Avoiding a Scramble for the High North

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The geopolitics of the Arctic are stuck in a paradox: The more regional players restate the importance of international cooperation, the more some pundits and policymakers seem to conclude that the Arctic risks descending into competition and even conflict.

The world is awakening to the growing strategic importance of the High North. As the Arctic ice melts due to global warming, it opens up new opportunities, from shorter shipping lanes to newly accessible oil and gas reserves; respectively, about 13 percent and 30 percent of the world's undiscovered resources are in the Arctic, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. These discoveries are usually followed by declarations of the littoral nations to the effect that any potential disagreements over them will be resolved peacefully. However, beneath expressions of goodwill, the Arctic debate is often characterized by a sense of urgency, and even forms of alarmism.

In recent years, instances of growing securitization of the Arctic have abounded. Back in 2008, a paper by Javier Solana, then the EU's foreign policy's chief, and the European Commission warned about "potential conflict over resources in Polar regions" as they become exploitable due to melting ice. In 2010, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, Adm. James Stavridis, argued that "for now, the disputes in the North have been dealt with peacefully, but climate change could alter the equilibrium." Then there are actions that speak louder than prepared speeches - from the famous August 2007 expedition that planted a Russian flag on the North Pole's seabed to the annual summer military exercises carried out by Canada to assert its sovereignty in the North. Although the Russian stunt was most likely aimed at nationalist domestic audiences, some observers view these exercises as the expressions of competing national interests. As the scholar Scott Borgerson ominously put it: "The Arctic powers are fast approaching diplomatic gridlock, and that could eventually lead to the sort of armed brinkmanship that plagues other territories."

The geopolitical constellation in and around the region provides a ready justification for such an assessment. While no-one really imagines the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark fighting over the Arctic, some of their politicians have occasionally framed rhetoric in more peppered terms than one might expect. Russia, the fifth Arctic littoral nation, typically treads a fine line between declarations of cooperation and an innate instinct for great-power competition. Add to that the EU, which is seeking to carve its own role, and Asia's giants, above all China, for which the opening of the Northeast passage may reduce sailing distance with Europe by some 40 percent, and it is not hard to conjure up the prospect of an Arctic race building up.

For a peaceful Arctic environment to emerge, the political discourse and ensuing practices need rebalancing. Besides abstract musings about the normative virtues of multilateralism, straightforward considerations of enlightened self-interest should justify the drive for cooperation. As The Economist put it in a recent report, "The five Arctic littoral countries ... would sooner develop the resources they have than argue over those they do not have."

Some recent developments point in this direction. The Arctic Council, the main regional forum grouping the littoral countries plus Iceland, Sweden, and Finland, has grown into a premier venue of high-level interaction among Arctic powers. The stature of outsiders queuing up for permanent observer status, including China and the EU, testifies to the growing importance of this body. In 2011, the Council's members strengthened cooperation on search and rescue operations (a crucial matter for such a territorially vast area). In 2008, the five littoral countries joined together in a statement, the Ilulissat Declaration, by which they committed to settle in an orderly manner disagreements that may arise on issues such as navigation rights and delineation of the outer limits of the continental shelf.

One tool that could help advance this commitment is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which all Arctic countries participate - with the glaring exception of the United States which has not ratified it. As recently as last July, two U.S. Republican senators joined the ranks of those opposed to the treaty, thereby bringing the number to 34, enough to prevent ratification for the foreseeable future. The senators' concern was over U.S. sovereignty, notwithstanding repeated expressions of support for the treaty at the highest levels of the U.S. government and by many members of the Republican Party's security elite. It remains to be seen whether and how, in the long run, their argument will affect the vision of a peaceful Arctic; for now, it is likely to vindicate those presaging the specter of a scramble for the High North.

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