The chairmanship of the Arctic Council will be passed from the U.S. to Finland when representatives of northern nations meet in Fairbanks, Alaska, later this week.
The council, founded in 1996, promotes cooperation among the eight countries with Arctic territories. Its chairmanship changes every two years, and recently this role has been been played by North Americans: first by Canada and for the past term by the U.S.
The shift back to a European nation is expected to come with a change in priorities, said Heather Exner-Pirot, the managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook, an annually published academic journal that most recently made the Arctic Council its focus. She expects Finland will want to leverage its famed education system and use its technological prowess to connect Arctic communities, as well as work toward better monitoring of the region’s weather and continue to pursue the council’s environmental initiatives. Arctic Deeply spoke with Exner-Pirot to learn more about what this change in leadership may entail.
Arctic Deeply: Can you take us through what Finland’s leadership style is expected to be, and how that might be different from the U.S.?
Heather Exner-Pirot: There are a few things there. We’re moving from North America back to Europe. They don’t have the socioeconomic challenges that Alaska and the Canadian territories do. I think, going back to Finland and then to Iceland and Russia, they’re going to tend to focus more on business, Finnish know-how, Finnish technology, Finland as a northern nation and Finland as a northern manufacturing or northern business hub. I think that will be interesting and a change in what we’ve seen from Canada and the United States.
They’re also going to focus on education. They have named a couple of priorities, and education is one of them, which isn’t normally something that a regional, international organization is focused on because it is a very local issue. But, as many people know, Finland has come to be known as having the highest or best education systems in the world, and that has become part of their international brand. So, it is interesting to me that they are carrying that over into the Arctic region as well.
Arctic Deeply: What does that entail – this focus on education?
Exner-Pirot: One thing, I think, might be leveraging the work of the University of the Arctic a little bit more. That is a consortium of  research institutions, universities, colleges, and they have had their secretariat hosted in Finland since its beginning in the 1990s. I think that might be part of it, and how regional cooperation can actually translate into educational cooperation. And again, that is something where we’ll see something different from the Europeans. While the American and the Russian Arctic are still really focused on primary and secondary education and getting high school graduation rates up, in Europe there is a much bigger focus on mobility – student mobility, faculty mobility, joint research. They’re starting from a different point than we are, so I think they will probably focus on the post-secondary. But again, Finland’s brand is as an education leader.
Another one is connectivity, and that can be defined in a number of ways. One of them is certainly fiber, broadband and internet connectivity, and that has also been a theme in Alaska. But, of course, Finland has also been strong with Nokia and is also a hub for a bunch of servers for a kind of a northern Silicon Valley economy.
Another thing they’re going to work on is meteorology, strangely. I could see that there’s probably valid scientific reasons to focus on meteorology. I don’t know what Finland’s particular advantage or strength is in meteorology, but certainly there is obvious scientific value with meteorology.
Arctic Deeply: What has Finland’s participation on the council has been like so far, and do you have a sense of how other countries see Finland?
Exner-Pirot: I think that’s a very interesting question. If you go back to the history of Arctic regional cooperation and the Arctic Council, Finland really led the charge in the late 80s and early 90s. It shares a border with Russia, and there is a lot of concern about Russian pollution, nuclear waste, that kind of thing. So, when Arctic regional cooperation started, it was called the Finnish initiative – the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, and that morphed into the Arctic Council a few years later. Finland used to be a leader in regional cooperation. But in the 2000s it became much quieter, it just wasn’t a priority for the president and the political leaders in Finland for about a decade or a decade and a half.
But now, certainly, there has been a lot of interest. The president of Finland has been giving speeches on the Arctic. The Finnish president has even proposed hosting a summit of the Arctic heads of state, including President Putin and President Donald Trump – which I don’t agree with myself, but it indicates that they are taking this platform quite seriously.
Arctic Deeply: A lot has been made of Russia’s growing military presence in the Arctic. Is this something that may be raised by the Arctic Council given Finland’s proximity to Russia, and do you think that this will impact the Finnish leadership at all?
Exner-Pirot: They certainly won’t raise it, because it is the one item that the mandate of the Arctic Council prevents them from raising. There is an asterisk in the declaration that says that they will not discuss issues of military security. A lot of people say that maybe they should talk about it because there is this risk of an arms race or militarization, and other people, like myself, think that not being able to talk about that has allowed the Arctic Council to not be affected by it. Because they can’t bring it up, they can’t talk about it – they just go on talking about the other things that they always talk about. In fact, the big-ticket item that will come out of the ministerial this week is an Arctic scientific cooperation agreement, and it is co-chaired by the United States and Russia. The people get along very well; there is a lot of respect on both sides. As I like to say, the Arctic Council has been insulated from discussions on military security, and I think that is what allows continued cooperation with Russia in such a positive way.
Arctic Deeply: The Arctic Council has a reputation of being rather genial, even if the nations outside of that council are not as cooperative with each other. What is it that makes the Arctic Council nations so agreeable with each other in that setting?
Exner-Pirot: I have spent years thinking about this, but the answer is not that complex: They share mutual interests when it comes to the Arctic. They all have an interest in environmental protection, and even if Russia or Canada or someone else doesn’t want to implement the regulations or invest the money, they are still very happy for their neighbors to protect their environment, because they get benefits from that. And then when we are talking about shipping or offshore oil extraction or even mineral development, the big multibillion dollar kind of ventures that you may have in the Arctic, you need a stable, rules-based region for companies to be willing to invest billions of dollars along 10-, 20-, 30-year timelines. Russia’s GDP, between 15 to 20 percent of it comes from the Arctic, depending on the price of oil. For the United States, for Canada, for Denmark it is less than one percent. So, no one has a greater stake in the region being cooperative, peaceful and stable than Russia.
Arctic Deeply: Will this handover of leadership to Finland give the Saami, the indigenous people of Finland, more of a voice on the council?
Exner-Pirot: That is an interesting question. I think that certainly they will be highlighted more, and we’ll learn more about their particular culture and language and situation. But I think on the Arctic Council, the Saami are always a strong player. And indigenous peoples as permanent participants are always influential players. So, I don’t think that the Saami influence or the Saami story has been lost, but certainly I think that they will have the opportunity to highlight more in the next two years.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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