Much too often, diplomacy is behind the curve in struggling with developments unfolding in ways not foreseen.
But when the Arctic Council meets in Kiruna in northern Sweden in the next few days, it is a rare example of a framework set up to deal with events well before they really start to happen, thus making it possible to shape events rather than reacting to things that have already gone wrong.
The Arctic Council was set up between the eight Arctic states, with representatives of the indigenous peoples as permanent participants, in Ottawa in 1996. But in its first years it hardly registered on the international scene. The High North was a remote and cold place that attracted little attention outside the circle of military strategists.
All this has changed.
In this part of the world, global warming is happening twice as fast as elsewhere. The polar ice sheet is retreating and vast frozen areas are melting. We would all wish that efforts to limit the emission of greenhouse gases were more successful, but as things stand now everything points at a continuation — and perhaps even an acceleration — of this trend in coming decades.
We are thus faced with an immense challenge, for the Arctic world as well as for the rest of our planet. At the same time, new opportunities are opening up.
While perceptions of a sudden race to the Arctic to secure vast energy or mineral resources are exaggerated, several countries are exploring possibilities. Russia is dependent on the exploration of vast gas and oil reserves in its High North. Norwegian efforts are carefully moving into the Barents Sea.
And although shipping along the Northern Sea Route, north of Siberia, between the Atlantic and the Pacific will remain modest for some time to come, there might be, some decades ahead, the possibility of moving straight across an ice-free Polar area during parts of the year.
Here, the distance between Western Europe and East Asia is 40 percent shorter than present routes, and one can well see major shipping going north rather than south of the Asian continent.
The Arctic Council brings together the eight states, and the indigenous peoples, in a pragmatic cooperation to tackle the common challenges and shape the events ahead of the curve. In Kiruna, we will sign a new agreement on cooperation to avoid oil spills, lay down our vision for the future of our work and discuss further measures to protect the fragile environment.
Although it hasn’t been ratified by the United States, we are in agreement that the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention is the legal basis for deciding outstanding issues of sovereignty in this enormous area. Some issues relating to the delimitation of the continental shelf are still outstanding, but a mechanism to determine them is thus agreed upon. This is most important.
The Arctic will attract increasing attention in the decades ahead, and it is thus critically important that we are strengthening the framework of cooperation to deal with the different challenges this will entail. That Russia is a most important partner in this effort goes with saying.
What we are doing in the Arctic Council is unique, and it might well be that this model could be used for other maritime areas of the world in the future. Firmly based in established principles of international law, but with particular responsibilities for the directly adjacent nations.
It’s an important example of diplomacy ahead of the curve.
Carl Bildt is the foreign minister of Sweden.