The Ongoing Evolution of Arctic International Relations

Robert Murray on the complexities of circumpolar politics and the scholars seeking to understand them.
By: /
July 16, 2014
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Vice-President, Research, Frontier Centre for Public Policy; Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta.

Throughout the last two decades, the Arctic region has become an area of intense interest for scholars from a variety of fields. This is unsurprising considering the wide array of variables that go into our understandings of what the Arctic actually is, and precisely which aspect we are discussing when analyzing certain aspects of the circumpolar region. What is equally interesting is that international relations scholars have lagged behind their contemporaries in other fields such as anthropology, biology, environment and transportation. As scholars of international relations begin to pay more attention to political affairs in the Arctic, the complexities and potential conflict becomes far more evident.

Factually speaking, the Arctic region encompasses the area north of the Arctic Circle. This area covers approximately 20,000,000 sq km and represents about 4% of the Earth’s surface. In this geographical space, there are eight Arctic states – Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. There are an estimated 4 million people living in the Arctic, the majority of which are based in Russian or European Arctic communities and represent a variety of Inuit or aboriginal groups.

Among the primary reasons that scholars of international relations have yet to embrace the Arctic as a core area of study is that, until recently, the political aspects of the High North were isolated to discussions of Cold War fly-overs, missile tests and air defence. Access to the Arctic was relatively limited and thus there was no significant presence in the region beyond those populations who lived above the Arctic Circle in the various Arctic states. As temperatures in the Arctic have begun to rise and ice has continued to melt, not only has there been a greater ability for states to increase their presence in the region but the prospect of abundant natural resources that may actually be viable for extraction has led to interest from states, corporations, NGOs and multilateral institutions that had previously either not existed or had been interpreted as peripheral interests. Though there are still tremendous challenges to accessing the region, the aspirations of Arctic states, competitor states, and multinational corporations are at an all-time high.

According to a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic is vastly wealthy in untapped natural resources. The survey claims that the region is home to approximately 30 percent of the world’s untapped natural gas reserves, approximately 13 percent of the world’s untapped oil supply (which comes out to roughly 90 billion barrels of oil) and is a potential second significant source of tar sands. Beyond the prospect for oil and gas, the Arctic is thought to be rich in other resources as well. The Russian Arctic is said to have abundant deposits of nickel, copper, coal, gold, uranium, tungsten, and diamonds; the North American Arctic is believed to have pockets of uranium, copper, nickel and iron; and in terms of biological resources, the region represents one fifth of the world’s freshwater and several of the world’s largest rivers, as well as being one of the last and most extensive wilderness areas on Earth. The possibilities of tapping and controlling such resources are a key impetus for states and multinational corporations playing a more active role in the north.

What is less clear than the resource potential of the Arctic are the political dynamics that will shape cooperation. The eight Arctic states have all made territorial claims that, in many cases, overlap or contradict the claims of others. There has also been an increased presence of non-Arctic states showing major interest in Arctic affairs such as China, India, Japan, the UK and South Korea. Beyond the interests of individual states are a series of multilateral arrangements that have attempted to bring order and a sense of cooperation to the region, including the United Nations and the Arctic Council. The question that many Arctic observers continue to ponder is just how effective institutions will be in maintaining order in a region that is seeing increased interest from a series of different actors.

For scholars, the challenge becomes one of trying to explain and understand the behaviour of states and actors in the Arctic to date and moving forward. Like virtually all areas and events in human history, no singular comprehension of international relations is adequate in explaining the way things continue to unfold in such an uncertain area. On one hand, states have been incredibly cooperative in sharing information and in establishing a cooperative framework through which to pursue Arctic interests; on the other hand, the Arctic states and other Arctic-interested states have invested resources into national militaries and in Arctic-capable technologies that would indicate a far less cooperative attitude.

What is striking about these attitudes and behaviours is that natural and historical allies are not working closely together and to date, the balance of power in the Arctic remains unclear. For instance, Canada and the United States, who are extremely closely linked in security, defence and trade matters (among many others) have yet to engage in any meaningful bilateral Arctic cooperation and are unsupportive of each other’s claims. To date, the United States has not been entirely supportive of Canada’s Northwest Passage claims and Canada has not endorsed the United States’ territorial claims, and there has been no serious effort to overcome these issues. That said, the two allies continue to sponsor and hold joint military exercises in the Region and there has been talk of strengthening NORAD and missile defence cooperation in the north.

Further, it has been only recently that states like Norway, Sweden and Finland started to discuss the need for common strategies in the Arctic to counterbalance the more aggressive posturing of the Russians that includes the development of a new class of submarine, new class of ICBM’s, the purchasing of new aircraft carrier technology and a permanent Russian army brigade. Naturally, European states are concerned about Russia’s intentions in the north and its evolving militaristic attitude towards its Arctic Interests.

Iceland, on the other hand, is aligning its Arctic interests very closely with those of China. Iceland is acutely aware that it is incapable of enforcing and protecting its Arctic interests on its own and also continues to face economic turmoil, and thus its newfound partnership with China is expected to yield multiple benefits.

It is also important to note that, as the alignment of the international system continues to evolve from unipolar to multipolar, the Arctic will be an arena through which emerging and existing powers will assert their influence. The ongoing shift from unipolarity to multipolarity will eventually lead to an international realignment of power and alliances, and there is little doubt the Arctic will be a key component of state energy, security and development strategies. The lack of a robust governance regime over Arctic affairs is a gap the Arctic Council hopes to fill, and to date its work has been quite effective in promoting cooperative approaches to issues like economic development and scientific collaboration. What is unclear is how effective the Council will be in deterring or encouraging state action under a multipolar structure when states are presented with new opportunities for action and security calculations.

As international relations as a field of study continues to progress, so too will the understandings of the Arctic and circumpolar politics.

A version of this piece was first commissioned and published by the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ynet.