Mr Sackur suggested, ‘never forget the fish,’), showed greater promise, especially in the Atlantic-Arctic region.

The specific economic possibilities and challenges stemming from the Arctic Ocean were also discussed by representatives of non-Arctic states, including Dr Hide Sakaguchi, executive director of the Japan Agency for Marine Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC). He outlined plans for a new icebreaking vessel as well as Japan’s hosting of the next Arctic Science Ministerial conference in Tokyo this November. Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and de facto Arctic ambassador for Singapore, described the ties between his country and the Arctic Ocean, given the threat of sea level rise from ice melting, and turned a popular phrase in the region on its head, namely that ‘what happens outside the Arctic does not stay outside the Arctic.’

Another ‘outsider’ perspective was given by Ms Annika Olsen, Mayor of Tórshavn, the capital of the (near-Arctic) Faroe Islands, who described the challenges of better connecting the archipelago with more advanced communications technology, and the success of the ‘closed for maintenance’ conservation campaign in May last year, (a similar program is planned for three days in April 2020).

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Among the many additional events at the conference was the awarding of this year’s Mohn Prize, by the Academia Borealis – Academy of Sciences and Letters of Northern Norway, the Tromsø Research Foundation and UiT-The Arctic University of Norway, to Professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen. Prof Dahl-Jensen, with the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, was honoured for her watershed work on climate change in the Arctic. Also relevant to the central theme of knowledge-gathering, one breakout panel featured a discussion [video] of the challenges facing media and news coverage in the Arctic.

Other breakout and side events featured topics as diverse as food security, communications and high technology applications, the ‘blue economy’ and aquaculture, and science diplomacy, reflecting a still-widening array of policy and intellectual areas relevant to the future of the Arctic.

Arctic News Roundup: 20-26 January

Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By Mingming Shi

1) CBC News in Canada reveals a story of an Inuk woman, Qapik Attagutsiak, and how she and her family contributed to getting Canada through World War II. Ms Attagutsiak, a 99-year-old indigenous female, like many of her Canadian compatriots, helped gather materials for war supplies during the War. She will be honored at a ceremony where Inuit people were thanked and acknowledged for their contributions during the war.

2) Given the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, Nordic countries have become more aware of the severity of the trans-border crisis. Both Finland and Iceland have taken measures in order to prevent and control the spread of the virus to in their countries, including providing guidelines for foreign visitors and informing relevant domestic institutions.

3) The Straits Times, a Singapore-based news agency, published an article on the relationship between the Arctic and Singapore, a tropical country who was accepted as an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013. The author, Anita Nergaard, who is the Ambassador of Norway to Singapore, outlines the relationship between the two countries regarding Arctic cooperation, such as via joint scientific research, and how it has benefited the far north.

4) Sermitsiaq, a Greenlandic local news service, reports on the government of Greenland’s ongoing ambition for preparation for water exports.

5) The newly elected Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, calling for a fight against climate change and stressing the significance of the Arctic Council in terms of regional governance. She also noted that it is not advisable to regard the thawing Arctic as an ‘opportunity’, but should consider climate change from a longer-term perspective, according to yle.

6) An open access book entitled Relate North: Collaborative Art, Design and Education, has been published by the UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Sustainable Arts and Design (ASAD). This peer-reviewed book shares the outcomes of art, design and education-related studies and research in the High North region.

7) According to Reuters, the lobby group Greenpeace lost a case in Oslo over a potential Norwegian Arctic oil project. Greenpeace, founded in 1971, is a non-governmental organisation specializing in environmental affairs and advocacy.

Arctic News Roundup: 13-19 January

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By Mingming Shi

1) This week, an article on The Independent Barents Observer unveiled a story about India’s potential economic participation in a developing oil project in Russia. The Minister of Oil, Nature Gas and Steel of India, an Asian country which was accepted as an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, asserts the ambition and interest of the state in oil and gas investment in the Arctic region.

2) Also according to The Independent Barents Observer, Dmitry Medvedev, the recently- resigned Prime Minister of Russia, had confirmed a bill for a nuclear-powered icebreaker. The first ship to be built will be one of the first Lider (Лидер)-class vessels which are expected to operate year round along the Northern Sea Route. It is estimated that all of the three icebreakers will be supplied from 2027-2035.

3) The Routledge Handbook of Arctic Security, published by Routledge in the United Kingdom, is now available. The English language book was edited by Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv, Marc Lanteigne and Horatio Sam-Aggrey, and includes a number of experts and scholars on Arctic affairs. The handbook covers extensive security related discussion and analysis in the region, from theoretical clarifications and case studies of the eight Arctic states, and international governance of security.

4) Nunatsiaq News, a news service with coverage of Nunavut and Nunavik in Québec, Canada, reported a story this week about of a group of kindergarten children who were taught to skin a caribou, an animal inhabiting the Canadian Arctic and usually hunted for meat consumption and fur. Guided by their teachers in class, the students learned how to skin this hunted game.

5) Two new articles were published on Over the Circle this week. These two pieces, both written by Marc Lanteigne, the chief editor for OtC, cover this past week’s Tromsø International Film Festival and provide a summary of the recently-launched book on the Handbook of Arctic Security, within the context of the Arctic’s changed security situation.


Interlude: Films in the Far North

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Marc Lanteigne

As the polar night in Tromsø began to give way to the first rays of sunshine, the city’s premiere film celebration wrapped up this weekend after celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. The theme of this year’s Tromsø International Film Festival (TIFF) was ‘Transformation’, and movies from across the Nordic region and well beyond were showcased this year. The opening feature reflected the Arctic nature of the festival, as One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk [video] a Canadian film by Zacharias Kunuk, told the story of a clash between tradition and modernity in a remote part of Baffin Island.

Among other northern films featured at the event were Agnes Joy (Iceland), Kuessipan (Canada) The Aurora (Finland), The Grizzlies (Canada) and the anthology Today in the Murmansk Direction (Russia).

Ukraine was also given a spotlight this year with movies from the country shown as part of the festival’s Horizon East section, including Falling and Ukrainian Sheriffs. Norway’s entries included a documentary on artificial intelligence, iHuman, and the short story-based Descent into the Maelstrom.

International movies were also well-represented, including acclaimed films Jojo Rabbit (United States), Little Women (United States) The Farewell (US/China), and the anime Weathering with You (Japan). Other global features in the repertoire were Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Bhutan), Alice and the Mayor (France), Ms. Stern (Germany), Present.Perfect. (完美現在時) (US/China/Hong Kong), Balloon () [video] also from China, and the documentary An Australian Dream.

Seven awards were given out at the conclusion of the festival, and this year’s TIFF Aurora Prize, given to a worthy entry which had made its debut at the event, went to Ukraine’s Atlantis (video), a near-future story of the course of the current ongoing conflict between the country and Russia, directed by Valentyn Vasyanovych. The Tromsø Palm was given to the Swedish animated short Topp 3 [video] while the TIFF Audience Award went to Parasite [video], the South Korean class satirical drama directed by Bong Joon-ho which was also just nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Director and Foreign Language Film, for this year’s Academy Awards.

TIFF headquarters at the Culture House, Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

Plus ça Change? Understanding the New Dimensions of Security in the Arctic

Höfði House, Reykjavík, Iceland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By Marc Lanteigne

After decades of the Arctic being at the centre of many of the contests and conflicts of the cold war, by the dubious virtue of being the shortest distance between many parts of the two warring superpowers, the United States and the then-Soviet Union, the ‘top of the world’ assumed a strategic identity by the end of the 1980s, that of a far-periphery. Many specialists in Arctic security have pointed to the Murmansk Speech [pdf] by the USSR’s last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, in October 1987 as a turning point in the history of Arctic security. His call for a deepening of US-Soviet dialogue in the wake of the Höfði House Summit the previous year between Mr Gorbachev and American President Ronald Reagan included advocating not only a dialogue among Arctic governments on the subject of regional security, but also the creation of a nuclear-free Northern Europe and an overall shift towards regional demilitarisation.

With the dissolution of the USSR, the Arctic was downgraded as a political priority for the nascent Russian Federation, a move which was only reversed when President Boris Yeltsin stepped down in 1999 and his successor, a then-obscure security head and KGB officer named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, began his long terms in office. Throughout much of the 1990s, and during the period after the turn of the century, the Arctic was frequently viewed as being exempt from ‘hard’ or military security concerns, as a consensus was reached among regional governments regarding optimal forms of cooperation; (the Arctic Council, as the main multilateral organisation in the region, was founded in 1996 with a proviso that military security would not be part of its mandate).

Security issues which dominated the Arctic in the initial post-cold war era tended to shift towards those considered ‘non-traditional’, which in international relations parlance refers to security outside of the military realm. These included environmental security, crucial at a time when the first warning bells of regional climate change began to be heard, economic and developmental security, addressing the problems of poverty, a lack of infrastructure, and Arctic/non-Arctic financial divides.

As well, ‘human security’, which came into its own as a branch of security studies in the 1990s, was deemed a priority in the study of the Arctic. As the term implies, human security in international relations focuses on the role of the individual, not the state, as the main unit of study, noting that insecurity, alone, does not emanate from state behaviour. Challenges to human security in the Arctic regions included changes to individual ways of life due to climate change as well as modernisation, indigenous affairs, political differences between centres of government and Arctic peripheries, (given that no Arctic state has its capital north of the Arctic Circle), as well as health and access to basic needs.

From the 1990s until arguably a few short years ago, these areas dominated the study and dialogues about Arctic security, leading to the question of whether the region was a zone of ‘exceptionalism’ in global security studies given the perceived near-absence of military or hard power concerns. Phrases such as ‘high north, low tension’ and ‘territory of dialogue’, were frequently heard in various levels of regional political dialogue to describe the Arctic as being set apart from myriad security concerns found throughout the rest of the world.

Assuming Arctic exceptionalism actually existed, (and specialists in Arctic studies are not in agreement on that point), there is now the popular view that the current security status quo is fast eroding, and that military security and great power politics are insinuating their way back into the region. The first and often cited reason for this was the annexation of Crimea and subsequent Russian-backed conflict in eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014, actions which tried the ability of Arctic states to ‘check their politics at the door’ when discussing strictly far northern issues. These clashes also appeared to suggest [pdf] that Arctic exceptionalism was not as strong a force as it was once considered to be.

Not only were ‘southern’ conflicts such as Crimea spilling over into the Arctic, but the region began to be viewed as being of greater strategic concern to a growing number of non-Arctic states. In addition to European governments, such as Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, which had long-established Arctic histories and were often considered ‘Arctic-adjacent’ states due to their venerable scientific diplomacy in the region, newer Arctic actors had begun to appear over the last decade, including from Asia, which also wanted to develop Arctic identities and be counted as participants in the development of the region. China, which for many years had sought to brand itself as a ‘near-Arctic state’ (jin beiji guojia 近北极国家), received most of the world’s attention among countries outside of the region seeking to develop Arctic policies, but it was hardly alone in that regard.

In addition to China, diverse states, including India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland have also joined the Arctic Council as observers, and it was reported in November last year that Estonia would also be seeking an observer position. Several non-Arctic states, including China, have also expressed interest in developing economic partnerships with regional actors. Just this week, the energy minister of India, Dharmendra Pradhan, announced his country would partner with Russia’s Rosneft firm in the development of a new petroleum project in the Taymyr Peninsula (Полуостров Таймыр) in north-central Siberia. Thus, the dividing line between Arctic and non-Arctic politics and economics continues to blur as the commercial potential of the region becomes more widely acknowledged.

[Cover photo via Routledge]
However, the question of how security in the Arctic is evolving does not stop there. A new study on the subject, the Routledge Handbook on Arctic Security, was published this week as an e-book and will be released as a hardcover on 30 January.

Edited by Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv (Centre for Peace Studies / CPS at UiT: The Arctic University of Norway), Marc Lanteigne (Editor of OtC and Associate Professor of Political Science at UiT), and Horatio Sam-Aggrey (CPS and Sámi Studies at UiT, as well as with the Government of the Northwest Territories), the book brings together more than forty specialists from around the Arctic region and beyond to examine just how the previously specialized study of regional security has expanded and deepened in recent years.

The volume was written in order to look at the question of Arctic security beyond both the parameters of traditional military security and the facets of post-1990s human security study, (although both these approaches are also represented in the book). In addition is the argument that security in the Arctic needs to be examined on numerous levels and from a robust number of directions, including from outside politics and including areas such as indigenous studies, economics, environmental concerns and ‘green’ policies, gender, law, health, agri-food, energy and knowledge-sharing.

Vardø, in Northern Norway near the Russian border [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
The book, divided into five sections, takes both a geographic and people-centred approach to the topic. The first looks at traditional and modern approaches to theorising Arctic security, including from political, military and legal viewpoints, while the second section focuses on the main Arctic governments and their own changing views of where challenges to the security of the region are stemming from. The third section moves up a level and looks at Arctic security through the lens of regional governance, including institutions, legal structures and emerging areas of debate such as the status of Svalbard. The fourth steps outside of the Arctic to look at the regional policies of key non-Arctic governments, including those of China, Japan, the European Union and other European organisations.

Finally, there is an examination in the fifth section of the human dimension of modern Arctic security, with topics including gender security, the interaction between local peoples and extractive industries, access to nourishment, and developing indigenous security platforms. The book also covers strategic questions which have appeared in the recent past, including current studies on local security in the Arctic, Russian economic and security developments in Siberia, the growing role of NATO in far northern strategic policies, Chinese investment and economic cooperation initiatives, including the Belt and Road in the Arctic, and the diplomatic contretemps last year over a proposed American ‘purchase’ of Greenland.

As the Arctic continues to open to international scrutiny, the question of how best to define security in the region will likely persist. It can be said however, that the issue is no longer confined to neatly defined categories, and instead must be studied and understood from many different directions and vantage points.