International Relations Governance of the Arctic
Corine Wood-Donnelly, Stephen Coulson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0311


The Arctic, as a political region, includes the eight countries of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), Canada, Russia, and the United States, and geographically as north of 66°, or where the average temperature is lower than 10 degrees Celsius. The study of how international rules, political practices, and institutional mechanisms facilitate the capacity of Arctic states to manage governance of the Arctic region is a relatively new genre of literature. For decades, scholarly attention of the Arctic region focused on issues of militarization and security of the region. This changed with the end of the Cold War and the turn by the eight Arctic states to emphasize cooperation through collaboration and institutional participation in new Arctic fora. As such, governance of the Arctic covers a thirty-year period of literature discussing the developing governance of this emerging region, focusing on the development emerging in the post–Cold War environment. Even within this relatively short time frame, a number of trends have emerged in the discourse of Arctic governance from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including law, political sciences, and geography, including issues around environmental and oceans governance, legal frameworks, Indigenous governance, and perspectives from International Relations. The focus of the conversation frequently centers on the development and role of the Arctic Council, but also includes environmental resource governance and the role of Indigenous people in the development of this governance. Other key approaches include normative evaluations of this regional governance and the interactions between Arctic and non-Arctic states. Discourse on Arctic governance has become a particular focus of interest, especially since the early 1990s. Beyond the structure of the Arctic Council, governance of the region is distributed in a number of regional institutions, such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the West Nordic Council.

General Overview Volumes

The literature on Arctic governance has its beginnings in The Age of the Arctic by Gail Osherenko and Oren R. Young (1989), a pivotal moment in the history of the region, with a focus an environmental regime for the Arctic. This was expanded in Young 1998 with work on Arctic politics and regime-building. Keskitalo 2004 then discussed region-building processes and defining the Arctic. Since this point, the literature has grown, and the narratives have evolved alongside the evolution of the Arctic Council as a governance mechanism and the introduction to new instruments of hard and soft law. A variety of books provide good overviews of Arctic governance in tangent with a focus on a specific issue or concern. A dominant theme throughout all of the literature on governance of the region is the role of the Arctic Council, such as see explicitly in Nord 2016; however, many other themes also emerge, including environmental protection (Rottem 2020), food security (Hossain, et al. 2018), security/international relations (Rowe 2018; Landriault, et al. 2019), and maritime and ocean governance (Weidemann 2014, Johansson and Donner 2015).

  • Durfee, Mary, and Rachael Lorna Johnstone. Arctic Governance in a Changing World. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

    This volume discusses the relationship between the Arctic and the wider world. Although it emphasizes the importance of knowing and understanding international law to being able to understand Arctic governance, much of the content is focused on international relations. The authors suggest that the Arctic has weak institutions and strong cooperation, and that climate change matters in governance efforts.

  • Hossain, Kamrul, Dele Raheem, and Shaun Cormier. Food Security Governance in the Arctic-Barents Region. London: Springer International, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-75756-8

    Considers how food security is impacted by regional challenges and how various governance institutions offer incentives to promote greater food security. Discusses regional, national, and international mechanisms for food security, and also considers different Indigenous groups within the Arctic-Barents region. Claims food security governance is at a critical point, and connects cultural well-being through food with human security.

  • Johansson, Tafsir, and Patrick Donner. The Shipping Industry, Ocean Governance and Environmental Law in the Paradigm Shift: In Search of a Pragmatic Balance for the Arctic. London: Springer International, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-12541-1

    Proposes a “bipartite Arctic” with the effect of creating a hybrid Arctic treaty through the overlapping of international and regional responses to environmental issues. Suggests converting several existing Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) into binding treaties, and to designate areas with conflicting claims as common heritage—but only for the Arctic States and other stakeholders.

  • Keskitalo, E. Carina H. Negotiating the Arctic: The Construction of an International Region. London: Routledge, 2004.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203508114

    This volume addresses how the region-building process has come into existence and defines the “Arctic.” Includes a discussion of how geographical delineation has been made and what characterizes and identifies the “Arctic” in the process of constructing the region. Looks at how the Arctic is delineated for policy purposes, how the region is framed in international fora, and how it accommodates the variety of participating actors.

  • Landriault, Mathieu, Andrew Chater, Elana Wilson Rowe, and P. Whitney Lackenbauer. Governing Complexity in the Arctic Region. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2019.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780429299551

    This book argues that a focus of the Arctic Council as the primary site of circumpolar governance is incomplete. The authors argue, rather, for comparing positions, interventions, and influences of other actors shaping the political and economic outcomes of Arctic politics at various sites. They focus on the interplay of subnational units, civil society, and the private sector while analyzing and exploring how they interact with one another as they seek authority to define Arctic challenges.

  • Nord, Douglas C. The Changing Arctic: Creating a Framework for Consensus Building and Governance within the Arctic Council. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137501868

    This discussion centers around the Swedish chairmanship of the Arctic Council and identifies six central questions in the discourse of Arctic governance. Analyzes the incorporation of the Arctic into the international system through the idea of regime creation, and proposes future prospects for the Arctic Council.

  • Rottem, Svein Vigeland. The Arctic Council: Between Environmental Protection and Geopolitics. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-981-13-9290-0

    This book introduces readers to the Arctic Council and the role it plays as a platform for addressing local, national, regional, and global challenges of relevance to the changing and new Arctic. It proposes the creation of an Arctic Summit and appointment of an expert panel to merge and improve the role of the working groups in the council. It argues that an important role for the Arctic Council is in contributing to knowledge and recommendations of developments in the Arctic.

  • Rowe, Elana Wilson. Arctic Governance: Power in Cross-Border Cooperation. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.7765/9781526131645

    A fresh look at Arctic governance beyond the dichotomies of exceptionalism and the framing of the region as either wilderness or treasure chest. Focusing on the layering of power relations in the dynamic environment of Arctic cooperation, it argues that cross-border cooperation is under constant reenactment and renegotiation.

  • Weidemann, Lilly. International Governance of the Arctic Marine Environment: With Particular Emphasis on High Seas Fisheries. London: Springer International, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-04471-2

    This research suggests that the Arctic Council suffers from severe limitations in its ability to address Arctic issues. Provides an overview of legal regimes applicable to the Arctic marine environment, dividing these into three different categories: area specific, species specific, and sector specific treaties.

  • Young, Oran R. Creating Regimes: Arctic Accords and International Governance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.7591/9781501711411

    This volume applied the theoretical stages of international regime formation to the Arctic, discussing what can now be considered as the early phase of the Arctic international governance emerging at the Cold War’s end. It provides an analysis of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) and the Barents Euro-Arctic Region (BEAR) as center points of regime. Young argues there is a need to devote more attention to the political dynamics behind agenda formation.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.