Plus ça Change? Understanding the New Dimensions of Security in the Arctic

Höfði House, Reykjavík, Iceland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By Marc Lanteigne

After decades of the Arctic being at the centre of many of the contests and conflicts of the cold war, by the dubious virtue of being the shortest distance between many parts of the two warring superpowers, the United States and the then-Soviet Union, the ‘top of the world’ assumed a strategic identity by the end of the 1980s, that of a far-periphery. Many specialists in Arctic security have pointed to the Murmansk Speech [pdf] by the USSR’s last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, in October 1987 as a turning point in the history of Arctic security. His call for a deepening of US-Soviet dialogue in the wake of the Höfði House Summit the previous year between Mr Gorbachev and American President Ronald Reagan included advocating not only a dialogue among Arctic governments on the subject of regional security, but also the creation of a nuclear-free Northern Europe and an overall shift towards regional demilitarisation.

With the dissolution of the USSR, the Arctic was downgraded as a political priority for the nascent Russian Federation, a move which was only reversed when President Boris Yeltsin stepped down in 1999 and his successor, a then-obscure security head and KGB officer named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, began his long terms in office. Throughout much of the 1990s, and during the period after the turn of the century, the Arctic was frequently viewed as being exempt from ‘hard’ or military security concerns, as a consensus was reached among regional governments regarding optimal forms of cooperation; (the Arctic Council, as the main multilateral organisation in the region, was founded in 1996 with a proviso that military security would not be part of its mandate).

Security issues which dominated the Arctic in the initial post-cold war era tended to shift towards those considered ‘non-traditional’, which in international relations parlance refers to security outside of the military realm. These included environmental security, crucial at a time when the first warning bells of regional climate change began to be heard, economic and developmental security, addressing the problems of poverty, a lack of infrastructure, and Arctic/non-Arctic financial divides.

As well, ‘human security’, which came into its own as a branch of security studies in the 1990s, was deemed a priority in the study of the Arctic. As the term implies, human security in international relations focuses on the role of the individual, not the state, as the main unit of study, noting that insecurity, alone, does not emanate from state behaviour. Challenges to human security in the Arctic regions included changes to individual ways of life due to climate change as well as modernisation, indigenous affairs, political differences between centres of government and Arctic peripheries, (given that no Arctic state has its capital north of the Arctic Circle), as well as health and access to basic needs.

From the 1990s until arguably a few short years ago, these areas dominated the study and dialogues about Arctic security, leading to the question of whether the region was a zone of ‘exceptionalism’ in global security studies given the perceived near-absence of military or hard power concerns. Phrases such as ‘high north, low tension’ and ‘territory of dialogue’, were frequently heard in various levels of regional political dialogue to describe the Arctic as being set apart from myriad security concerns found throughout the rest of the world.

Assuming Arctic exceptionalism actually existed, (and specialists in Arctic studies are not in agreement on that point), there is now the popular view that the current security status quo is fast eroding, and that military security and great power politics are insinuating their way back into the region. The first and often cited reason for this was the annexation of Crimea and subsequent Russian-backed conflict in eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014, actions which tried the ability of Arctic states to ‘check their politics at the door’ when discussing strictly far northern issues. These clashes also appeared to suggest [pdf] that Arctic exceptionalism was not as strong a force as it was once considered to be.

Not only were ‘southern’ conflicts such as Crimea spilling over into the Arctic, but the region began to be viewed as being of greater strategic concern to a growing number of non-Arctic states. In addition to European governments, such as Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, which had long-established Arctic histories and were often considered ‘Arctic-adjacent’ states due to their venerable scientific diplomacy in the region, newer Arctic actors had begun to appear over the last decade, including from Asia, which also wanted to develop Arctic identities and be counted as participants in the development of the region. China, which for many years had sought to brand itself as a ‘near-Arctic state’ (jin beiji guojia 近北极国家), received most of the world’s attention among countries outside of the region seeking to develop Arctic policies, but it was hardly alone in that regard.

In addition to China, diverse states, including India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland have also joined the Arctic Council as observers, and it was reported in November last year that Estonia would also be seeking an observer position. Several non-Arctic states, including China, have also expressed interest in developing economic partnerships with regional actors. Just this week, the energy minister of India, Dharmendra Pradhan, announced his country would partner with Russia’s Rosneft firm in the development of a new petroleum project in the Taymyr Peninsula (Полуостров Таймыр) in north-central Siberia. Thus, the dividing line between Arctic and non-Arctic politics and economics continues to blur as the commercial potential of the region becomes more widely acknowledged.

[Cover photo via Routledge]
However, the question of how security in the Arctic is evolving does not stop there. A new study on the subject, the Routledge Handbook on Arctic Security, was published this week as an e-book and will be released as a hardcover on 30 January.

Edited by Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv (Centre for Peace Studies / CPS at UiT: The Arctic University of Norway), Marc Lanteigne (Editor of OtC and Associate Professor of Political Science at UiT), and Horatio Sam-Aggrey (CPS and Sámi Studies at UiT, as well as with the Government of the Northwest Territories), the book brings together more than forty specialists from around the Arctic region and beyond to examine just how the previously specialized study of regional security has expanded and deepened in recent years.

The volume was written in order to look at the question of Arctic security beyond both the parameters of traditional military security and the facets of post-1990s human security study, (although both these approaches are also represented in the book). In addition is the argument that security in the Arctic needs to be examined on numerous levels and from a robust number of directions, including from outside politics and including areas such as indigenous studies, economics, environmental concerns and ‘green’ policies, gender, law, health, agri-food, energy and knowledge-sharing.

Vardø, in Northern Norway near the Russian border [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
The book, divided into five sections, takes both a geographic and people-centred approach to the topic. The first looks at traditional and modern approaches to theorising Arctic security, including from political, military and legal viewpoints, while the second section focuses on the main Arctic governments and their own changing views of where challenges to the security of the region are stemming from. The third section moves up a level and looks at Arctic security through the lens of regional governance, including institutions, legal structures and emerging areas of debate such as the status of Svalbard. The fourth steps outside of the Arctic to look at the regional policies of key non-Arctic governments, including those of China, Japan, the European Union and other European organisations.

Finally, there is an examination in the fifth section of the human dimension of modern Arctic security, with topics including gender security, the interaction between local peoples and extractive industries, access to nourishment, and developing indigenous security platforms. The book also covers strategic questions which have appeared in the recent past, including current studies on local security in the Arctic, Russian economic and security developments in Siberia, the growing role of NATO in far northern strategic policies, Chinese investment and economic cooperation initiatives, including the Belt and Road in the Arctic, and the diplomatic contretemps last year over a proposed American ‘purchase’ of Greenland.

As the Arctic continues to open to international scrutiny, the question of how best to define security in the region will likely persist. It can be said however, that the issue is no longer confined to neatly defined categories, and instead must be studied and understood from many different directions and vantage points.