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The backdoor into Arctic governance?

The Arctic Circle Assembly 2017 kicks off on October 13th. Established in 2013, the conference is now the largest network of international dialogue and cooperation on the future of the Arctic, with more than 2000 participants from over 50 countries. But what comes from this event? Is there a wider purpose of this annual gathering in Reykjavik?

Beate Steinveg 12.10.2017 20:01   (Sist oppdatert: 13.10.2017 08:54)

Arctic Circle 2016. Foto: Beate Steinveg

A show

This is not your usual science conference. Nor is it "only" a hybrid between a science conference and a political arena. Instead, we can understand it as a "show", and one that needs to be experienced in order to grasp its content. What is the purpose of such an extravagant event? It is possible to trace an outcome of significance, for the Arctic region as a whole and/or for individual participants? These are some of the puzzles I have set out to resolve in my PhD.

 The Arctic Circle is intended to be a global, democratic forum, and the organizers state that its main purpose is to "bring together all Arctic and non-Arctic stakeholders interested in the development of the Arctic and its consequences for the future of the globe". Is this the function the conference fulfills?


Beate Steinveg
Beate Steinveg at the cultural building Harpa during the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, Iceland 2017
Foto: Bjørn Hatteng

The Arctic Circle does indeed gather a wide variety of stakeholders, which heads of states and governments, ministers, members of parliaments, experts, scientists and students, members of the business community, indigenous representatives and environmentalists.

The participation criteria can be checked off then, and contributes to the already vital tourism industry in Reykjavik. For the conference to have wider effects beyond its own existence however, this is hardly enough. Impact results from of dialogues, and for new ideas to develop, knowledge sharing and insight into new perspectives is crucial. Therefore, attendants must engage in debates and discussions, and preferably develop a connection to the issues at stake, which they (especially political representatives) bring back into their work.

On the other side is the potential effect the Arctic Circle can have on those attending. Whom are the conference intended to serve – and whom does it serve? Depending on the perspective applied, there are several answers to this question.

Arena for states

Firstly, the Arctic Circle can be an important arena for states, looking to promote their self-interests and their visions. According to this realist outlook, participation can be considered vital as a means to defend one's position and gain recognition for priorities. In particular when a state has specific or controversial interests in the Arctic (such as oil drilling) it ca be a pivotal arena to argue for and engage in discussions with opponents.


Secondly, applying a more liberal approach, focusing on academics and scientists as key actors, the conference can fulfill a different function. As "knowledge-brokers" they can contribute to facilitate an interplay between policy and science, by disseminating research findings to decision-makers. There are also personal and professional gains by engaging at Arctic conferences for this group. It can be a gateway into funding, as elevating an issue on the agenda can draw the attention of financial sponsors or institutions towards the need to address a particular problem. It is also a great way to network, meet colleagues and new acquaintances, and initiate new projects.

Pluralistic arenas

Finally, the Arctic Circle can be an arena for a multitude of actors, all considered equally important for the discussion on the future of the region. In other words, no prominence is given to state representatives, the Arctic states, or particular scientific disciplines. This is the philosophy behind the Arctic Circle, which is founded as being a democratic platform for all voices and perspectives. The Arctic Circle is a pluralistic arena at which the coexistence of various actors, principles and ideas are welcomed. The conference is an ideal venue to meet those engaged, regardless of geographical positioning or institutional affiliation. For the non-Arctic states and actors, it can be a channel to gain knowledge and information, as well as a communication channel for sharing their interests and visions.

High politics

Thus, while Arctic conferences in general can provide various functions for different actors, the Arctic Circle seems a particularly important arena for "those on the outside” of established institutions. By participating at the Arctic Circle, the new stakeholders can open a backdoor into policy discussions and developments in the region. Then, no wonder there is a "Japan Night" hosted by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Country Sessions by Poland and India at the 2017 Assembly. This is not only science and research. It is high politics. 

Beate Steinveg
Beate Steinveg
PhD candidate in political science at UiT – The arctic university of Norway
Research fellow in the Arctic Governance research group.
Explores the role of Arctic conferences within the Arctic governance system, as a hybrid between policy, science and dialogue.

Photo: Bjørn Hatteng