With the United States assuming chairmanship of the Arctic Council for the 2015-2017 term, Shell Oil temporarily halting its Arctic drilling expeditions, and the upcoming 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, there is more than one reason that the Arctic should be on the world’s radar.  The discourses surrounding the region put forth an image of controversy and potential conflict.  In August 2007, Russian submarines descended to the North Pole seabed and planted a flag, symbolically staking their claim to a large part of the region contrary to international agreement. While countries such as Canada maintained that this display of sovereignty was nothing more than a futile exhibition, Russia intended to prove its rights to the vast reserves of untapped resources (i.e. oil and gas deposits) projected to be stored in the region.  

As climate change accelerates the melting of the Arctic ice caps, therefore increasing the potential for resource extraction and viable shipping routes, questions of sovereignty and security are increasing prevalent.  Should we really be concerned about tensions in the high north leading to the “next Cold War?” And what are the implications of ice shrink opening up new shipping routes and accessibility for resource extraction? Is it possible for this region, historically known for multilateral cooperation, to continue to collaborate in a peaceful manner? To help answer these questions, we turned to none other than Lassi Heininen, commonly known as “Mr. Arctic” and widely regarded as the foremost expert on all matters pertaining to the politics of the Arctic region.  Heininen is a Professor at the University of Lapland, Finland, a Visiting Professor at Trent University, Canada and University of Akureyri, Iceland.  He is the author of upwards of 200 scientific publications, most recently Security and Sovereignty in the High North. His newest book, Future Security of the Global Arctic, was published in October 2015.  Professor Heininen serves as Chair of the Northern Research Forum (NRF) Steering Committee, Editor of the Arctic Yearbook, and Head of the UArctic-NRF Thematic Network on Geopolitics and Security.  He is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Arctic Circle and leader of the Calotte Academy.

The following is a transcript of an email interview conducted between July 13-September 15, 2015.  

MA: What are the biggest misconceptions about the Arctic?

LH: There are and have been, for some time, both internal and external images on the Arctic region and how to interpret the Arctic. Among external images there are also some misconceptions. Currently, maybe the biggest misconception is that there is a “wild” race on natural resources, without rules, and correspondingly, that there are emerging conflicts and even a danger of armed conflicts in the region. Nonetheless, though recent regional wars and political and economic crises have raised some tension between the Arctic states, the post-Cold War Arctic exhibits high stability based on multilateral cooperation between states, and indigenous peoples’ organizations and other non-state actors.   


MA: While generally the Arctic is a place of multilateral cooperation, do any of the tensions manifested during the Cold War, such as those between Russia and the US, still have any effect on the regional collaboration and policy implementation? What sort of influence, positive or negative, do these larger world powers have on the wishes of the smaller, socially democratic states?

LH: Due to the fact that the shift from the confrontation (of the Cold War) onto cooperation was so completed that there is neither military nor political tension between the Arctic states in arctic issues. This cooperation, however, includes competition, as always. At the same time it is good to remember that the military structures, particularly the nuclear weapons systems, of both Russia and the USA are still deployed in the Arctic region, there hasn’t been nuclear disarmament, yet, there. This of course influences in the region so that there is a limit how much you can deepen the regional cooperation. This has also been, so far, an obstacle that you haven’t been able to (re)define regional security in the Arctic. Furthermore, that you cannot define the Arctic as “security community,” which would be interesting, even important, from the point of view of the Nordic countries as smaller and democratic (if you wish) countries.  


MA: What are the major challenges facing the Arctic?

LH: The major challenges facing the Arctic, as well as many others parts of the globe, at the beginning of 21st century are on the one hand, long-range (air and water) pollution and climate change, and their direct and indirect impacts, such as loss of sea ice, melting glaciers, as well as the uncertainty related to climate change. On the other hand, the Anthropocene which is already at stake in the Arctic due to the above-mentioned reasons, and the planned mass-scale offshore utilization of resources in the region, as well as their transportation.


MA: Are there any issues/challenges that you perceive as being overlooked? Or are wrongly on the “back burner”?

LH: Long-range (air and water) pollution, including heavy metals, POPs, mercury, radioactivity, is overlooked due to the overwhelming attention paid to climate change and hype around resource extraction. It was much more a topic of focus when the current international Arctic cooperation started in late 1980s. Actually environmental protection, particularly nuclear safety, was the driver and main reason for the intergovernmental cooperation between the eight Arctic states.  Another overlooked thing is that there is, or soon will be, the ultimate price, what we, as humankind and meaning a loss of biodiversity of a nature, have to pay if we will continue the modern, extraction-driven development and the creed of economic growth.


MA: What is your idea of the “Global Arctic”?

LH: It’s a notion and understanding that the Arctic region is already globalized and therefore the future of the “globalized” Arctic is no longer in the hands of Arctic actors alone. If so, as I believe, and we have analyzed, then we should redefine the Arctic as “global commons,” meaning that we all are responsible of its future development. Furthermore, that the scientific community should not only work together but also to be a forerunner to interpret the Arctic as a “workshop,” or “laboratory” for interdisciplinary research.


MA: Can you elaborate on what you refer to as the “Arctic Paradox?”

LH: The “Arctic Paradox” was mentioned in the Calotte Academy [an annual international travelling symposium and expertise-based seminar focused on Arctic issues] a few years ago, and since that it has been discussed and elaborated. It’s a concept, or even a metaphor, to explain the current ambivalent situation of, and new dynamics in, the Arctic: The faster we use fossil fuels, the sooner we get an access to new under-ice and in-shelf oil and gas resources, as are plentiful in the Arctic region. Further, using those fossils we accelerate climate change for example, in the Arctic Ocean, and consequently, this makes easier access for further extraction.   


MA: Do you have any suggestions and/or what do you believe needs to be done in order to best balance these two contradicting objectives (economic prosperity via resource extraction versus environmental protection and security)? Is it possible for both sides to be satisfied?

LH: To some extent it is possible to have both elements. Natural resources in the entire North have been utilized for centuries, even a few millennia, and in last couple of centuries there has been even mass-scale exploitation. Now with globalization and with rapid climate change we, however, have both grand challenges and “wicked” problems, which mean that we are forced to try hard to find real solutions, i.e. alternative ways to do this—this is first of all a global issue. The Arctic with rapid climate change and the “paradox” would be a perfect place to test whether “industrial civilization” is capable and willing to slow down and cease fossil fuel-based development. This would not make all parties or sides happy, but it would make sense from the point of view of the majority and the environment.   


MA: How significant a role does the Arctic Council play in terms of regulating major issues in the Arctic?

LH: The Arctic Council (AC), established in 1996 to coordinate intergovernmental cooperation in the post-Cold War Arctic, can be taken as a success story. Due to the fact that it’s not an international organization, but for policy shaping, it’s not meant to regulate per se any activities. It’s more to discuss what should be done, and coordinate research on the Arctic region, and finally, as the most important task, to create a common understanding and will between its member states (i.e. the Arctic states) and the observer countries, to be committed to “the protection of the Arctic environment” and “sustainable development in the Arctic region” as the Arctic states stated in the Ottawa Declaration (when the AC was established in 1996 in Ottawa, Canada).


MA: What do you see as the major strengths and weaknesses of the Arctic Council? How do you see this body growing/developing in the future?

LH: As mentioned earlier the Arctic Council is a success story; it was very innovative in representing both states and the indigenous peoples of the Arctic region, and shaping the national policies of the Arctic states in their commitment to environmental protection and sustainable development. The main weakness is a lack of implementation of those commitments and that of many of the recommendations of excellent scientific reports by the working groups of the Council. Concerning the development of the body, the key, as I see it, is to develop further and create new methods for “policy shaping,” and to implement (e.g. by allocating more time and patience for listening) the interplay between science, politics and business.


MA: What is the role of the United States in the circumpolar region? Furthermore, what would you like to see from the US chairmanship of the Arctic Council?

LH: The United States of America is an Arctic nation, as she has stated, and one of the two major nuclear weapon states (in the Arctic) including her nuclear weapons system in the region. Therefore, the USA is much a key actor when it comes to the state of Arctic security, and that the current political stability will be maintained, and hopefully deepened. Due to the fact that the Canadian chairmanship of the AC (in 2013-2015) was a disappointment, there are hopes, even expectations, that there will be progress in developing the Council and how the environment / environmental protection could be taken into consideration. The US priority of climate change could make it possible, but it’s too early to say.    


MA: What do countries have to gain from having observer status in the Arctic Council? Why are countries like China and Singapore, for example, so interested in what is going on in the high north?

LH: Behind the growing global interest towards the Arctic are the above-mentioned phenomena, that the Arctic is globalized, and the Arctic Paradox. Then there is energy security, which became the strategic, global issue of the early 21st century. In a way, the Arctic region, as well as the Arctic Council, is a victim of its success. The Arctic plays an important role in world politics and the global economy. The new Arctic Council observer states, as well as the Arctic states, are, no doubt, interested in extraction of Arctic resources, and whether they will be utilized or not. Then there is Arctic research, which has turned very global, which is beneficial for all countries in the Northern Hemisphere due to climate change and its impacts, particularly on knowledge of climate [change].


MA: Finally, do you see the Arctic growing in importance as a region studied by International Relations scholars? What is something you would stress to younger scholars interested in studying the Arctic?

LH: Yes, there is already second boom of Arctic studies including IR scholars; actually I’m an example of the first boom or wave of Arctic studies in the late 1980s. Arctic research and studies is fascinating due to the fact that, on the one hand, it’s an interesting region with variety of phenomena, peoples and societies—therefore multidisciplinary or even interdisciplinary research is much needed in order to understand the dynamics. On the other hand, currently in the globalized world the Arctic region can be interpreted and redefined, as well as studied, as an example, or “workshop,” of international relations between different international actors (indigenous peoples, INGOs, IGOs, states), and that of changes in problem definition on security premises and paradigms.


MA: Thank you for your time and your continuing interest in solving the problems of the region.


Image courtesy of Pixabay.

About the Authors

Megan Angulo

Megan Angulo was part of a delegation of scholars from the University of Southern California that were invited to travel to Iceland, Norway and Finland to conduct research on the impact of climate change in the Arctic region, alongside seminars and meetings on the issue with stakeholders in the region, from energy companies, environmental groups, politicians, and research groups. Her research interests include the Arctic, political psychology, and energy politics.

Lassi Heininen

Lassi Heininen is a Professor at the University of Lapland, Finland, a Visiting Professor at Trent University, Canada and University of Akureyri, Iceland. He is the author of upwards of 200 scientific publications, most recently Security and Sovereignty in the High North. His next book, Future Security of the Global Arctic, is scheduled for publication in October 2015. Professor Heininen serves as Chair of the Northern Research Forum (NRF) Steering Committee, Editor of the Arctic Yearbook and Head of the UArctic-NRF Thematic Network on Geopolitics and Security. He is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Arctic Circle and leader of the Calotte Academy.