Arctic & Antarctica
The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker USCGC Healy sails into Arctic seas (USCG)

Arctic - The End of Arctic Exceptionalism

Following the invasion of Ukraine, the region is reproducing deep divisions between Russia and the West in lower latitudes.

While climatic tipping points have received significant attention from scientists, geopolitical tipping points in the Arctic are little examined. Yet that is exactly what the war in Ukraine has proven to be.

The Arctic has long been a canary in the coal mine for global climate change, foreshadowing for the rest of the planet what warmer and wetter future awaits. Yet when it comes to geopolitics, since the end of the Cold War, the region has been perceived as existing on a separate timeline. The Arctic has enjoyed a reputation for being immune to enmity elsewhere and for successfully encouraged its eight constituent territorially sovereign states – the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia – to cooperate rather than come to blows.

This idea of “Arctic exceptionalism,” was first defined and, notably, critiqued by Gail Osherenko and Oran R. Young in their book, The Age of the Arctic, published in 1992. At the same time, in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union seemed to be opening up (but before it collapsed), Arctic exceptionalism was taking root in policy circles. Analysts and government officials from Arctic states championed the belief that the uniquely icy and remote Arctic could foster dialogue across borders. Chief among these proponents were the Finnish and Canadian governments. They both took inspiration from Gorbachev’s famous speech delivered in 1986 in the Russian city of Murmansk, the world’s largest Arctic city, calling for the region to be a “zone of peace.”

Representatives from Finland, a country eager to build ties with other Arctic states, consulted their Arctic counterparts about constructive methods for cooperation. The Finns determined that the environment would be the most likely issue to foster cross-border ties.

Radioactive circumpolar diplomacy

Finland’s finding that nature could serve as a vehicle for circumpolar diplomacy aligned with its existing goals of combatting environmental issues. The country had firsthand knowledge of the destructive impacts of transboundary pollutants following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The plume from the nuclear catastrophe contaminated reindeer pastures across Fennoscandia. Later studies would reveal that even prior to Chernobyl, in the 1950s and 1960s, reindeer herders across the Arctic had some of the highest levels of exposure in the world to the fallout from nuclear weapons testing due to how radionucleotides progress up the lichen-reindeer-human food chain.

Much as climate change has galvanized international cooperation in the 21st century, concerns about radioactivity in the 1980s and 1990s motivated countries to come together. In some sense, Chernobyl and Gorbachev’s speech were two tipping points that balanced the Arctic scales in favor of cooperation.

From the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy to the Arctic Council

In Rovaniemi, Finland in June 1991, the Arctic’s eight states adopted the Declaration on the Protection of the Environment, which birthed the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). Six months later, the Soviet Union would collapse – yet Arctic cooperation would continue. AEPS studied and tackled transboundary issues such as pollution from oil, radioactivity, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and heavy metals. Managing transboundary pollution became more urgent once the full scale of environmental degradation in the Russian Arctic – a homeland for people ranging from the reindeer-herding Nenets to the walrus-hunting Chukchi – became clearer following the Soviet collapse.

The AEP laid a firm foundation for regional cooperation and, promisingly, a brighter and more cohesive Arctic. In 1996, with five years of multilateral governance addressing environmental issues under their belt, the eight Arctic states were ready to come together to form the Arctic Council. The intergovernmental organization also created formal roles for Indigenous Peoples’ organizations. As Permanent Participants, they must be consulted on all decisions.

The Kiruna Ministerial: A high point – and end point – for Arctic exceptionalism

Over the next two decades, as global political, economic, and scientific interest in the Arctic grew, the Arctic Council continued to strengthen. In 2011, the first legally binding agreement under the auspices of the Arctic Council was signed on aeronautical and maritime search and rescue. In 2013, a second agreement was reached on marine oil pollution preparedness and response. That same year, a watershed moment also came for the Arctic Council to demonstrate its progressiveness and inclusivity. At the biennial Arctic Council ministerial meeting held in Kiruna, Sweden that year, the Asian states of China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Singapore were admitted as observers, along with Italy and, conditionally, the European Union.

Some analysts thought that this significant expansion of the Arctic Council marked a tipping point that would usher in a new global Arctic. Arctic exceptionalism, too, arguably reached a high point in 2013. What other part of the world, so the thinking went, could bring together parties as disparate as the U.S., China, Russia, and Indigenous Peoples?

Russia annexes Crimea, pivots east, and invades Ukraine

Less than a year later in March 2014, severe cracks began to show when Russia annexed Crimea. While Arctic cooperation continued under the auspices of the Arctic Council, U.S. and European Union sanctions limiting trade in the defense and energy sectors began to push Russia to turn to China. The country’s “Pivot to the East” came as the Asian giant was seeking to expand its Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013 – a multi-trillion-dollar plan to improve global trade and transportation infrastructure.

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