With the warming of the Arctic, so did regional relations. Russian foreign minister Sergej Lavrov, while on a visit to Kirkenes in 2008, put it in a nutshell when he proclaimed that “the further North you go, the better East-West relations” (Pettersen, 2010). The pressing issues resulting from climate change more and more pushes the circumpolar North into the state of a regional society in the sense that the current collaboration reveals a „move towards transcendence of national space, making use of a more rule-based pattern of relations‟ (Hettne and Söderbaum, 2000: 464). The year 2007 was a turning point in this regard: the Arctic ice cover reached a new record low compared to previous years and generated sudden public, political and academic salience of Arctic affairs. Additionally, the well-known assessment of Arctic oil and gas deposits by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS, 2008) opened only one year later the (rhetorical) rush for the Arctic‟s black gold. That was why the symbolic gesture of a Russian research expedition in August 2007 to plant a titanium flag into the Arctic seabed right beneath the geographical North Pole caused an outcry among Western politicians and the wider public. Yet, instead of discord and diplomatic tussle, the Arctic states have moved closer together and get engaged in region-wide regulatory arrangements and problem-solving initiatives beyond their quest for territorial and domestic sovereignty in times of rising economic stakes.
The Arctic Council, by contrast, is still generally considered a weak institution with „decision-shaping‟, but no „decision-making power‟ (Young, 2012: 401-402). And without a doubt, the organisation remains first and foremost a forum for mutual consultation between and scientific assessment for otherwise de jure sovereign states. This, however, does not implicate that the Council is a de facto non-influential body in northern politics. Quite the contrary, the organisation is currently on the cusp of becoming an active and relevant regional player in its own right. Ordinarily, international organisations acquire distinct agency through authoritative rights that member states surrender to them. States, on the other hand, deem it purposive to delegate autonomy to international organisations to manage collective action (problems) and to do so more effectively and cost-efficiently (Bradley and Kelley, 2008). Sovereignty, however, is a sensitive good to the littoral states, which instead strive to substantiate their claims to sovereign jurisdiction and have so far not delegated any decision-making, legislative or regulatory authority to the AC.
The ongoing emphasis on national sovereignty, however, has in some instances prompted a strong civil society opposition. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), by way of example, emphasises that the Inuit are „united as a single people‟ and claim their right to self-determination and a more active role for indigenous organisations as opposed to governments (Inuit Circumpolar Council, 2009). Their common sense of belonging and shared identity was demonstrated, for instance, during the RAIPON incidence in late 2012. The Russian Ministry of Justice had in November 2012 closed down the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North because of non-compliant statutes with Russian legislation. This aroused vigorous opposition and solidarity around the circumpolar North and within the Arctic Council, to which RAIPON is a Permanent Participant. After thorough inspections, the organisation continued regular work in March 2013.
The eight Arctic states hold a dominant, yet contested role in the Arctic Council. A much less acknowledged position beyond its formal character, however, is that the Arctic Council possesses and executes informal power as a highly specialized agent and norm-creator. The Council‟s mandate as stated further above is overall broad and leaves to the Council room for interpretation. Following a detailed differentiation by Bradley and Kelley (2008), there are at least three types of authority that the AC (potentially) has independent of its members. The most pervasive influence the organisation enforces is through research and advice offered by its six working groups (Bradley and Kelley, 2008: 15-16). These scientific assessments are all too frequent the basis for ministerial and Senior Arctic Officials‟ (SAO) meetings.
In these reports, the working groups do not only monitor and record the state of the art of Arctic change, but often give concrete policy recommendations for Arctic states to adopt in public policies. Taking PAME as a reference, the working group has next to the 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) report released several follow-up progress reports in 2006, 2011 and most recently 2013, which include a number of advices of how to improve marine safety and environmental protection (see Arctic Council, 2013b). The working group has further issued specialised policy guidelines and „operational steps to follow when planning for Arctic Offshore oil and gas activities‟ (Arctic Council, 2009). With respect to this, studies on the effectiveness of the Arctic Council as a „cognitive forerunner‟ (Nilsson, 2012) and in fulfilling its raison d’être expose that the organisation is (at least in the perception of individuals participating in AC working groups) an influential actor as regards, among others, enhancing international cooperation, coordination of Arctic public policies and elevating public awareness about the Arctic ecology (Kankaanpää and Young, 2012: 3-4; see also Stokke, 2007).
The second authority of the Arctic Council, even based on a formal mandate, is agenda-setting power (Bradley and Kelley, 2008: 14-15). To begin with, Arctic states‟ delegations, the Senior Arctic Officials, serve as a „focal point‟ in the body and on behalf of their respective state (Arctic Council, 1998: 5). As the AC Rules of Procedure stipulate, they hold the right to interpret reports from working groups, pre-select and frame issues to be discussed in ministerial meetings as well as ultimately “review and make recommendations to the Arctic Council on proposals by Arctic States and Permanent Participants”. Also of growing importance is the newly established AC Secretariat, which officially started work in June 2013. It takes a central role in the Council by „making it less a forum and more an international organization‟ (Sellheim, 2012: 70). Its Terms of Reference provides the Secretariat with bureaucratic leverage “through the establishment of administrative capacity and by providing continuity, institutional memory, operational efficiency, enhanced communication and outreach, exchange of information with other relevant international organizations and to support activities of the Arctic Council” (Arctic Council, 2012: 1). International bureaucracies can use this authority to pursue own objectives and to determine how these goals are reached best. Through their informational advantage and bureaucratic capacity to follow own paths, even weakly mandated institutions like the AC Secretariat may create and recreate international norms and progressively promote a regional perspective (Barnett and Finnemore, 2004).
The Secretariat‟s position in the Council structure is of strategic relevance as it, beyond purely administrative functions, also assists the rotating Council Chairmanship in writing meeting documents and final reports as well as communication and outreach plans “at the request of SAOs and Permanent Participants” (ibid). Deepened interaction with indigenous organizations, working groups and observers may further put it in a gateway position for these actors to influence the wider agenda and day-to-day practices in Arctic
regional governance. This, in turn, enhances the Secretariat‟s bargaining power vis-à-vis the Arctic Eight. With this in mind, the Arctic can be seen as on the brink of becoming a regional community, that is a “process whereby the region increasingly turns into an active subject with a distinct identity, institutionalised or informal actor capability, legitimacy and structure of decision making in relation with a more or less responsive regional civil
society” (Hettne and Söderbaum, 2000: 466).
Finally, it remains to be seen whether the legally-binding arrangements already adopted, i.e. the 2011 Maritime SAR and 2013 Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response agreement, provide the Council with authority for Arctic-wide monitoring and, while less likely, enforcement to ensure compliance (Bradley and Kelley, 2008: 12-14). While this is currently at odds with the littoral states‟ claim for unrestricted national sovereignty and the Council‟s main role as a venue for deliberation, it may prove to be both more effective and efficient for the eight Arctic states to grant the AC authority in this context. Even soft measures such as direct monitoring of state performances in the respective areas may put AC members under peer pressure and in consequence lead to policy adaptations or a „race for best practices‟.