An ambiguous role: NATO in the Arctic

Conditions in the Arctic in the 21st century come complete with territorial claims and lucrative opportunities. What role should NATO play in balancing the security implications for an increasingly accessed High North?

Even Kuross
2 July 2014
Seabulk Arctic Oil Tanker

Seabulk Arctic Oil Tanker. Demotix/Dale Stockton. All rights reserved.

The area above the Arctic Circle is a mix of vast ice sheets, frigid waters and terrestrial surfaces. But beneath the Arctic lies a treasure chest of minerals and opportunity waiting for those fortunate enough to have access to the untapped resources of the Far North. The Arctic Council, the primary multilateral forum for the region, is composed of eight members that make up the Arctic states, five contiguous coastal states and three oceanic states. Five of the eight Arctic states, save Russia, Finland and neutral Sweden, are also members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Four of the five coastal states – Canada, Denmark via Greenland, Norway, and the United States – are members of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. NATO, by extension, will be intimately connected to what happens in the Arctic as its strategic interests are extended to the northernmost reaches of the earth.

In recent years, the Arctic has witnessed a flurry of increased activity as polar ice thaws, making the region increasingly accessible for commercial opportunities. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered fossil fuels are in the Arctic. The potential for deep-sea mining in the Arctic to extract valuable metals will soon become a reality due to favourable climate conditions. The opening of new shipping lanes that can dramatically cut shipping costs and time between east Asia and Europe will lead to increased circumpolar traffic, and fishing in the polar region has increased as the seas surrounding the North Pole become more navigable.

The Arctic in the 21st century comes replete with a number of security implications for an increasingly accessed High North. Overlapping territorial claims, geopolitical value, and lucrative economic opportunities all remain at stake. Given that a number of member states share polar challenges, what role is there to play for NATO in ensuring a stable Arctic future?

NATO redefined in the Arctic

The Arctic, the region composed of the area above 66.34° north latitude, has seen scant NATO activity over the course of the alliance’s existence. As a collective security alliance that guarantees the territorial integrity of member states, the area technically falls within the community’s mandate. However, it is unsurprising that an alliance begot and developed during the Cold War would fail to make its presence felt in some of the most sparsely populated areas of the planet, far from the high-pressure frontlines between the east and west. During the Cold War, the Arctic was highly militarized, but for the most part, this show of strength was related to the advancement of territorial defense systems. In fact, Norway, an alliance member state that shared a border with the Soviet Union at the time, enacted certain restrictions on NATO during the Cold War, refusing to station NATO troops or store nuclear warheads in order to avoid provoking the communist giant to its east. Until global warming led to increased access, the High North was of little strategic interest to the alliance.

However, the growing significance of an accessible High North has prompted Arctic states to begin bolstering their northernmost capabilities. Hitherto, defensive concerns in the region have been primarily addressed at the sovereign state level, where every Arctic state was responsible for its respective strategic interests in the region. Norway, one of the five states with a territorial claim to the Arctic, is the only NATO member to have a permanent military presence in the polar region.

As the region is coming increasingly into focus, NATO has signalled its interest in redefining its previously ambiguous role in the polar region.  At the Seminar on Security Prospects in the High North, statements emanating from the former NATO Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, made clear that security in the Arctic was under consideration by alliance heads. He asserted: “The changes caused by the progressive melting of the ice cap are of concern to many countries beyond those of the Arctic Council and NATO. Indeed, the whole of the international community stands to be affected by many of the changes that are already taking place. In this situation, NATO needs to identify where the Alliance, with its unique competencies, can add value.”

Now that the region has finally fallen onto NATO’s agenda, the alliance has taken a more proactive approach in exploring what potential role it can play in the future of Arctic security. In 2012, NATO held a joint-exercise, Cold Response, in Norway and Sweden, with troops from 15 participating nations, in order to “rehearse high intensity Crisis Response Operations in winter conditions within NATO with a UN mandate.” The exercise was designed to test deployment procedures, but also to develop capabilities for a potential response to provocations in the Arctic.

Arctic disagreements

Fortunately, the majority of Arctic disagreements are non-military in nature, a point that should assuage friction between the states involved. Additionally, it is estimated that up to 95 percent of Arctic resources fall within sovereign borders, thus limiting the opportunity for overlapping claims. 

Disagreements between Arctic NATO-states have been and will continue to be handled primarily at a bilateral diplomatic level and will not affect broader alliance security implications in the region. Wider international disputes can be taken up at the United Nations via the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the charter that governs the high seas. This is the case regarding Russia’s ongoing petition for the UN to ratify its claims to an extended continental shelf in the form of two submarine mountain ranges. Beyond UN arbitration, all five coastal Arctic states agreed to the Illulissat Declaration in 2008, which holds that issues of contestation should be handled bilaterally. Given the number of multilateral bodies governing activity in the Arctic there seems to be little need for NATO to supply military backing in the foreseeable future.

Naturally, the Kremlin views any western action suspiciously, either as a Cold War remnant or to maintain the façade that the west is out to undermine Russia. Although it is easy to cast Russia in the role of aggressor in the region, it is unrealistic to consider Russia an actual threat when it holds almost 80 percent of Arctic territory and is positioned towards alternative security threats. Russia has invested in a multi-billon dollar rearmament of its Arctic capabilities and plans to regularly patrol Arctic shipping lanes to protect Russian coastal waters and its resource extraction operation. But Russia has shown uncharacteristic restraint in dealings related to the Arctic. In a recent example of this, Russia concluded a long-standing dispute with its Arctic neighbor, Norway, over maritime borders.

Additionally, given the technical difficulties inherent in operating in such an inhospitable environment, Russia has opted to chart a cooperative course, seeking western expertise to exploit its Arctic resources. Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, will soon begin drilling in the icy waters of the Kara Sea in concert with the American company ExxonMobil. However, it remains to be seen how deteriorating ties with Russia over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine will affect NATO’s approach to Russia in Europe and beyond. This will certainly be under discussion when the alliance meets for a summit in Wales this September.

The other potential threat comes from China, which has begun asserting itself globally and would like to take advantage of the commercial opportunities presented in the Far North. Estimates place China as a key benefactor of increased Arctic trade, up to 500 billion dollars by 2020, as higher numbers of ships begin transiting the Northern Sea Route above the Russian coast. It is also eager to take advantage of increased fishing opportunities in broadening international waters. However, Chinese encroachment in the Arctic would occur in the far east and would be an issue for Russia, not NATO, to contend with. For its part, China has applied to become a full member of the Arctic Council from which it may influence Arctic-related policy politically.

An uncertain position

The Euro-Atlantic security structure is primarily guided by the treaty which begot the alliance in 1949, The North Atlantic Treaty. Among other things, the treaty guarantees the protection of member states’ territorial integrity. Therefore, ostensibly, the areas of the Arctic that fall within the territory of member states come under the aegis of NATO, which is committed to protecting its members’ organic interests in the North Atlantic region and beyond.

However, NATO’s ability to operate is limited by each of its member states’ national interests. Each alliance member has specific agendas and requirements in mind when accounting for their security. The United States and Canada, both original members of the alliance, continue to dispute whether the Northwest Passage is an international waterway free for unencumbered trans-ocean traffic or as Ottawa claims, falls within Canadian waters. Nevertheless, the two countries signed the Tri-Command Framework for Arctic Cooperation in 2012 in order to facilitate bilateral cooperation in the Arctic.

Norway, long wary of its Russian neighbor, wishes NATO to have an increased role in regional affairs in order to form an integrated front regarding the future of Arctic defense. It has called for joint military operations to be conducted by NATO and for the alliance to establish a military presence in the region. These calls have been echoed by the United Kingdom, which has backed exploration of the creation of a mini-NATO in the Arctic to consolidate the respective positions of those involved. On the other side, Canada feels that the entrance of a greater NATO presence would lead to the inclusion of non-coastal Arctic states into matters it feels only concerns the five littoral Arctic states.

When NATO released its most recent Strategic Concept in 2010 it avoided all mention of the Arctic. Additionally, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated recently, “At this present time, NATO has no intention of raising its presence and activities in the High North.” This signals the difficulty for the trans-Atlantic alliance to take a proper role in the High North outside of supporting its member states’ operations.

There is undoubtedly a role NATO can play, but for the time being the strained alliance’s focus, as a Cold War product in the 21st century, remains elsewhere. It is probable that for the foreseeable future the alliance will continue to defer to its member states with regards to the Arctic. If NATO, a security block, were to play a more active role in the High North, it should be in a non-military fashion. The alliance can support member states’ respective civilian operations, act as a forum for Arctic cooperation and communication, and as a vehicle for ad hoc responses to the diverse array of activity in the Arctic (such as disaster response or search-and-rescue operations). But now that the region is on NATO’s agenda, it can prepare for a time, if ever, when it can play a positive role in maintaining peace in the Far North. 

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