Conflict or Collaboration? The Role of Non-Arctic States in Arctic Science Diplomacy

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Ny-Ålesund – an international hub for Arctic research (and postal delivery). Photo: Ebru Caymaz

The Arctic Institute Arctic Collaboration Series 2023

The importance of Arctic research within the political domain – both at national and international levels – is a multi-dimensional matter encompassed by contradictory views since the nexus between science and politics is also a complex issue. In addition to the rapid melting and receding of the sea ice, an accelerated expansion of maritime activities, environmental concerns related to oil pollution, marine mammal displacement, the atlantification process, carbon emission, and the COVID-19 pandemic have aroused sustainability and resilience concerns in the Arctic region. Moreover, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has further impeded international scientific collaboration in the Arctic. While the Arctic Council continues its activities with a limited resumption, how collaboration may continue without Russia remains a critical concern. On the other hand, based on the soft power of science, science diplomacy has proven functional to balance global and common interests, encouraging scientific collaboration, and preventing conflicts even in the Cold War period. Besides, the growing presence of non-Arctic states in the Arctic provides both opportunities and challenges in different terms. The number of Arctic studies has considerably increased while the politics of their existence are also being questioned. Therefore, science diplomacy may yet be an effective mediator for restoring constructive relationships within the region. Accordingly, by examining the successful Arctic science diplomacy cases, this study aims to outline the future projections on the role of non-Arctic states in Arctic science diplomacy.

Hot Topic: The End of Arctic Exceptionalism?

The Arctic undergoes extensive transformations due to globalization and climate change. Therefore, it has long been subjected to scientific research revolving around climate change and its associated risks while the resilience of the region has seriously been threatened by the aforementioned environmental, social, and economic transformations. Newly emerging economic activities are considered both an economic opportunity and a potential threat to security which results in accelerated regional militarization.

Previously, based upon the soft power of science, the unusual degree of scientific cooperation and collaboration highlighted the Arctic as a unique place marked by geopolitical stability. However, referring to the absence of the great power competition, “Arctic exceptionalism” has been disrupted due to Russia’s militarization strategy along the Northern Sea Route and NATO’s enlargement attempts in return, the unprecedented claims by China as a keen non-Arctic state, as well as the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia. In addition to several economic sanctions, the Arctic states have paused their participation in the Arctic Council under the chairmanship of Russia, which significantly impedes both the scientific collaboration and sustainable development pertaining to the region. Therefore, the Arctic is no longer isolated from the global geopolitical shifts and a growing number of scholars highlight that transformation process as the end of Arctic exceptionalism.

Competition or Collaboration? Non-Arctic States and Prospects for the Future of Arctic Science Diplomacy

As a recently institutionalized concept, science diplomacy can be defined as “the use of scientific collaborations among nations to address the common problems.” The Royal Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) further added three dimensions to the term: science in diplomacy, diplomacy for science, and science for diplomacy.

The emergence of non-Arctic states with diverse research strategies and the internalization of Arctic research has become a controversial subject since they tend to legitimize their existence in the region by relying upon different dimensions of science diplomacy as well. Apart from being a conduit to open alternative channels for communication and maintain peaceful relations in the High North, international Arctic research has been criticized to have political dimensions and have hidden agendas such as “seeking a strategic foothold in the Arctic” For instance, previously established as an initial forum for coordination, the development of Ny-Ålesund Science Managers Committee (NySMAC) in Svalbard is now asserted as a “de facto” self-management of international Arctic research. Besides, China’s motivations for Arctic research are claimed to serve a “dual purpose” of enhancing and testing its military technology in the Arctic while conducting scientific research.

Science diplomacy is also criticized as being “romanticized,” since science diplomacy activities at the global, regional, national, and local levels may have conflicting agendas and multidirectional paths.

In addition to the Arctic Council, suspension of all projects within the Northern Forum by the EU, Iceland, and Norway due to the Ukraine crisis has also hindered the scientific communication with the Russian research institutions. Therefore, Arctic science diplomacy currently fails to restore constructive relations within the region.

On the other hand, there are several calls by international researchers to resume collaborations with Russian scholars. All these calls have a remarkable point emphasizing the fact that enemy states managed to continue scientific communication even in the Cold War period and in all other conflicts within the 21st century. Accordingly, they propose to continue scientific collaboration to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. Herein, international scientific communities may become the key to restore at least scientific communication in the Arctic.

Türkiye: (Un)Expected Ally or Strategic Partner?

While China’s increasing presence and multi-layered intentions in the Arctic have been heavily discussed from different perspectives, there is a general tendency to overlook the emergence of other non-Arctic states such as France and Türkiye. Being among the first countries to build a scientific station in the Arctic, France declared itself as a “polar nation.”

Unlike the general point of view, Türkiye is not a newly emerging non-Arctic state. Mr. Celal Nuri, a congressman from the first Turkish Parliament visited the region twice (in 1912-1913) and published two books about his experiences in the Arctic. After his visits, Türkiye became an active member of international organizations such as the American Geographical Society, decided to participate in the second International Polar Year (1932-1933), and closely monitored and participated in the following ones.

One of the international workshops of the 4th International Polar Year in 2007 (October) was conducted in Antalya, Türkiye. The following year, the Crown Prince of Norway visited Türkiye to attend a climate change conference in November. In 2015, Türkiye applied to the Arctic Council for observer status. Implementation of the Turkish National Polar Science Program (2018-2022) in 2018 has further enhanced polar research. However, it is noteworthy to mention the establishment of the Polar Research Institute in 2019 under the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Türkiye accelerated the institutionalization of Turkish polar research. Upon its establishment, Türkiye conducted two Arctic scientific expeditions (in 2019 and 2022) and became a member of the European Polar Board in 2020 and EU-PolarNet. Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreements in polar research have been carried out with South Korea, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Belarus, Chile, and Spain. Moreover, Türkiye decided to sign the Svalbard Treaty and initiated the process in 2022.

Türkiye’s motivation for the Arctic region has transformed in recent years as well. Turkish shipyards have grown interest in the region since 2015. Owing to their ability to bid lower offers, Kuzey Star Shipyard is going to build a floating dock to be used by nuclear icebreakers in the Russian Arctic while Sefine Shipyard stands out as the only bidder for Russian icebreaker tender. The previous CEO of Atomflot even highlighted the presence of Turkish shipyards in the Arctic by stating that “The Turkish shipyard has all the necessary competencies and earned a respectable reputation in the shipbuilding market” which relieves the pressures on the sustainable development projects within the Russian Arctic due to major sanctions. On the other hand, by applying a balanced policy, Türkiye also supported Ukraine by supplying the Ukrainian army with its signature Bayraktar TB2 drone which helped them to destroy several military targets. Therefore, Türkiye can be considered a strategic partner rather than an ally of Russia.


There has been a remarkably rising trend of non-Arctic states’ investments in polar science, logistics, research, as well as Arctic shipping supported by written policies in recent years. While the Arctic Council has provided a common ground for international scientific collaboration, the suspension of the activities and its subsidiary bodies negatively affects Indigenous populations, especially within the Russian Arctic. In addition to Arctic research, how the prevention of emergency situations would proceed without Russia remains uncertain since the war in Ukraine is likely to continue for a long time.

Establishing constructive relations in the Arctic can be described as a twofold process at the nexus of diplomacy and science. First of all, there is a certain and urgent need for diplomatic mediators that would assist to transform the current crisis into a frozen conflict in order to continue scientific collaboration within the region. Frozen conflict can be broadly defined as a situation in which active armed conflict comes to an end without an overall political solution since solutions at a political level take more time. Herein, Türkiye can undertake the role of mediator for constructive relations since the country maintains good relations with both states.

Moreover, international scientific communities would also assist that process by reiterating their calls to restore scientific collaboration with Russian scholars. There are several essential projects, such as natural and anthropogenic radioactivity research prepared by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme in accordance with Russian scholars, waiting to be completed. Contrary to Western counterparts, Asian states such as India continue to collaborate with Russian scholars and keep scientific communication channels open accordingly. The other non-Arctic states would also reinforce that process through science. And then, bilateral dialogues for generating solutions can be initiated once the aim of frozen conflict has been reached.

Ebru Caymaz is an Assistant Professor from Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Turkey. Her first PhD is in the field of Business Administration and she has mainly concentrated on sustainable development. In order to conduct further studies uniting the security issues with the sustainable development in the Arctic, she has completed her 2nd PhD lectures in the field of International Relations. 

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