NATO has long had a clear remit in the North Atlantic, even in the far North Atlantic. This is, after all, implicit in the alliance’s name. But what role, if any, should NATO play in the Arctic?
These two regions are not identical, but they do have interlinked political geographies. The North Atlantic includes the mostly ice-free areas as far as the waters north of Iceland, while the Arctic Ocean is generally covered with ice in winter. As a matter of convention, “the Arctic” either refers to the five Arctic coastal states, including Canada, Denmark (with Greenland and the Faeroe Islands), Norway, Russia, and the United States or the eight full member states of the Arctic Council (the five just listed, plus Finland, Iceland, and Sweden).
The North Atlantic is already an area of heightened tensions. The challenge for all involved is to prevent those tensions from spilling over into the relatively calm Arctic. For NATO, the issue is particularly complex. It is not evident that getting more involved in the Arctic will promote the interests of the alliance or its members, even though credible collective deterrence and defense apply to the region as much as to the North Atlantic.
Issues at Stake
Three related changes are afoot in the Arctic. The first is environmental. Until recently, it made physical sense to distinguish between the ice-free areas of the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian coastline, on the one hand, and the more or less permanently frozen areas within the Arctic Circle, on the other. So far, these two geographic areas have also corresponded to two different kinds of politics: regular security politics, including through NATO, in the Atlantic; and tentatively more cooperative international politics among the coastal Arctic states. Yet as polar ice melts and contracts, the Arctic, too, risks becoming a zone of increased great-power competition.
In contrast to how climate change plays out in the global South, where state capacity is lower and states are more susceptible to the negative effects of climate change, the Arctic contains strong states that have the institutional and problem-solving capacities to prevent new conflicts from arising. As a result, in the Arctic, climate change may actually enhance trade, research, and travel opportunities due to increased potential access.
Nevertheless, such increased access will eventually lead to greater state presence in the region. In this way, climate change risks putting further pressure on bilateral and multilateral relations in the Arctic. Smaller states can become targets of geopolitically motivated foreign investment, such as China’s interest in buying a swath of land in northeast Iceland.1
The second change comes in the form of Russian remilitarization. While NATO member states and Russia have significantly reduced the size of their navies, Russian development of new missiles in effect makes distances smaller and regions closer to each other. The range, speed, and precision of these weapons make it more difficult to separate the North Atlantic and the Arctic as distinct theaters of operations, as both the Baltics and the Norwegian Sea can be the targets of attacks from the Barents Sea as well as from land. Land, submarine, and air-launched cruise missiles challenge NATO’s ability to reinforce both mainland Europe and the North Atlantic.2
From the Russian point of view, increased militarization of the Arctic makes sense and is legitimate. With several straits and passages becoming more accessible, Moscow is gaining access to both onshore and offshore resources, such as fish and possibly mineral wealth.
The trouble for NATO is that militarization in the Arctic can become militarization of the Arctic, with ramifications beyond the region. The new strength and breadth of Russia’s access-denial strategy increasingly enables Moscow to threaten distant targets without deploying traditional power projection. The Arctic may still be relatively free of Russian maritime or air forces, but it has the potential to become a base from which Moscow can threaten targets of strategic value in the Arctic and as far away as the North Atlantic and Europe. In that sense, Russia’s military buildup cannot be isolated from the bigger picture of strategic competition with NATO and allies’ obligation to fully carry out their deterrence and defense obligations.
Increased Chinese Presence
The third change is China’s increased presence in the Arctic and rising U.S.-Chinese tensions. Beijing is showing greater interest in the region, and states in the Arctic are targets of intensifying Chinese economic statecraft. As elsewhere in the world, China’s economic activity carries an undertone of geopolitical influence. This poses a dilemma for countries in the region that need foreign investment.
Beijing’s multidomain polar strategy, which involves the planned development of a nuclear-powered icebreaker, targeted investment in Arctic real estate and infrastructure, and a reinforced research presence, reflects classic grand strategic objectives of resources, reach, and power. The Arctic has even been included in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious development campaign to boost trade across Asia and beyond.3 Traditional nonsecurity issues, such as sea trade and research, which function as a platform for cooperation in the region, therefore begin to look more like security issues in an age of strategic competition, casting further doubt on the maintenance of the Arctic as a low-tension area.
This problem is exacerbated by the visible tensions flowing from the rising strategic competition between the United States and China. At a meeting of the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum, in early 2019, Washington warned of China’s growing interest in the Arctic.4 This increased attention is undoubtedly real—but the tone and content of the U.S. statement marked a shift toward the inclusion of China-related geopolitical issues in the Arctic Council. Politically at least, the Arctic is becoming another global theater for long-term strategic competition.5
Regardless of whether the Arctic will be engulfed by Sino-American competition, this puts pressure on U.S. allies and partners in the Arctic and challenges the already-strained stability in the area. The geopolitics of U.S.-Chinese competition in the Pacific Ocean may increasingly seep into the Arctic. Furthermore, greater Western military presence in the Arctic to counter China might strengthen Russia’s demand for a security presence in the region. So while China’s strategy definitely has underlying security implications, countering it with a traditional NATO presence instead of diplomatic work in Arctic forums might be counterproductive.
Managing Arctic Security Challenges
Since the end of the Cold War, the eight Arctic states have handled most regional political matters through multilateral settings such as the International Maritime Organization and the Arctic Council. The 1996 Ottawa Declaration, which established the council, explicitly excluded military security from its mandate.6
In 2008, the five Arctic coastal states signed the Ilulissat Declaration, which emphasized that “existing international law provided a firm basis for handling Arctic Ocean issues, that the coastal states would settle disagreements peacefully and in accordance with international law . . . , and that they would cooperate on a host of other issues through existing regional institutions, such as the Arctic Council.”7 In furthering the idea that the Arctic would be a particular zone of low tension, the declaration also kept security issues out of central, formalized intergovernmental forums. Accordingly, since the Cold War, there has been no formal structure or venue to address security issues in the Arctic.
Since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, old-fashioned geopolitics have begun to creep into discussions of the Arctic. The great powers increasingly see themselves as locked in a competition, not only in the security realm, but also in the areas of economics, politics, and trade. As a result, the cooperative logic that has so far dominated in the Arctic risks being undermined. Combined with the general Russian military buildup, this has prompted the question of whether NATO could be required to play a role in the Arctic for alliance deterrence and defense.
NATO has long regarded the Arctic as an area that has no direct military threats to deter and no significant security issues to manage—and is thus very different from the North Atlantic. There, NATO has returned to patrolling the choke point between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom (known as the GIUK gap), deterring the Russian Northern Fleet, and preparing for antisubmarine warfare, especially due to Moscow’s naval modernization efforts. The area may once again become a geopolitical hot spot marked by strategic competition between Western and global powers, though analogies with the Cold War are partly misleading.
Now that some of the differences between the Arctic and the North Atlantic are being erased, the temptation is to treat both regions the same. This approach, however, could prove counterproductive, because all of the Arctic states would stand to lose from such a shift. Moscow would likely see this as an escalating move, which would ultimately signal a Western failure of confidence in the region’s low-tension status. A negatively reinforcing cycle would begin.
Diplomatic progress on nonsecurity issues already achieved in the Arctic Council would be put at risk. Such work is an essential component in maintaining a calm security environment in the region. So far, Russia abides by the rules laid down in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as shown in the Norway-Russia agreement on the delimitation of the maritime border between the two countries in the Barents Sea. Disputes are still lawfully settled, and it is in the interests of the other Arctic states for it to remain that way, as Russia holds a significant military and infrastructural advantage in the Arctic—and always will, given its geography. Paradoxically, working on nonsecurity issues can have a security effect.
Even though a security dilemma may be unfolding in the Arctic, NATO and the Arctic countries should avoid making this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Drawing NATO too rashly into the Arctic risks throwing away the progress of diplomacy and cooperation that has been achieved since the end of the Cold War.
At the same time, Russian militarization risks transforming Arctic relations, and NATO will not want to be left unprepared. Thus, a wicked question arises for NATO: Does the alliance risk prematurely undoing the diplomatic progress made in the Arctic, or does it risk being caught napping by Moscow, Beijing, or both? As long as the situation remains in flux, NATO should carefully study whether and how to get engaged in the Arctic.
Finding the right balance between deterrence and defense, on the one hand, and pragmatic cooperation with Russia in the Arctic and the North Atlantic, on the other, needs to take into account that different logics are at play in the two regions. While NATO faces a growing need to consider the Arctic a regular space for deterrence and defense, it may be best served by acknowledging and indirectly supporting the pragmatic, political cooperation in the Arctic between allied nations and Russia, unless the alliance is called on by its Arctic member states. This cooperation makes the Arctic more secure for all allies concerned. For this reason, NATO should proceed with care if and when it chooses to include the Arctic in its North Atlantic policies, capabilities, and operational patterns of deterrence and defense.
As an intermediate option between doing nothing and going all out, NATO could consider how it can engage in political measures—by taking an interest in the evolving situation in the Arctic, explicitly acknowledging the particular circumstances, and taking steps to prepare the alliance to support the diplomatic efforts of its Arctic members.
Although traditional political cooperation in the Arctic is under increasing stress, it is still functioning. Managing Russia within these structures should be a priority as long as Moscow does not use its presence in the area for more coercive purposes. If it does, NATO should start by prudently deploying military resources in parts of the North Atlantic that have a precedent for such actions, like Iceland, and then only gradually move northward. In this way, the alliance can make an initial bid to manage security concerns in the Arctic while doing its best to refrain from direct involvement in the region.
China poses a more complex problem that goes well beyond traditional military security challenges and requires long-term economic engagement. In this sense, the Arctic is like any other theater, as China’s entry into the region requires all actors to grasp and adjust to the long-term geopolitical game under way. If NATO wishes to consider China’s actions in the Arctic, the alliance should take care not to escalate the situation, especially in policy areas that, so far, have been untouched by strategic competition. NATO should carefully consider the possibility that an increased Chinese maritime presence in the region is not necessarily a zero-sum challenge to maintaining sea lines of communication.
The authors wish to thank the participants at the Arctic/High North workshop—part of the New Perspectives on Shared Security: NATO’s Next 70 Years event series—in Copenhagen on June 11, 2019, for their comments and ideas.
1 “China Tycoon Huang Nubo Angered by Iceland Land Move,” BBC, November 28, 2011, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-15916486.
2 Rolf Tamnes, “I. The Significance of the North Atlantic and the Norwegian Contribution,” in Whitehall Papers 87, no. 1 (2016): 8–31, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02681307.2016.1291018.
3 Rebecca Pincus, “China’s Polar Strategy: An Emerging Gray Zone?,” Diplomat, July 6, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/07/chinas-polar-strategy-an-emerging-gray-zone/.
4 Somini Sengupta, “United States Rattles Arctic Talks With a Sharp Warning to China and Russia,” New York Times, May 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/06/climate/pompeo-arctic-china-russia.html.
6 “Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council,” Arctic Council, September 19, 1996, https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/bitstream/handle/11374/85/EDOCS-1752-v2-ACMMCA00_Ottawa_1996_Founding_Declaration.PDF?sequence=5&isAllowed=y.
7 Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen and Gry Thomasen, “Learning From the Ilulissat Initiative: State Power, Institutional Legitimacy, and Governance in the Arctic Ocean 2007‒18,” Centre for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen, February 2018, https://cms.polsci.ku.dk/publikationer/learning-from-the-ilulissat-iniative/download/CMS_Rapport_2018__1_-_Learning_from_the_Ilulissat_initiative.pdf.