Arctic (In)security and the Question of Cooperation

Port of Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
In recent years, the volume level in the longstanding debate about whether the time was ripe for security issues to be added to the growing array of Arctic regional organisations, either connected to or cooperating with the Arctic Council, has increased. One recent article was very critical of the idea of an Arctic security forum, particularly one which would address military-based concerns. Among the notable arguments made against such a move were that the geopolitical situation in the region is stable, and benefits greatly from existing international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and newer, issue-specific regional initiatives such as the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF), created in 2015 to better coordinate far northern maritime safety issues. This view is also based on the assumption that the introduction of a military dimension to Arctic cooperation would actually foster more divisions and distract from more pressing regional issues.

The poor relations between Russia and the West have begun to spill over into the Arctic, amid concerns about Moscow’s military build-up in its Arctic territories and the increased number of incursion incidents in the Baltic and Nordic regions by Russian ships and planes. As well, the post-2014 Ukraine conflict continues to act as ‘Banquo’s ghost’, an issue which has haunted governmental and non-governmental Arctic meetings. The possibility of Russian-Western rivalries migrating to the Arctic is a valid concern, and has been one of the catalysts of the developing debate about an Arctic security mechanism.

Other recent changes have included a greater commitment by the government of Vladimir Putin to augment Russia’s military presence in its far northern regions and waters, including a new base, Arctic Trefoil (Арктический трилистник), located on Alexandra Island/Земля Александры in Russia’s Franz Josef Land archipelago, and opened to public scrutiny in April of this year. Although there remain attempts to cordon off the Arctic from the effects of the ongoing divisions between Russia and the US and Washington’s European friends and allies in regional dialogues and conferences, maintaining this division remains difficult as the ‘neo-cold war’ atmosphere persists.

However, the idea of creating a hard security organisation for the region remains unworkable for a variety of reasons. First, there is no common definition of Arctic boundaries, thus creating a problem of jurisdiction. Secondly, the distribution of power among the Arctic governments would also discourage any formal military organisation. Specifically, the ‘Arctic eight’ includes NATO members and neutrals, two great powers and small states, as well as governments such as Greenland with semi-independent status. Also, there would be much apprehension among some Arctic states, as well as indigenous persons in the region, about potential loss of sovereignty. Finally, many non-Arctic states, including in Western Europe and East Asia, would react with dismay at such an organisation, especially if they were denied the chance to participate in its development.

Nonetheless, these formidable obstacles should not discourage the possibility of creating a security mechanism in the region, through different means. It would be equally counterproductive, and reflective of short-term thinking, to continue to treat the Arctic as embedded within a cordon sanitaire and a place where security issues are kept out indefinitely. Instead, discussion about security cooperation in the region should begin with the creation of an Arctic security community (ASC) which would focus on non-traditional security issues of importance to the Arctic eight as well as non-Arctic states with developing interests in the region, notably the observer governments in the Arctic Council. As noted in the scholarly work by Adler and Barnett, security communities are often born of changes in the political, economic and/or technological status of a given region, or the appearance of an external threat.

While the latter issue is less valid in the case of the Arctic, it can certainly be argued that overall conditions in the region have changed rapidly on a variety of fronts. Then, should conditions appear which promote knowledge sharing, an increase in trust-building, and the feeling of a collective identity, a security community may be created which does not align against a third part but rather focuses on comprehensive security development. These conditions are appearing in the Arctic, and should an ASC be ‘anarchic’ in nature, meaning that decisions are made by consensus with every member entitled to a veto, concerns about power blocs would be muted.

The proliferation of new Arctic agencies and proposals designed to address maritime safety, pollution and codes of conduct, has raised concerns about what has been called a ‘spaghetti bowl’ [pdf] problem, the overlapping of too many organisations with too little coordination, leading to confusion and policy duplication. As more Arctic agencies are created to address various strategic areas, an Arctic security community could act as a nexus for these agencies to communicate and suggest new initiatives in a congenial atmosphere. As well, an Arctic security community would address concerns by non-Arctic states, especially China, which are sensitive to being shut out of Arctic affairs as the circumpolar north continues to open economically. An ASC would work to bolster communication and confidence-building between Arctic and non-Arctic actors on the governmental and non-governmental levels, essential links as non-Arctic states and companies seek to deepen their presence in the region.

While the timing for creating an ASC would not be optimal in the short term due to the ongoing toxic relations between Russia and the West, even though the geopolitical situation in the region would be very favourable to creating such an organisation. The United States, which until recently held the chair position of the Arctic Council, would have been in an excellent position to put forward such a proposal, especially if it could provide a conduit for communications with Moscow. However, the current US isolationist/nationalist government of Donald Trump, with an Arctic policy which has so far been erratic at best, is unlikely to back such an initiative at this time.

Several Arctic as well as non-Arctic governments have published governmental policy papers detailing their circumpolar policies, many of which include specific references to the need of addressing traditional and non-traditional security in the Arctic. Japan, in its 2015 Arctic White Paper, went as far as to suggest that the Arctic was a national security concern to tensions which may appear over competition over natural resources and the opening up of shipping lanes. Due to lower fossil fuel and commodity prices since 2014, the spectre of a zero-sum global scramble for Arctic resources has greatly faded, but has not completely disappeared given the unpredictability of future raw material prices (and demands).

One needs to ask whether it is time to take advantage of this window of opportunity to bring together the various Arctic security-related initiatives created over the past few years, in the same vein as the events which led to the creation of the Arctic Council twenty years ago, and to create a comprehensive, inclusive and effective security mechanism for the region. Along with the environment in the Arctic, the political situation there is also changing rapidly, and it would be judicious to prepare for these changes rather than simply react to them. It is much better to build the firehouse before having to fight a fire.

[Note: an older version of this article appeared in the now-defunct Arctic Journal earlier this year.]