For the Arctic states, it will be particularly important to make sure that the Arctic does not become a heated domestic political issue. Competition between opposing domestic political forces over who is the toughest in defending national interests has often been a major source of international conflict.
Headlines predicting a conflict in the Arctic have become a common sight in the international news media over the past five to ten years. The main reason for this seems to be disputes over access to natural resources, primarily oil and gas, something which may spark serious tensions between Arctic states. Sometimes these reports seem to describe a phenomenon over which the states concerned have little or no control whatever. However, international relations are not regulated by the forces of Nature. Political scientist Alexander Wendt’s famous phrase that “anarchy is what states make of it” can be just as easily applied to the Arctic: “the potential for conflict in the Arctic is what states make of it”.
It is of course true that many Arctic states are concerned with their economic and security interests in the region and the danger of a regional conflict. This is in part reflected in practically all Arctic states’ increased military presence in the area. At times we see heated rhetoric and mutual accusations of militarization. This is rooted in three main causes: a zero-sum game over access to natural resources; an insufficient level of trust among Arctic states; and the fact that the Arctic has been and will remain a militarily sensitive area, especially for Russia. In addition, climate change and the melting of the Arctic ice cap are likely to substantially increase commercial activity in the region. This may lead to conflicts that are not yet apparent.
Speaking about oil and gas deposits, this zero-sum game is unavoidable. Politics cannot increase the volume of available hydrocarbon deposits. Delimitation agreements seem to be the only way of defusing conflicts. The 2011 agreement between Norway and Russia on a close to fifty-fifty division of the Barents Sea shelf among the two countries is a case in point. It is, however, important to note here that far from all hydrocarbon deposits are potential sources of political conflict. In fact, many and probably most deposits are located in undisputed areas. In addition, the possibilities for cooperation on infrastructure, technology development, etc., in connection with oil and gas exploration and development activities, might also make this issue less zero-sum.
When it comes to other resources, such as fisheries, we are not necessarily dealing with a zero-sum game. The joint Russian-Norwegian management of Barents Sea fisheries has successfully restored fish populations in the region, bringing them up to record levels. If this responsible and sustainable approach continues, this cooperation is likely to bring both countries significant revenues for a long time.
This lack of trust among Arctic states stems both from the fact that policies have been pursued without consultation with the other Arctic states, and from the still often strained relations between Russia and the West. The former is not necessarily difficult to change, but the latter may take longer to overcome. In essence, relations between Russia and the West are going to see ups and downs until the day that Russia eventually joins the Western security community. A security community can be defined as an arrangement among the states of a certain geographical area according to which they no longer see military force as an option for any conflicts that may arise between them. A transformation of this community to include Russia, however, will not take place until Russia becomes a liberal democracy and shares the West’s other main political values.
However, the fact that Russian membership in the Western security community is not on the cards today, does not mean that work to build confidence is futile. The level of trust between states that do not belong to the same security community can also be successfully increased through a variety of measures. For instance, despite Norway’s NATO membership and the considerable skepticism with which Russia views this organization, the level of trust among the two countries is today at an historic high. This resulted from the two countries, Russia and Norway, being willing to set aside some of their differences in order to achieve common ground on issues of mutual concern.
The third factor that sparks the conflict, the military sensitivity of the Arctic, is likely to remain an issue for the foreseeable future. As long as the nuclear powers feel that nuclear weapons are vital to their mutual deterrence capability, Russia in particular will be skeptical of anything that risks impinging on its ability to maneuver its sea and air-based nuclear capabilities in the north.
For the Arctic states, it will be particularly important to make sure that the Arctic does not become a heated domestic political issue. Competition between opposing domestic political forces over who is the toughest in defending national interests has often been a major source of international conflict. It is of course only natural, and indeed productive, for Arctic issues to be the subject of internal, domestic political debate, but politicians across the Arctic states should remember that the Arctic is not yet a region defined by conflict. Exploiting the issue for the ulterior motive of demonstrating one’s patriotism to the domestic public could have negative consequences, even potentially jeopardizing political and/or military stability in the region.
A useful contrast to relations in the Arctic can be seen in the South China Sea. There, adjacent states have also made competing territorial claims fueled by their desire to be involved in the extraction of natural resources. In contrast to the Arctic, however, the military build-up is much more intense, the rhetoric among the competitors much sharper, but the degree of legal regulation much weaker. This does not mean that a South China Sea scenario in the Arctic is impossible, but it does mean that we are not there yet, and it is not inevitable.
On a related note, one must also keep in mind that while there is nothing inevitable about a deterioration of relations in the Arctic, the fact that it can or will be avoided should also not be taken for granted. The chances for building peaceful relations in the Arctic are good, but it will demand serious focus, a great deal of dialogue and willingness to compromise from the states involved. Regional cooperation arrangements such as the Arctic and Barents Councils can also play an important role in this regard.
Despite the reasons for conflict discussed above, the conditions for conflict resolution through peaceful means are probably more promising in the Arctic than in many other regions where similar conflicts exist. First, all the states concerned, to varying degrees, are relatively economically developed and politically stable. They are therefore likely to be more predictable in their policies than less economically developed and politically stable states. Second, a comprehensive basis of agreements and normative acts for regulating bilateral relations in the area already exists. Third, civilian cooperation among the Arctic states is expanding on issues such as maritime search and rescue and environmental monitoring, to mention just two. Such cooperation could also be expected to have a spillover effect into the security realm.
Fourth, in military terms the most significant players in the Arctic – the USA and Russia – face much greater security challenges elsewhere in the world. The USA is concerned by the rise of China’s military capacity, their continued ability to be a significant military player if the Pacific, and the defense of U.S. interests in a number of hot spots in the developing world. Russia is concerned by the significant potential for political upheaval along its southern and eastern borders, in addition to also keeping an eye on China’s rising military might. Thus, both countries could be expected to work particularly hard to avoid the Arctic becoming yet another area of instability. Fifth, to some extent the Arctic five share a common interest in limiting non-Arctic states’ access to the region. On the one hand this could lead to greater cooperation among the Arctic five on limiting outside influence, but on the other hand it could also lead to conflict between them should differences of opinion arise about what the role of “outsiders” should be or whether some should be given priority over others.
There are undoubtedly potential sources of conflict in the Arctic that deserve to be taken seriously. Nor can one expect the states that have stakes in the area to shrug off all concern for the defense of their national interests. However, this conflict remains at a low level, and that is something that can be maintained. Neither violent conflict nor lasting peace are inevitable outcomes, but many of the factors discussed here suggest that there are better prospects for avoiding violent conflict in this region than in many other regions of the world where interests collide.