The Phantom of Arctic Misgovernance

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The Arctic is home to 4 million people across a territory that spans eight countries and three continents. The region includes some of the most austere weather and geography on the planet, as well as some of the world’s richest veins of biological and mineral wealth. In order to manage the challenges that inevitably arise from living, working, and collaborating in this region, Arctic nations and indigenous communities have established institutions like the Arctic Council and Arctic Coast Guard Forum. These venues address core governance challenges of economic development, resource management, food security, environmental degradation, search and rescue, and other issues that dominate the Arctic’s changing landscape.

The Arctic is unique in many ways, but its governance challenges are not. The region’s rules and institutions help maintain low tensions and relative prosperity. Yet defending Arctic governance requires an accurate diagnosis of what ails the region and what remedies are available to Arctic nations. Some issues that often seem specific to the Arctic, such as the limits of consensus decision-making and ocean management, are common to other multilateral institutions. Other issues, such as the lack of an Arctic security forum, are certainly challenging, but the resolution is not one that Arctic nations are likely to decide alone.



Threats to Arctic governance typically orbit three topics: security, exclusivity, and compliance. Some are concerned that there is a gap in Arctic defense frameworks, with Russia isolated from security forums because of its actions in Crimea. Meanwhile, there are questions (often but not exclusively from Chinese sources) over whether regional frameworks fairly include the growing scope of outside interests. Further still, the Arctic’s main governance tools remain constrained by a lack of enforcement mechanisms, leaving organizations like the Arctic Council without a means to address contentious topics.

Yet in the rush to address these issues, observers risk depicting the Arctic as unusual or isolated. Comparing the Arctic to other regions helps ensure that solutions to Arctic challenges are seen in a global context. Doing so reveals that the Arctic’s governance structures are broadly normal, and that several of the more prominent regional issues are (counterintuitively) not necessarily best addressed in an Arctic context at all. And if the Arctic is indeed normal, then defending its rules-based order becomes less about doing something new than preserving existing norms and structures. Sometimes the status quo is good.

Is There an Unusual Gap in Arctic Security Governance?

The lack of defense dialogue with Russia in the Arctic is a high-profile concern but one that is ultimately not Arctic in resolution. Probably the most cited example of an Arctic governance gap relates to security: The Arctic Council explicitly excludes defense issues from its charter (though it increasingly tackles other security topics such as human, food, and environmental security). In contrast, comparable organizations in other regions often include security in their mandates. Such is the case with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Caribbean Community, and myriad larger bodies such as the Organization of American States, the Arab League, the African Union, and the European Union.

Yet the distinction is not as stark as it seems. In all cases, defense is not the primary focus of these regional organizations, nor are those venues necessarily the most effective regional forums for security discussion. The Gulf Cooperation Council is clearly not the central forum for Gulf security dialogue, considering the ongoing spat between the Saudi-aligned bloc and Qatar. In Southeast Asia, other multilateral forums, like the counter-piracy oriented Malacca Straits Patrol, are usually more robust mechanisms for engagement on security topics.

From this we can impute two competing implications for the question of an Arctic security governance gap. On the one hand, including security in a regional organization (that is not an alliance) does not inherently doom the apparatus to gridlock. On the other hand, including security discussions in a regional body does not necessarily resolve challenges among competitors. In many cases, other bilateral, multilateral, and informal pathways remain more effective or desirable. The argument that introducing defense into the Arctic Council’s remit will break the organization is likely overstated, but the argument that the council is the ideal home for security dialogue also overestimates the value of folding security into its framework.

Moreover, security is a multilayered issue, and thus a security governance gap in the Arctic can necessarily be addressed by actors at different levels (senior leaders versus operational commanders). References to the Arctic Council’s lack of defense discussions imply strategic-level gaps. But at the operational level, there are any number of options for exchanges and deconfliction. The Incidents at Sea Agreement provides a framework for moderating bilateral at-sea encounters that are easily exportable to other actors. The Norwegians maintain a Skype line with the Russian Northern Fleet. NATO gives advance notice about military exercises to Russia to minimize uncertainty.

The absence of a forum for pan-Arctic security dialogue exists, but is not universal, and it principally persists at a political level, not the operational one. Mitigating security differences in the Arctic will follow from a political process, and perhaps not one isolated to the Arctic given that Russia’s isolation stems from its activities elsewhere. Moreover, most Arctic states are medium-sized or small states, meaning that regional deconfliction (not strategic-level dialogue) may be enough for their security needs.

Integrating Russia into at least one regional Arctic forum that includes security is sensible, be it the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, a revised Arctic Council, an expanded Arctic Coast Guard Forum, the NATORussia council, issue-specific task forces, or some new venture. Yet the notion that the Arctic is unusual in its security dialogue gap is only true to a point, given the limited role that security plays in many institutions that make space for the topic. That, plus the reality that Russian malign behavior will have political consequences for its relations with Western countries broadly, suggests that the imperative to fill the strategic gap in security dialogue may not be a challenge that Arctic nations can solve in a vacuum.

Is Arctic Governance Too Exclusive?

The Arctic’s governance regime is durable, fair, and inclusive, even without a more substantial role for non-Arctic nations. One of the newer threats to the region’s governance structure is the effort of outside parties — China foremost — to extract an even greater role in Arctic agenda setting. China’s claimed near-Arctic status rests in part on the argument that events in the Arctic — including the consequences of climate change — will reverberate closer to home, granting the country a legitimate stake in Arctic issues (and China is not alone in this rationale). Yet a review of other institutions suggests it would be unusual for non-local stakeholders to have a meaningful say in local deliberations. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for example, relegates outside parties to an observer category, just like the Arctic Council, the Arab League, the Organization of American States, and the African Union.

Indeed, in many ways, the Arctic Council (and other bodies such as the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable) is already unusually inclusive of both external states and regional non-state actors. In some cases, the conditions of observer status are much more constrained than in the Arctic. The Caribbean Community includes a category of associate members (British overseas dependencies), and its observers are limited to nearby nations. The Gulf Cooperation Council does not have a formal observer status at all and has been highly selective in the states it includes in certain forums (principally, incorporating Iraq and Yemen in some associated licensing and administrative bodies). Meanwhile, indigenous participation in the Arctic Council marks the region as admirably inclusive when compared to others.

What happens in the Arctic no longer stays in the Arctic. China has particularly used the climate justification — that the effects from Arctic warming will be felt globally — as a means to argue for a broader role in regional governance. Yet this rationale may even be more compelling in reverse. The global emissions that cause the Arctic to warm at three times the global rate, the consequences of which will reshape coastal communities around the planet, are more a consequence of rulemaking in Beijing and New Delhi than in Oslo or Ottawa. Moreover, the argument that regions are interconnected is not novel to the Arctic. What happens in Southeast Asia does not necessarily stay in Southeast Asia, but this does not mean that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is incomplete without Arctic state representation. If anything, the inclusion of Arctic nations in NATO and the European Union already marks the region as uncharacteristically high in its interconnection with non-regional parties.

As the Arctic adapts to a status as a “normal” region, no longer exceptional as it was once hoped, there is an instinct to assume that its structures are inherently unsuitable for its expanding prominence. Yet as relates to its supposed exclusivity, the Arctic Council appears more advanced than many of its peers.

Is Arctic Governance Unusually Toothless?

Arctic rulemaking faces fewer gaps than its critics allege. Much of the Arctic is covered by national regulations and international maritime agreements. Where the region requires multilateral approaches, its emphasis on consensus-building is neither unique nor an Achilles heel.

The Arctic Council operates by consensus. The challenges of that approach were made clear when the 2019 ministerial was unable to conclude with a standard joint declaration because of U.S. opposition to mentioning climate change. In this instance, Arctic governance was not upended — the council did not collapse, it continued its business — but it was hobbled, at least in its capacity to push an important agenda item. Yet this constraint is in no way atypical. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations operates by consensus. The Gulf Cooperation Council works through non-binding mechanisms. Caribbean Community participation is voluntary, and there are no binding decisions on currency, legal, or military integration. Even the European Union, an aspiring integration project, seeks consensus on some issues and lacks teeth when members violate certain policies.

The inability of the Arctic Council to deliver a joint declaration in 2019 also underscores the ways in which the region is experiencing normal politics. It demonstrates that the council can be susceptible to political posturing, including breaks with historical norms of council business. This will not diminish as the Arctic Council receives more global attention.

Even with these challenges, the Arctic Council’s approach to consensus-based rulemaking has proved effective in generating approval of several regional treaty-force agreements, such as that on search and rescue. In this way, the formal institution’s lack of mechanisms is overcome by its power to convene and produce results, even if the forum could theoretically be strengthened by the ability for its deliberations to translate directly into a ratification process.

Much of the Arctic that is of greatest interest to outside states — the high seas and its resources — is already governed by existing rules, courtesy of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Maritime Organization, and various fisheries management frameworks (e.g., the Central Arctic Ocean fisheries agreement, which includes China, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union).

Where oceans agreements are seen to fall short, their gaps are not unique to the Arctic, nor are their resolutions. Take, for one example, the Straddling Fish Stocks agreement, which has been signed by all Arctic nations but has not been signed by China (leading to frustrations with China’s fishing activities the world over). There is, moreover, global activity on the issue of high seas resource management, as exemplified by the working treaty on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction being developed under the auspices of the United Nations. Notably, however, Arctic marine spaces that qualify as beyond national jurisdiction account for only about 20 percent of the maritime region — which is to say, much of the Arctic falls under some existing form of national rulemaking.

Arctic institutions struggle with compliance in much the way nearly every multilateral organization does — it is the nature of international politics that sovereign states resist external pressure. Simply implementing the Law of the Sea’s provisions in the Arctic is surely not without its own unique ambiguities. Yet those who argue for more robust regional marine governance must take as an entering position the role of the Law of the Sea in shaping solutions. More broadly, outlier successes in compliance like the European Union belie what is generally reasonable to assume of regional institutions. When looking for a model to manage expectations, the Caribbean Community may be closer to the mark than the European Union. Like the Arctic Council, the Caribbean Community is relatively successful because its members share similar but limited interests, namely a focus on development, environmental protection, disaster response, and trade.


The Arctic’s rising significance has cast large expectations on the region and its most prominent institution, the Arctic Council. Perhaps too large. In arguing for often small modifications to the region’s approach to governance, observers risk depicting the Arctic as unusual, or unusually under-governed. Yet compared to other regions and peer institutions, this is not the case.

The Arctic is, in many instances, a global leader, as with its integration of indigenous communities and its prioritization of science and research. Where the existing regime does fall short (e.g., in establishing a space for security dialogue among all Arctic nations, or on Arctic implementation of maritime law), the challenges are decidedly not Arctic-specific, nor should they be treated as such by Arctic analysts.

Even where the Arctic is an outlier (i.e., on defense dialogue) a look at other institutions suggests that the gains from expanding the Arctic Council’s remit are smaller than proponents argue, and the risks of continued exclusion less than naysayers fear. Given existing operational deconfliction tools, which reduce immediate escalation risks, the argument that an absent Arctic defense forum harms regional security warrants substantiation. Strategically, it is even less evident that this issue is one that will be resolved in the Arctic context. America’s political concerns over Russian behavior far exceed Arctic-specific considerations.

Debates over Arctic governance are important. Governance is central to a rules-based order, the defense of which is something U.S. strategy repeatedly invokes. Yet the Arctic is less unusual than the regional debate can suggest, and in key instances, solutions to its problems are not Arctic in nature. Defending the region’s successful governance apparatus, reforming it where desirable, and combatting efforts to subvert it all start with a clearer picture of how the Arctic’s challenges are unique — and where they are not really Arctic at all.



Joshua Tallis, Ph.D., is a maritime and polar analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he is a research scientist in the strategy and policy program. In 2018, he deployed with USS Harry S. Truman as the civilian analyst on the Navy’s first Arctic carrier deployment since the end of the Cold War. He is the author of the 2019 book The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity. The views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

Image: Arctic Council (Photo by Linnea Nordström)