The Arctic: treasure in the vacuum

The geopolitical scramble to exploit the resource wealth unearthed by climate change exposes enduring classic realist tensions in an era of common global security concerns.

Alex Matchett
27 November 2012

Our global common perception of the Arctic is changing. We can remember the grainy realm of hardy explorers muzzled by frozen beards, dragging laden sleds across a canvass of danger and desolation in search of the glory endowed by imperialist nations on their pioneers but the Arctic today has been cast in very different terms. Although the adventure badges have faded, the state interest remains for this dazzling space, so painfully rendered in the struggling polar bear and maps of shrinking white, hiding its real treasures below the surface.

Security in the Arctic is determined in five capitals far below 66° 33′ 44″ degrees north. Geostrategic considerations and the potential presence of trillions of dollars worth of hydrocarbons have forced states to act on their own terms. They have worked in conjunction to stake out an exclusive geopolitical arena where the tools of division are international law and supra national forums. In this sense liberal mechanisms of global governance have triumphed but given the potent sensitivity of the region economically and ecologically, they have failed to negate the order of states and their more narrowed interests. Defence initiatives clearly signal that security in the Arctic, in order to establish sovereignty and thereby access to hydrocarbons, is the major policy concern. There is no Arctic arms race but there is a creep of territorial claims, underlining the need for steel on the ice.

Accepted geological reports suggest more than 30% of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas could lie in the North Polar Region. Unsurprisingly, the five states with landmass inside the Arctic Circle, as well as other periphery states, have spent the last decade or so investing time and money into geological and bathymetric research hoping to identify their share of this potential bounty. This has created a situation of knowledge of the unknown inherent in arms race scenarios. Every party knows there is potentially something there and that it is finite. In the staking of claims to this territory they both react to and inspire other claims.

State expansion in the Arctic has so far been amicable between the Arctic Five (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the USA). After all, they have a mutual interest in respecting each other’s claims as it provides legitimacy for their own. Potential friction zones are forming around the Barents Sea and Hans Island and will increase as maritime boundaries are recognised and internalised. However the cooperative nature of dialogue over Arctic territory has thus far negated escalation. The bodies of the Arctic Council (where the Arctic Five sit permanently along with Sweden, Finland and Iceland) and, more importantly, the UN, with jurisdiction over the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), have played a crucial role in attempting to internationalise the Arctic space and giving it a crucial global context.

However the concept of liberal international relations in the Arctic is becoming somewhat stretched. While the Arctic Council, the UN and multiple other organisations have achieved much in Arctic perspective, not least environmentally, they have not been able to supress the nature of state interest. UNCLOS has provided international legal legitimacy for state claims in the Arctic, guaranteeing sovereignty and the crucial right to an Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ), as well as recognising undersea territory on proof of continental shelf extension. This has licensed state annexation of the Arctic. Though the United States continues to leave UNCLOS unratified, possibly due to an unwillingness to recognise limits on hydrocarbon extraction in international waters, reflective of its uncertain long term Arctic strategy, it nevertheless, like her neighbours, sees the need for a seat at the table.

However, economic expansion and geographical exploration have become increasingly politicised. Recent applications made by China and the EU to secure permanent observer basis (they currently have to be invited) were rejected as those states bordering the frozen sea seek to set up a perimeter and political precedent guarding access to the Arctic. The role of the Arctic Council has been somewhat perverted: rather than a vehicle of liberal internationalisation the forum has acted as a window for state policy to establish a political protocol based on geography. Opinions and statements of intent voiced at Arctic Council summits will find understanding ears as each state respectively seeks recognition of its claims. Essentially if all five Arctic states agree they should be the ones deciding Arctic global policy through legitimacy of proximity, there is little or nothing the rest of the world can do, especially as this geopolitical sphere encompasses the entities of the USA and Russia. For the five it is surely a case of better the devil you know.

The current make up and interactions of the five states’ Arctic policies has put somewhat of a vice on major variables, such as resources and scientific and defence capabilities, rendering a mutually accepted zero sum scenario . Fishing disputes between Norway and Russia over the Barents Sea have not changed their recognition of each other’s right to establish sovereignty in the Arctic, nor have the other four states challenged Denmark’s right to be in Greenland, despite the independence movement and the reality that the latter is incapable of governing such a huge empty space. However, parallel to these mutual recognitions is the inherent realist necessity for defence capability.

Every one of the Arctic Five has chosen to invest in new High North capabilities. This should be seen not only in terms of ability to exercise sovereignty over frozen wilderness but in strong correlation with a balancing paradigm. Whilst Russia reinvigorates its comprehensive northern defence capabilities by building new icebreakers and re-establishing Soviet era High North air bases, Norway is investing in next generation AEGIS cruisers and American F-35 fighters; equipment at the core of NATO operations. Denmark has launched a new generation of ice capable frigates of the Thetis class and Canada has expanded its northern land forces, land/ice capabilities and training. The USA has sought cooperation with Canada working on satellite defence and maintaining its Cold War era forward air bases in Alaska.

This is by no means the rearmament of previous generations but it does belie the importance of sovereignty defence. In analysis it is easy to see in each state’s policy that ‘establishing sovereignty’ is a premium. They may refer to the need to protect and support citizens working and living in the High North but the underpinning need for security here is the need to secure hydrocarbon potential as much from non Arctic states as from neighbours.

Climate change has opened up economic opportunities in the region through increased accessibility to fishing grounds and oil fields. Regulation on what constitutes ‘ice capable’ is being relaxed in many countries and conventional warships are now being billed as such. Parallel to this is the use of new shipping routes shaving a third off delivery times and fuel bills. Rising temperatures in the region have resulted in a major ice melt almost certainly guaranteeing the acceleration of future melts. The risks of accessing and utilising the High North economically have not been negated by the retreat of the ice; industrial accidents on the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez or the Komi oil spill would have catastrophic effects on a fragile and pressured environment. However legislation to protect Arctic ecology has not been without security concerns; Canada recently extended its maritime boundaries to include its High North archipelago channels under its marine protection policy, essentially making the North West passage sovereign waters, much to the consternation of the USA.

The governments dealing with Arctic policy are aware of the ecological roulette they are potentially playing but state sovereignty trumps Mother Nature’s. The majority of environmental bodies dealing with the High North eco systems sit under the umbrella of the Arctic Council. States take a lead role in essentially outsourcing environmental responsibility to a political no man’s land. For example, despite America’s funding of the Arctic Council’s Conservation of Flora and Fauna unit (CAFF) it is unforeseeable that the USA’s Minerals Management Service, with a government prerogative to report on the suitability of the Alaskan North Slope for further hydrocarbon drilling development, would allow its operations or findings to be over shadowed by CAFF. The situation is clear that no state would raise major concerns were the USA to expand drilling operations on or off the North Slope, as this would potentially jeopardise their own interests in accessing their hydrocarbon deposits and could threaten relations for the sake of exchanging labels of hypocrisy. States do not dispel the importance of the Arctic environment but they do separate it from the zero sum paradigm.        

The different interests currently surrounding the Arctic have been broken down by many observers, especially those outside the Arctic Five, as a loose balance between environmental protection and economic exploitation. This is not a wrong interpretation but it ignores the deeper reality. While a post 20th century, globalised worldview blossoms in urban and developing spaces, realist calculations and suspicions are re-asserting themselves in the void of the Arctic. Securing mineral wealth through sovereignty by increasing military capability is the self fulfilling mandate and objective of every state. The influence of outside states is seen as a threat. This five state security dilemma has matriculated in the liberal forums of the Arctic Council and UNCLOS where mutual recognition has essentially given these states the privilege of protagonists. Ironically perhaps this has revoked the power and global scope of international bodies in the Arctic and left the states alone in the High North; a situation where reality of wealth and absence of sovereignty encourages hard power.   

It is currently not prudent for the five states to act out an internationalist policy for the sake of liberal ideals; the incredible hydrocarbon treasures at stake mean there is too much to lose. With America and Russia at the table, there is little room for a UN mandate on internationalising the space for the good of mankind, whatever the best intentions of UNCLOS. The Arctic is tied so closely to the natural systems of the world and in being so removed geographically from human settlement entertains the conceptual Other. In such a space, realism is a premium as states interpret the most inviting and delicate of things: a gilded power vacuum.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData