Analysis | As the prospect of an Arctic security forum becomes increasingly less hypothetical, we must begin to consider how such a body could be formed
When the government of Denmark released its strategic review of its foreign and security policy priorities this month, many Arctic watchers focused on two significant recommendations. The first was in regards to strengthening economic, communications and research infrastructure in Greenland, while the second noted that given the spread of military activity in the Arctic over the past few years, the subject of an Arctic security forum should be explored.
Although the report did not give further details about how such a regime could be constructed, the fact that it was recommended further underscores the idea that it is a matter of when, not if, some sort of mechanism, either via the Arctic Council or through another form of co-operation, will come about.
The Arctic of course had been an arena for security co-operation throughout the Cold War, and as that conflict subsided and discussions began about a formal co-operation structure for the region, discussions about security were included. For example, recommendations made in the 1990s by venerable Canadian legal expert Donat Pharand about the possible development of an Arctic treaty included a security dimension which might have addressed disarmament issues and other forms of regional peace-building, especially between the two superpowers.
However, the founding document of the Arctic Council in 1996 specifically eschewed security matters on its agenda with a footnote stating that the new organisation ‘should not deal with matters related to military security’. Since that time, however, much has changed in the area of Arctic geopolitics, with the region opening up economically due to ice erosion, non-Arctic states expressing greater interest in the region and relations Western relations with Russia turning sour in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
As a result, keeping a degree of separation between Arctic affairs and security concerns has become more difficult. Although there are several regimes already in place which spill over into various local security interests, ranging from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Maritime Organisation to the Agreement on Co-operation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic which came into force in January 2013, the lack of a region-specific Arctic security community is becoming a more glaring omission in light of pressing traditional security issues, such as the heightened degree of military activity in and near Arctic waters, but also matters related to non-traditional security.
As explored in a chapter in a recent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute publication on Arctic governance by diplomat and European security specialist Alyson Bailes, who passed away in April, ‘security’ in the Arctic is hardly restricted to military elements but also include environmental, energy and economic security as well as human security and civil emergencies (accidents and search and rescue). What would be possibility, and the usefulness, of an Arctic security regime which could address each of these issues to the satisfaction of regional governments and peoples?
In international relations, security organisations usually appear in one of two ways. First, there is a formal security grouping created in response to a perceived common aggressor, with the classic examples being Nato and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. Such a scenario, despite difficult Russian/Western relations, remains very unlikely under current political circumstances however.
The second method, which commonly results in the creation of a security community rather than an alliance like Nato, involves a change in a strategic environment which prompts dialogue, confidence-building and a shared identity. This path is much more likely to be followed should momentum towards an Arctic security forum continue, especially in the areas of non-traditional security, where there is much more consensus between Arctic governments. However, the number of obstacles to be addressed before simply an informal security body could be created is not inconsiderable.
First, there are the Arctic states themselves, which represent a variety of sizes, (two great powers, one medium power and five small states, and one can add the Faroe Islands and Greenland), and strategic orientations, (five Nato members, two neutrals and Russia). Then there is the question of how broad the mandate of a given security body should be, given differing perceptions among local governments about Arctic sovereignty, as well as which security issues should take priority in a multilateral setting.
The role of indigenous persons and organisations would also have to be carefully considered, given that many current and future strategic decisions in the region would have a direct impact on local populations, a fact which might get lost if a security forum were to be too state-centric.
Finally, what would be the role of non-Arctic states in a formal regional security dialogue? While some non-Arctic states engaging the region have skirted the issue of security, others have more directly examined that factor to varying degrees. For example, Germany’s Arctic policy included a broad call for ‘free, safe and peaceful’ use of Arctic sea routes, while Japan’s regional policy paper made a more direct link between national security and access to Arctic waterways.
China, in its six-point policy for the Arctic introduced last year, stressed the rights of non-Arctic states, as well as the need for various mechanisms designed to promote ‘win-win’ outcomes. Is there a way of accommodating non-Arctic states in a regional security forum without diluting the role of the Arctic actors?
These are all complicated questions which would need to be addressed before a hypothetical security forum were to be created under any auspices. However, delaying these discussions further would also be unworkable, given the growing visibility of various types of security concerns appearing in the Arctic from many directions.
Photo: US State Department/Sgt Aaron Hostutler
The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo.
Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.
Get full-length articles delivered directly to your inbox. Subscribe to The Rasmussen’s newsletter.