The Multipolar Circle
No. 3 2013 July/September
Dmitriy Tulupov

Lecturer in the Department of International Affairs at St. Petersburg State University.

Arctic Diplomacy As a New Phenomenon in World Politics

International cooperation in the Arctic has been expanding steadily since the start of the 21st century, assuming systemic outlines over a relatively short period of time (from 2006 till 2013), as evidenced by a series of development concepts approved by the interested countries for their respective regions. The review of these documents indicates that most of the key tasks lie in the foreign policy field, with Arctic diplomacy playing a major role in their implementation.

Unique geographical and climatic features make the Arctic truly international. The Arctic Ocean is a center of gravity for polar and off-polar nations. Dividing lines here are less noticeable than on land, but this does not detract from their legal significance.

More often than not, resources within the exclusive economic zones of the five littoral states are transboundary in nature and their development (e.g., Shtokman field, Yamal LNG) requires the creation of international consortiums. Apart from cooperation, the Arctic states also have to coordinate their mutual interests and regulate disputes. All these aspects in their entirety form the thematic area within which Arctic diplomacy is used.


Norway started to position itself as a key player in the region in the fall of 2005 when a coalition center-left government led by Jens Stoltenberg came to power. Oslo names advanced energy technologies, strict environmental standards for marine oil and gas production, and ample knowledge about the Arctic among its main competitive advantages over the other polar countries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was tasked with stating and implementing an Arctic strategy. It was Jonas Gahr Store, the then minister of foreign affairs, who had personally put his heart and soul into making the Arctic Norway’s leading foreign policy “brand.”

The first step Store took in advancing the Arctic issue was the creation of the relevant administrative bodies as part of his ministry’s reform, the need for which had been widely discussed in the early 2000s in both Norwegian academic and political communities. Leading Norwegian political scientists Jonathon Moses and Torbjorn Knutsen, for example, described the country’s Foreign Ministry as “an organizational nightmare – in drastic need of institutional reform.” “Not only is the Norwegian MFA the largest ministry in government (in terms of employees), it lacks a clear organizational hierarchy and offers a particularly good example of an organizational structure rooted in the immediate post-war era,” they wrote in an article.

In the spring of 2006, twelve departments that formed the ministry’s central staff were contracted to eight, and the operational functions of their heads were significantly enlarged. There was formed the Department for Security Policy and the High North, which was put in charge of coordinating the development and implementation of the Arctic policy. Store created the position of High North/Arctic adviser, which formally is at the bottom of the government hierarchy due to its limited functions, but in reality its holder plays a key role in the Arctic policy decision-making process as he usually has strong official and personal ties with the senior staff of the relevant section or even the whole ministry to which he is subordinated. As a result, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs turned into an inter-agency coordinating center for regional policy, which undoubtedly raised its status in the administrative hierarchy of the Norwegian Government.

Oslo’s first Arctic diplomacy success was the signing of treaties that formalized the maritime boundaries in the region. Over a relatively short period of time the country signed such agreements with Denmark and Iceland in February and September 2006, respectively, thus determining the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones. This was a significant event that established the median line principle as a generally recognized method of delimiting maritime zones and boundaries in the Arctic. Subsequently this was supposed to give Norway certain advantages at the talks with Russia on the delimitation of the “gray zone” in the Barents Sea, a sore spot in bilateral relations since 1970.

Another achievement was the submission to the relevant U.N. commission in November 2006 of an application concerning the boundaries of Norway’s continental shelf in the Arctic beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (a total area of 235,000 square km). The purpose of the application was to prove that continental Norway, the Island of Jan Mayen and Svalbard Archipelago were one whole. The application review was completed in 2009, with a positive recommendation, which gave Oslo a strong argument in support of its territorial claims. Stњre welcomed the U.N. commission’s decision as “historic.”

Although Oslo did not succeed in securing the full application of the median line principle in the Barents Sea, the Treaty of Murmansk signed on September 15, 2010 was more Norway’s victory than Russia’s. Formally, the disputed area of 175,000 square km in the Barents Sea is divided into roughly equal halves. The political meaning of this act is also obvious: Moscow and Oslo reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of the Ilulissat Declaration of 2008 (“the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims”) and eliminated one more source of tension in the Arctic.

However, the actual balance of economic advantages benefits Norway more than Russia. According to the final agreement, the essence of which can be described as “oil in exchange for fish,” Norway gives up its claims to potentially rich hydrocarbon fields in the south of the disputed area in exchange for Russia’s reticent consent to the enlargement of the area of Oslo’s economic interests east of Svalbard as borne out by Article 2 of the Treaty, which reads that “each Party shall abide by the maritime delimitation line … and shall not claim or exercise any sovereign rights or coastal State jurisdiction in maritime areas beyond this line.” Most Russian experts, notably Gennady Melkov and Vyacheslav Zilanov, unreservedly proclaimed this formula to be detrimental to the strategic interests of Russia (primarily its fishing industry). Subsequent events proved them correct: in 2011, Norwegian coast guards detained some seven Russian fishing trawlers for crossing the new delimitation line in the Barents Sea, claiming that they were engaging in unlawful activities in the exclusive economic zone of Norway.Likewise, Russia’s benefits in the energy sector can hardly be considered absolute for a number of reasons. First of all, with the new delimitation line in the Barents Sea some of the oil and gas fields that were on the Russian side are now shared by the two countries and their development will require Moscow to seek Oslo’s consent, let alone the fact that Norwegian companies can start operations in this area before their Russian colleagues get there. Second, being technologically dependent on foreign assistance and foreign participation (primarily that of Norway), Russia is not able to implement any major offshore project in the Arctic and therefore its control of resources there is quite illusory. So, there are reasons to speak of Norway’s “hidden/informal sovereignty” over the hydrocarbon resources in the Barents Sea. Third, the Treaty of Murmansk indirectly brought about the collapse of the Shtokman gas project. In early 2011, Anatoly Vinogradov, academic secretary of the Kola Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, warned that if Norway completed seismic surveys in its part of the previously disputed area within a year or two and if it had the potential to start production there by 2015, Statoil would withdraw from the Shtokman consortium. Indeed, in the summer of 2012, the Norwegian company pulled out of the project, which was then suspended indefinitely. Officially, it was explained by a decline in demand for LNG due to the “shale gas revolution” in the United States and by the lack of reliable technologies needed for project implementation.

Finally, the third dimension of Norway’s Arctic diplomacy is the advancement of its national interests at the relevant forums and in regional organizations. For example, Oslo and its Scandinavian partners are seeking to make the Arctic Council a leading decision-making center in the region. The deployment of the Council’s Secretariat in Tromsњ, the unofficial Arctic capital of Norway, became a practical step in achieving this goal.

While giving credit to the Arctic Council, Norway also uses other regional cooperation instruments such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, which was created at its initiative in 1993, and the Northern Dimension program, which serves as some sort of window on the Arctic for the European Union. Concurrently, Oslo has been quite active in the International Maritime Organization, lobbying a Polar Code, which will include environmental and technical standards for navigation in the Arctic to be binding on all interested countries.

The main feature of Norway’s contemporary Arctic diplomacy is that it is based on international maritime law and specifically on the UN Convention of 1982, which gives Oslo a lot of room for maneuver in advancing its maritime policy priorities. However, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry does not see the Convention as some dogma. On the contrary, it interprets it creatively, putting emphasis on those provisions that serve the country’s national interests, and ignoring those that may be detrimental to them.

The creation of a Law of the Sea Center, with the funding provided by the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Foundation, will strengthen Norway’s strategic commitment. The Center will seek to study how much international maritime law and related national legislation respond to new and old challenges and facilitate sustainable development. The new Center is based at the Faculty of Law of the University of Tromso, which has been recognized by the Norwegian Government as a leading national institution engaged in Arctic research. Although officially the Foreign Ministry is not among the Center’s founders, it will order most of its studies and surveys.


The impressive results of Norway’s Arctic diplomacy in 2006-2010 encouraged other polar countries to provide foreign policy support to their strategic interests in the Arctic. They began to develop comprehensive development concepts for the region, with foreign ministries often playing a leading role in the process.

In the middle of May 2008, ahead of the conference of the five Arctic states in Ilulissat, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a draft strategy titled “The Arctic at a Time of Transition.” The priorities stated in this document later provided the basis for the official Arctic strategy, which was published in August 2011. According to the strategy, the Foreign Ministry serves as chairman and secretariat of the steering committee that monitors the implementation of Denmark’s Arctic policy tasks.

Other Scandinavian countries have also delegated the function of drafting Arctic development programs to their foreign ministries. Finland adopted its document in June 2010, followed by Iceland’s national Arctic policy guidelines in March 2011, and the regional strategy of Sweden was presented in May 2011 on the occasion of the beginning of its two-year presidency in the Arctic Council.

However, there is a group of countries that have reduced the participation of diplomats in the development of their national Arctic strategies to the minimum. These include Russia (the first version of the national Arctic policy guidelines was drafted by the Security Council), the United States, where regional priorities are laid out in Presidential National Security Decision Directive 66 (NSDD 66), and Canada, where the document was drafted by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. The departmental origin of these three countries’ Arctic strategies undoubtedly left a mark on their contents, which, unlike the Scandinavian ones, are more geared to domestic political tasks. This may probably be explained by relatively similar geographical features of Russia, the United States and Canada, where large mainland areas critical for socioeconomic development and military security lie beyond the Arctic Circle.    

Another key sign indicating the institutionalization of Arctic diplomacy is the creation of relevant administrative structures within the ministries of foreign affairs in much the same way as Norway did. For example, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed a special Representative for the Arctic in January 2012 in order to promote the coordination of activities and safeguarding of the country’s interests in the Arctic. Foreign Minister Villy Sњvndal said that by so doing Copenhagen was sending “an important signal” to the rest of the world, emphasizing Denmark’s aspiration to be an active and meaningful actor in international discussions on the future of the Arctic, which have lately been gaining momentum.

In Finland, the task of drafting a concept for the national Arctic strategy was entrusted to a consultative group on the Arctic set up in April 2010 within the prime ministers’ office, with Foreign Ministry officials holding key positions in it. In April 2013, the group’s term came to an end and it has to prepare an updated version of the Arctic strategy based on the results of its three-year monitoring activities. Within the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs there is the Unit for Northern Europe which has been tasked with advancing the country’s regional interests. In 2012, its specialists released an essentially advertising brochure on the Arctic possibilities of Finland, which reviewed and systematized Finnish companies’ technological expertise in the shipbuilding and oil and gas sectors as compared to other Arctic nations.

The institutionalization of Arctic diplomacy is best illustrated by interested countries outside this region. In September 2010, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs created a working group on the Arctic to conduct comprehensive analysis and monitor changes in the economy, security, environment, and international law of the sea. In early 2012, the Japan Institute of International Affairs joined in with a research project aimed at stating the main provisions of Tokyo’s diplomatic strategy in the Arctic.

The British Foreign Office had the Polar Regions Section to deal with Arctic policy issues. In December 2012 it was reorganized into a department with a higher administrative status. Its work has traditionally centered on safeguarding British interests in Antarctica and the surrounding regions (South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands). However, recently the department has been giving more prominent attention to the Arctic, especially after the draft national Arctic strategy was submitted to the House of Commons in January 2012.ARCTIC DIPLOMACY OF RUSSIA: PROSPECTS FOR DEVELOPMENT

Russia has so far been quite passive in using the possibilities offered by Arctic diplomacy, which is at odds with the country’s ample resources and significant role in the region. The government should work out a new action plan for advancing Russia’s interests in the Arctic and should try to seize strategic initiative in determining the pace and ways for further development of the region.

Given the experience of other polar countries, the Russian Foreign Ministry should be given broader powers in carrying out the Arctic policy. It would be advisable to create a separate division within the ministry to deal with issues of Arctic and Antarctic development. It can be established within the ministry’s 2nd European Department that is responsible for Northern Europe.

The contents of Arctic diplomacy also need a thorough revision. Russian diplomacy continues to use purely political mechanisms of cooperation with regional players (negotiations, consultations, work in international organizations) and appeals to the status of “great power” whenever possible. However, this is not enough today to carry out regional priorities, even the very basic ones. Given the significance all interested countries (especially Norway) are attaching to legal regulation in the Arctic, Moscow must put emphasis on international law.

The reason for Norway’s major achievements in Arctic diplomacy is that Oslo formalized its ambitions in legal documents (referring in most instances to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982), which gave them legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of countries. And then these ambitions were realized through bilateral talks, lobbying of interests in the relevant UN bodies, and support from the United States and other NATO partners.

Russia needs to learn to construe international law for its own benefit. This will raise the chances of achieving its Arctic policy goals immensely. The key goals include international recognition of Russia’s right to financial regulation of the Northern Sea Route (by invoking Articles 26 and 127 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, which allow states to levy charges upon foreign ships for specific services rendered to them, and linking them to Article 234 which allows coastal states to adopt and enforce non-discriminatory laws and regulations). In addition, international law and political levers will have to be used to agree the outer boundaries of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean with Denmark and Canada.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs can also use its possibilities to encourage foreign shipping companies to use the Northern Sea Route, support the export of Russian Arctic technologies and boost the country’s political image in the Arctic.

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As international attention to the Arctic grows, diplomatic instruments will be increasingly used to advance national interests in the region. Some countries have started developing their own style of regional behavior. For example, Norway emphasizes its leadership in accumulating Arctic knowledge and using the most stringent offshore production standards. Finland has traditionally been positioning itself as an ice technology expert in shipbuilding. Denmark is an outpost of the European Union in the Arctic, and Iceland seeks to act as a guide for the interests of outside players such as China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, as well as a maritime transit center in the region.

Russia, as one of the major players in the region, also needs to address the issue of regional self-identification and advance its strategic interests more vigorously.

Modern Arctic diplomacy usually includes three set of tools: international and/or regional organizations such as the International Maritime Organization, the Arctic Council or the Barents Euro-Arctic Council; inter-governmental dialogues; and lastly, international public events such as press conferences, forums and seminars on Arctic problems, where diplomats tell the broad public about the achievements of national Arctic policies and their plans for the future, as well as establish contacts with entrepreneurs, members of the academic community and experts both inside and outside their respective countries. The balance of these dimensions varies, of course, depending on concrete regional approaches.

The intensity of Arctic diplomacy signifies the degree of countries’ interest. Norway should be given the leading role in a theoretical hierarchy of actors playing the “big Arctic game.” Coming close on its heels is China, which has been very active in the Arctic since 2012, compared to other outside countries such as Japan, South Korea or Singapore. The second level in this hierarchy is occupied by the Scandinavian countries – Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland – whose ambitions and achievements are more moderate and local. Strange as it may seem, but the most passive players are heavyweights – Russia, the United States and Canada, which jointly account for the major part of natural resources in the region. Nevertheless, this disposition is not static by any means and may change in the future, depending on the steps to be taken by the actors.