Three levels of Arctic Geopolitics

By: Dr. Andreas Østhagen, senior research fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Oslo, and the Wilson Center, Washington DC.

A decade ago, as climate change was altering the geography of the region, the resource potential of the North grabbed attention, and states saw the chance to turn a profit. Today, this focus has shifted to concerns about the increased tension between NATO countries and Russia, with a dash of Chinese interests on top.

This brief article unpacks Arctic geopolitics by exploring the different, at times contradictory, political dynamics at play in the North. It explores three levels of relations: the regional (Arctic) level, the international system, and the level of bilateral relations. Labelling these levels as “good,” “bad” and “ugly” – borrowing from Sergio Leone’s 1966 western film – helps shed light on the distinctiveness of Arctic geopolitics.

The Good: Regional Relations and Cooperation

Starting with the good in the Arctic, the regional relations among Arctic states: Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. The Arctic region was thrown onto the international agenda in the early 2000s due to the increasingly apparent effects of climate change. Arctic ice sheets were disappearing at an accelerated pace, which coincided with new prospects for offshore oil and gas exploration, as well as the opening of shipping lanes through sensitive areas such as the Northwest Passage.

In response, the Arctic states publicly declared the Arctic to be a “region of cooperation.” They also affirmed their intention to work within established international arrangements and agreements, in particular, the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement binding states in shared pursuit of order, cooperation and stability at sea.5F

Since then, the Arctic states have repeated the mantra of cooperation. The deterioration in relations between Russia and its Arctic neighbours since 2014 – a result of Russian actions in eastern Ukraine and Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula – did not change this.

The emergence of the Arctic Council as the primary forum for regional affairs in the Arctic plays into this setting. The Council, founded in Ottawa in 1996, serves as a platform from which its member states can portray themselves as working harmoniously toward common goals. Adding to its legitimacy, an increasing number of actors have applied for and gained observer status on the council: Italy, for example, joined in 2013, alongside China, India, Japan, Korea and Singapore.

The Bad: Global Power Politics

What happens in the Arctic, however, is not the same as international global politics concerned with the Arctic. During the Cold War, the Arctic held a prominent place in the political and military standoffs between the two superpowers. It was important not because of interactions in the Arctic itself (although cat-and-mouse submarine games took place there), but because of its wider strategic role in the systemic competition between the United States and the USSR. The Arctic formed the buffer zone between these two superpower rivals, its airspace comprising the shortest distance for long-range bombers to reach one another’s shores.

Following the easing of Cold War tensions, from the mid-2000s onwards, the Arctic regained strategic geopolitical importance. A repeat of Cold War dynamics has seen Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, strengthen its military (and nuclear) prowess in order to reassert Russia’s position at the top table of world politics. Given the country’s geography and recent history, one of its obvious focus areas would be its Arctic lands and seas.

This is where Russia’s strategic submarines are based, which are essential to the country’s status as a major global nuclear power. Melting of the sea ice and increased resource extraction on the coast along the Northern Sea Route are only some elements that have spurred Russia’s military emphasis in its Arctic development efforts: Russia’s north matters for the Kremlin’s more general strategic plans and ambitions in world politics.

Within these shifting geo-economic and geo-strategic dynamics, China has also emerged as a new Arctic actor, proclaiming itself as a “near-Arctic state.” With Beijing’s continuous efforts to assert influence, the Arctic has emerged as the latest arena where China’s presence and interaction are components of an expansion of power – be it through scientific research or investments in fossil fuel industries. This has led to the Arctic becoming relevant in a global power competition between China and the United States.

The Ugly: The Complexity of International Affairs

There is, however, one further political dynamic that requires examination: actual day-to-day interactions between Arctic states. This is where things get ugly, both because some relations are more fraught than others, and because it is difficult to draw generalizing conclusions across the region.

Central here is the role the Arctic plays in considerations of national defence. This varies greatly amid the Arctic states, because each country prioritizes and deals with its northern areas differently. For Russia, with its vast Eurasian empire, the Arctic is integral to broader national defence considerations. For the Nordic countries, the Arctic is fundamental to national defence policy, precisely because this is where Russia invests considerably in its military capacity.

The Arctic arguably does not play the same pivotal role in national security considerations in North America as in northern Europe.21F Alaska and northern Canada are primarily locations for missile defence capabilities, surveillance infrastructure and a limited number of strategic forces. 22F Commentators have even argued that the most immediate concerns facing the Canadian Arctic today are not defence capabilities, but rather social and health conditions in northern communities, and their poor rates of economic development.

However, bilateral dynamics like in the case of Norway and Russia are multifaceted. Those two states also engage in various types of cooperation, ranging from co-management of fish stocks to search-and-rescue operations and a border crossing regime.26F These cooperative arrangements and agreements have not been revoked following the events of 2014.

Cooperation and Conflict

The Arctic is on the global geopolitical agenda. However, things are not as straightforward as conflict or cooperation in the North. There are some paradoxical that are best understood through the threefold distinction presented here: international competition (why the United States is increasingly focusing on China in an Arctic context), regional interaction (why Arctic states still meet to sign new agreements hailing the cooperative spirit of the North) and bilateral relations (why some Arctic states, and not others, invest heavily in their Northern defence posture).

What these nuances imply is that simplistic descriptions of Arctic geopolitics or a new Cold War in the Arctic today must be taken with a grain of salt. Political dynamics in the North are far too complex for these reductive descriptions. Recognizing this complexity should therefore encourage further studies of security politics in a region that has become an international focal point of examination and discussion.