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Can the U.S. Afford to Exclude Military Security from its Arctic Council Chairmanship Agenda?

U.S. Military Makes Preparations

At the next Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting held in Iqaluit, Nunavut (Canada) on 24-25 April 2015, the US will take over chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Canada for the next two years until May 2017. This comes at a time of unprecedented geopolitical volatility and tension – at least since the end of the Cold War – around the globe, which makes many wonder what happened to American resolve and leadership. Moreover, the Arctic may soon become the venue for geopolitical brinkmanship and a real stress test for the already severely strained US-Russian relationship because it is in the Arctic where Russia and the US are poised to square off over natural resources and other issues.

Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr. who is the US Special Representative for the Arctic and a retired Commandant of the US Coast Guard, recently spoke at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and elaborated on the theme – “One Arctic – Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities” – of the US Arctic Council chairmanship explaining that out of a “collection of projects” to choose from the decision was made to lump them together in three thematic categories:

  1. Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship with particular emphasis on “search and rescue and exercising the search and rescue agreement; exercising the Marine Oil Spill Preparation and Response Agreement”; et cetera. This point is indispensable for the future development of new offshore oil and gas reserves and for getting them safely to market.
  1. Improvements to the economic and living conditions of the ‘People of the North’ with renewable energy projects and “a review of telecommunication capabilities within the Arctic.”
  1. Adaptation to climate change. With respect to this point, Admiral Papp stressed: “We’re not going to cure climate change within the Arctic Council, but we need to draw attention to the effects of climate change and also come up with ways to mitigate and adapt to it to hopefully protect the environment of the Arctic to demonstrate to the rest of the world that what goes on in the rest of the world affects the Arctic and what’s happening in the Arctic affects the rest of the world.”

All these tangible on-the-ground projects are in line with the – in various instances – outlined overall US policy agenda in the Arctic, which is nicely summarized in a Heritage Foundation Backgrounder entitled “True North: Economic Freedom and Sovereignty Must Be at the Heart of the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council”:

  1. Continued strengthening of the Arctic Council as an intergovernmental forum
  2. Introduction of new long-term priorities into the Arctic Council
  3. Raising Arctic and climate change awareness within the US and across the world

Notably, the US priorities and goals in the Arctic seem to put more emphasis on a non-traditional understanding of security – ‘Human Security’. In short, this implies a shift in the reference point for ‘security’ from the ‘state’ towards the ‘individual’ thereby challenging the traditional notion of ‘National Security’, which is predominantly understood in military terms. Often in international politics the agenda sets itself irrespective of what – in the Arctic case for example – the US intends to prioritize or not. The US opted not to specifically mention military security. Current circumstances, however, suggest that it would indeed be prudent to reassure US allies in the region of US leadership and resolve as well as adequate engagement by at least putting it explicitly on the agenda.

Why?

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty published the map below which depicts operational military installations north of the Arctic Circle. Rferl notes with regard to Russia’s “ramping up its military presence in the Arctic”: “The push reflects a new emphasis under President Vladimir Putin on the Arctic as a region of strategic importance that is also rich in oil and gas reserves. The push comes as melting sea ice opens up those Arctic energy resources, prompting a scramble by Russia and other Arctic nations – Denmark, Canada, the United States, and Norway – to stake competing territorial claims.”

Russia’s Military Push in the Arctic

roman arctic militarySource: Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

Additionally, steadily increasing Russian military activity in the region – even if consistent with international law – triggers military responses by neighboring states and, further, could easily result in miscalculations on both sides. According to the BarentsObserver, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland recently announced plans for more joint military exercises along their Nordic borders to “be prepared to face possible crises or incidents”. The BarentsObserver cites from an Op-ed in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, in which the Nordic countries declare: “The Russian military are acting in a challenging way along our borders. (…) Russia’s propaganda and political manoevering are contributing to sowing discord between the nations, as well as inside organisations like NATO and the EU.”

Russia’s response on its Ministry of Foreign Affairs website was swift and the comment read, as reported by the BarentsObserver: “But unlike in previous years, Nordic defense cooperation has been positioned as directed against Russia, something that can undermine the positive constructive cooperation that has been accumulated in the North over the past decades.” As such, a dangerous cycle of escalating military activity and tension may already be underway.

All this illustrates why military security in the Arctic, which is directly linked to energy security for many Nordic countries including the US via Alaska, should not fall off the US policy agenda for the Arctic. In this regard, the US should properly recognize that Alaska with its formidable resource base and still many undeveloped offshore assets requires a stable security environment in order for capital intensive resource development investment to be made.

For more on this issue read Breaking Energy’s coverage of “Energy and Governance in the Arctic” as well as “Why is the Arctic at the Center of World Politics?”.

The latter article mentions something very important, which should be kept in mind with regard to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s stance on US strategy in the Arctic given that she has now decided to run for president in 2016. Mrs. Clinton seems to view military security as an integral part of the US strategic approach in the Arctic. Obviously, this could have a tremendous impact on the US Arctic Council chairmanship if she is elected. Moreover, this could finally help to speed up two crucial projects: the overdue addition of a second US icebreaker and an Alaska deepwater port for vessels in Arctic waters, needed to protect US Arctic interests, including natural resources. Conversely, read Breaking Energy coverage here addressing why the US should not focus the agenda on military aspects of security in the Arctic during its upcoming Arctic Council Chairmanship.

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