Olafur Ragnar Grimsson: A New Model of Arctic Cooperation for the 21st Century


Writer: Vilborg Einarsdóttir
November 2018

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“While creating the Arctic Circle in early 2013, I remember telling my friends that in the previous year I had attended eight Arctic conferences as the President of Iceland. In the United States,  Russia, Finland, Brussels, Norway and all over. And I thought to myself - it can’t go on like this. No one has the time to criss-cross the world, even if only for practical reasons. So I told my friends that we needed to create for the Arctic what I call a Medieval square. A platform in the essence of the old Medieval square where anyone could come knowing that they would meet anybody and everybody there,” says Iceland’s former president, Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.

We meet in Harpa, the Music & Conference Hall on Reykjavík’s waterfront that recently hosted the sixth successful Arctic Circle Assembly, which has become the largest annual international gathering on the Arctic. The Assembly is attended by stakeholders representing a wide range of Arctic interests; international, national and regional policymakers, scientists, indigenous representatives, business people, academics and many more. Attendance has steadily grown and this year the Assembly exceeded all previous numbers in participation, sessions, topics and speakers. When Mr. Grímsson speaks of the Arctic Circle he does so with pride and it is evident that his vision and ambition were big from the beginning. But did he expect it to become this big, this soon? 

“Did I expect the Arctic Circle to become important? Yes. I had the sense from early on that this would have a great potential, because, I had analyzed it for such a long time based on my own experience. Did I expect it to grow so fast? No. When I announced it, early 2013, at the International Press Club in Washington we chose a recognized international venue because we were announcing an international event for international discussions. But I would not have expected at the time that in only three years the Arctic Circle Assembly would have two thousand participants from over 40 countries and to see that repeated thereafter.”

This year over 2000 people from 60 countries attended the three day long Arctic Circle Assembly. Close to 170 sessions were held and speakers numbered some 700. The two days prior were packed with pre-events, meetings and forums in Reykjavik and this year there was even a post-event for the first time.


Coherent triangle of the Arctic, climate change and clean energy

Years have passed since Mr. Grímsson first spoke about a new model for Arctic cooperation. That was in a keynote speech he gave at an Arctic Celebration of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland 1999, emphasizing the need to bring politicians, scientists and regional leaders together. Following that he took part in creating the Northern Research Forum, which held conferences in different parts of the Arctic for a number of years and to which he largely credits his interest and knowledge of Arctic matters.

“The Northern Research Forum gave me, together with other Arctic conferences I attended, both an experience and knowledge of people and issues that were very valuable when it came to the creation of the Arctic Circle,” says Mr. Grímsson.

“In the first years of my presidency which was at the end of the last century, I went through a process where I tried to analyze the challenges that would be important for Iceland as a nation in years to come. In my mind one of the roles of the President - although not mentioned in the constitution - was to try to outline for the people of Iceland strands in the future evolution that the nation could think about and prepare to engage in. And three of those strands that I concluded as the most important towards the end of the 20th century, have now become recognized internationally as major parts of the 21st century evolution.” 

“One was the growing importance of the Arctic which has changed Iceland's position as well as the world's. The second was the growing challenge of climate change which would result in not only the melting of our own glaciers in Iceland but in neighbouring countries like Greenland and the melting Arctic sea ice which would create major problems for every nation in the world. Then, the third was the growing importance of clean energy, especially geothermal where Iceland had a success model which could be relevant to the world. Interestingly all these three strands are related. They form a coherent triangle, the Arctic, climate change and the clean energy. Because without the global clean energy transformation the future of the Arctic will be very dangerous and the ice will continue to melt,” says Mr. Grímsson.

The Arctic Circle Assembly October 2018. JONAA©Óli Haukur Myrdal

The Arctic Circle Assembly October 2018. JONAA©Óli Haukur Myrdal

A platform significant enough in scale and strong enough in substance for any major leader to justify showing up

“So, I certainly had the vision that the Arctic was fast becoming the new playing field for major countries. Not just the Arctic states but countries in Asia and Europe. At that time our knowledge of climate issues was becoming clearer, as was the relevance of climate change for the Arctic. And I took the initiative to have Arctic partners come together at the Arctic Circle. It was my conviction that the new profound significance of the Arctic in global terms required a new platform on the scale of the World Economic Forum in Davos. A platform for leaders of countries, scientific institutions, business companies, environmental organizations, indigenous communities and others to come together. A platform that was significant enough in scale and strong enough in substance for any major leader in any of these areas to justify showing up.” 

“I thought about the structure of the Arctic Circle for over a year and spoke about it with several people, because I wanted this not to be yet another Arctic forum. I wanted the Arctic Circle to become a new model of cooperation for the 21st century. A model where formal representatives of states no longer had the monopoly of the dialogue and where anyone could participate, whether he or she was a young activist, a student, a president or a prime minister.”

“Another part of the structure, equally important, was that I wanted the Arctic Circle to be a platform where different organizations and partners came together and held sessions in their own name. With full authority over both the sessions and the agenda of the speakers,” says Mr. Grímsson. 

He credits this part of the structure, largely for the wide diversity in topics discussed at every Arctic Circle Assembly. 

“You see,” he explains, “almost every other international platform, be it the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Initiative or some other, they are centralized. Everything on the program has to be in the name of the organization. In my mind the time of that model was over. It was the old fashion 20th century way of doing things. The new structure should be more open and more democratic, allowing people to come and present their case without losing any sovereignty or control over their agenda or their presentations.”

Is that why the Arctic Circle Assembly never has a theme?

“Absolutely, and that was also deliberate,” says Mr. Grímsson. “Every year we are asked by foreign diplomats, by various organization and others: What is this year’s theme? When we say there is no theme, people are surprised. Of course there is a certain thinking that goes into electing speakers for the plenary sessions and choosing certain individuals rather than others. To that extent you can say there is a tendency in the way the Arctic Circle brings forward a certain view. There is a systematic thinking that goes into the program, but it is an open process. So  when we get requests, whether important individuals or others can participate we take each one very seriously.

But we never announce a formal theme. We create the platform, participants create the dialogue. That is the basic formula for the Arctic Circle.”


Over 2000 speakers have stood on Arctic Circle stages, at the annual Assemblies in Reykjavik and at the Forums in Greenland, Scotland, Alaska, Quebec, The Faroe Islands, Singapore and Washington. Below are some memorable speeches and discussions the author has listened to at past events.

“There is no planet b.” Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon gave a much-quoted speech at the Arctic Circle Assembly 2016, reminding the audience that “when the Arctic suffers the world feels the pain.”

Aili Keskitalo, President of the Sámi Parliament of Norway, addressed the paradox of Green Colonialism for indigenous peoples of the Arctic at the 2018 Assembly. “We are told that we have to give up our lands and territories to save the world.”

President of France, Francois Hollande addressed the Arctic Circle Assembly prior to the Paris Meeting in 2015. He spoke about the impact of Climate change as he witnessed first hand traveling to different countries and during his visit in Iceland.

“It should upset us all how little we know about such a large part of our planet.” Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt in a discussion moderated by publisher Alice Rogoff, on the challenges of mapping the Arctic Ocean floor. Arctic Circle Assembly 2013.

“We do not have time on our side.” Sir David King, former Special UK Representative for Climate Change, explaining the three most critically important parts of the Paris agreement. Arctic Circle Assembly 2018.

Canadian politician, Cathy Towtongie’s eye-opening speech on Arctic economics at the Greenland Forum in 2016. Describing how the prevailing authority that exists in the Inuit mind clashes with the institutionalism of authorities and what Royalty Resource Sharing means for Inuit Canada.


Manifestation of a global transformation of the Arctic

“Additionally I realized that we needed to create a scope for countries geographically outside the Arctic. Countries in Asia, Europe and other parts of the world that are influenced by changes in the Arctic; by the melting of the arctic sea ice; by the melting of the Greenland glaciers, by what is happening in Antarctica and by what is happening in the region we define as the Third Pole. That is the Himalayas, the ice covered part of Asia where China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and others come together.”

“Furthermore, it could not just be about the science. This platform had to work equally for those interested in the Arctic for diplomatic, political and economic reasons. And finally, we had to create a place where major countries like France, Germany, China, Korea, Japan and others with an observer status or even no status in the Arctic Council could meet on equal bases with the Arctic Council member countries.”

Member countries of the Arctic Council are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Mr. Grímsson greeting Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Taro Kono on arrival to the 2018 Arctic Circle Assembly. JONAA©Óli Haukur Myrdal

Mr. Grímsson greeting Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Taro Kono on arrival to the 2018 Arctic Circle Assembly. JONAA©Óli Haukur Myrdal

The countries from outside the Arctic region that Mr. Grimsson refers to have used the Arctic Circle Assembly extensively. Their presence and engagement has often been in the form of large Country Sessions fronted by highest level politicians and leaders from scientific institutions, research, academia, business and administration. Arctic strategies have been outlined, research innovation introduced and the social and environmental effects of climate change on their regions explained.

Through the years Special Country Sessions have been held by France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Korea, China, Japan, Singapore, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Finland and India.

China, Korea and Japan have gone a step further and added a cultural flair to their presence by inviting all participants to celebrations with food, music and performances from their countries.

“I view the Country Sessions and the growing involvement of countries outside of the Arctic region as a testimony to the truth of my analyses more than five years ago; that the Arctic was indeed becoming a global territory, important for major states as well as Arctic states and for the future of the planet,” says Mr. Grímsson.

“This interest only continues to grow and we welcome it. Let me give you a concrete example from the Arctic Circle Forum in the Faroe Islands earlier this year. There, the newly appointed Arctic Ambassador of the European Union asked for a meeting and she put on the table the request that the European Union create cooperation with the Arctic Circle by having a role and spokespeople at the Assemblies. Our response was of course positive and we formally accepted. So now we had the EU Commissioner of Fisheries speak at the opening session and a number of sessions organized by the European Union, under its full authority and sovereign control.”

He continues, “Of course some might classify it as a policy to be open to including the European Union in this dialogue even though it has not so far been accepted as an observer at the Arctic Council. But we realise that the European Union, like China, Singapore, Korea and others is an important player, partner and stakeholder in the Arctic.”

Prince Albert ll of Monaco speaking at an Arctic Circle Forum in Quebec, Canada in 2016. JONAA©Vilborg Einarsdottir

Prince Albert ll of Monaco speaking at an Arctic Circle Forum in Quebec, Canada in 2016. JONAA©Vilborg Einarsdottir

The debate on the Arctic cannot take place only in the Arctic

“Three years ago we added this interesting dimension, holding Arctic Circle Forums in other countries and thereby emphasizing the international structure of the Arctic. Sending out the message that the debate on the Arctic cannot only take place inside the Arctic. The Forums have been a success. Of course they are smaller in scale, 300 to 600 participants and more specialised in their agenda - but when you add them all up, the Forums in Washington, Quebec, Singapore, Scotland, Anchorage, the Faroe Islands and in Greenland we have another manifestation of the global transformation of the Arctic. Which I think quite frankly very few people, if any, five to ten years ago would have been able to predict,” says Mr. Grímsson.

The next Arctic Circle Forums are in December 2018 in Seoul, Korea and in May 2019 in Shanghai, China. More are being planned and Mr. Grímsson says that there is a long list of countries and territories that have requested to hold Arctic Circle Forums. He adds that the same rules of engagement, that 21st century model, applies to the Forums no less than to the Assemblies.

“We have said to the host governments of the countries that have held the Forums that these same ground rules apply. And this has been understood by the different structures. So you saw the same set up in the Faroe Islands as you saw in Singapore, Anchorage or Washington. And you will also see it in China next year. The broader impact of the Arctic Circle in this respect is very relevant.”

“I would also like to mention two things that we are especially proud of. The significant role we have given to the indigenous communities from the very first Assembly. It has been a deliberate policy on our part to give anyone who comes from an indigenous community, whether they hold a formal title or not, the same opportunities as anybody else, and even more so.”  

“Secondly it is how the Arctic Circle has successfully emphasized the role of young people in the dialogue and how many of them come here for the Assembly. A fact that other participants who have been to many international conferences often mention as a striking factor. They have simply never been to an international conference on this scale with such a dominant participation of young people. This year we saw for instance that Harvard University used the Assembly as something of a training ground for some of their students,” says Mr. Grímsson and adds, “ I thought that was fantastic to see.”

Anyone in the audience can stand up and pose a question to the panel or speaker. JONAA©Óli Haukur Myrdal

Anyone in the audience can stand up and pose a question to the panel or speaker. JONAA©Óli Haukur Myrdal

“This is in harmony with the major guiding principles that I built into the Arctic Circle structure in the beginning,” says Mr. Grímsson.

“The first one was that everybody who attends is at the same level, regardless of background, agenda or title.

Secondly anyone can ask questions in the plenary sessions. This was demonstrated very well when Ban Ki-Moon made his speech in 2016 and it was exclusively young people from different parts of the world who stood up and asked questions.

The third way this is demonstrated is the importance we have given to the “sub-states” in the Arctic. There is no single name for it. They are called States in America, Provinces in Canada, Regions in Russia. We give them the same importance and the same scope to present their case and send their representatives as if they were major countries to like China, Korea, Britain and Russia. 

What I also find remarkable to see in action at the Arctic Circle Assembly is the fact that representatives of some of these most powerful countries in the world accept to come here and be at the same level as regional representatives and representatives of environmental organizations, indigenous organizations or student organisations.” 

“This is new. It has not happened before that in an international Assembly of this scale those who represent formally the powerful countries of the world will play according to such rules. Where they don't have privileges in terms of agenda or speaking. Where the activist sitting next to them has the same opportunity. This is also an important contribution of the Arctic Circle, demonstrating that in the 21st century there is a new model of international cooperation.” 

The China Night of the 2018 Assembly. JONAA©Oli Haukur Myrdal

The China Night of the 2018 Assembly. JONAA©Oli Haukur Myrdal

“It is interesting to speak about this now,” Mr. Grímsson adds. “As Emmanuel Macron, the President of France will soon host a meeting in Paris exactly on this challenge. How to create a new 21st century model of effective international cooperation. Because the formal institutions are no longer working. We saw that in the G7 meeting in Canada. It just ended in chaos. We also see parallels at the United Nations in many areas.

So, in addition to being relevant for the Arctic, the Arctic Circle has also become relevant for international cooperation in general by demonstrating here every October, that this new model actually works. And works splendidly.”

A gathering that changes the geopolitical view of regions and territories

Mr. Grimsson strongly believes that the even importance given to regional as well as national stakeholders in the Arctic has transformed visions within these regional territories.

“Few people may realise it, but over 90% of the Arctic landmass is under federal structure. Not officially, as Denmark does not classify itself as federal state, but I would classify the Kingdom of Denmark with the constitution and position of Greenland and the Faroe Islands within the Kingdom being in fact a federal state more than anything else. If one looks at the composition of Denmark and compares it to Canada and the US it is actually quite similar,” he explains.

“So, at every Assembly you will find important sessions organized by these Arctic and sub-arctic territories under federal structure and we are seeing clearly the effect that work has within these territories. For example the State of Maine in the US which 5 years ago did not have any Arctic policy or Arctic strategy has now realized that they are a major player in the new transport and communication matters of the Arctic region. Therefore the Governor has attended the Assembly and in the last three, four years we have seen large delegations here from Maine,” says Mr. Grímsson.

He mentions Scotland as another such strong example.

“The First Minister has participated in and addressed the Arctic Circle Assembly twice. Before she came here first in 2016 the Scottish government had not paid much attention to what was happening north of Scotland. Now they are formulating an Arctic Strategy for Scotland, which will be executed irrespective of whether Scotland becomes independent or stays a part of the United Kingdom. Scotland also hosted an Arctic Circle Forum in 2017 where they showed how strong their interest and work towards the north has become.

So we are seeing the Arctic Circle through its structure also changing the landscape of geopolitical involvement of these territories or states within the different countries. The interesting thing is that everybody accepts it.” 

The dominant presence of young people from all over the world has been apparent at every Arctic Circle Assembly. JONAA©Oli Haukur Myrdal

The dominant presence of young people from all over the world has been apparent at every Arctic Circle Assembly. JONAA©Oli Haukur Myrdal

Playing ground for political competition and constructive international cooperation

“The global importance of the Arctic will continue to grow and the evidence now is much stronger than it was 4 or 5 years ago. If you ask leaders in China, Korea, Japan, Singapore why they are interested in the Arctic their answers will always relate to climate change. How the melting of the Arctic ice forces extreme weathers patterns in Asia or how the melting of the Greenland ice-sheet is threatening every major coastal city in Asia.”

“These considerations are strongly reflected in the Paris agreement which has finally made the global effort and made climate change a joint endeavour for every country. The fact that the American President has taken a different view does not change how strong the forging of the Paris agreement is.”

Discussing the Paris agreement, Mr. Grímsson mentions two speeches that in his mind sealed the importance of the Arctic Circle as the platform for open discussions on the future of our planet; President Hollande’s speech a few weeks prior to the 2015 Paris meeting and Ban Ki Moon’s speech a year later, delivering a message on the success and implications of the Paris agreement. Which brings us to the issue of Arctic politics.

“The political importance of the Arctic is growing for a number of reasons. First of all we have eight Arctic states governing the territory according to international law. Two of these are major powers, the United States and Russia. We also have all the dominant economic powers in Asia taking an active interest in the Arctic as do the leading continental European countries like France and Germany,” says Mr. Grímsson.

“So, to some extent it could be argued that whereas the Arctic a 100 years ago was an isolated part of the planet, politically and otherwise, it has now become a playing ground for political competition. But fortunately ever since the Cold War matters of the Arctic have became open for constructive international cooperation. And that we have been able by and large to maintain as a guiding light.”

“The best example is the recent agreement on fisheries in the Arctic Ocean once it becomes ice free. It is truly a remarkable international agreement that was signed in Greenland and involves not only Russia and the United States, but China, Japan, the European Union and a number of others. The list of countries on that agreement is an eye-opening demonstration of the fact that constructive negotiation on global issues is still possible. That agreement is a model of good international governance and signifies the same as we see here every year: In times of conflict, tension and even wars in other parts of the world, the Arctic has become the most interesting and peaceful area of global cooperation in recent times.”


“Climate change matters to God,” said His All-Holiness Ecumencial Patriarch Bartholomew I, when giving a strong keynote speech at the Arctic Circle Assembly in 2017.

“If we are going to open the Arctic to commerce and shipping we must also be prepared to deal with environmental issues in a responsible way,” said Guggenheim’s Global Chief Investment Officer Scott Minerd at the 2018 Assembly, reminding governments and stakeholders of Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: Tomorrow is now.

“Even though activities in the Arctic have increased I do not yet see benefits for the communities I represent.” Okalik Eegeesiak, speaking at the Assembly in 2016 as the Chairman of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

US Senator of Alaska, Lisa Murkowsky discussing the vast difference between the Two Arctics in the Assembly’s 2014 opening session, following an introduction on the Alaskan view of the Arctic by publisher Alice Rogoff.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and Olafur Ragnar Grímsson during an open dialogue with the audience following her first keynote speech at the 2016 Arctic Circle Assembly. The First Minister addressed the Assembly again in 2017.

Aleqa Hammond, then Premier of Greenland discussed challenges of Climate change for her country at the opening session of the first Arctic Circle Assembly in 2013 - and had everyone’s attention when she turned to the issue of Greenland’s independence.

Focusing on the role of leadership and perseverance, US Senator of Maine, Angus King gave an inspirational speech at the Arctic Circle Assembly in 2015, during a session on U.S. Leadership in the Arctic.


An important platform for networking and meetings

As always, the dates of Arctic Circle Assemblies are announced three years ahead. In 2019 the Assembly will be held October 11th-13th, in 2020 the dates are October 9th-11th and in 2021 the Arctic Circle Assembly dates are October 15t h-17th. Despite growing attendance and numbers of sessions and speakers, Mr. Grímsson says that there are no plans to add days to the Assembly.

“We have a good, proven three day set-up that just works as it is. And we have this house which fits perfectly for the Assembly’s agenda and for the networking process which is an important part of the Arctic Circle.

Where I expect to see expansion in the near future is participants, individuals, organizations, companies and of course policy makers and politicians, using the Arctic Circle Assembly as a meeting place for discussions and negotiations in private, connected or not connected to the Arctic. This has been a growing trend in past years and we have met the need partly by building temporary meeting rooms in a large open space on the ground floor of Harpa. They are free for all participants to use, people simply log into the Arctic Circle app and book a meeting room. The ten temporary meeting rooms built for the Assembly now were in demand throughout the three Assembly days,” says Mr. Grímsson.

“But,” he adds, “some who attend here, like the big country delegations simply need more space. And we look to the new 5-star hotel being built next to Harpa as the place for large and small delegations to set up private working and meeting spaces during future Arctic Circle Assemblies. That way they can participate in the Assembly, using the time and the trip for other meetings as well. But there is no need to change the structure or the set-up of the Arctic Circle Assembly. It works exactly like I had hoped,” says Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, founder of the Arctic Circle and former President of Iceland. ▢


The Arctic Circle Assemblies, as well as some of the Forums, have been filmed session by session, creating a large reference archive on matters of the Arctic. Videos of speeches, presentations and dialogues like the ones with this article can be accessed at the  Arctic Circle website . JONAA@Vilborg Einarsdottir

The Arctic Circle Assemblies, as well as some of the Forums, have been filmed session by session, creating a large reference archive on matters of the Arctic. Videos of speeches, presentations and dialogues like the ones with this article can be accessed at the Arctic Circle website. JONAA@Vilborg Einarsdottir


Vilborg Einarsdottir is the Editor-in-Chief of JONAA, the Journal of the North Atlantic & Arctic and a JONAA partner & founder. Formally a journalist for 12 years at Morgunblaðið in Iceland, she has worked since 1996 as a specialized producer of  film, photography and media productions on extreme locations in Arctic Greenland and as a cultural producer in the Nordic-Arctic region. She is an awarded film and documentary scriptwriter and editor of photography books from the Arctic



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