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It has been a pleasure to share the reports from students who participated in the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik last month. The final report comes from Kevin, who is in the LLM program.
Over a long weekend in October, Fletcher’s Maritime Studies Program led a 37-person contingent to the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland. Hosted by a non-profit and non-partisan organization based in Reykjavik, the assembly brings together an interdisciplinary network of representatives from government, academia, NGOs, and indigenous communities to discuss development of the Arctic and its global relevance. For students honing the skills required to address complex problems from a multi-disciplinary perspective, the Arctic Circle Assembly offered a robust opportunity to learn about issues that will demand growing international attention in coming years.
While the conference agenda included a broad range of topics, as an American attorney with a Navy background, I found three to be particularly compelling. Each illustrates the multi-disciplinary nature of emerging issues: (i) East Asian Engagement in the Arctic, (ii) Legal Uncertainties in a Changing Environment, and (iii) The Role of the U.S. Coast Guard in the Arctic.
East Asian Engagement in the Arctic. Diplomatic representatives from China, Japan, and South Korea spoke during plenary meetings of the Arctic Circle Assembly, taking advantage of the opportunity to discuss their nations’ respective records of Arctic engagement and cooperation. The representatives emphasized their nations’ contributions to Arctic scientific research, while referencing their desire for an increased role in Arctic governance. The Chinese and Japanese representatives also specifically addressed opportunities for shared economic development. Taken together, the statements illustrated the geopolitical implications of opening Arctic sea lanes and prospective resource development in the central Arctic.
Legal Uncertainties in a Changing Environment. A number of speakers present for the Arctic Circle Assembly addressed implications of a changing Arctic environment for relevant legal regimes, from application of environmental protections under the Endangered Species Act in Alaska to unresolved questions associated with the United States’ voluntary exclusion from the UNCLOS regime and development of its continental shelf. Senior representatives from Iceland, Russia, and the United States also discussed questions related to fisheries management and migrating fish populations, a topic with significant implications for both domestic economies and international relations.
The Role of the United States Coast Guard in the Arctic. On the second day of the assembly, the Vice Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, Admiral Charles Michel, spoke to the combined delegation from The Fletcher School and Harvard Kennedy School. In a wide-ranging conversation, Admiral Michel discussed the size and significance of the United States icebreaking fleet, the Coast Guard’s support for scientific research in the Arctic, as well as the unique role the Coast Guard plays in building and maintaining relationships in the maritime domain.
On the whole, the Arctic Circle Assembly presented a vibrant opportunity to learn about matters of interest from people of differing experience and perspective, many of them at the forefront of their disciplines. It also proved an opportunity to build relationships with counterparts both from Fletcher and around the world. And, perks being what they are, many of us from the Fletcher contingent capped off the assembly with a drive over the Continental Rift. On the whole, a productive weekend!
(Kevin notes that the statements in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or any of their components.)
I now know that I’ll be sharing four reports from the Arctic Circle Assembly. Today, adding to the post from Ana last week, we’ll hear from two more students, Katrina (who is one of the active duty military officers at Fletcher) and Colin (who is one of the pioneers in Fletcher’s new Master of Transatlantic Affairs program).
Attending the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland sounded like a fantastic opportunity but one that required some prodding before I committed. I wanted to attend and participate in every single thing the Fletcher community offered, and the Arctic Circle was no exception. However, as a brand spanking new first-year MALD student, I was wary of missing classes since I was still (re)acclimating to the schedule and demands of academic life. Matt Merighi, the Assistant Director for Maritime Affairs, quickly convinced me that this conference is the type of quintessential enrichment that Fletcher students must experience. So, I prepared myself for what would become one of the best experiences I have had at Fletcher thus far.
The Arctic Circle is “the largest network of international dialogue and cooperation on the future of the Arctic” with participants including governments, organizations, academic bodies, and others from all over the world. The Assembly gathers annually during three days in October. Participants packed the sessions covering the range of issues facing the Arctic. As a naval officer, I was keen on attending the sessions that dealt with maritime security. One of the first sessions I attended was “Security and Insecurity in the Arctic and High North: Current Trends and Future Issues,” and I was incredibly impressed with the arguments posited. I found the geographic and national lenses through which panel members framed the issues concerning the Arctic thought-provoking, and I kept them in mind as I listened to other speakers. It was a humbling reminder that nations are affected by problems in different ways, and future solutions must account for all parties facing the challenges of maritime security, technology, trade, or any of the other issue in the Arctic.
Because about 2,000 people were in attendance from 50 countries, I was bound to meet fascinating people. During the opening reception, a gentleman next to me gleefully gave me a Maine lapel pin after I told him I was at Fletcher. When I asked where he was from, he casually replied: “I’m the governor of Maine.” I never thought I’d meet the governor of Maine, much less 2,500 miles from home! I also had the opportunity to engage with the Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Deputy Chief of Operations of the Icelandic Coast Guard. Listening to them discuss the most pressing problems they see in the Arctic, and the steps they are taking to address, them caused me to reconsider how I look at maritime security issues, not only in the Arctic but around the globe. I conversed with academics, fellow students, government officials, and organizational representatives, and I walked away from each conversation having learned something new.
My time in Iceland was not all serious, however. During the precious few hours I was left on my own, I wandered the streets of downtown Reykjavik and visited key sites and museums. I went to the top of Hallgrimskirkja Church, where I took in the beauty of the city from 244 feet in the air. I visited their Culture House, which featured a thought-provoking exhibition that explored how outsiders and Icelanders look at history and society in Iceland. Yet, the highlight was visiting the world-famous Blue Lagoon, where I soaked in an outdoor hot spring and watched the sunrise while wearing a silica mud mask plastered to my face. This was unquestionably a once in a lifetime experience.
One of the most important things I learned during the Assembly is that the Arctic embodies a new frontier of international collaboration. In an increasingly polarized world, I am encouraged that the Arctic engenders discourse and a collective action among countries that would not typically interact otherwise. It turns out Matt was right — this was an incredible experience. I look forward to sharing the spirit of Arctic Circle with the Fletcher family and hopefully convincing them that Arctic Circle Assembly is a must-add to their list of Fletcher memories!
I have long been fascinated with the Arctic, and my time at Fletcher has only further cemented this interest. As a student in the brand-new Master of Transatlantic Affairs program, focusing primarily on international security and the EU, the region represents a fascinating case study. Will new opportunities in shipping and resource extraction lead to tense geopolitical competition, or to peaceful and cooperative development? Thanks to the generosity of the Maritime Studies program, I was granted a chance to travel to the Arctic Circle Assembly, the preeminent conference for Arctic affairs, to find out.
My interest in the region began as a personal one, but was expanded through various research projects, including an op-ed I published while working at The Stimson Center, a think-tank in Washington, D.C. As the article was about the possibility of militarization in the region, I kept a close eye out for Arctic conference events that discussed similar issues. Fortunately, I was able to attend a talk by a researcher from the University of Saskatchewan who laid out the arguments for demilitarization in the region, arguing that, for the most part, countries have compatible interests in the Arctic, and that military investments should be seen as a misallocation of funding. Instead, she urged Arctic nations to focus on confidence-building measures, particularly by creating a political forum to discuss security and demilitarization. Our discussion with Admiral Charles Michel about the Coast Guard’s surprisingly diplomatic role in the region was another interesting perspective on Arctic security cooperation.
My interest in the EU was well-represented as well. In a presentation on EU Arctic policy, I learned how Europe is approaching the region, particularly through the EU Arctic Cluster, a network established to link policy makers with other groups like indigenous peoples, civil society, and business representatives. I was also fascinated to learn about the EU-Polar Net, the European Union’s consortium of science experts, which coordinates numerous European research projects. It was impressive to see the degree to which the EU was already cooperating in the region.
True to Fletcher style, I also did my best to take an interdisciplinary approach to the conference, rather than simply focusing on my core academic interests. Easily my favorite event was the Arctic Innovation Lab, where students from Fletcher, the Harvard Kennedy School and Reykjavik University presented their ideas for concrete improvements to the region, from transshipping ports to indigenous-run tourist businesses to an Arctic investment index. I was very impressed by my fellow students’ ingenuity. At another event, a professor from the Arctic University of Norway opened my eyes to the human security element of Arctic affairs by arguing that the common suicide crisis within Nordic countries actually constitutes a security issue in itself. Another panel discussed environmental hazards in the region, in particular a fascinating presentation about the dangers of a particularly toxic fuel called unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine, which was recently used in a Russian satellite launch despite its dangers to human health and the environment being very well known. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the variety of delegations from non-Arctic countries, especially Asian countries like China, India and Japan, and attended a number of events where they laid out their interests in the region. As a student who primarily focuses on transatlantic affairs, it was a tremendous opportunity to be exposed to perspectives from other parts of the world.
The conference was not only fascinating from an academic perspective, however. It also provided the opportunity to get closer to my fellow Fletcher students, and make some new connections as well. Most memorably, two other Fletcherites and I were fortunate enough to befriend a student from the University of Reykjavik, who gave us a ride away from the light pollution of the city to see the awe-inspiring northern lights. It was just one of several unforgettable experiences I had while attending the Arctic Circle Assembly.
Following their return from the Arctic Circle Assembly last month, the Fletcher Maritime Program encouraged students to share their observations in a blog post, and then asked me whether I would be interested in including the posts in the Admissions Blog. Of course I would! I’m not sure how many I’ll receive, but today Ana Nichols Orians, a first-year MALD student, writes of her experience in Iceland.
When I was in college, Latin American writer and activist Eduardo Galeano’s salient prose guided much of my thinking. One message stood out: we must question the traditional narratives reinforcing colonial dynamics in global politics. In his book, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World, Galeano presents Joaquín Torres García’s map of an upside down Latin America. From this viewpoint, the global south is emphasized by its proximity to the sun and the moon.
Prior to the Arctic Circle Assembly, Joaquin Garcia’s map was the closest I had ever gotten to thinking about the poles. I remain dedicated to the idea of focusing on Latin America, especially in terms of reaching my professional goals of being a negotiator on topics pertaining to food, climate, and sustainability. Attending the Arctic Circle Assembly might not seem like the most logical step towards professional realization. Yet attending offered the possibility of discovering a more dynamic view of the Arctic while simultaneously learning from diverse actors considering global consequences of climate change and negotiating on policies for global cooperation. And so, I went to Reykjavik, Iceland, to attend the conference with my internal global map reversed, as per Galeano’s guidance.
The Arctic Circle Assembly attracts some of the most important actors across the globe. Within the first few hours in Iceland, I witnessed plenary discussions with Bob McLeod, Premier of the Northwest Territories, Peter Seligmann, Chairman of the Board of Conservation International, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, and H. E. Prime Minister Henry Puna of the Cook Islands, and I even introduced myself to and shook hands with H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson, chairman of the Arctic Circle and former president of Iceland. Over three days, religious leaders, scientists, artists, and policy makers led attendees through discussions about their priorities and opened the floor for creative responses. It was exhilarating and, at times, intimidating. Luckily, my role as moderator for the Arctic Innovation Lab gave me purpose.
Working with Ryan Uljua, second-year MALD candidate, on his pitch, “An Arctic Investment Index,” afforded me the opportunity to dive deeper into the idea of the Arctic as a new economic frontier. Ryan presented a new type of investment index designed for the small-scale investor. The roundtable conversation after his presentation incorporated the voices of students, bankers, and artists, and brought to light the importance of finding balance through corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Vanessa DiDomenico, another first-year MALD student, pitched the idea “Navigating Vessels Through Compliance” at the lab and discussed the importance of determining safe operations with risk mitigation strategies for the emerging sea-lanes in the Arctic. The lab provided valuable insight into a “young” perspective of how to manage the region in a sustainable and socially equitable way.
Inherent in the discussions at the Assembly was the question: whose interests will be at the table if the ice melts? The Arctic narrative I was accustomed to proved limited. Once again, it was a map that made my preconceived notions evident. Looking at the map of the Arctic Ocean, one can see how the melting ice accentuates the role of the northern coastlines and the potential for additional sea-lanes, fundamentally changing the scale of global power relations. Not all stakeholders value the Arctic for the same reason, or for that matter, have the same desired outcome for the region. Depending on whom you ask, the Arctic provides grossly different services: biodiversity, opportunities for economic investment, pristine environments and glaciers, potential shipping routes, untapped energy, political power, and more. As with the opening of any frontier, many actors are ready to exploit these resources for their own agenda.
A sustainable future may be a larger conversation than a single map can represent, but it is one that the Arctic Circle Assembly has been developing since its first meeting in 2013. The future of the Arctic is a global issue and those with the closest proximity and with the most money should not be the sole decision makers. Understanding the nuances of the political power and the diversity of interest regarding climate change will be fundamental to defining a strategic and sustainable approach to the Arctic.
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