Analysis & Opinions - Arctic Circle

The Arctic Council as a Model for Regional Collaboration

| Dec. 28, 2022

In every region on Earth, climate change is threatening societies and ecosystems with a variety of extreme conditions, while resources to address these threats remain scarce. These conditions demand a greater reliance on international cooperation, science diplomacy, and a collaborative approach to regional priorities. A region such as the “Third Pole” would do well to examine how the Arctic Council structure for international cooperation has helped the Arctic as a whole address pressing issues, and how something similar might allow other regions to improve their understanding of environmental changes, prepare for likely social impacts, and build resilience for the future.

The Arctic Council, the premier intergovernmental forum for the Arctic region, was established after a series of convenings, agreements, and initiatives set in motion by Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Zone of Peace” speech in 1987, in which he indicated openness to a multilateral forum in the Arctic. With strong and persistent leadership from Canada and Finland, what began as the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy blossomed into the Arctic Council with the signing of the Ottawa Declaration in 1996. With equally persistent leadership and advocacy from Indigenous leaders, the Council charter included language providing for the direct but non-voting participation of Indigenous organizations of the North – a novel arrangement that elevated Indigenous voices and enhanced the Council’s regional credibility.

The Arctic Council is unusual among intergovernmental institutions in that it has no authority and no specific responsibility other than to focus on the way in which the eight Arctic nations can work together on topics of mutual concern. The framers limited the topics to two categories: sustainable development and environmental protection.

The Arctic Council has leveraged its consensus-based structure to create common ground and address international priorities.

Since its inception in 1996, the Arctic Council has expanded from a modest semi-annual convening for a small group of representatives from eight nations and three Indigenous groups, to an umbrella entity with hundreds of participants, six Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations, formal observers from states and organizations around the world, and a long list of significant accomplishments.

Despite its lack of formal authority, the Arctic Council has leveraged its consensus-based structure to create common ground and address international priorities. For example, the potential for maritime disasters such as the grounding of oil tankers or cruise ships in the Arctic is of interest to each and every Arctic nation, particularly the five with coastal areas that could be directly impacted. Over several years, the Council, through the work of its Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group, gathered information, interviewed experts and developed consensus papers to describe the potential risks and alternatives for minimizing those risks. They focused on methods that the countries could use to coordinate responses, rather than each country simply going it alone.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ulmer, Fran and Joel Clement.“The Arctic Council as a Model for Regional Collaboration.” Arctic Circle, December 28, 2022.