The ambassador was not taking questions.
Just moments ago, America’s top diplomat in Norway had kicked off this year’s Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø with a booming speech trumpeting his country’s commitment to protecting and preserving the Arctic. Kenneth Braithwaite was speaking at the gala opening reception for the 14th annual conference on circumpolar issues, hosted this evening inside Tromsø’s Fram Centre for climate and environmental research. Smoked fish and geopolitics were on the menu.
In the mingling that followed, Braithwaite repeatedly refused to comment on how America’s commitment to protect “our last frontier on the great planet Earth” squared with the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda and plans to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.
Instead, his media aide pointed to a perfunctory opinion piece Braithwaite had written in the next morning’s copy of Norwegian newspaper Nordlys.
“You can plagiarize from that as much as you want, I mean, quote from that as much as you want,” said the ambassador, with the disdain for the media one expects from a Donald Trump appointee.
It’ll likely be the last time Braithwaite appears at Arctic Frontiers. He’s currently Trump’s pick to take over as America’s next Navy Secretary. But it undoubtedly won’t be the last time America puffs its chest and marks its territory in the North.
Every year, several hundred gather in Tromsø for this global conference on circumpolar research. They represent national, regional and Indigenous governments from pan-Arctic nations, as well as academic minds, industry stakeholders and, of course, military brass. The agenda is cooperation towards the responsible, sustainable development of the Arctic.
Increasingly, that dream seems at odds with itself. The world faces an ecological crisis. Development and sustainability—like oil and water—don’t mix. With the crisis comes opportunity. Climate change is opening up new shipping routes, new tourism interest, and new potential for natural resource extraction. At the same time, global superpowers from America to Russia are turning to nationalistic strategies for ‘protecting’ their Arctic interests.
The theme of this year’s conference, “Knowledge is Power,” aimed to demonstrate how science can shape those future policies. But when knowledge goes against self-interest, humanity has shown itself peerless in denial. After decades of global leaders attacking, downplaying, and ignoring climate research, it should be clear that knowledge is not power in the Arctic. Power is power.
In a plenary address the first morning of the conference, Australian foreign policy exert Bobo Lo, a specialist in Arctic Sino-Russian relations, argued that the region’s future is now a global concern. The fate of the Arctic land, waters, and resources will be decided by the world’s biggest players, all of whom are facing the “greatest security threat of the century” in climate change.
“The era of comfortable obscurity is over,” Lo warned. “Do nothing, and we risk sleepwalking into conflict.”
There are now 13 non-Arctic ‘observer’ nations in the Arctic Council, with more expected to join soon, writes Marc Lanteigne, former Montrealer and now associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Tromsø. As Lanteigne notes on his Over the Circle website, the current crop of ‘observers’ continue to bring up the Arctic’s increasing importance to their own national interest. A government white paper released by China two years ago declares:
“The Arctic situation now goes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature, having a vital bearing on the interests of States outside the region and the interests of the international community as a whole.’”
A similar report, released last fall by France’s foreign ministry, went as far as to suggest the Arctic is a region beyond international law and could soon become “the new Middle East” for global conflicts.
Norway’s minister of foreign affairs, Ine Eriksen Søreide, told a panel discussion at the conference that her French colleagues were “positively wrong” on those points.
Yes, but, countered moderator Stephen Sakur of the BBC, “If we’re all agreed the Arctic is becoming much more of a global issue, it really matters that Paris doesn’t understand... This dysfunction really matters and it’s really worrying.”
Then, there’s America. Take note of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s aggressive stance at last year’s Arctic Council meeting, during which the close, personal friend of Braithwaite (as name-dropped in his speech) criticized China and Russia’s Arctic interests as dangers to American security and then dismissed Canada’s claim on the Northwest Passage as “illegitimate.”
The hope had always been that less powerful Arctic nations could preserve geopolitical peace in the region, said Lo. But that’s unsustainable. The current form of multilateral oversight in the Arctic is headed for extinction, he told the crowd in Tromsø. It’s not clear what the rules are anymore, or who’s willing to abide by them.
“The world is changing. We cannot assume that what worked before... will invariably work in the future. We need to be much more flexible.”
What hope we all have is in the youth. It was a repeating theme at the conference. Youth—itself a misnomer for accomplished minds who happen to be under 30—were spoken of as saviours; as the last, best chance at solving our climate mess. “They’ve got it,” said Mike Sfraga, director of global risk and resilience for America’s Wilson Centre think tank. “They’re iPhoning away and they know the future they want and they see the one that’s coming. They don’t like the one that’s coming.”
So it was unfortunate that so many of the ‘Emerging Leaders’ at the conference—including Yellowknife environmental analyst Paulina Ross and Iqaluit’s Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum curator Jessica Kotierk— were siloed away from the discussion in smaller talks and side events. Take, for instance, the presentation by ‘emerging leader’ and University of Ottawa grad student Kim Matthieu, who spoke for a few minutes during a pause in the discussion on future threats to Arctic peace.
“Youth are currently leading the climate movement, but we still have to fight to get a seat at the table,” said Mathieu. “I will be here for the rest of your career. I will witness your actions, and I will witness your inaction. You cannot write our future without us there.”
Mathieu then departed the auxiliary stage to polite applause and a thank you from Sakur, returning to the audience so the grown-ups could talk. Forget a seat at the table, the youth were barely allowed on stage.
“The thing is they’re not in power yet,” Sakur said to Sfraga. Looking to the next generation for hope is an easy way to offload the responsibilities of this generation’s leaders. “I’m sure one day they will be. But some of us on this panel have power right now.”
During a speech to reporters before the conference kicked off, Arctic Frontiers director Ole Øvretveit emphasized the “power of knowledge” in affecting policy decisions. After all, he said, “there is only one truth.”
But the truth is that the global equilibrium is out of whack. In the chaos of climate change, the Arctic will remain a tantalizing playground for southern ambitions. (Truthfully, there’s already been a long history of that interference.) Will the next decade be one of cooperation between Arctic players and global superpowers? Or, as has happened again and again in the past, will the powerful carve up the North and take what spoils they feel they own? Can we learn the lessons of our own mistakes?
Opening the conference at the start of the week, Sami Parliament President Ailo Keskitalo spoke about the kind of Indigenous knowledge that’s been passed down through the centuries by peoples living in harmony with the tundra. It’s a relational understanding. A way to inherit and thrive in these beautiful landscapes. The hungers the world has now are unsustainable, warned Keskitalo, but there is still hope to learn from what came before.
“We still have the power of knowledge to live in harmony with nature,” she promised. Braithwaite, in his touted op-ed, also made a promise. Perhaps, as well, something of a warning.
“The United States looks forward to being directly involved in ensuring a promising future for the Arctic.”