Arctic Council and the Military Issue

The Arctic Council, formed in 1996, is the leading multi-lateral body in the Arctic region.[1] Its eight voting-member states are Canada, U.S., Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, all of which have territory within the Arctic Circle. As well, there are six "Indigenous Participant" organizations, including the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich'in Council International, Russian Association of Indigenous peoples of the North and the Saami Council. In addition, thirteen Asian and European states, including Germany, U.K., Japan, and China, have "Observer" status.

In its work, the Council is defined as the leading inter-governmental forum in the Arctic that:

a) provides a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.
b) oversees and coordinate the programs established under the Arctic Environmental Assessment Strategy.

The Council came into being following the suggestion of Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in a speech he made in Leningrad on November 24, 1989. In his speech, Mulroney posed the question: "And why not a council of Arctic countries eventually coming into existence to co-ordinate and promote co-operation among them?"[2]

This echoed the statement of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and secretary of state Lester B. Pearson back in 1946 that Canada "wished to work 'not only with the USA but with the other Arctic countries, Denmark, Norway and the Soviet Union,' in fostering cooperative measures for the economic and communications development of the Arctic'." According to some analysts, this statement was prompted by longstanding "Canadian fear of American pressure."[3]

In 1987 in Murmansk, two years before Mulroney's statement, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, made a foreign policy speech calling for the Arctic to become a "zone of peace."[4] In his comments, he called for the following six measures:

1. Establishment of a nuclear-free zone in Northern Europe.
2. Consultations between the Warsaw Pact and NATO aimed at restricting and scaling down naval and airforce activities in the waters of Northern Europe and Greenland.
3. Cooperation on resource development and technical exchange.
4. Coordination and exchange of research between northern and sub-arctic countries on scientific issues with special attention on Indigenous populations and ethnic groups.
5. Cooperation between northern countries on environmental protection and management.
6. Opening up of the Northern sea route to foreign ships, with Russia providing the ice-breakers.

Gorbachev's speech is seen by many as laying the foundation for the Arctic Council and other cooperative initiatives that followed amongst the Arctic countries and peoples, including the Finland-led Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (which was later to be transformed into the Arctic Council).

Following up on Prime Minister Mulroney's suggestion, a panel of Canadian northerners and northern experts began what was called "The Arctic Council Project," which received financial support from the Walter and Duncan Gordon Charitable Foundation. Walter Gordon was a federal Liberal cabinet minister known for his economic nationalist policies.

Another factor in the development of the Project was "the growing voice of the indigenous peoples of the Canadian North" which was reflected in the composition of the panel. Members included co-chairs Franklyn Griffiths, a professor of political science and Rosemarie Kuptana, former president of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, as well as individuals from various northern Indigenous organizations including the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, Dene Nation, Indigenous Survival International and Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Other members were from the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee and the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament.

After consulting with northerners across the Arctic, the panel released a "Framework Report" in 1990 to establish an international Arctic Council.[5] In the report, the panel noted that "Canada's fate and the fate of the Arctic are inseparable" and that Canada, as a northern people and northern land, was in a unique position to take the lead in establishing the Council. It stated that "as the alignments and priorities of the Cold War give way to a new architecture of regional and global co-operation, the ice states are presented with a truly extraordinary opportunity for institution-building in the Arctic."

The panel's vision of the Arctic was not as a frontier "but as part of the common home of the circumpolar nations." This vision acknowledged "that the outstanding resource of the Arctic is its people, not its oil and gas, hard minerals or space for military action." Furthermore, the panel believed that the new Council would break with the past "in giving new voice to northerners" and new opportunities for collaboration and cooperation.

The report argued that "to view the Arctic primarily in terms of sovereignty and its defence against foreign intrusion is to be woefully behind the time," especially in light of "countless silent border crossings [that] occur daily in a region whose environment forms a whole." It further stated that the Arctic is a distinct domain, that new inter-state cooperation is required, and that to conceive of the Council's Arctic purpose "essentially in terms of what might be accomplished behind lines of national jurisdiction is no longer adequate."

Speaking of Canada's support for civil collaboration, the report stated that Canada had pursued "bilateral Arctic measures with the Soviet Union since the 1970s" and favoured "multilateral arrangements that in some instances have had more in common with the thinking of the Soviet Union than the United States." However, it also pointed out that "for the time being, though, Canada adheres to the NATO view that the Arctic military matters are to be negotiated exclusively on an East-West rather than a circumpolar basis."

The report noted that the increased militarization of the Arctic up to then, i.e. 1990, was not likely to be checked by current arms control means and that the region was "subject to continued militarization even as demilitarization becomes the rule in Europe and in American-Soviet relations." This amounted to being treated in a "prejudicial fashion by national security decision-makers."

In the opinion of panel members, the eight member states of the proposed Arctic Council would have "an obligation to discuss the military problems of the Arctic, and to carry any common understandings forward into the relevant extra-regional negotiations," and that "the stronger the force of Arctic military competition and the opposed-forces thinking that accompanies it, the more difficult the civil collaboration that is essential to sound management of an interdependent region." The conclusion was that the Arctic "cannot remain a home to military competition increasingly viewed as intolerable elsewhere" and that there was a need for an international instrument like the Arctic Council which "permits all concerned to generate and act upon a common vision of the region's future."

Regarding the inevitable criticism from some quarters about including military affairs in the Council's agenda, the report claimed that there was no "iron curtain" between civil and military matters and "that only a general-purpose Arctic institution is equal to the shared responsibilities of the Arctic states and to the opportunity to make a new beginning at a time of fundamental transition in international affairs." Furthermore, that "to constrain [the Arctic Council] to a non-military agenda would in effect be to affirm that a southern user's mentality enjoys undiminished official support among the Arctic Eight."

At first, "neither the Americans or Soviets accepted the initial effort to create this council."[6] As time went on, the Panel saw its recommendations being watered down or eliminated. Various states were "unanimous in tacit opposition to negotiations among arctic states on military matters" and that these matters "were more appropriately addressed in fora like NATO or the Helsinki Process (CSCE)." On the other hand, Indigenous peoples and territorial governments were more likely to want these issues on the agenda.[7]

Besides the problem of military issues, the U.S. was also opposed "to the Canadian focus on Indigenous issues" over that of the environment, as well as being concerned about Canada's insistence on "sovereignty over ice-covered waters where Canadian Inuit were hunting and where the U.S. wished to establish shipping routes."

The Americans eventually joined the Council, but reluctantly. The price paid for persuading the Americans to join was "their determination to keep the Council as weak as possible." As a result, Canadian officials were unable to give the Arctic Council the powers they believed it needed to serve as an effective forum for the circumpolar world."[8]

Since 1996, the Arctic Council has convened on a regular basis and has undertaken a number of environmental, ecological and social initiatives. In addition, although the Council itself does not have enforcement powers, it has provided a forum for the negotiation of "important legally binding agreements among the eight Arctic States" such as regarding search and rescue in the Arctic, marine oil pollution preparedness and response, and Arctic science cooperation.

However, the mandate of the Council continues to explicitly exclude issues of "military security" or militarization regarding the Arctic. But in recent years there has been some questioning of this longstanding position. The irony is that the concern is now coming from U.S. sources. For example, in 2016, during the Obama administration, the Washington, D.C. security and defence think tank "Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)" called for a redesigned Arctic Council to include a "security dimension." And there are other U.S. voices also wanting to expand the Council's mandate. The rationale for this expansion appears to come from what is perceived by some to be a developing Russian military threat in the region and elsewhere.[9]

Still others see the inclusion of military issues on the Council's agenda as a "politicization" of the organization and "risks damaging the current cooperation and coordination between Arctic states and indigenous communities." In that regard, the boycott of an Arctic Council meeting in Russia in 2014 by Canada and the U.S. over the Ukraine/Crimea crisis is viewed by some as an example of this politicization. Such politicization could "paralyze" the organization, they argue. Instead, the existing Council governance structure is said "to function very well, largely unaffected by major security crises."[10]

However, in 2019, given the Trump administration's concern about participating in multilateral structures, it remains to be seen what its position will be regarding any proposed expansion of the Arctic Council's mandate to include military issues or, for that matter, what form its participation in the Council may take in the future.


1. "The Arctic Council."

2. "To establish an international Arctic Council: A framework report." Interim Report of the Arctic Council Panel. Canadian Arctic Resources Committee. November 1990.

3. Keskitalo, Eva. "Negotiating the Arctic: The construction of an international regime." New York: Rutledge, 2004.

4. Gorbachev, Mikhail. "Speech in Murmansk at the ceremonial meeting on the occasion of the presentation of the order of Lenin and the gold star to the city of Murmansk." Oct. 1987.

5. "To establish an international Arctic Council: A framework report." Interim Report of the Arctic Council Panel. Canadian Arctic Resources Committee. November 1990.

6. Huebert, Rob. "Canadian Arctic sovereignty and security in a transforming circumpolar world." Canada and the changing Arctic: Sovereignty, security and stewardship. Wilfred Laurier University Press. 2011.

7. Scrivener (1996) in Keskitalo, Eva. "Negotiating the Arctic: The construction of an international regime." New York: Rutledge, 2004.

8. Huebert, Rob. "Canadian Arctic sovereignty and security in a transforming circumpolar world." Canada and the changing Arctic: Sovereignty, security and stewardship. Wilfred Laurier University Press. 2011.

9. Groenning, Ragnhild. "Why military security should be kept out of the Arctic Council." The Arctic Institute. June 2, 2016.

10. Stephen, Kathrin. "An Arctic security forum? Please, no!" The Arctic Institute. May 26, 2016.

This article was published in

Volume 49 Number 12 - April 6, 2019

Article Link:
Arctic Council and the Military Issue


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