Keeping the Arctic ‘cold’: the rise of plurilateral diplomacy?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


The Arctic region is undergoing significant climatic transformations, which have the potential to fuel major diplomatic tensions among regional actors over natural resources, freedom of navigation, and fishery management. At the heart of the issue lies a triple governance gap: the Arctic Council, the eight-member intergovernmental body that promotes cooperation in the region, lacks the institutional authority to address the growing challenges; the legal framework that covers Arctic matters is weak; and there is little political commitment among AC members to extend the body’s legal mandate or strengthen its institutional structure.


Conventional methods of addressing global governance gaps – multilateralism and bilateralism – are increasingly being outpaced by the complexity and urgency of 21st century governance challenges. Multilateral conventions now take decades of negotiations (see the case of the UNFCCC or the WTO Doha Development Round) and have uncertain results due to problems of implementation. Bilateralism, while it is a more agile instrument for international negotiations, is nevertheless ill-equipped to tackle complex issues involving multiple actors and generally favours the strongest parties at the table.


This is not to say that multilateralism and bilateralism have no place in the future of global governance, but rather that 21st century problems require 21st century solutions emphasizing flexibility, effectiveness, and quick reaction.

What is needed to close the governance gap in the Arctic is a plurilateral diplomatic approach: a network of connections between the Arctic Council, as the central node of Arctic governance, and existing institutions – NATO, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and UNDP/GEF – that have the necessary logistics, experience and know-how to deal with the rising challenges.


To make it work, NATO should be granted the status of observer to the Arctic Council with the role of offering counsel on technical matters involving the security of the high-seas, such as the implementation of the recently adopted Search and Rescue (S&R) Agreement or similar arrangements. The NATO plurilateral connection would also allow parties to mitigate each other’s expectations about how to meet the future challenges of the region by discouraging military competition through joint surveillance, monitoring and confidence-building measures.

In 2009, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) approved revised Guidelines for ships operating in polar waters, which are based on the premise that not all ships which enter the Arctic environment are able to navigate safely in all areas at all times of the year. However, as IMO polar guidelines are not obligatory for member states, there is clearly space for improvement. An IMO plurilateral connection to the Arctic Council should be able to do just that.

By becoming an observer member to the IMO, the AC could better improve policy coordination among its members in two critical areas of governance. One the one hand, it could help monitor and enforce the existing IMO navigation guidelines for ships operating in polar waters. The 2011 S&R Agreement has proved that AC member are open to concluding legally binding conventions as long as they concern matters that facilitate navigation in the region. At the same time, as the volume of shipping in the region is expected to increase, the AC would have the opportunity to take a more active part in shaping future IMO protocols and regulations concerning the security of navigation in the Arctic and the prevention of marine pollution.


Given the broader environmental implications entailed by future resource exploitation, navigation and fishing in the Arctic, a more holistic approach – the so-called Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM) method – is required, to ensure ecosystem conservation and sustainable development in the Arctic. EBM could create protocols for shipping and resource development, establish a network of marine protected areas throughout the Arctic Ocean, ensure that commercial activity followed approved environmental practices and require polluters to pay for clean-up efforts.

UNDP-GEF has already been applying the EBM approach to thirteen of the world’s Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs). Following the recommendation of the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group (PAME), the Arctic Council also adopted, in 2008, a working map of 17 designated LMEs in the Arctic Ocean to be used as a framework for ecosystem-based management practices in the Arctic. What is left is to connect the dots. By establishing PAME as a GEF Operational Focal Point, the AC would be closely involved in endorsing project proposals that are consistent with national plans and priorities and in facilitating EBM coordination, assessment, integration, and consultation at the country level.


In sum, there is no need for overarching multilateral agreements or asymmetrical bilateral relations to close the governance gaps in the Arctic. The AC-NATO plurilateral connection could prevent the militarization of the Arctic, the AC-IMO partnership could improve the safety and freedom of navigation in the Arctic, while the AC-UNDP/GEF diplomatic collaboration would facilitate policy coordination among regional actors on matters pertaining to sustainable fishery management.




‘Keeping the Arctic ‘Cold’: The Rise of Plurilateral Diplomacy?‘, Global Policy 4 (4): 347-58




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Prof. Corneliu Bjola

I'm an Oxford scholar seeking to make sense of "unknown unknowns" in international diplomacy, a tech geek constantly on the lookout for the next Cool Thing, and an unrepentant Big Lebowski fan ("lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you's..").

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