The strategic challenge

As argued in this book, the real risk to international stability posed by the great Arctic thaw is not any scramble for its natural resources so much as the increasing presence - a military, commercial, political and economic presence - of foreign countries in a strategically vital region. Are there any measures that could realistically be taken to reduce and minimize so much mistrust and misunderstanding?

The most obvious such step is to demilitarize as much of the Arctic's waters and territory as possible. In this respect the Svalbard archipelago does offer a helpful and constructive example because the 1920 agreement decreed that the islands should be neutral ground even though Norway, the sovereign state they belong to, has long been a member of NATO. In the same way, agreements could conceivably be struck to bar or restrict the passage of warships through certain highly sensitive waterways, such as the Northwest Passage, or to demilitarize highly strategic islands and locations.

The Northern Sea Route provides one example of how easily such an agreement could be implicitly established. Moscow's historic fears of foreign attack would be considerably eased if it is assured of its right to be given advance notice of any international shipping that makes its way along its northern shores, which it demanded of American icebreakers that moved through these waters in the mid-1960s.11 Whether all or any of these waters are 'high seas', 'territorial seas' or an 'international strait', foreign governments could still implicitly accept Russia's right to request these special conditions by failing to bring any formal legal challenge before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, or else just by failing to raise any diplomatic protest at such an action. This could also be done with the modest intervention of the International Maritime Organization, which could help determine the course and usage of new shipping lanes.

At the very least, other countries could stifle Russian fears if not by giving advance notice of their maritime movements then by simply observing conditions about how many ships could move along key stretches of water at any one moment and what distance they should keep from each other and from the coasts. For its own part, Russia could ostensibly justify such measures by pointing to the 1982 Convention and arguing that they are necessary 'for the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution', as one of its provisions allows.12 Such a tacit agreement would, of course, be a vastly preferable solution to the brokerage of a formal international treaty, a process that, like the drafting of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, can be extremely protracted and often unrewarding.

Some territories in the region could conceivably become neutral ground in the same way as Finland and Sweden. So in the event that Greenland attains independence from Denmark, both Russia and the United States could perhaps give security guarantees while respecting and recognizing its neutrality. The United States is of course most unlikely to want to close its vast base at Thule, but it could still scale this presence down and recognize the rest of the country as a demilitarized, and certainly as a nuclear-free, zone. Iceland could also remain within NATO, but its government could refuse permission to allow the United States, Russia or any other country to reopen the former air base at Keflavik, or to station any troops on its soil, except at moments of national emergency.

There are a number of other steps - known in the days of the Cold War as 'confidence-building measures' - that could minimize the scope for misunderstanding and prevent any regional arms race from breaking out. Foreign governments could have a right to inspect and observe the military presence of their rivals and should be informed a long time in advance of any exercises due to be undertaken in the region. All these exercises should only involve very small contingents of men and materials. There are also large areas of land and sea where such exercises should be completely prohibited and where any military presence could be significantly scaled down.

Unfortunately, by the late spring of 2009 it seemed most unlikely that either Russia or NATO would undertake any such measures. On the contrary, both seemed more interested in considerably escalating their presence in the Arctic, and in doing so risked creating or aggravating international mistrust. 'I would be the last one to expect military conflict - but there will be a military presence', said NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer during a summit in Reykjavik in late January. 'It should be a military presence that is not overdone, and there is a need for political cooperation and economic cooperation.'13 At the same time Norway has since 2007 been quietly boosting its military ties with Sweden and Finland, negotiating a new treaty to enhance cross-border cooperation, and in spring 2009 undertook a big land, sea and air military exercise in the region. The point is not that such actions are in any way unreasonable - they are arguably just a foreseeable consequence of Russian actions, not least in Georgia in the summer of 2008 - but that they are indicative of a wider regional arms build-up that can potentially be averted.

It would be more advantageous if the armed forces of all of the eight Arctic countries could instead cooperate if not on military exercises then on issues that are a matter of common concern. They could, for example, work together and pool resources to guard stretches of sea more effectively from the threat of overfishing, piracy, smuggling and terrorism, or on particular environmental projects such as alleviating the impact of collisions or averting other disasters at sea. Some such steps had been taken by the early summer of 2009, but these were infrequent and limited in scope.14

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