If Washington is to achieve its Arctic Council goals, it must work to prevent outside politics from spilling over into the region.
A panel of 45 leading foreign affairs experts is calling on Washington to use its chairmanship of the Arctic Council to keep the region free of the political tension that has snarled relations between Russia and the West in other parts of the world.
Failing to do so, the group said in a report released yesterday, could derail efforts to utilise the region’s natural resources and to establish a framework for infrastructure development and environmental protections.
“The task of the United States will be to provide the leadership and political vision to keep the Arctic Council and the Arctic on a positive path,” Kenneth Yalowitz, a former ambassador and one of the report’s co-authors, said.
Such leadership, according to the group, organised by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was increasingly necessary as souring relations between the West and Russia were being projected onto Arctic relations.
“The Arctic must and can, with adequate political will, remain an area for peaceful co-operation, scientific research and sustainable development,” the report, released to coincide with the handover of the Arctic Council chairmanship to the US on Friday, states.
The report recognised that Arctic relations have come under increasing strain, whether in the form of Western sanctions against Russian oil firms in retaliation for Moscow’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict or by Russia’s increased military activity in the region.
In the past weeks Moscow has also put Arctic watchers on edge after first announcing that Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, would not attend the Arctic Council ministerial meeting on Friday. Then, this weekend, Dmitry Rogozin appeared to defy a travel ban against him by showing up on Svalbard before travelling further to the North Pole, where he participated in a flag-planting ceremony.
Nevertheless, the report’s authors, in a related op-ed, argued that there was little evidence to support the dramatic media depictions of an impending conflict.
Instead, they noted, Arctic states had shown themselves committed to diplomacy when it came to areas like extended sea-bed claims.
The report’s authors also expressed confidence that existing structures, such as the Arctic Council and the Unclos, a UN treaty governing maritime borders, were sufficient to support continued collaboration, but that it would not happen by itself.
“Co-operation can be maintained, providing all Arctic countries continue to address Arctic issues on their own merits and manage competing national interests within the existing framework,” said study co-author Ross Virginia, a polar scientist with Dartmouth College.