Will humanity pass the test?

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Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson says that the Arctic region offers diverse and exciting opportunities, and hopes that Iceland will be lucky enough to capitalise on them. 

By Orri Páll Ómarsson  Photos by Ragnar Axelsson

“When I became President of Iceland in 1996, I began to think about which issues and which changes in the world would be of greatest significance for Iceland in the next century. I wanted to use the possibilities offered by the role of President to help prepare Iceland for these changes and help the country carve out a position for itself in the new world view. I came to three conclusions: 1) climate change was going to be a pressing issue in the new century; 2) in the context of the fight against climate change, the world would need clean energy; and 3) the future of the Arctic region would be of importance. This last aspect was quite unexpected, as the Arctic region was something of a peripheral issue at the time and had not been discussed to any great degree.“ 

This is the reply of the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, to the question of why he has focused so much on Arctic issues during his time as President.

According to President Grímsson, his first step in this direction was taken in 1998, when he was asked to give a talk on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, which was set up specifically to serve the northern regions of Finland. Grímsson explained to listeners how academics, scientists, political leaders and others would become increasingly interested in the Arctic region and that the academic community must analyse these developments. 

This talk led to cooperation between the President of Iceland and the University in Rovaniemi, and later with the University of Akureyri. This, in turn, led to the setting up of the Northern Research Forum, which met for the first time in 2000 in Akureyri and Bessastaðir, the President’s official residence in Iceland. 

Rewarding cooperation

“I subsequently attended various Arctic-themed conferences and fostered rewarding and edifying cooperation with Alaska and many other parts,“ President Grímsson continues. “I became gradually convinced that the major changes in the Arctic region’s place in the world 8would have a greater impact on Iceland in the 21st century than almost anything else. In the course of my time as President, I have dedicated ever more of my energy, time and contacts with the rest of the world to trying to understand and explain these changes and foster cooperation with numerous partners. I began with fellow Arctic countries, but then realised that other influential parties – both in Europe and Asia – were also increasingly interested in the Arctic region. The first indication of this was when I invited Michel Rocard, former Prime Minister of France, to Iceland. He had just been appointed special envoy for Arctic issues by the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy.“

When President Grímsson travelled to Germany on an official visit in 2013, Arctic issues were the main topic of discussion at his meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Similarly, some five years ago, the then President of China, Hu Jintao, asked President Grímsson for permission to send a Chinese polar-research ship to Iceland. The plan was to send the ship specifically to the Arctic to research melting ice and its possible effect on climate change. The ship – with some sixty Chinese scientists on board – was the first ship ever to sail from Shanghai to an Arctic country. The team subsequently presented their findings at a symposium at the University of Iceland, which resulted in closer scientific cooperation between Iceland and China.

Faster change

Changes in the Arctic region have happened more quickly than expected. “Looking back at the debate at the end of the last century and perhaps up to 2005, people’s ideas about how quickly ice would melt, how quickly large companies in Europe and Asia would turn their sights to the Arctic, and when sailing routes might open were almost always focused on midway through the 21st century,“ President Grímsson explains. “The issues which have become topical in the past five years were not expected to happen until the middle of the century. At this stage, almost half of the G-20 major economies have joined the eight Arctic states at the table discussing Arctic issues.“

For the President, this clearly signifies a fundamental change in Iceland’s status. “For the best part of 1,000 years, Iceland was on the edge of the world and of little importance – except perhaps militarily during the Cold War. These changes in the Arctic region mean that all of the world’s major countries are now genuinely interested in various sorts of cooperation with Iceland – scientific, economic, political and cultural – on Arctic issues.“

A huge region

President Grímsson points out that it is often forgotten that the Arctic region is huge – comparable to a continent. “Comparing sizes, we 8could say this is almost tantamount to Africa suddenly opening up to the world. The remarkable thing about the Arctic region is that, up to 8around 1900, the region was mostly unknown to the Western world. This is why explorers such as Vilhjálmur Stefánsson became world famous in the early 20th century, as they were the first Westerners to visit the region. Then came the Cold War and military development by the super8powers once again closed off the region. It was only once the Cold War had ended that this huge expanse 8could, for the first time ever, see extensive international cooperation.“ 

Asked why this is so important for Iceland, President Grímsson replies that Iceland is to a certain extent in the middle of the region. Three small peoples – Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland – form a kind of core between the western and eastern Arctic regions. “By their very nature, these countries have a different status – they neither see themselves as big countries nor have ulterior motives. This is why it has gradually become the case that all those – the world over – who wish to discuss and formulate policy in Arctic issues are very happy to meet in Iceland, in the same way that people were happy to meet in Switzerland during the Cold War to discuss disarmament. Switzer8land was a small country and a convenient location. The same goes for Iceland – it is easy to come to Iceland and have honest and in-depth talks.“

Massive opportunities

To Grímsson’s mind, this is one of the main reasons why the Arctic Circle conference, set up in Reykjavik two years ago, has very quickly become the world’s best-attended forum for discussing Arctic issues. “Some fifty countries have a delegate in this year’s conference. All of the world’s major countries have decided to send a delegate to present their case, plans and opinions. For instance, this year the conference is welcoming French President François Hollande to present French policy. This shows that we are experiencing a turning-point, which could be a source of great opportunity for Iceland, if we have the sense and drive to take advantage of it.“

Is the debate on Arctic issues on the whole sufficiently informed and active? The debate has changed considerably in recent years, replies President Grímsson. For instance, it was good to see the Icelandic Parliament set out a unanimous Arctic policy – and so far there have been no disagreements between the political parties on the subject. “However, I feel that politicians, and perhaps to some extent the media, do not really appreciate how fast these changes have occurred and how big they actually are. There is a strong current underpinning the fact that 8thousands of national delegates and representatives of scientific agencies, environmental agencies and business come to Iceland year after year to discuss these issues. It is useful to ponder the reasons for this. I feel that, over the past year or so, political figures have begun to realise to a greater extent how important these changes are. Increasing focus has been placed on Arctic issues, under both the former and current Icelandic governments.“

The university community embraces the issues

President Grímsson is also pleased to see how the university community in Iceland has in recent years heart8ily embraced this set of issues. The University of Akureyri began work on the topic fifteen years ago, and was followed by the University of Iceland and Reykjavik University. Many academics and students at these universities are focusing strongly on this field, in various academic disciplines.

“Many Icelandic businesses have also realised that the Arctic region has gained importance, e.g. as regards the global transport network,“ explains Mr. Grímsson. “For instance, the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip has both altered its shipping routes and based its plan of action for the future on the Arctic region. One of the reasons for the success of Icelandair and the status of Keflavík Airport as a growing hub is the international flight route over the Arctic. Flights between various parts of the world have become shorter, as aircraft fly north instead of near the equator. The fisheries industry, banks and other businesses have also seen the greater opportunities that lie in the Arctic region, e.g. clean seas, the value of fish catch8es, and expertise in investment. Iceland’s ‘big three’ engineering companies – Mannvit, Verkís and Efla – are all on board.“

President Grímsson is confident that Iceland is succeeding in reaching a national consensus on taking advantage, in a way which is both realistic and creative, of the opportunities afforded by the location of the country and Icelandic successes in energy, fisheries and transport – in conjunction with the influential countries, organisations, companies and agencies that attend Arctic Circle each year to discuss Arctic issues.

Opportunities not being missed

President Grímsson is not worried that Iceland may be missing out on certain opportunities in the Arctic region. “Arctic Circle has given us a certain head start,“ he explains. “We have not only secured dialogue with all major countries interested in the issue, but also entered into cooperation with the world’s major scientific institutions. Furthermore, several of the world’s major conversation agencies have taken an active role in these talks in Iceland. Iceland has good access and there are great possibilities looking forward.“

The leading role played by President Grímsson in the debate on Arctic issues is indisputable. He was, for instance, the driving force behind the creation of Arctic Circle and it is safe to say that many associate the debate with the person and position of the President of Iceland. But can Grímsson’s successor as President of Iceland be expected to take up the baton? “I cannot answer for the next President,“ says Grímsson. “It remains to be seen, as each new president has the right to set their priorities as they see fit. It is well known that my predecessor had rather different priorities to mine. What brought me to Arctic issues was the changes affecting the world and the question of which aspects would be of most importance for Iceland in that context, as I described earlier. It is quite 8clear, to my mind, and whatever the wishes of the next incumbent or others in the country may be, that now the Arctic region has become so important, all those who in the future are responsible for the Icelandic people must look into Arctic issues ever more closely. These matters will live on, while individuals come and go. Of course, a certain level of knowledge and competence is required to continue this work – all of this was not simply pulled out of a hat.“

RAGNHEIDUR ARNGRIMSDOTTIR

Interest not confined to the office of president

President Grímsson confirms that his interest in Arctic issues will not end with his term of office and that he will certainly continue to be active in the field, e.g. by taking part in Arctic Circle. “My participation is nothing to do with whether I am President or not, though my position as such has undoubtedly helped. Arctic Circle is not officially part of the office of President, despite the fact that the present incumbent has been involved in building the forum up.“

Major countries such as China, France, Germany and Russia have expressed their interest in the Arctic region. Conversely, the US government has been criticised for showing little interest in the debate. This now appears to be changing. “It is good to hear that the American administration has this year reviewed its priorities and that the Arctic region will occupy a more important place than before. For just over a decade, I have had countless meetings in Alaska, Washington and elsewhere in the United States to talk about Arctic issues. Scientists, parliamentary representatives, officials and 8other leaders alike have always complained about those at the top in the White House or the parliamentary majority prioritising other matters. Some even feared that America was placing itself on the sidelines in this regard. The policy change announced earlier this year by Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama is therefore historic news. The policy change was cemented at the conference organised by Kerry in August, and by Obama’s historic visit to the state and speech at the conference. Obama was the first US president to visit Alaska in decades. He has also made changes to the American administration to promote the importance of the Arctic region.“

No longer a contextual vacuum

Grímsson indicates that there are many factors behind this policy change. One is fear of the impact of climate change – a long-standing controversial issue in American politics. Obama is more concerned about this issue than his predecessors. Secondly, melting ice in Alaska, particularly pack ice, opens up thousands of miles of American border in the summer time – this at a time when airport and border controls have been stepped up. Thirdly, American leaders have noticed that their main allies in Asia and Europe – countries such as France, Germany, Singapore and South Korea – have suddenly become very active in the Arctic. All of this has put pressure on the US government to formulate a clear policy in the field. “Nobody wants to discuss Arctic issues in a contextual vacuum any longer. The debate is now focusing on people’s visions and what they are prepared to bring to the table.“

People’s interest in the Arctic is not only economic and scientific, but also cultural. President Grímsson 8gives the specific example of photo8graphy and the photography books of Ragnar Axelsson (known as RAX), which have attracted attention throughout the world. “Photo8graphs in the media and moving images on television have helped put the Arctic region on the agenda,“ he explains. “By means of this media, the world has begun to watch this awe-inspiring nature, see the ice melting, and follow the struggle of locals against these effects. Iceland has a wonderful and unique ambassador in RAX – the opening of his exhibition in Paris was a memorable event.“

The Arctic is not a place to pitch tent for one night. President Grímsson is encouraged at how interested the younger generation, both in Europe and Asia, is in the region. The reason for this, in his opinion, is that the Arctic region throws climate change into relief and reflects our 8joint responsibility for the Earth. “This is a new phenomenon in history and the younger generation is more sensitive to the upheaval. When I was young, the Arctic was above all a stage for feats of heroism. Explorers departed and nobody knew whether they were dead or alive until they returned much later. Nowadays, the world can watch glaciers melting and whole villages disappearing into the sea in real time.“

Not using force to progress

The Arctic region has in a short time opened up as a forum for extensive international cooperation. The President of Iceland feels that the international community has so far been successful in developing this cooperation by democratic means and believes there are positive signs on the horizon. For instance, the Americans and Russians have striven to continue to work together in the region, despite disputes in various other matters. “It is pleasing to see the willingness of large countries so far to listen to the points of view and priorities of others,“ Grímsson states. “They do not appear to be planning to use force in Arctic 8issues, but to take part in a democratic debate on the region’s future. As a historian, I think this is remark8able – we are seeing a new type of international cooperation, which 8could subsequently have an effect on other fields.“

Several things, however, need to be looked at. “Despite the success we have seen so far, we are still in the middle of efforts to secure the future of the Arctic region. It is not a given that the world will be any better at developing cooperation in the Arctic than Europe was for centuries at developing cooperation with8in the continent, or the colonial powers were at developing Africa. This is why I have sometimes said that humanity is being tested. Now that this large section of the world has suddenly opened up and become a forum for cooperation, the question is this: Will we succeed in building a forum for cooperation which is realistic, responsible and positive? The next few decades will tell.“

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