Northern diplomats and policymakers like to reinforce the notion of cooperation in the circumpolar north, and Denmark’s Arctic Ambassador Klavs Holm is no different. On Thursday, speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, he complimented the council’s camaraderie, noting, “There’s a very good atmosphere. I never experienced anything quite like it in my 30 year career.” Giving a little bit more color on what happens at the meetings after the speeches have concluded and the brännvin and vodka downed, he added, “There’s a party on the last night. The Sami do throat singing, and the Koreans do Gangnam style.”
Those two sentences capture a lot about the nature of the council’s inner workings. First, delegates do actually seem to get along if they’re partying and entertaining each other after the hard work is done. Second, Holm does not mention any of the member states: instead, he uses the indigenous Sami and the external Koreans as examples. In a nutshell, this emphasizes the diverse nature of delegates at council meetings, which incorporate indigenous groups that stretch across national borders and stakeholders whose provenance is not in the Arctic. The council’s current formation represents a somewhat more inclusive type of governance than other intergovernmental organizations like ASEAN or the Organization of American States. Yet the council now stands on a precipice between whether to admit external states as permanent observers or remain more traditional and geographically minded in terms of who it accepts.
Holm — and Denmark — are strong advocates of expanding the number of permanent observers. He made clear that “the Danish position is that we welcome new observers,” who he said would add to the work of the Arctic Council and its task forces. “I don’t really care if there are 30 observers watching – it’s not going to dramatically change the workings of the Arctic Council.” Holm noted the importance of “networking” and “presence” and also suggested that it would benefit the council if discussions over northern issues remained under its auspices and did not move to other forums, which could be the case if external actors were denied permanent observer status.
At the end of the day, Holm’s speech revealed how territory still matters. In a humorous but telling comment, he admitted, “The sad thing here for us is that the Lomonosov Ridge goes all the way to Russia.” Holm added, “I’m happy I won’t have to deal with it because I’ll be retired.” Resolving territorial conflicts is sticky, but the Arctic states shouldn’t have nearly as tough a time as, say, the countries around the South China Sea. According to Holm, Canada and Denmark have agreed to resolve the dispute over Hans Island during the Canadian chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Hans Island is small, and there are no natural resources on the barren spit of rock, though mineral deposits may exist in the surrounding seabed. Its diminutive size and paucity of resources facilitates the determination of sovereignty, as there’s simply less desirable stuff up for grabs. Even the Danes and Canadians themselves seem to realize the silliness of the disagreement, with a spokesman from the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs once quipping, “Notwithstanding the disputed area, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry is allowing its cafeteria to sell Danish pastries as a goodwill gesture towards the Danish government and people.” A resolution to the dispute between two countries with generally good relations would augur well for future cooperation in the northern seas on more complicated matters.
Territory and geographic presence remain of the utmost significance for Denmark, which wouldn’t be an Arctic state were it not for Greenland. Holm discussed the potential for digging minerals and rare earth metals out of the island, which he said was “the worst country to mine in” due to its huge distances. He downplayed the media frenzy over mining companies’ desire to begin extraction activities and also underscored that Greenland has its own competence in deciding matters of mining and oil extraction. Its parliament, for instance, recently voted to remove a ban on uranium mining. Greenland will hold elections on March 12, and polls show a tight race between the pro-independence, pro-mining Inuit Ataqatigiit party, which is currently in charge, and its rival Siumut Party.
Holm quoted the Greenlandic Prime Minister, Kuupik Kleist, who said to a group of high school students that before you declare independence, ask whether you will be “stronger together with friends or alone.” Denmark, for one, would certainly be a stronger actor in the Arctic if its Greenlandic friends remain in the Kingdom.