From growing investments and attention from world superpowers to global energy needs, to tourism, the Arctic is more global in nature than it's ever been.
For centuries, even millennia, the Arctic was unknown to the enlightened Western World. A hundred years ago, or more, European, and Canadian explorers ventured into this frozen wilderness. They discovered magnificent glaciers and floating icebergs the size of emerging Manhattan buildings, and thriving Indigenous communities with their own languages, traditions, and cultures.
The Cold War closed these remote territories, as only armed forces were given access. The scope for diplomatic dialogue and scientific and economic cooperation was never on the agenda. The thaw toward the end of the 20th century melted the political ice blocks, opening multiple avenues for extensive Arctic engagements.
The establishment of the Arctic Council twenty-five years ago exemplified that the times were indeed changing. The eight Arctic States – United States, Russia, Canada and the five Nordic countries – decided to create an Arctic table for discussion and dialogue, as well as scientific and environmental cooperation. In due course they invited other countries to observe the proceedings. The second decade of the 21st century saw all the major states of Europe and Asia turn up at Arctic Council gatherings. Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, China, India, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and others were recognized as legitimate Arctic players, even if they did not enjoy the same rights as the Arctic Eight, the core countries of the Arctic Council.
The globalization of the Arctic became even more evident when the Arctic Circle – which I founded with other Arctic partners in 2013 – started to convene its annual assemblies in Iceland and organize specialized Forums in North America, Europe, and Asia.
Our assemblies are usually attended by more than 2,000 participants from 60-70 countries, including heads of states and governments, ministers, members of parliaments, officials, experts, scientists, entrepreneurs, business leaders, Indigenous people, environmentalists, students, activists, and others from the growing international community interested in the future of the Arctic. Each Assembly has close to 200 sessions with over 600 speakers, reflecting the enormous variety of Arctic concerns and activities. During the three days we gather, the Arctic community is magnificently on display in the crowd of global participants.
The Arctic Circle Forums are organized in cooperation with the Governments of the host countries or other official institutions. They display the growing interest in Arctic engagements, and demonstrate the vision and policies of countries which are geographically distant from the Arctic. The eagerness of these countries to prove that they can indeed be constructive Arctic partners, making significant contributions to Arctic science and economic development, is also on vivid display.
When the pandemic retreats, the Arctic Circle will bring the Forums to Japan, Germany, France, and the United Arab Emirates. It has already been decided that the Forum in Greenland will take place August 27-29 this year. The waiting list of other countries shows that the global dimension of Arctic affairs becomes stronger and stronger.
The dynamic nature of the growing Arctic dialogue can also be witnessed at a variety of other Arctic gatherings: in Russia, the United States, Norway, Finland and in the headquarters of the European Union, reflecting the global and regional spread of Arctic cooperation.
The enhanced importance of the Arctic, especially its growing political significance and the international dimension of modern Arctic science, is also profoundly demonstrated by two recent world class events: the Biden-Putin Summit and the MOSAiC expedition.
When the Presidents of the United States and Russia decided to devote a large part of their Geneva Summit – and a considerable slot in their press conferences – to the Arctic, the combined effect was a dramatic demonstration of the Arctic’s new geopolitical significance.
The beginning of that process could, however, be traced to developments in previous years. Both the Trump and Biden Administration had increasingly given the Arctic a higher priority. Trump’s famous tweet about buying Greenland was not a joke, but an indication of the key role that the natural resources of the vast land could play in the future of the American economy and the security of the United States. The mining of rare earths and various metals could potentially allow the U.S. military and Silicon Valley tech companies to wave goodbye to China as their main source of critical materials. The plans by the Trump Administration to open a diplomatic mission in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, were promptly executed by the Biden Administration. When the missiles were flying between Gaza and Israel in May of last year, Secretary of State Blinken kept to his schedule of visiting Greenland and other Arctic countries, which was the first time the Arctic took precedence over the Middle East in the day-to-day execution of American diplomacy. Blinken’s predecessor, Secretary Pompeo, had warned the other Arctic states against the involvement of China in a historic speech he made in Finland. The Biden Administration seems to provide a continuation of that geopolitical dimension of the U.S. Arctic policy.
President Putin came to the Geneva Summit fully aware of the importance of the Arctic for the future of the Russian economy. Almost a quarter of Russia’s foreign currency earnings depend on Arctic resources. The new, 8,000 km-long gas pipeline from Siberia to Shanghai shows the emergence of a Russia-Asia energy axis. India has consequently been offered a similar pipeline, and Prime Minister Modi demonstrated strong interest at the recent Arctic meeting in Vladivostok. Both European and Asian companies eagerly seek presence in the economic evolution of the Russian Arctic, cleverly dancing around the sanctions imposed primarily because of Ukraine.
The roots of the Arctic’s geopolitical role at the Geneva Summit are thus multiple in nature, both with respect to the United States and Russia. The newly acquired status of the Arctic is also influencing the relationship of both superpowers toward Europe and Asia. The partnership between Russia and China, so vividly on display at the meeting between Putin and Xi prior to the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, would not be so vibrant without the abundant energy and mining resources in the Russian Arctic.
The geopolitical and scientific playing fields in the Arctic have in recent years been fundamentally transformed. This transformation will continue to gain strength in the near future, making the Arctic an important part of the international chessboard.
The growing global nature of the Arctic was also on display during the historic MOSAiC expedition. For the first time in human history, scientists were able to observe the region close to the North Pole during the winter months, thus gaining new insights into climate change and the environmental future of our planet. This large expedition was led by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and strongly supported by the European Union. It involved scientists from twenty countries and utilized equipment and facilities provided by institutions in different parts of the world. The leading countries of Asia played a significant role. As the leader of the expedition, Markus Rex, stated at the Arctic Circle China Forum in Shanghai, “the MOSAiC expedition would not be possible without the involvement of China.”
Korea has issued a 30-year plan for scientific engagement in the Arctic and mandated its impressive Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI), with over 200 scientists, to actively participate in the evolution of Arctic research. By adding the Polar Research Institute of China and Japanese capabilities, the Asian scientific involvement in the Arctic will soon rival the strength of the Arctic States. In the coming decades, Asian Arctic research will offer both the United States and Russia tough competition. The Canadians and the Nordics have already lost out in the level of funding and facilities.
The geopolitical and scientific playing fields in the Arctic have in recent years been fundamentally transformed. This transformation will continue to gain strength in the near future, making the Arctic an important part of the international chessboard. The superpowers and leading European and Asian countries are eager to remain significant players in this new game.
The fundamental change in the position of the Arctic, from unknown remote region to the center of both geopolitical rivalry and global science, has, in the new century, been reinforced by six pillars of development:
1. The growing acceptance of climate change as a fundamental threat to the future of humankind has made Arctic research critical to understanding what is happening, and how fast our planet is changing. Inhabitants on every continent are affected in one way or another by the climate transformation in the Arctic. The aggressive melting of the Arctic sea ice impacts the monsoons in Asia and brings snow to Texas. The fate of the Greenland glaciers will determine sea levels all over the planet. If only a quarter of the glaciers melt, the rise will be about two meters everywhere, threatening thousands of coastal cities and communities. The future security and environmental health of most countries in the world will be affected by the fate of Arctic ice. They therefore have legitimate reasons for engaging actively in Arctic science. Their fate is at stake.
2. The accelerating needs for energy, both fossil and clean, have turned the largest economies to the Arctic, be it Alaska or Siberia. Nord Stream in Europe and America, together with the Chinese and Indian deals with Russia, are further evidence of this energy transformation. The deals are necessary for these Asian giants to maintain their phenomenal economic growth. The keys to understanding the emerging global energy map are increasingly found in the Arctic – not only with respect to oil and gas, but also for clean energy, especially hydro and wind power. Potential transmission by ocean cables to major European economies are of great importance. Norway has cleverly played this card, presenting itself as the battery of clean energy for Germany, Britain, and other European countries.
3. Minerals and rare earths are found in abundance within multiple Arctic regions. Mining companies are already formulating 21st century plans where the Arctic plays a prominent role. Some even argue that without access to Arctic mining resources, no major economy will continue to thrive in the coming decades. The evidence can be seen in numerous operations in the Russian Arctic, which covers seven time zones – more than twice the continental United States – in the northern parts of Canada, and across southern Greenland.
From now on, no American President will succeed without making the Arctic’s future a priority concern.
4. By going through the Arctic, air and ocean transport routes are considerably shorter than traditional routes between Asia and Europe or America. That is why Alaska, Iceland, and Finland have all, in different ways, become significant hubs for air transport. By flying through the North, airlines save both time and fuel. Similarly, Arctic shipping now features in the plans of most major shipping companies. The Northern Sea Route, along the Russian Arctic coast, sees continuous increase in cargo volume. The Northwest Passage is also being considered. China is clearly interested in the center route, going directly across the North Pole, at least during the summer half of the year, which would diminish the control now exercised by Russia over Arctic shipping, and potentially make Iceland a favorable hub, playing a crucial role in both air and ocean transport.
5. The richness of the ocean resources across the Arctic has continued to enhance its significance for modern fishing and the production of natural, non-polluted marine food for major consumer markets in Asia, Europe, and America. The treaty on the preservation of the main Arctic Ocean, negotiated a few years ago by the United States, Russia, China, Japan, the European Union, and others, is in this respect highly significant, particularly once it becomes accessible to fishing. The treaty also demonstrates that, despite political rivalry and new geopolitical tension, Arctic agreements can still be successfully negotiated.
6. The fascination created by the Arctic wilderness for hundreds of millions of young, educated Asians – as well as young people in Europe and the United States – will make Arctic tourism a dynamic growth industry in the new century. The key question will not be how to attract tourists to the remote regions, but how the Arctic will cope with growing global fascination. For the billions who know only life in the megacities of Asia and the Americas, or in the big European and African metropolises, the solitude, the silence, and the majestic landscape of the Arctic constitute a dreamworld that must be visited. The glorification of the northern lights, seen prior to the pandemic, expands every winter, bringing tourists to Iceland, Norway, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland, and in the coming decades will bring millions more. The Arctic is becoming a primary destination, and the New North tourism will be a big part of every economy.
Together, with their geopolitical significance and scientific importance, these six strands will increasingly transform the New North into a vibrant, dynamic Global Arctic. The triangular rivalry between the United States, Russia, and China will further enhance the transformation. From now on, no American President will succeed without making the Arctic’s future a priority concern. Here, both Trump and Biden are examples of enlightened, bipartisan leadership.
Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson served as President of Iceland for twenty years, from 1996-2016, being elected five times in nationwide elections. Previously, he was Minister of Finance, Member of Parliament, Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the first Professor of Political Science at the University of Iceland. He now serves as Chairman of the Arctic Circle, which he founded in 2013 with other Arctic partners.
Cover photo courtesy Arctic Circle.