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[WebDebate #27 summary] Arctic diplomacy: Approaches and lessons

Published on 13 February 2019
Updated on 05 April 2024

In our February WebDebate, we looked at Arctic diplomacy. We were joined by Dr Danita Catherine Burke (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellow at the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark), Prof. Paul Berkman (Professor of Practice in Science Diplomacy, Fletcher School, Tufts University), and Dr André Saramago (Invited Assistant Professor of International Relations at Coimbra University and University Beira Interior, Researcher with the Orient Institute). The WebDebate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne.

Burke explained that she conducts research on the Arctic region from an international relations perspective, looking primarily at three themes: diplomacy and co-operation, non-governmental organisations, and identity. Her other work also touches upon indigenous studies and Arctic security issues. She underlined that the Arctic has some unique qualities, such as: the climate and its impact on the way politics operates in the region; and the indigenous people living in the region, their growing autonomy, and their role in the evolving diplomacy of the Arctic region. According to Burke, the Arctic Council stands out in Arctic diplomacy. At the same time, she stressed that it is important to continue researching the Arctic in order to understand the broader implications of Arctic diplomacy in international relations and diplomacy. Burke also founded the Women in the Arctic and Antarctic initiative (formerly Women in the Arctic) in order to highlight the role played by women in growing scholarships, networking, and information sharing. More information on the initiative can be found on its website – womeninthearctic.ca – and its Twitter account – @arctic_in.

The changes that we are seeing in the Arctic are threshold changes, Berkman stated. There is increased interest in shipping and resources in the Arctic Ocean and infrastructure development in the region. In Berkman’s opinion, the changes in the environment, such as melting sea ice and permafrost, are trivial compared to the lasting changes that will occur when infrastructures develop. The challenge is building infrastructure in a thoughtful way that will serve the interests of future generations. Berkman pointed out that the changes in the global atmosphere very closely parallel the growth of the human population, but also underlined that this correlation should not be confused with causation. In his opinion, the Arctic is a good example of nations balancing their interests.

Saramago pointed out that for many countries, the main avenue of engagement in the Arctic is science and science diplomacy. For East Asian countries, science is frequently looked at as a way of exercising soft power in the region. China’s example illustrates this: In its white paper on Arctic policy, China connects the conditions in the Arctic with conditions at home. However, the Arctic is also influencing China’s own internal and domestic policies, with China’s concept of ‘ecological civilisation’ also being relevant for the Arctic region. Ecological civilisation is a post-capitalist and post-industrial concept, highlighting that China aims to advance beyond what the West has reached in terms of civilisational development.

The Arctic Council

The Arctic Council was founded in 1996 and focuses on environmental protection and sustainable economic development, Burke explained. Its added value is the establishment of a space for open dialogue in the Arctic region. It consists of Russia, the US, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. A unique factor of the Arctic Council is that indigenous peoples are permanent participants in the forum, which allows them direct access to key decision-makers and scientists, and allows them to speak freely without fearing they will lose their position in the council and access to regional diplomacy. The council also has observers, divided into (1) states; (2) intergovernmental organisations and inter-parliamentary organisations; (3) and non-governmental organisations. The observers are admitted on the basis of a consensus between Arctic states, with input from permanent participants. However, the Arctic Council does not have independent decision-making power, a centralised budget, or the means of independently implementing agreements made in the council, which leads to discussions on whether the Arctic Council should evolve into a decision-making body or whether it should stay in its present format.

National interests in the Arctic region

Saramago explained that China’s environmental and scientific engagement with the Arctic is not only an attempt at increasing influence in order to access resources, but that it is also connected to a wider ideological struggle with the West. China’s concept of ‘ecological civilisation’ is increasingly being portrayed as an alternative to Western ‘liberal environmentalism.’ Saramago underlined that national and geopolitical interests cannot be disentangled from wider ideological struggles. He pointed out that one needs to always be aware of the national and geopolitical interest of nations, but also stressed that one should not become too cynical of a nation’s discourse as it might be more than a mask for promoting its national and geopolitical interests.

Burke stressed that it is essential to remember that much of the Arctic is uncontested, because the majority of the region falls into recognised national sovereignty boundaries. The main question for the future will be on access to the Central Arctic Ocean, which at the moment is predominantly covered by ice, but is going to become increasingly accessible due to climate change. The high seas in the Arctic region are an area where there is uncertainty as to how geopolitical questions are going to unfold.


Saramago concluded that diplomats must understand the processes and competition in the Arctic but also the points of view of countries that engage in this region. In Saramago’s opinion, diplomats should be aware of another country’s geopolitical and national interests but should also try to understand how that country’s policies and approaches to a region relate to their wider concerns and dominant ideology.

Berkman concluded that the main challenge is to operate in a way that enables dialogue that allows adversaries and allies alike to communicate. The solution is to think in terms of building common interests and to identify where this engagement will actually achieve progress in terms of governance mechanisms or building infrastructure. According to Berkman, we face that challenge on a global level today and we cannot leave it to future generations.

Burke concluded that scientific reports produced by the Working Groups of the Arctic Council should be followed up. Burke said that states, diplomats, and international organisations should review the work of the Arctic Council and use it to make informed decisions and advance dialogue and diplomacy in the Arctic region.

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1 reply
  1. Abhishek Kumar
    Abhishek Kumar says:


    I Think Saramago was right everyone must understands other countries national interest and try to respect it . Nice article sir. Regards

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