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Keeping the Gunpowder Dry

The practice of countries ‘checking their grievances at the door’ during Arctic diplomacy is unlikely to get easier as Russia remilitarizes its northern regions, writes Marc Lanteigne.

Written by Marc Lanteigne Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
U.S. military helicopters fly over the USS Hampton submarine during Arctic exercises in the spring of 2016.U.S. Navy Photo

This year’s 53rd annual Munich Security Conference took place in an atmosphere in which there was an abundance of potential local and international-level threats to debate.

At the same time, there was increasing concern about the policy directions of several major strategic actors, starting with the United States. The conference’s final report, pointedly titled “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?,” examined a host of both emerging and long-standing security threats in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, global issues including migration, disinformation, extremism and health, as well as uncertainties about U.S. and European policy directions in the coming year. What was also telling about the report, however, was the inclusion of another potential “hot spot” for the coming year, namely the Arctic.

The chapter in question, entitled The Arctic: Tempers Rising? was brief, and it listed issues which have become familiar to many polar watchers over the past few years: the warming regional climate coupled with ice erosion, the possibility of competition over resources including fossil fuels, the ongoing antagonistic relationship between Russia and the West, and the growing interest of non-Arctic actors in having a greater say in the region’s affairs.

The chapter was conservative in its findings, noting the improbability of a resource conflict in the Arctic under current conditions and suggesting that the region remained a zone in which cooperation was the order of the day, with organizations such as the Arctic Council acting as useful frameworks for mutual policy coordination and problem solving.

The writing also suggested that differences between Moscow and other major governments, including Washington, over the legal status of the Northern Sea Route could play into Russian concerns about losing its dominant role in the Arctic. However, despite the chapter’s title, there was no conclusion indicating the Arctic Ocean was destined to become an impending arena for military competition.

Yet, the mere fact the Arctic was included in this document nonetheless warrants some consideration, offering further proof that the Arctic has, for better or worse, become “securitized.” This refers to the process of identifying persons, places and/or things (or to use international relations theory terminology, “referent objects”) as sources of potential security threats.

“Securitization” can be undertaken by different actors, but often it is governments who engage in the practice of designating a referent object as a security concern, usually after “politicizing” it as a first step. As theorists who study securitization practices have argued, security concerns may exist beyond strictly military affairs, and could encompass other sectors such as economics, society and the environment.

To “securitize” something does not necessarily mean that a threat is imminent, but it does frequently prompt a rethinking or reframing of an issue, by policymakers and others, with security concerns in mind.

The Arctic, despite the unlikelihood of a military confrontation or unfriendly economic competition, has nonetheless been securitized by many Arctic and non-Arctic actors, including governments, as the region falls under greater international scrutiny. This securitization process is coming from a variety of different directions:

Resources: Although oil, gas and commodity prices have remained largely depressed going into the new year, as more uncovered land and more open water appears every summer in the Arctic, the possibility of more resources being easier and cheaper to access grows in tandem. While most of these riches lie in uncontested areas, environmental strains and differences over demarcation in the central Arctic Ocean could still create future tensions.

Access: It is still largely a matter of guesswork as to exactly when the NSR and other Arctic sea routes will be usable to the point where transits become commonplace, and provisions are being put into place, including the Polar Code, which entered into force last month, but as long as jurisdiction over some of these routes remain disputed, the possibility of access becoming a source of insecurity and even conflict should not be dismissed. This matter may be further complicated as non-Arctic actors, such as those in Western Europe and East Asia, also vie to make use of Arctic sea routes to lessen travel time and trading costs.

Power: As the report stated, the Arctic has been distinguished as a place where adversaries can and have “checked their grievances at the door.” Whether that situation can continue indefinitely, however, is another question. The United States has recently expressed concern over Russian remilitarization of its northern regions, and the two great powers remain at odds over the Ukraine conflict and possible future instability along Eastern European borders. Maintaining the Arctic as a cordon sanitaire in the face of these disputes is unlikely to get easier in the short term.

Governance: The Arctic, at present, has no dedicated security community despite various security issues appearing from many different directions on the margins. The Arctic Council is not (yet?) equipped to address emerging hard security concerns, such as those suggested above, due to its lack of a security mandate and its structure, which has begun to resemble a pyramid. Eight states form the core membership, but several major non-Arctic governments, including China, Germany, India, Japan and the United Kingdom, sit as observers, with another, the European Union, possibly attaining that status in May. As the Munich report noted, “Arctic affairs have become a matter of global attention.” This situation is unlikely to reverse itself even if a resource scramble never comes to pass. Differences between Arctic and non-Arctic actors over the direction of regional governance, and worries about the Arctic becoming a “closed shop,” could create tensions and strain the council’s ability to address future security issues.

The idea of Arctic exceptionalism (the idea that the region can stand apart from security concerns further south) is becoming less viable, both due to climate change and the heightened degree of international interest and engagement. It would be very premature to argue that the Arctic is destined to become a space for insecurity, but it is also becoming more necessary than ever to contemplate Arctic affairs with security scenarios in mind.

This article originally appeared at the Arctic Journal. The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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