Scotland Model Arctic Council

The faculty, staff and students of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) are rather fortunate of geography.  Their institute, the oldest and largest of its kind in Scotland, is surrounded by the sea on three sides, sharing with ancient Dunstaffnage Castle a small promontory at the conjunction of Loch Etive and Loch Linnhe on Scotland’s dramatic western coast, where land and sea intertwine.  How doubly fortunate I was, then, to visit such a stunning location this past weekend to run the first-ever Scotland Model Arctic Council (SCOTMAC)!

SCOTMAC is the newest Polar Aspect MAC programme, and the fourth for university students after NORMAC, TRYKOMAC, and my module-based mini-MACs.  My institutional partner in SCOTMAC is the Scottish-Arctic Network (ScAN), a group of seven Scottish universities united by membership in the international University of the Arctic (UArctic) consortium.  ScAN includes the University of the Highlands and Islands, of which SAMS is an academic partner, as well as Glasgow Caledonian University, Robert Gordon University, and the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and StrathclydeTrent University in Canada, another UArctic member institution where I’m appointed as an adjunct professor, also collaborated on the project.  Generous support from the Scottish Government‘s new Arctic Connections fund, as well as from the Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Security (SAGES), made SCOTMAC possible.

Joining us at SAMS for this inaugural event were 25 undergraduate students from 11 universities in the UK and Spain—all seven ScAN universities, plus Heriot-Watt University and the universities of Aberystwyth, Barcelona and Cambridge.  The students represented seven different home countries in Europe and North America—Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA.  They were also an academically diverse bunch, studying between them a variety of courses from Architectural Technology to Scots Law, with Geography, Marine Science, Politics, Russian and all sorts in between.  Four SAMS students served on the ‘SCOTMAC Secretariat’, deftly helping me to run the conference and to welcome their peers from other universities, whilst the visiting students played the roles of diplomats from the Arctic States and Indigenous Permanent Permanent organisations.

Like NORMAC for schools, which convened for the sixth time earlier this month, SCOTMAC took place against the tragic backdrop of Russia’s unprovoked and immoral invasion of Ukraine.  Russia also happens to hold the rotating Arctic Council chair until May 2023, and just one week before SCOTMAC began the other seven Arctic states issued a joint statement declaring that they were unable to proceed with Arctic Council meetings under current modalities.  The Arctic Council’s vital diplomatic work has been paused since then.

War is a failure of diplomacy, and it was impossible to begin a model diplomacy conference such as SCOTMAC without first saying ‘No to war!’.  Polar Aspect MAC conferences teach the principles of cooperation, collaboration and consensus—principles with which war is incompatible.  In this context, SCOTMAC takes on special salience as a channel through with youth can demonstrate their commitment to dialogue, and their capacity for concord.  Indeed, SCOTMAC was even profiled in the media as an important attempt at youth diplomacy in troubled times.

Fortunately, as explained in Polar Aspect’s statement on Ukraine, there was no question of any student, faculty or observer having to accept a fictive Russian chairmanship of SCOTMAC, as all Polar Aspect MACs are chaired by a third-party Secretariat that I myself direct.  Polar Aspect MACs also respect the Arctic Council prohibition of the discussion of military matters.  SCOTMAC delegates were therefore able to proceed with their simulation of the Arctic Council, an organisation that remains of enduring value, and to discuss the important the important environmental, social and governance challenges facing the region and its peoples.

At SCOTMAC, delegates discussed the growth of Arctic shipping, a complex issue symbolising many of the profound environmental and economic changes occurring in the Arctic today, and a fitting topic given the host institution and location.  They also discussed the challenges involved in ensuring the continued transmission of Indigenous Knowledge from elders to youth, which is vital to the cultural survival of Arctic Indigenous peoples, and which preserves and augments one of humanity’s vast storehouses of knowledge.  Delegates submitted discussion papers on both of these topics ahead of the conference, which were circulated to all participants to facilitate consensus building.

SCOTMAC began on the Friday with a welcome from Nick Owens, SAMS Director, as well as an introduction to the programme from SAMS oceanographer Finlo Cottier.  A full ‘teaching morning’ followed, with talks from Arctic experts Sian Henley of the University of Edinburgh and Sennan Mattar of Glasgow Caledonian University.  The participating faculty and students were especially privileged to hear a keynote address from Marie-Anne Coninsx, the European Union’s first Ambassador for the Arctic, and a seasoned diplomat with decades of experience in the European foreign service.  Neil Gray MSP, Scottish Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development, also addressed the students via video link to remind them of Scotland’s Northern identity, and to wish them well in their deliberations.

It was an honour to join such company and conclude the teaching morning with my own stage-setting presentation on the Arctic, the Arctic Council and SCOTMAC.  After making a clear ‘No to war!’ statement, I encouraged delegates to approach SCOTMAC with a ‘human spirit’, recognising and respecting the Arctic as a homeland, rather than as an unpeopled wilderness or a natural-resource frontier.  After a lunch break, the stage was then given over to the students themselves, beginning with opening statements in which Heads of Delegation expressed their perspectives on the Arctic and on the conference topics, and their hopes for fruitful discussions.

In the two and a half days that followed, delegates engaged in highly concentrated model diplomacy.  They proved themselves well prepared and serious of purpose, and they kept the SCOTMAC Secretariat busily employed facilitating and documenting their initial exchange of views.  By lunchtime on Saturday, they had already produced many pages of notes from parallel discussions in two Working Groups—the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group, discussing the question of Arctic shipping, and the Sustainable Development Working Group, discussing the question of the intergenerational transfer of Indigenous Knowledge.

The next phase of the simulation, however, proved more challenging.  Convening in plenary as Senior Arctic Officials, the delegates took up the task of distilling those notes into a coherent and jointly agreed political declaration.  They discovered that their initial meetings had perhaps been less robust than the complex issues demanded, and that the constraints of finding the precise words to express agreement only caused disagreement to grow.

The students participating in SCOTMAC were not the first Polar Aspect MAC delegates to encounter such difficulties.  The purpose of my MACs is not only to raise awareness and understanding of the Arctic, its peoples and its challenges, but also to help youth to acquire critical skills in collaboration and consensus building—the antidote, as a teacher once put it to me, of today’s hyper-partisan politics.  Such skills are acquired best ‘in the doing’, and they are acquired all the more firmly when it becomes clear that reaching a collaborative consensus on contentious issues almost always means finding one’s way through a barrier of disagreement—with failure a real possibility and time running out!

At all my Polar Aspect MACs, I ensure that participants have time at the end of each day for ‘debriefing’ sessions, in which they can reflect on their negotiations together Arctic experts.  The students at SCOTMAC in particular had the benefit of advice not just from me, but also from Finlo Cottier and his SAMS co-host Anusckha Miller, and most especially from Marie-Anne Coninsx, who continued to offer valuable advice and guidance throughout the simulation as SCOTMAC Honorary Chair.  Students also had the encouragement of one of their peers on the SCOTMAC Secretariat—Josh Gray from the University of Oxford, Deputy Director of SCOTMAC and a veteran of many a Polar Aspect MAC.

Expert advice and a teacherly nudge is one thing—but it was only through the diligence and efforts of the students themselves that they achieved consensus.  With only minutes to go in their final meeting, they added the last clauses to their Oban Declaration—the first SCOTMAC declaration ever drafted, which they then unanimously approved at the first SCOTMAC Ministerial meeting ever convened.  Many congratulations!

The diplomatic simulation, as well as the teaching morning, were the focus of the SCOTMAC weekend.  But the heart of it was students, faculty and experts sharing a common enterprise, learning how to collaborate and building new relationships.  A welcome dinner on the Friday, a celebratory black-tie dinner on the Sunday, and informal gatherings throughout the weekend knitted us together socially.  The beautiful land- and sea-scape around the town of Oban, intricately carved by glaciers in the last Ice Age, added a special northern dimension to the event.  I’ve run almost two dozen MACs now, but as a Canadian transplanted to the UK, Scotland holds a particular sway over my imagination, and I’m looking forward to staying in touch with my new colleagues and friends both there and beyond.

Very positive feedback from the participating students suggest that the feeling is mutual:

  • ‘Amazingly organised and appreciated every minute of this experience.’
  • ‘The initial presentations by experts helped everyone gain more knowledge on the Arctic including environmental and social issues.  The introductory speech on the Arctic as a homeland was incredibly inspiring and thought-provoking.’
  • ‘It was really fascinating to explore the thorny topics in such a supportive and collaborative environment.’
  • ‘Having to carry out prior research and research during the conference developed my understanding of the Arctic as a homeland, and so my image when I close my eyes is no longer just an idyllic icy background with a polar bear, but a diverse array of people, ecosystems, infrastructure and issues.’
  • ‘Personally, the most important takeaway I have from this conference is the knowledge obtained regarding diplomacy, negotiation, and communication.  The information regarding the Arctic was interesting and important, but I walked away from this conference with a much deeper understanding about myself and how to effectively communicate with others in the future.’
  • ‘I always felt the support of the organisers of the event, they have always helped me when I needed it in a way that any needs I had were always covered.’
  • ‘I felt like an appreciated conference member, and the kind treatment I received across the weekend from management, Secretariat staff, and SAMS staff has set the bar high for me for a (hopefully) future diplomatic career.’
  • ‘The staff at SAMS were very helpful.  As well, the chair – I felt that Anthony was also very helpful at guiding us when we need it but allowing us to do it alone as well.’
  • ‘Anthony is the clearly the lifeblood of this experience and he was truly inspirational.  His showmanship and presentation alone made this conference worth it.  I really enjoyed hearing what he had to say about everything throughout the course of the conference.’
  • ‘It was very fun, informative, a safe space to practice and definitely a fantastic learning experience.  I just want to thank you for doing this, running MACs and allowing us (students) to engage in such a productive exercise.  Also for treating us as equals, rather than just young people.  I think it’s so important for young people to realise the power they have and will have, and that they and their opinions have value.  I think it’s a message which is so often given in words and not actions, but you managed to do both, so thank you.  I believe everyone should have the opportunity to do something like this while they are young!’
  • ‘Just a big thank you to all who made this possible! Your efforts were absolutely brilliant, and I’ve made very good connections and friends in the space of a very few, intense days.’
  • ‘It was without doubt the best extra-curricular activity I’ve done whilst at university.  Sad to leave!’

I was moved to receive this testimonial from Anuschka Miller of SAMS as well:

  • ‘As a Co-host of SCOTMAC I was reminded of the pleasures of being a student and having your eyes opened to new thoughts, fields of activity and experiences.  I learnt so much myself as the world of diplomacy is not one that marine scientists habitually engage with.  Learning how diplomacy works can give scientists a voice in international decision making.  The SCOTMAC experience encouraged me to attend a UN Oceans Conference briefing discussing a draft political declaration for this summer’s summit and to now explore how my institution may be able to contribute at that level.  SCOTMAC may have been for the students, but I benefited too and am filled with new ideas and plans.  Thank you Anthony and Polar Aspect for such a wonderful experience.’

I’m tremendously grateful for these comments, and to all the students, faculty and staff who took part in SCOTMAC.  I’m especially indebted to the SCOTMAC Secretariat, without whom the conference would have been impossible—to Honorary Chair Marie-Anne Coninsx and Deputy Director Josh Gray, and to Kyle Smith, Ilaria Stollberg, Nele Thomsen and Oriarna Willetts, the SAMS students who served as chairs and rapporteurs.  Very special thanks must also go to SAMS—to Finlo Cottier and Anusckha Miller as SCOTMAC co-hosts, and to Helen McNeill and all the other SAMS professional staff involved—as well as to the Scottish Government and SAGES.

Finally—I’m pleased to say that initial ideas have already been mooted for SCOTMAC 2 next year!  Don’t hesitate to contact us and sign up for our newsletter to learn more.

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