Despite periodic warnings about the coming of a new Cold War in the Arctic, the regional dynamics in the High North are not a ticking bomb under broader international security. It is a remarkably peaceful and stable region. In fact, it is much closer to being the other way around: conflicts elsewhere on the globe, most prominently the Ukraine crisis, may spill over into the Arctic and threaten the benign state of affairs that has otherwise characterized the region. Arctic security dynamics depend on global great power politics.
The Arctic is Not without Regional Challenges – but None of Them are Insurmountable
The regional dynamics in the polar region do not drive the region towards interstate conflict. Even if one applies a purely interest-based, Realpolitik perspective, the regional dynamics, ceteris paribus, are conducive to cooperation rather than conflict.
To be sure, policymakers face several challenges that must be addressed in the coming years. Four of them warrant special attention.
First, global warming is slowly making natural resources – oil, gas, and minerals – more accessible, which have led some scholars and observers to warn that an Arctic great game could be impendent. However, this argument seems weak. The bulk of the most coveted energy resources are located in areas that have already been divided. Russia, often portrayed as the most probable trouble-maker in the Arctic, already has the lion’s share of the Arctic in terms of resources. This actually makes Russia more prone to regional cooperation. Moscow needs stability to attract the investments and knowhow required to extract and exploit those resources. Russia, therefore, has a significant interest in regional stability.
Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that many of the Arctic’s mineral and energy resources are only slowly becoming accessible. This leaves policymakers with time to come up with agreements about still-contested areas. The 2010 agreement between Norway and Russia over the Barents Sea is an example of how such agreements can be reached.
Second, even though remaining border disputes are not linked with material gains for the littoral states, the demarcation process may challenge regional cooperation in the coming years. The High North plays a symbolically important role in many of the Arctic states, and disagreements over borders may lead to domestic tensions within each coastal state. The infamous 2007 planting of a Russian flag on the North-pole seabed may have had no Realpolitik value, but it indicates the importance of the Arctic for Russian identity. Similar patterns can be found in many of the other Arctic states as well. This means that one cannot simply view the border question through a Realpolitik lens. Domestic dynamics are the big unknown in the equation that may create tensions, even though the Arctic governments would prefer to cooperate. Of course, domestic pressures rarely arise completely ex nihilo and one should not expect them to spark a confrontation absent a Realpolitik dispute between the Arctic nations or conscious inflammatory policies by political elites. Ceteris paribus, the border question is thus unlikely to lead to a High North conflict.
Third, as climate change opens new sea-lanes, primarily the Northeast and Northwest passages, questions about jurisdiction resurface. Russia and Canada both claim to have authority over the Northeast and Northwest passages respectively – claims that are being challenged by the United States, among others. So far, the states agree to disagree about these questions. This is easy as long as the number of ships completing the voyage through the passages remains fairly low. In 2013, 71 ships went through the Northeast Passage, while only a few ships traversed the Northwest Passage. As the sea-lanes become more accessible, policymakers may have to determine the status of these passages. Yet, disagreements aside, instability and strife over the issue will only mean that no one ends up benefitting from the new sailing routes. Agreements based on shared interests should therefore be possible.
Finally, the Arctic states risk stumbling into conflict in the Arctic. Even limited Russian naval buildup, for example, might risk provoking other states into following suit, and thereby triggering a security dilemma. When hardliners talk about the need to act more forcefully towards each other in the Arctic, sometimes motivated by the prospect for domestic political gains, such remarks can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy by fuelling fears and calls for firmness on the other side. These are very real, but not insurmountable, problems.
The core of the security dilemma is that it is well-nigh impossible to distinguish legitimate defense transformation from capability build-ups with malign intent. Russia argues that its recent investments in Arctic defense capabilities simply cover gaps that were created after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. It is worth noting that Russian rhetoric on Arctic issues has generally been much more conciliatory, compared to other regions, such as Eastern Europe or the Middle East. This is not terribly surprising if one acknowledges Russia as the state with the most to lose from instability in the Arctic, but nevertheless underlines that Russia is likely very aware about what it has at stake in the Arctic.
Even though these four questions pose significant challenges for the Arctic states, it seems obvious that they are not important enough to spark an interstate conflict. Conversely, the states have much to lose if Arctic relations sour.
Furthermore, there are several dynamics besides the constellation of interests that may also strengthen Arctic cooperation. Die-hard International Relations realists may not think much of these dynamics, but they are worth mentioning as bulwarks against regional conflict.
It is worth remembering that while “tough talk” can hurt Arctic security, gestures of conciliation can strengthen it. Recent initiatives from many different countries towards developing comprehensive national Arctic strategies should help in this regard by making Arctic foreign policies more predictable, and by making them less vulnerable to domestically motivated opportunism.
Furthermore, the Arctic is also somewhat of a success story when it comes to regional multilateralism. The main intergovernmental forum, the Arctic Council, has become steadily more important in recent years. The key so far has been the pragmatic approach of focusing on areas where compromise was deemed likely to be within reach. Notable successes with this approach include the facilitation of the recent binding search-and-rescue and environmental protection agreements. This development is especially good news for the smaller Arctic countries that are more likely to be heard in a multilateral framework.
The Global Level May Destabilize the Region
The cooperative regional order is rooted in a global environment where the great powers think in plus-sum terms. The United States currently uses a carrot-and-stick approach to integrate potential challengers, most notably China and Russia, in its world order. American military might and its global alliance system function as a big stick with which Washington aims to deter revisionist policies from Beijing and Moscow. The carrot is the plethora of well-functioning institutions and areas, where the US can show China and Russia that they have much to gain from playing nice. The Arctic is one of these areas, where Washington has few interests, but where a little accommodation gives the other great powers incentives to become responsible participants in international society.
This strategy is, of course, not without tensions and contradictions. Will the international system remain a plus-sum game, or will the great powers revert to a zero-sum mindset as new rising powers enter the scene? Realist observers doubt that global plus-sum thinking is possible in the long term, and some analysts argue that Washington should spend less time handing out carrots to what will eventually become antagonists and spend more time building bigger sticks.
A move towards a more zero-sum world could have serious consequences for the High North. The plus-sum global order currently means that the states have much to gain from ignoring the regional challenges mentioned above. In a more zero-sum world, the regional challenges would become points of weakness that the great powers can exploit. For example, opponents could challenge Canadian or Russian authority over the Arctic sea-lanes by sailing vessels through them without the permission of the two states. Furthermore, drawing boundaries would become more difficult. Great power tensions typically stoke nationalist sentiments and the drawing of boundaries could become symbolically important in the Arctic littoral states. Domestic pressures could transform what is essentially a low-politics issue of little significance into a matter of prestige. Such a development would have no clear winners and many obvious losers.
The Ukraine crisis provides an example of how the global level spills over into the regional level. Military cooperation and joint exercises have been cancelled and Russia has conducted several unilateral exercises to demonstrate its military prowess in the Arctic. Russia and Canada have expelled diplomats from each other’s embassies and Canada has boycotted a lower-level meeting in the Arctic Council. However, the most important consequence of the Ukraine crisis has been the recent Western sanctions that prevent companies from investing in the Russian Arctic energy industry, among other things. While the West will also be hit by these sanctions, as Western companies will lose precious investment opportunities, the pain felt in Russia is likely to be far greater. Sanctions, thus, target the very area that has hitherto kept Russia within the Arctic cooperative regime. The sanctions contain some legal loopholes that Western companies can use to continue to cooperate with Russia in the short term, and it will consequently take some time before their impact is felt in Moscow and Murmansk. When that happens, however, Russia will no longer have an interest in cooperating in the Arctic. The sanctions regime is thus eroding the very backbone of Arctic cooperation.
This illustrates how global dynamics can spill over into the Arctic. The Western states, many of which have only limited Arctic interests, are exploiting Russia’s dependence on energy by hitting one of the areas where Moscow depends on the West. Closing the Russian Arctic for European and American investments will effectively make it well-nigh impossible for Russia to exploit its Arctic energy resources. It is tempting to punish Russia in this way, but the potential costs of this strategy are quite high if it ends up doing permanent damage to the cooperative order in the Arctic. The corresponding foreign policy gains for the West in Ukraine have, arguably, yet to fully materialize, but will need to be substantial to offset what can potentially be lost in the Arctic.
Arctic Stability in the Years to Come
The Arctic is largely a peaceful region, characterized by a well-functioning cooperative order. That is not to say that this state of affairs is permanent. Conflict may still be coming to the High North, but if it does, it is more likely to spring out of global great power conflict than from any of the specifically regional disagreements. Albeit serious questions that should be addressed in the coming years, the regional challenges – the distribution of energy resources, the drawing of boundaries, the authority over sea-lanes, and the possibility of a regional security dilemma – are minor concerns, when compared to the global issues that divide the great powers. They may become the focal point of future conflicts, but that will only happen if the global great power relations have already gone south.
This article is based on a brief (“After Ukraine: Keeping the Arctic Stable” by Mikkel Runge Olesen) and a report (“Arktiske Usikkerheder” by Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen), from the Danish Institute for International Studies, both of which are available at www.diis.dk.
Thumbnail Photo Credit: Malte Humpert