Militarization of the Arctic continues

Iceberg near Ilulissat (Greenland). Photo: Ludovic Hirlimann. This photo is under a Creative Commons Licence (CC-BY-NC)

October 27, 2009
By Roderick Kefferpütz

The Arctic is undergoing a steady militarization not witnessed since the days of the Cold War. Within the last year major circumpolar nations such as Canada, Norway, Denmark and Russia have each announced a considerable expansion of their respective military capacities in the High North. Even NATO’s new Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has joined the rhetoric in September, declaring his intention to increase the alliance’s role in the region.

Global warming unlocks new treasures
It is clear that Arctic states wish to increase their sovereignty over these disputed waters as global warming will unlock a host of new treasures. The melting of Arctic ice, for example, will allow new efficient trade routes. The distance from Shanghai to New Jersey, for example, would be 4.350 miles shorter than through the Panama Canal. Such new commercial sea lanes could also relieve congestion on bottlenecks such as the Suez and Panama Canals as well as the Strait of Malacca. In addition, they would avoid the politically volatile Middle East and piracy at the Horn of Africa.

The High North is also rich in natural resources. According to the US Geological Survey the region possesses 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 per cent of undiscovered natural gas. With dwindling oil and gas reserves from conventional fields, new supplies in the Arctic will sooner or later have to be brought on-line in order to meet global demand. The bi-annual resource report from the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, published last month, illustrates this by pointing out that Norway will have to go further into the Arctic if it wishes to maintain production figures.

Besides energy resources, the Arctic is also home to important fish stocks and precious metals. Cod in the Barents Sea and Pollock in the Russian Far East of the Arctic, for example, represent roughly 25 per cent of the global catch of whitefish. Moreover, polar invertebrates represent a valuable resource for the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors as they are used in the production of analgesics and other types of medication.

The Great Game in the Arctic
Simultaneously, Arctic militarization is driven by domestic dynamics. Here, the circumpolar nations’ security and defence establishments play a particular role as they naturally wish to expand their operational scope and responsibilities as well as budgets. The very fact that military chest-thumping and gung-ho sovereignty exercises in the region can provide politicians with an increased popularity amongst the electorate is also certainly not forgotten by Arctic governments. In this context, it has been all the rage for politicians and the Armed Forces to paint a dramatic picture of a new emerging ‘great game’ in the Arctic, which includes resource wars and threats to national interest and sovereignty.

Emotions are also running high as many circumpolar nations are exceedingly sensitive towards developments in the High North due to the fact that they identify themselves with the Arctic, considering it a vital part of their cultural heritage. This further impedes rational policy-making and explains why classical hard security threats are exaggerated. Ironically, however, it is these exact Sturm und Drang appeals for greater military securitization of the Arctic that may actually back-fire turning into self-fulfilling prophecies that could culminate in an arms race.

Fact of the matter is that the issue of Arctic sovereignty and resources is still determined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), under which each claimant state can extend their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) if it can prove that the geological structure of the continental shelf is an extension of its continental platform. In addition, the coastal Arctic states reconfirmed their commitment to UNCLOS at a meeting in Ilulissat, Greenland in May 2008. Scientists and politicians rather than troops will therefore decide the Arctic’s fate.

The role of non-state actors
Instead, real threats to sovereignty are emerging from cross-boundary issues and non-state actors. Climate change and the melting of the Arctic’s ice cap, for example, will not only affect the local eco-system and indigenous ways of life but it will also lead to a catastrophic rise in the world’s ocean levels endangering small island states and other low-lying areas

A melting Arctic and the new resources and transport routes available will also attract a panoply of oil and gas majors, shipping companies, tour operators and criminal activity ranging from human traffickers and drug cartels to terrorist groups. The latter has particularly been identified by January’s US Presidential Directive, which notes the potential vulnerability of the United States to terrorist and criminal acts in the Arctic region.

As such, what is urgently needed is not an uncoordinated zealous and emotional push for greater military involvement but better civilian governance and inter-state cooperation. This would include a robust agreement for mitigating global warming, as is currently negotiated, the creation of an efficient multilateral governance ‘umbrella’ mechanism for the Arctic which will cover environmental protection, navigation, the extraction of natural resources, and legal frameworks, as well as effective and co-ordinated civilian enforcement of the region in order to impose clear rules of conduct as well as provide maritime services such as search and rescue, surveillance, weather reporting and good mapping.

Arctic states must come back to their senses and realise that increasing their military presence will not solve the region’s problems but might actually serve to exacerbate tensions.

Roderick Kefferpütz is project co-ordinator in the EU Regional Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Brussels. This Article was also published on (in German)