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21 May 2013

When politicians try to look relaxed they often end up looking like idiots. Picture the starch-stiff US presidential candidate trying to enjoy a beer, the British opposition leader flying down a rollercoaster wearing a baseball cap or frankly any global leader invited to wear a hat and dance when on a foreign trip.

It’s quite possible that the eight foreign ministers meeting last week in the northern Swedish town of Kiruna for the Arctic Council grimaced when they read the dress code for the summit: “Arctic Casual”.

And yet, much like the rest of the summit, the dress code was an understated success. The host, Carl Bildt, wore chinos and a rather fetching grey Icelandic cardigan, Norway’s Espen Barth Eide opted for a grey and blue traditional knitted Norwegian sweater, while the normally strait-laced US Secretary of State John Kerry chose a dark blue blazer and ditched his tie.

The idea of “Arctic Casual” extends far beyond the dress code. The Arctic Council could be a geopolitical inferno – Russia and the US around the same table, the spectre of China looming ominously in the background and ongoing disputes over oil, minerals and land. That it instead appears to be a mainly convivial meeting between friends says much about the way the council does business.

There is a relaxed, low-key atmosphere surrounding the entire summit. Despite the presence of two of the biggest beasts in diplomacy, Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, security is remarkably light with just a handful of police officers outside the small town hall where the meeting takes place. There is little standing on ceremony. When Kerry’s microphone fails during the post-summit press conference it is Sweden’s Arctic ambassador who dives into the crowd to find a replacement.

The council makes decisions by consensus, which helps to create a more collegiate atmosphere. Disagreements cannot be ignored. They have to debated, often aggressively, occasionally after a drink or two. The night before the summit, the ministers meet to make their final decisions. Buoyed by fine wine and raised voices, it does not end until 1.30 in the morning.

The decisions made in Kiruna were, in the grand scheme of things, relatively meagre. China is officially an observer, which means they can attend all meetings but not vote, while Canada threw its weight around a bit with the European Union over seal hunting. But the way the ministers worked together, and just as importantly the way their diplomats and officials had collaborated over the previous two years of meetings, suggests that international diplomacy – much maligned these days – still has a place.

From the Syrian talks in Geneva to the Iran talks in Almaty, UN Security Council meetings in New York to EU budget discussions in Brussels, every summit of global leaders could do with a touch of Arctic Casual.

Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.


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