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The Small Arctic Insiders        

The Small Arctic Insiders

(by Willy Østreng)



It is likely that Canada, Norway, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Sweden and Iceland will have less of an influence on the content of the future informal operational regime in the Arctic than the big Arctic insiders, Russia and the United States. Although, the “small” States are in majority, they lack, even in combination, the power potential and projection ability of the big insiders. To a certain extent: Votes count, power decides.

This statement is, however, partly contradicted by history showing that big powers under certain conditions are being challenged by smaller States in matters of national urgency. Canada is, for instance up against USA and the EU when it comes to freedom of navigation through the NWP, and Iceland unleashed the Cod War with Great Britain in the 1970’s when extending its fishing zone. Thus, exceptions to the rules are the only true rule of international relations.

But this rule does not dispose of all differences between States. All States are inclined to seek the support of others in safeguarding national interests – small States more so than big States. This measure is for all categories of States the less costly way of success. Therefore, the big Arctic insiders are all for a cooperative Arctic – as a first line of action. If success cannot be achieved through international cooperation all States are in principle able and reluctantly willing to apply power - small States less so than big powers.

The United States has already declared her readiness to act unilaterally in the Arctic if need be – as a second line of action. Thus, in the willingness to cooperate and/or readiness to project power there is a difference of degree rather than kind between big and small States. They differ in their ability to project power effectively. This difference is what provides big powers with the extra ability to shape Arctic international relations to the best of their own national interest.

As the least costly alternative - politically as well as materially - international cooperation in the region will create a win-win situation for all parties. This is why cooperation is on top of all political agendas. Nevertheless, the small insiders are those that will benefit the most from a collaborative atmosphere. In this perspective, they are the most likely and prone to seek political adjustment, compromise, alliance building and mitigation within the framework of international law.

Although, there are differences between the small Arctic States in certain fields - for instance when it comes to freedom of navigation - there is overall a remarkable political agreement between them on most issue areas. They are all for sustainable development of resources, the application and governance of international law, to regulate international shipping, to improve sailing conditions, to preserve the Arctic environment from pollution, to seek international cooperation when need be and to utilize the opportunities of melting sea ice for economic purposes. On these policy items the small agrees with the big. The disagreements between the Arctic States is not so much between big and small as between the Arctic five (coastal states) and the Arctic three (Sweden, Finland and Iceland) and indigenous peoples.

The Arctic Five, the Arctic Three and Indigenous Peoples

On 28th of May, 2009, the coastal states to the Arctic Ocean met in Greenland to negotiate and agree on the so called Ilulissat-Declaration on the legal foundation of governance in the Arctic Ocean. After the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996 this meeting was the first among the Arctic Five. This prompted a protest from the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) which underscored its legal right as a permanent participant (of the AC) to be present at the negotiating table when issues concerning the region are discussed. Iceland on her part expressed concern of being excluded from the Greenland meeting as a permanent member of the AC.

A year later a new meeting among the Arctic Five was summoned in Ottawa on the invitation of Canada to discuss new ways of thinking on economic development and environmental protection. This time the reaction of the Arctic Three became more vocal, explicit and public. The Foreign Minister of Iceland expressed dissatisfaction of not being invited, and claimed that a better strategy on the part of  Canada would be to try to build consensus among the Arctic Eight, rather than within an exclusive group of coastal states. Finish and Swedish officials made similar remarks, and so did ICC and the Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC)1 .

To the surprise of many, U.S. Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton, at the meeting in Ottawa warned against the practice of inviting just a few of the Arctic States to these meetings and advised future discussions on regional issues to include all states with legitimate interests in the region. In principle, the Norwegian Foreign Minister agrees with his US counterpart2 , but finds these meetings to be practical – as a means of resolving common challenges between parties sharing a problem. In his mind, participation of non-affected parties may only complicate negotiations and delayresolution3 .

Indigenous peoples join in with the critique articulated by the Arctic Three of being excluded from these meetings. They demand a seat at the negotiating table whenever Arctic questions are being discussed, and wonder if the Arctic Five by this practice try to assume leadership in the governance of regional affairs at the expense of the Arctic Three and indigenous peoples – at the expense of the Arctic Council.  There are reasons to believe that these small skirmishes will be sorted out in due time, not least because a big power (United States) invites small States to the table.


  •  1. Nystø, S.R. (2010), Uro og lederskap, Chronicle, Fiskeribladet Fiskaren, 5. March 2010
  •  2. Støre (2008), p. 41
  •  3. Hustadnes (2010), p. 14

Willy Østreng, 2010, The Small Arctic Insiders, CHNL.©

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