Melting diplomatic ice at Arctic Council meeting


Ordinarily, the Arctic is perceived as a sleepy region where nothing much happens. Well, this week something happened, and not just the continued climate change that is causing irreparable damage to this delicate part of the world. Foreign ministers of the Arctic Council member states convened in Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik — a convenient opportunity for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to meet.

“It’s […] no secret that we have our differences,” Blinken said — but added that “there are many areas where our interests intersect and overlap” including COVID-19, climate change, Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and Afghanistan. Even six months ago, such a statement would have been highly unlikely. While President Trump seemed eager to work with his counterpart Vladimir Putin — and indeed seemed to trust him more than America’s own intelligence agencies — US policy vis-à-vis Russia was never particularly clear. As a result, while America (minus Mr. Trump) loudly articulated its opinion regarding Russia’s aggression towards its neighbors and Russian interference in US elections, that was basically it.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken poses with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as they arrive for a meeting at the Harpa Concert Hall, on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial summit, in Reykjavik, Iceland, May 19, 2021. 

That was a pity, because as NATO concluded in the late 1970s, it’s possible to both stand up to an adversary and work with that same adversary. That, of course, was the essence of NATO’s nuclear dual-track strategy, decided on by the alliance’s foreign and defense ministers in December 1979. And a dual-track strategy is possible today too. The first track is clearly a response to Russian aggression, but the second track is engagement because, as Blinken noted, Russian and US interests converge on a range of issues — including Iran, North Korea, climate change and, yes, the Arctic. And in these areas, Russian interests intersect with those of America’s allies as well.

Consider the climate. While most people think climate change is a positive thing for the Arctic (“Hooray, commercial shipping along the Northern Sea Route!”), climate change will in fact have devastating consequences for this region, which is shared by Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and to a lesser extent Sweden. That, in turn, will affect the rest of the world. “For instance, when the white sea ice melts in summer, areas of dark open water are exposed which can absorb more heat from the sun. That extra heat then helps melt even more ice. […] As permafrost thaws, plants and animals that were frozen in the ground begin to decay,” the National Snow and Ice Data Center notes.

The United States can’t address the melting ice alone, not even with the aid of its Western allies on the Arctic Council. In fact, Arctic cooperation may be a perfect opening for US-Russian cooperation. One should remember that US-Soviet scientific collaboration in the Arctic continued even during the cold days of the Cold War, with dual benefits: It was important in its own right, and it was a rare area of collaboration, and thus confidence-building, between the two hostile powers.

A dual-track strategy is clearly not going to miraculously present itself simply because Blinken and Lavrov had what appears to have been a constructive 90-minute meeting in Iceland. But Blinken already believes in the concept. “The U.S. continues to support NATO’s dual-track approach to Russia by enhancing our deterrence and defense, including with combat-ready troops in the eastern part of our Alliance,” he tweeted in March, in support of the original dual-track strategy. A new version, covering new forms of aggression and new forms of cooperation, would require a great deal of diplomatic craftsmanship.

The Arctic Council, however, provided a handy opportunity for the two gentlemen to convene at a meeting that had long been scheduled to take place. Imagine what might be possible at future Arctic Council meetings. This was Iceland’s final meeting presiding over the exclusive group. The presidency now goes to: Russia.

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