by Alexander Eriksroed
For centuries, the northernmost part of the world has been an area of unknown riches, home to myths and legends shaped by the tales of a few adventurous explorers who attempted to reach the middle of “perpetual ice”, as it was commonly referred to. Many and one tried, and many failed, resulting in the loss of human life and tales of tragic defeat amidst the harshest conditions imaginable. The names of those who disappeared are not to be counted over the years. Even today, humanity knows less about the latitudes above 66° 33′ (north) than about the surface of the moon.
With the ice cap retreating and climate change increasingly opening the Arctic region for more general exploration and research – in terms of habitat, natural resources and economic opportunities, states around the world reassess their priorities and political strategy towards the High North.
This research essay examines the future of the Arctic region as one of the most politically disputed geographical parts of the world. It is an area full of uncertainty over sovereign influence, the legitimacy of national states’ claims (to it) and the basic question of interference in one of the last unspoiled, pristine regions of the planet. It considers whether the human advance will be a peaceful one, based on international political cooperation or rather more confrontative, with national states’ interests prevailing in a realist way over the urge to collaborate.
Specifically, this text answers the question “Will the Arctic replace the Middle East as the global battlefield of the future, with its vast natural resources being uncovered by climate change and still no generally accepted framework of ownership in place?”
In part I.I, an overview of the natural resources present (or expected!) in the Arctic region, their strategic importance and national states’ claims to these will be given in a very brief fashion. Part I.II establishes a link between the national claims of the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark and their respective grounding in International Relations (IR) theory.
Part II brings into play more practical questions by focusing on policy options available to the abovementioned states. A scenario approach will be adopted to display the outermost and thus most extreme positions on the policy continuum. Part II.I, entitled “Towards a new ‘Cold’ War”, thus lays out a scenario based on international military confrontation over the Arctic question, especially with regards to the extraction of natural resources. In part II.II, a more optimistic picture – one of international cooperation and the role of international organizations – is painted. It will be answered whether organizations such as the Arctic Council could pave the way towards a new, long-term and universally accepted international regime governing the use (or non-use) of the Arctic region by the countries of the world.
I. THE ARCTIC
RESOURCES, STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE, NATIONAL CLAIMS
As a starting point of this report, a common understanding of the delimitations of the Arctic region and the resources it holds shall be established. Discussing the strategic importance of these natural resources shall lead to examining the claims of individual countries and the reasoning behind their claims.
I.I GEOGRAPHICAL DELIMITATIONS AND NATURAL RESOURCES
The Arctic covers the vast area around the North Pole, above latitude 66º 33′ north. It extends for 21 million square kilometers and makes up around eight percent of the earth. Today, it is still mainly covered by ice.
The area is warming at around twice the average global rate, much faster than most scientists projected. It is expected that the Arctic will be completely ice-free (at least in summer) in twenty to thirty years’ time, opening up to a vast array of natural resources. Among them are expected, most notably, oil and gas, with an estimated 13 % and 30 %, respectively, of the world’s total resources, more than three quarters of which are projected to be offshore. Substantial mineral deposits of gold, coal and iron and important fish stocks are expected as well. However, not only the natural resources as such are of interest to investors. With the retreat of the ice new transit lanes for shipping will be opened, reducing the travel time from Hamburg to Shanghai by around a third.
The incredible strategic significance of crude oil becomes clear when we remind ourselves, firstly, of just how many of our products of daily life are based on petroleum and secondly, of the fact that the transportation sector still depends entirely on crude oil as the basis for fuel. Petroleum’s significance does, however, neither depend on the fact that it is mostly imported, nor on the question of the sources (exporting states) of those imports. Instead, oil derives its importance from its virtual monopoly over transportation fuel, just as, as an example, salt did derive its importance from its monopoly over food conservation in the past.
I.II NATIONAL CLAIMS TO THE ARCTIC AND CORRESPONDING IR THEORY
The following section gives examples of national states’ claims to Arctic territory and establishes links to their respective grounding in International Relations theory. The focus will be placed, due to the limited extent of this paper, on the five main riparian states (United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark).
Although, naturally, many of the nation’s goals overlap, the individual importance attached to them and special focus areas allow drawing conclusions as to finding the theory best apt to describe their underlying political and economic intentions and explain their policy behavior.
In the ‘National Strategy for the Arctic Region’ of 2013, the United States, somewhat boldly, refer to itself as an ‘Arctic nation’, expressing their interest in an Arctic that is stable and free of conflict. The US claims, according to the extended continental shelf theory, an area of more than 600 nautical miles from the North coast of Alaska as their territory.
The US stresses its right, to “develop capacity to execute Federal responsibility” by “evolving natural infrastructure” in the Arctic region. The importance of Arctic energy resources as a “core component” of the national security strategy is underlined. In what resembles neo-liberal institutionalism, the US recognizes that the international system is somewhat constrained by international organizations (the Arctic Council, in this case). The stated intention of joining the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) – as the last of all Arctic neighboring states – shows the belief in a certain need for structure, as does the proposal to strengthen the Arctic Council. One can argue, however, that in line with the past foreign policy decisions of the US a more classical form of realism (Hobbes) would with some probability be adopted when survival is at stake (i.e. after the ending, for whichever reason, of other petroleum imports to the US) and the US had to provide for their resource interests themselves.
The ‘Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation for the Arctic until 2020’ states Russia’s intention to use the Arctic as a strategic resource base capable to meeting the Russian requirement in hydrocarbon resources. It already speaks, for the period of 2016 to 2020, of “actively exploiting the oil and gas deposits in the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation”. This is in line with other policy moves such as the planting of a small titanium flag in the seabed below the Arctic in 2007, a move criticized by many states. This proves once again that Russia is at the forefront of developing the Arctic region, going ahead rather than waiting for frameworks of international law coming into place, also in terms of military installations. The above-mentioned report argues that Russia will “maintain the necessary fighting potential of a general purpose army” in order to protect the Russian state border lying in the Arctic. It seems overall, that offensive realism best helps, of all IR theories, to understand Russian reasoning behind claims such as the one by Russian Navy Admiral Vladimir Vysotskyin in 2010: “Russia will not give up a single inch of its Arctic.” Likewise appropriate, offensive neo-realism (with J. Mearsheimer as its leading proponent) argues (other than Morgenthau’s classical realism) that the decisive factor in international politics is not the human nature of statesmen, but security competition among and military capability of the greatest powers. Russia clearly dominates the Arctic today, with twenty ice-breakers roaming the High North waters (as opposed to one such US ship) and nuclear submarines below the Arctic ice. The country sees itself as a High North military superpower and President V. Putin asserted repeatedly, during his last presidential campaign, that Russia would spend billions of rubles to make sure its Arctic domination remains unchallenged. It was during this time, that Russia even carried out bomber flights over the North Atlantic and very close to the Norwegian coast. Brief mention shall also be given at this point to the key place which nuclear weapons still hold in the Russian military, especially given the demise of its conventional forces after the end of the Soviet Union.
It is difficult to draw a clear picture of Russian foreign policy objectives given the distorted and unclear signals of 2014 as well as the anti-Western belligerent rhetoric applied by Putin, but, if anything, it seems clear that Russia is the biggest inconstant in the region.
An in-depth analysis of the ‘Statement of Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy’ allows for the deduction of three main areas of interest and, as a result, a rather clear identification of underlying theory.
Firstly, as one of the main issue areas of the report, the situation of indigenous people is addressed. It stresses the freedom of the individual and the necessity of allowing indigenous Canadian people to make their own decisions. At the same time, it reminds of their responsibility in catering for their own needs and assisting in drawing up regimes regulating their future life. Secondly, the reliance on free trade and market forces as a means of avoiding conflict and the intention to further increase trade (through exploring possible new trade lanes, f.e.) is stated. Thirdly, Canada is the only of the five circumpolar countries assessed in this section genuinely focusing, in its policy declaration, on furthering the knowledge of mankind.
All of these points (freedom and responsibility of the individual, free trade as a means of avoiding conflict and the goal of promoting human progress) clearly point to a rooting in liberalism.
It must be added, however, that Canada is among the Arctic States (together with Russia) employing the loftiest and starkest rhetoric when it comes to non-Arctic states claims’ in the region. Canada is, moreover, one of the Arctic states least willing to introduce new institutions or regimes. Both of these arguments, however, should not lead us to an impression of ambiguous foreign policy but are rather to be understood as diplomatic saber-rattling, especially directed towards Kremlin.
Norway is the Arctic state with the fewest number of border disputes in the region. The Svalbard (Spitzbergen) issue, however, remains on open question, with Russia claiming the group of islands in the northern polar sea, rich in coal and hydrocarbons. A detailed assessment for the probability of conflict will be provided in part two of this report.
Together with its economic strength and international image as peaceful mediator, Norway has been one of the most active countries in terms of diplomacy through the Arctic Council and has taken the lead in commanding international “search and rescue”-operations. Its general attitude is exemplified by “High North, low tension”, a phrase repeatedly employed by Norwegian policy officials and diplomats. The Norwegian High North policy is much more solid and concrete than those of other Arctic states, especially because (local) politicians from Northern Norway have succeeded in demonstrating to the public the importance of the Arctic to the economic and societal development of the country.
Norway’s openness to admitting new observers and even new permanent member states to the Arctic Council speaks of its belief in institutionalized dispute settlement and grounding in institutional liberalism.
The only EU member among the Arctic countries discussed in this report has only a one minor territorial disagreement (with Canada over Hans Island). Nevertheless, the question of degree of Arctic involvement has not, over the past years, ceased to influence foreign policy discussions. The installation of a strategic command headquarter in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, was the defining move of Danish Arctic policy over the past years. While asserting its right to enforce sovereignty whenever necessary, Denmark also very much relies on the Arctic Council’s forum function. It has even supported the EU’s candidature for a permanent EU observer seat at the institution. This symbolizes Danish belief in the need for structure in international politics and suggests that neo-liberal institutionalism is best suited to describe its policy with regards to the Arctic region. Denmark is, although slowly, building up some basic defensive military capability in Greenland, having literally to start from scratch with no such infrastructure being in place until then, not even during the Cold War (defensive realism).
II. POLICY OPTION OUTLOOK:
CONFRONTATION OR COOPERATION?
Part two of this paper lays out two future scenarios for Arctic development. The first one (II.I) assesses the probability of (military) confrontation between Arctic states and the outlook towards a new “Cold War”. The second scenario (II.II) paints a more optimistic picture, one of cooperation and an increased role of international organizations in Arctic affairs. It examines whether we are headed towards the perspective of new international Arctic regimes.
Pondering the viable development of these two scenarios, an attempt is made, in the conclusion, to answer the main research question as laid out at the beginning of this paper.
II.I CONFRONTATION: TOWARDS A NEW “COLD WAR”?
Although the notions of ‘Arctic war’, a third world war taking place in the region and the ‘Rush for the Arctic’, somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Rush for Africa’ a century ago, has been largely media-hyped, a certain potential for conflict cannot be denied by any vigilant observer.
The most high-risk diplomatic disputes of today might evolve to become the armed conflicts of tomorrow. They include (amongst others):
Svalbard: between Norway and Russia
Hans Island/Lincoln Sea: between Denmark and Canada
Northwest Passage: between Canada, Russia and the US.
These are, while reiterating that war is not imminent, the key area to keep a watchful eye on. Before commencing the search for possible conflict triggers, however, some thoughts on the nature and inherent challenges of Arctic warfare shall be provided.
Presently, all-out war in the Arctic region is a scenario for which neither of the Arctic states, including the US and Russia is prepared. Although some effort is being made to increase states’ military capability, the basic difficulty of a hostile environment remains, requiring equipment and weapon adaptation, medium- to long-term training and significant preparation time.
All these difficulties do not render the scenario impossible though. With climate change opening up the area, the scarcity of resources driving up energy prices over the decades to come and, still, the economic crisis looming in large parts of the world, the situation in the region is likely to become tenser. J. Mearsheimer sensibly argues, in “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” (2003) that war is more likely in multipolar than in bipolar international settings. Considering the ascent of China, and – although with a considerable backlog – India, multipolarity clearly constitutes the political world of tomorrow, thereby contributing to the tenseness of this geopolitical hotspot region.
If, at all, a conflict situation arises, it will likely involve Russia. Three arguments substantiate this claim. Firstly, Russia shows, by far, the biggest military activity in its sphere of direct influence in the region. This includes flights of surveillance aircraft across the Arctic and even as far as the Pacific Ocean, the already-mentioned bomber flights near the Norwegian coast and the installation/training of specialized Arctic forces. Secondly, Russia is currently the country seemingly least-willing to abide by new, stricter regulations governing the Arctic region, as demanded by the majority of other Arctic countries. Thirdly, both the deterioration of relations between Russia and the NATO, notably the US, as well as the Russian preparedness of relying on its military to make up for the loss of great-power status in the 1990s (partly in order to unite the country internally), allows for the conclusion that the role of its military will increase in the years to come. In other words, Russia has much less to lose in terms of diplomatic and political prestige in the eyes of the international community, especially after the Ukraine crisis and the resulting standoff between Russia and the West.
Also, such a conflict scenario would become much more probable if the US withdrew its troops still remaining in Europe, opening up for a more direct Russian “engagement” vis-à-vis European powers.
Of all the conflict scenarios enumerated above, the one between Russia and Norway, about Svalbard, is currently the most disputed and tense one. Two interesting features of armed conflict between those two nations shall be highlighted. Firstly (and somewhat obviously), the extreme asymmetry of this bilateral relationship: Russia, the large, rather unpredictable great Eastern power and Norway, a small Western state, economically strong and extremely well integrated in the international political community.
Secondly, the role of NATO needs to be taken into account. Although seemingly in somewhat of a decline over the last two decades, the organization made it back into the headlines due to the Ukraine war. The Svalbard conflict would produce an opposition setting between Russia and the NATO-member Norway. In such a situation, much depends on the prudence of high-level decision-making, currently not in abundance in the Russian leadership. Theoretically, all NATO members (including the US) have to come to the aid of Norway should it be aggressed militarily. It remains to be hoped that the political leadership acts wisely. If not, the notion of World War III in the Arctic region might be less far-fetched than anyone of us can hope for.
TOWARDS THE PERSPECTIVE OF INTERNATIONAL REGIMES?
Presently, although tense situations occur from time to time, the situation seems likely to develop in a more positive and peaceful direction. The second policy option outlook assumes, therefore, increased international cooperation and elaborates on the role of international organizations in governing the human use of the Arctic region.
The peaceful Arctic future lies in negotiations, however lengthy and strenuous they may seem. There is no better proof of this assertion than the settlement reached by Norway and Russia in 2010. After forty years of dispute the two states finally signed a maritime border agreement concerning an area of 175,000 square miles in the Barents Sea, in what was a model example of how to resolve territorial disputes employing both bilateral talks on the highest level and mediation efforts by other Arctic Council member states.
Promisingly, it is this very institution that currently seems most apt to build up a commonly accepted framework governing the use, and especially the allocation of resource extraction rights in, the Arctic region. It is of uttermost importance that such a multilateral agreement is drawn up before one (or several) state(s) commence the resource extraction process in territories still disputed. Realistically, one to two decades remain. Considering that the Arctic is an issue area that requires time18 and continuous effort, both on the trust-building and factual-content level, this constitutes a rather short timeframe.
Nevertheless, the overall development points towards cooperation. Part of the solution will lie in organizing more frequent, and especially more high-level Arctic Council roundtables. As soon as it becomes politically accepted that cooperation is the more promising option, the practical questions could be quickly solved. Part of reaching this overarching objective lies in the conduct of bi- and multilateral talks, as the Russian-Norwegian example has shown. The discussion of Arctic Stewardship, environmental preservation and further commitment to joined ‘search and rescue’ operations could act as a starting point, as these are policy areas where promising developments are already taking place and compromise is easier to achieve than in other, more gridlocked fields.
The integration of Russia and the US will be paramount, as the two great powers seem farthest away from each other in terms of their respective political stance and, by sharing a track record of historical confrontation have difficulty, even today, to understand each other’s genuine standpoints.
To recapitulate, outright and extended military confrontation seems extremely unlikely in the region, which will thus most likely not replace the Middle East as a hotspot of military confrontation in the years to come. Four arguments substantiate this prevailing view.
Firstly, the history of Arctic diplomacy shows that cooperation efforts in natural resource management have been largely successful. The Russian-Norwegian settlement process already described acts as a reminder. Secondly, the biggest petroleum reserves are most likely outside the regions currently disputed, rendering the question somewhat obsolete.19 Thirdly, no Arctic state is genuinely prepared to commit to a new theatre of war, possibly bringing about long-term commitments. This is in line with both past policy decisions and the consistent argument of littoral states to resolving their disputes peacefully. Finally, four out of five Arctic states are NATO allies, further minimizing the likelihood of their being unable to solve disputes in an amicable manner.
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