photo: Marko Junttila

Doctoral defense: Informal International Regimes. The Case Study of the Arctic Council

2.12.2019 12:05

The scale and character of a multitude of changes observed in today’s world are nothing short of a fundamental transformation of the Earth’s systems and many of these changes are witnessed first-hand in the Arctic. In her dissertation, on the basis of the case study of the Arctic Council (AC), political scientist Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek puts forward a concept of informal international regimes that are concluded by states through the means of non-legally binding instruments. She argues that informal international regimes have a number of features that make them increasingly important in our toolbox of mechanisms to address demands and challenges of international collaboration and governance in the era of rapid change.

Today, the accelerating globalization and human-induced climate change illustrate the challenges that go beyond the boundaries and capacities of any state and any single actor and are the most prominent examples of the influence of humans on the Earth’s systems. As noted by international relations and legal scholars, the complexity of this new global environment has outpaced traditional methods of international law-making and raised doubts about their continued utility.

In many ways, the Arctic region serves as a vivid demonstration of the challenges and developments reflective of the rest of the globe. For that reason, Smieszek decided to focus her work on the Arctic Council, a non-legally binding institution that has taken a primary position among cooperative arrangements relevant to the Arctic and over time has drawn increasing attention from both Arctic and non-Arctic actors alike.

“Institutions—understood as sets of rights, rules, principles, and decision-making procedures—play a prominent role in human-environmental relations, both as causes and solutions to major changes we see in biophysical systems around us, and to the effects these changes have on us and our welfare,” says Smieszek. In political science and international relations, regimes are a subset of institutions that are specialized in addressing particular issues, like the climate change, and/or spatially defined areas, such as the Arctic.

As her review of literature revealed, virtually all international regimes that have been analyzed thus far have their bases in legally-binding treaties or conventions. And while this alone is unsurprising, seeing that multilateral environmental agreements are the cornerstone of global environmental governance, it also pointed to an important gap in existing scholarship: the uncharted territory of cases of international regimes based on non-legally binding instruments, like the Arctic Council.

“At the same time, I was aware from observing the AC and discussions about its reform and deficiencies, that one of a more frequently raised argument against the Council has been its lack of regulatory powers and its soft-law foundation,” comments Smieszek. To her, these arguments were reflective of a much more general tendency to consider legally-binding norms superior to non-binding ones, to regard soft-law collaboration as “underdeveloped”, and to view international regimes primarily in terms of their regulatory functions.

In order to steer away from these discussions and to draw attention to features of regimes based on non-legally binding agreements that vary them from international regimes built upon treaties, Smieszek proposed to distinguish a category of informal international regimes. Among other properties, informal international regimes allow for establishing new forms of securing accountability and legitimacy through the enhanced participation of indigenous peoples and other non-state actors. They can be also adjusted relatively easily compared to more formal international arrangements, exhibiting a much-desired characteristics of institutions suitable to meet the demands of governance in the context of rapid, non-linear and compound changes we experience and observe. Given the complexities of today’s global policy-making, Smieszek argues that informal international regimes - their formation, implementation, performance, and dynamics - merit more attention and dedicated research focus. While they are certainly not panacea to solve all policy challenges arising on the international agenda, they might represent, as the case of the AC shows, a novel, important, and so far largely unexamined governance tool at our hands.

“Given that the Arctic Council is central to the institutional landscape of the region that serves as the world’s climate “messenger”, I believe its case presents the potential to inform our thinking about innovative institutional ways of addressing the paramount challenges of the climate-altered world we live in,” concludes Smieszek.

Public examination of the dissertation

The dissertation Informal International Regimes. The Case Study of the Arctic Council by Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek will be publicly examined at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Lapland on Wednesday, 11 December 2019 at 12 noon in Lecture Hall 2. The opponent is Professor Leslie A. King from the Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia in Canada and the custos is Professor Petri Koikkalainen from the University of Lapland. Coffee and cake will be served in restaurant Felli after the event. Welcome!

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Information on the doctoral candidate

Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek is a political scientist and a researcher at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland in Finland. Her research interests comprise questions of environmental and Arctic governance, in particular the Arctic Council, science-policy interface, and gender equality and sustainable development nexus. She has worked on a number of national and international projects, including most recently “Finland’s Arctic Council Chairmanship in times of increasing uncertainty” for Finland’s Prime Minister Office (2016-2018). Gosia has been the Chair of International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) Action Group on Communicating Arctic Science to Policy-Makers (CASP) and a representative of IASC to the meetings of the Arctic Council. She is a co-founder of a non-profit association “Women of the Arctic” (

Further information

Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek
+48 661 441 322

Information on the publication

Malgorzata Smieszek: Informal International Regimes. A Case Study of the Arctic Council. Acta Electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis 270, ISBN 978-952-337-186-6, ISSN 1796-6310, Lapin yliopisto, Rovaniemi 2019.

Permanent address of the electronic dissertation