Time to build the firehouse

Analysis | There are plenty of hurdles to developing a forum to address Arctic security issues, but that does not eliminate the need to do so

On their way to close the window of opportunity?

Marc Lanteigne

Over the past few weeks, there has been an uptick in the longstanding debate about whether the time is ripe for security issues to be added to the growing array of Arctic regional organisations, either connected to or co-operating with the Arctic Council. One recent article was highly critical of the idea of an Arctic security forum, particularly one which would address military security concerns.

Among the notable arguments against such a move are the stable geopolitical situation in the region, as well as the benefits offered by international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and new issue-specific regional initiatives such as the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF), created in 2015 to better co-ordinate far northern maritime safety issues. This view is also based on the assumption that the introduction of a military dimension to Arctic co-operation would actually foster increased divisions and distract from more pressing regional issues.

The poor relations between Russia and the West have begun to spill over into the region, amid concerns about Moscow’s military build-up in its Arctic territories and the increased number of incursion incidents in the Baltic-Nordic region by Russian ships and planes. As well, the Ukraine conflict acts as ‘Banquo’s ghost’, an issue which has haunted governmental and non-governmental Arctic meetings. The possibility of Russian-Western rivalries migrating to the Arctic is a valid concern, and has been one of the catalysts of the developing debate about an Arctic security mechanism.

SEE RELATED: Towards ever-closer co-operation

However, the idea of creating a hard security organisation for the region remains unworkable for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there is no common definition of Arctic boundaries, thus creating a problem of jurisdiction. Secondly, the distribution of power among the Arctic governments would also discourage any formal military organisation. The ‘Arctic eight’ includes Nato members and neutrals, two great powers and small states, as well as semi-independent entities, such as Greenland. There would be apprehension among some Arctic states, as well as indigenous groups, about a potential loss of sovereignty, and many non-Arctic states would react with dismay at such an organisation, especially if they were denied the chance to participate.

These formidable obstacles should not discourage the possibility of creating a security mechanism in the region through different means. It would be equally counterproductive, and reflective of short-term thinking, to continue to treat the Arctic as embedded within a cordon sanitaire and a place where security issues are kept out indefinitely. Instead, discussion about security co-operation in the region should begin with the creation of an Arctic security community (ASC), which would focus on non-traditional security issues of importance to the Arctic eight as well as non-Arctic states with developing interests in the region, notably the observer governments in the Arctic Council.

As noted in the work by Adler and Barnett, security communities are often born of changes in the political, economic and/or technological status of a given region, or the appearance of an external threat. While the latter is less valid in the case of the Arctic, it can certainly be argued that overall conditions in the region have changed rapidly on a variety of fronts.

SEE RELATED: Reconsidering security

Then, should conditions appear which promote knowledge sharing, an increase in trust-building, and the feeling of a collective identity, a security community may be created which does not align against a third part but rather focuses on comprehensive security development. These conditions are appearing in the Arctic, and should an ASC be ‘anarchic’ in nature, meaning that decisions are made by consensus with every member entitled to a veto, concerns about power blocs would be muted.

The proliferation of new Arctic agencies and proposals designed to address maritime safety, pollution and codes of conduct has raised concerns about what has been called a ‘spaghetti bowl’ problem, the overlapping of too many organisations with too little co-ordination, leading to confusion and policy duplication. As more Arctic agencies are created to address various strategic areas, an ASC could act as a nexus for these agencies to communicate and suggest new initiatives in a congenial atmosphere.

As well, an Arctic security community would address concerns by non-Arctic states, especially China, which are sensitive to being shut out of Arctic affairs as the circumpolar north continues to open economically. An ASC would work to bolster communication and confidence-building between Arctic and non-Arctic entities on the governmental and non-governmental levels, essential links as non-Arctic states and companies seek to deepen their presence in the region.

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While the timing for creating an ASC would not be optimal due to the toxic state of relations between Russia and the West right now, in many other ways the geopolitical situation in the region would be very favourable to creating such an organisation. The United States, as current chair of the Arctic Council, would be in an excellent position to put forward such a proposal, especially if it could provide a conduit for communications with Moscow. Canada has a new government that has promised to re-examine its Arctic policies, including in the areas of regional development.

Several Arctic as well as non-Arctic governments, including, most recently, France, have published policy papers detailing their circumpolar policies, many of which include specific references to the need to address traditional and non-traditional security in the Arctic. Finally, due to lower fossil-fuel and commodity prices since 2014, the spectre of a zero-sum global scramble for Arctic resources has greatly faded, but has not completely disappeared given the unpredictability of future raw-material prices (and demands).

One needs to ask whether it is time to take advantage of this window of opportunity to bring together the various Arctic security-related initiatives created over the past few years, in the same vein as the events which led to the creation of the Arctic Council 20 years ago, and to create a comprehensive, inclusive and effective security mechanism for the region.

Along with the environment in the Arctic, the political situation there is also changing rapidly, and it would be judicious to prepare for these changes rather than simply react to them. It is much better to build the firehouse before having to fight the fire.

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.

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