For two decades, the Arctic Council has separated itself from the military relationship between Russia and the other Arctic states and focused on practical, shared challenges such as environmental protection, sustainable development, and search and rescue.
The separation from the military relationship occurred at the very beginning, with the Arctic Council’s founding document (the 1996 Ottawa Declaration) stating that it “should not deal with matters related to military security.” The focus on practical, shared challenges was ensured by another provision stating that “decisions of the Arctic Council are to be by consensus of the members.”
One of the Arctic Council’s early successes was the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment which assembled the best climate change science available at that time. The Assessment drew much-needed attention to the global climate issue and, in particular, to the rapid changes occurring in the Arctic region. Then, in 2011, a task force established by the Arctic Council negotiated a treaty on search and rescue. In 2013, another task force negotiated a treaty on oil spill preparedness and response.
At first, it seemed the Arctic Council might be caught up in the crisis that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Canada boycotted a meeting of a task force on black carbon in response to “Russia’s illegal occupation.” However, Canada concurrently stated that it would “continue to support the important work of the Arctic Council.” All subsequent Arctic Council meetings have included delegates from all the eight member states, and cooperation on practical, shared challenges has continued.
In May 2014, the Arctic Council established a task force on scientific cooperation, and one year later in April 2015 another task force on marine cooperation. At that time it also adopted a “Framework for Action on Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions.”
In April 2015, Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Sergei Donskoi joined in the Iqaluit Declaration, agreeing to the adoption of the US program for its two-year chairmanship. Although Canada criticized Russia’s actions in Ukraine during the Iqaluit ministerial summit, the practical work of the Arctic Council continued notwithstanding.
The fact is, the Arctic Council could never pose a threat to any of its member states, since the consensus requirement protects each of them from having decisions imposed upon it by the others. The consensus requirement is effectively a veto, which can act as a safety valve that avoids or redirects decision-making in circumstances where the Arctic Council might otherwise seize up under the pressure of irreconcilable interests.
The Arctic Council succeeds because it has been designed to address practical, shared problems that are amenable to cooperation. By doing so, it serves to promote interdependence, long-term stability and thus peace among its members.