Eight of the world’s countries have territorial possessions in the Arctic – the area north of the Arctic Circle. Referred to as the Arctic countries or the Arctic States, these include Canada, Denmark (by means of the Faroe Islands and Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States (by means of Alaska). Five of them, namely Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States, border the Arctic Ocean. The remaining three – Finland, Iceland, and Sweden – do not border the Arctic Ocean. All eight Arctic States are Arctic Council members.
There is currently no international treaty to define the legal status of the Arctic, which is, instead, governed by international law, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the national legislation of the Arctic states, and various bilateral agreements.
While each country comes to the table with its own set of needs and strategic goals, whether geopolitical, socio-political, or economic – a reality that makes the Arctic markedly competitive – they strive for consensus and mutually beneficial solutions for the Arctic region and its development, as evinced by the key priorities echoed across their Arctic policies.
As the world’s largest country geographically, Russia stretches over 53 percent of the total coastline of the Arctic Ocean. With 2.5 million inhabitants above the Arctic Circle, its nationals constitute nearly half of the global Arctic population, giving it an important stake in the region. Russia’s heavily oil-and-gas-dependent economy is also tethered to the extraction of natural resources in the Arctic, putting the region’s development high up on Russia’s strategic agenda. In 2020, Russia outlines its key priorities in the Arctic in a document titled “Basic Principles of Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic to 2035.” These include guaranteeing high standards of living, protecting the Arctic environment and the traditional lifestyle of indigenous people, and developing the Northern Sea Route. Russia chaired the Arctic Council in 2004-2006 and is currently in its second chairmanship (2021-2023).
While constituting one-third of Sweden’s territory, the country’s sparsely populated Arctic region has just over 500,000 inhabitants. The country’s strategic objectives in the region include security, international cooperation, environmental protection and monitoring, research, economic development, and an improved standard of living. Sweden chaired the Arctic Council in 2011-2013.
The Arctic is home to one-tenth of Norway’s population (around 490,000 people) and nearly half of its land. Norway’s priorities in the Arctic include focus on making the country’s north a safe and attractive place to live. Accordingly, the government’s Arctic Policy puts peace and stability, international cooperation and order, ecosystem-conscious management, job creation, effective welfare schemes, and close cooperation between the business and the academic community high up on its agenda. Norway chaired the Arctic Council from 2007-2009 and has hosted both the Arctic Council Secretariat and the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat in Tromsø since 2012 and 2016 respectively.
The Arctic Circle passes through Iceland’s northernmost community – Grimsey Island, which is located 40 kilometres off the nation’s coast. Iceland’s Arctic policy outlines 12 priority areas, including international cooperation, the peaceful resolution of disputes, sustainable development, environmental protection and mitigating climate change, reducing fossil fuels dependence, safeguarding the welfare of Arctic inhabitants, and trade, amongst others. Iceland – the only Arctic state without an Indigenous population – chaired the Arctic Council in 2002-2004 and 2019-2021.
Nearly one-third of Finland’s land lies above the Arctic Circle, which passes through the province of Lapland. As is the case for the Canadian Arctic, the Finnish Arctic is sparsely populated with just under 180,000 people. Finland’s 2021-2030 Arctic policy defines the following strategic objectives: mitigating climate change, promoting the wellbeing of indigenous inhabitants (the Sámi people), cutting edge research, and infrastructure and logistics, all of which need to be carried out with sustainable development and indigenous rights in mind. Finland chaired the Arctic Council in 2000-2002 and 2017-2019.
Though home to less than 1 percent of its population, the Canadian Arctic – consisting of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon, and parts of several provinces – constitutes nearly 40 percent of Canada’s land. More than half of the 150,000 inhabitants of the Canadian Artic are Indigenous Peoples, whose communities played a critical role in crafting the government’s 2016 Arctic Policy Framework. The framework sets many strategic priorities, including nurturing healthy families and communities, investing in infrastructure, fostering economic development and innovation, job creation, scientific research, ecosystem stewardship, and improving relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations, amongst others. A separate document, the Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign policy, emphasises settling territorial issues, sustainable development, trade and investment, ecosystem-based management approach, and international cooperation in addressing climate change, amongst other priorities. Canada chaired the Arctic Council in 1996-1998 and 2013-2015.
The Kingdom of Denmark consists of three parts: Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. While Greenland and the Faroe Islands benefit from extensive self-governance, the Danish realm is united in its values, interests, and sense of responsibility for the Arctic. Denmark’s 2011- 2020 strategy for the Arctic prioritises peace, security, and self-sustaining growth that respects the fragile environment and is bolstered by international cooperation. The Nuuk Declaration (2011), which, amongst other achievements, set up a task force for preventing and managing oil spills in the Arctic, was adopted during Denmark’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2009-2011).
The October 1867 purchase of Alaska made the United States into an Arctic nation. In terms of geographic spread, Alaska is today the largest state in the United States, though, as was the case under the Russian Empire, it remains sparsely populated, with approximately 737,400 inhabitants (mostly based in Anchorage and Fairbanks). Though Alaska may be the least populated state in the United States, it has become a place of great geopolitical, environmental, diplomatic, and economic importance (e.g. oil production, mining, fishing, and tourism). Most recently updated in May 2013, the Arctic policy of the United States outlines the following three policy objectives: advancing security interests, pursuing responsible stewardship, and strengthening international cooperation. The United States chaired the Arctic Council in 1998-2000 and 2015-2017.