Related Articles Commentary Paper SIIS Report
Nov 29 2018
Arctic Governance: Challenges and Opportunities
By Zhao Long

The Challenge

Over the past few decades, climate change and globalization have dramatically transformed the Arctic. As a result of global warming, the Arctic sea ice has been melting rapidly, potentially easing access to natural resources and opening up new maritime routes in the region. These changes have increased global attention on potential commercial opportunities, research, and peace and stability in the region. As national governments, international institutions, and nonstate actors explore different approaches to Arctic governance, a cohesive regime complex—a set of functionally specific regimes that together serve as a foundation for efficient governance—that integrates existing frameworks could help address the environmental, economic, sociocultural, and geopolitical challenges this region faces.

The recent transformation of the Arctic is driven largely by sea ice melting at an accelerated rate. Between 1979 and 2015, the Arctic sea ice extent—-the surface area of the ocean covered by sea ice—decreased by 4.7 percent per decade and the thickness of sea ice dwindled by 10 to 15 percent. Even if global temperature rises by less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the Arctic could see a sea ice–free summer at least once a decade. Decreased sea ice allows for additional human activity in the Arctic; this in turn exacerbates the damage to the Arctic ecosystem. Decreasing sea ice and permafrost—as a result of which more fresh water enters the Arctic Ocean—can change weather and climate conditions in other parts of the globe.

The changing Arctic environment could lead to an Arctic Gold Rush, with states competing against one another to exploit oil and gas reserves and to claim the natural resources in sea areas by expanding the legal definition of the outer limits of their continental shelves. The Arctic has an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, amounting to 22 percent of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves. In addition, as the sea ice extent depletes, the Arctic could become an alternative corridor for international shipping. The Northeast Passage, encompassing the maritime route along the Norwegian and Russian Arctic, is 37 percent shorter than traditional routes through the Suez Canal. However, before the natural resources can be extracted or the Arctic sea routes used, tremendous technical, environmental, and operational risks need to be addressed.

The Arctic is also home to four million people, including indigenous populations and other residents highly dependent on the Arctic ecosystem. Accelerated ice melting eases access to resources, aiding the economic development of indigenous communities, but increased offshore and onshore commercial activities endanger the traditions and lifestyles of indigenous peoples, who want to preserve the environment and develop it using traditional knowledge.

Political and security concerns are also associated with the changing Arctic. Eight Arctic countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States) have sovereign rights and jurisdiction over their land, internal waters, territorial seas, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and continental shelves. Outside the EEZs, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and international law allow for all states to enjoy the rights of navigation, overflight, fishing, scientific investigation, and resource exploration and exploitation, including in parts of the Arctic Ocean. Although a basic legal framework exists, new issues could challenge peace and stability in the Arctic. These issues include: opposing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russian alliance structures inherited from the Cold War era; Arctic military deployments; bilateral territorial disputes; legal claims concerning the outer limits of continental shelves; disagreements on the legal status of the Northeast and Northwest Passage; and nontraditional security issues such as catastrophic oil spills, environmental disasters, and maritime search and rescue responses. As the geoeconomic significance of the Arctic increases, even environmental protection issues that had been considered noncontroversial and hardly a threat to state survival have developed national and international security implications.


National governments, international institutions, and nonstate actors should establish a cohesive regime complex that integrates new and existing smaller frameworks to tackle the challenges in the Arctic.

Strive for a consensus-based decision-making process. The existing multitier Arctic governance structures should be strengthened. At the global level, international conventions regulate non-geographical or jurisdictional issues, such as the protection of biodiversity and maritime ecosystems. At the regional level, the Arctic Council—comprising eight Arctic states as members, six indigenous organizations as permanent participants, and thirteen non-Arctic states and thirteen intergovernmental, inter-parliamentary organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as observers—provides more practical and legally binding agreements, such as on maritime search and rescue, marine oil pollution preparedness and response, and scientific cooperation. The Barents Euro-Arctic Cooperation, Northern Forum, and the Arctic: Territory of Dialogue forum, as well as other platforms, facilitate more opportunities for coordination.

At the subregional level, under the Ilulissat Declaration governance model, the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States) discuss Arctic maritime issues exclusively among themselves and seek limited dialogue on issues of common interest with other members of the Arctic Council (i.e., Finland, Iceland, and Sweden), non-Arctic states, indigenous peoples, and other parties. Although states are within their rights to act unilaterally on matters of national interest within their own territorial seas, EEZs, and continental shelves, they should collaborate more broadly on matters in the Arctic that qualify as public goods. These include climate change, Arctic wildlife, scientific exploration, potential international shipping corridors, and the preservation of Arctic indigenous peoples’ traditions and cultures. Consensus-based policy- and decision-making at intergovernmental levels can improve cooperation on these matters.

Increase the interoperability and update the jurisdictions of existing Arctic governance mechanisms. The fragmentation of existing Arctic governance mechanisms makes it difficult to coordinate responses to and effectively manage national, subregional, regional, and global Arctic challenges. For instance, even though UNCLOS applies to the Arctic, it does not contain provisions that determine the policies and procedures regarding Arctic scientific research and resource extraction. In addition, the Arctic Council does not have the explicit authority to determine traditional security issues or formulate legally binding rules on disputes. At this time, efforts to establish a comprehensive and legitimate regime governing all aspects of the Arctic region are unlikely to be successful. Therefore, it would be productive to better integrate the existing various narrowly focused Arctic institutional arrangements into a wider regime complex. This approach better conforms to current geopolitical realities in the Arctic and, to some extent, would avoid the potential race for dominance among existing governance mechanisms.

Coordinate the desires and capabilities of the Arctic Eight with other non-regional states, intergovernmental organizations, and NGOs, where possible. Although the Arctic does not conceptually qualify as a global commons, it manifests complex sovereignty issues, as it encompasses areas and resources within and outside national jurisdictions. Therefore, it would be nearly impossible to formulate a unified Arctic treaty system, similar to the one that exists for the Antarctic. Arctic governance should be based on respect for the sovereign rights and jurisdictions of Arctic countries while taking into account the concerns of non-Arctic states and nonstate actors in accordance with relevant international treaties and international law.

On the one hand, all relevant parties should be encouraged to contribute capital, technology, and human resources toward fostering new models of cooperation in setting the agenda and building institutions for Arctic governance. On the other hand, international cooperation should be considered as the essential channel for non-Arctic states to participate in resource exploitation and development, which normally reflects national interests of the Arctic Eight. The practice of the 5 5 model—negotiations between the five Arctic coastal states and China, Iceland, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the European Union on the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean—could be a reproducible framework for such coordination.

Prioritize scientific research. As the most promising area of Arctic affairs, interested parties should prioritize joint research and data sharing. This can occur under the frameworks of the International Arctic Science Committee, Arctic Council working groups, the University of the Arctic, and the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation. Formulating and implementing mandatory environmental standards and technical requirements based on a solid scientific basis is essential to understanding, utilizing, and protecting the Arctic. Besides conducting research on climate change trends and ecological assessments, innovation in both the natural and social sciences can be promoted by strengthening research on Arctic politics, economics, law, society, history, culture, and the management of human activities.

Promote sustainability as the guiding principle for cooperation, while balancing protection and utilization. Unilateral actions by states or nonstate actors in the Arctic could affect the surrounding states and indigenous communities. Sustainable development in the Arctic will need to balance development and protection at the international level and catalyze bilateral and multilateral cooperation across various sectors—e.g., the economy, environment, health, and infrastructure. To this end, Arctic states, non-Arctic states, and nonstate actors should coordinate their long-term policies on technical standards and investment. Plans for cooperation should address the preservation of ecology and biodiversity, prevention of marine pollution in Arctic sea routes, reduction in marine acidification, and promotion of sustainable fisheries.

Enhance regional security cooperation by reestablishing the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Staff Conference. Notwithstanding geopolitical realities that are incompatible with the sustainable development of the Arctic, security concerns reasonably derive from the national interests of all Arctic states, especially the United States and Russia. Restarting the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Staff Conference, which has been frozen since 2014, or maintaining dialogue on regional security matters at a high level could enhance the management of regional security issues.


The future of the Arctic concerns not only Arctic states but also Arctic local communities and non-Arctic parties. Yet, a cohesive approach to Arctic governance does not exist. The rapid effects of climate change as well as technological innovation intensify the need for increased interaction and coordination among existing frameworks affecting the Arctic. Actors need to build confidence among themselves, acknowledge one another’s rights and duties, and adapt to the rapidly changing Arctic ecosystem by cooperating to explore, understand, and utilize the Arctic in a way that benefits them all.

This paper has benefited from numerous comments and suggestion from Council of Councils members, in particular Jennifer Spence (Centre for International Governance Innovation), Sergey Kulik (Institute of Contemporary Development), Ettore Greco (Institute of International Affairs), and Tobias Etzold (German Institute for International and Security Affairs). The author also thanks CFR’s editorial staff and Terrence Mullan for their valued contributions to this paper.

Source of documents:CFR, November 29, 2018