Two speeches in the past couple of days have the tone for NATO’s position on conflict and cooperation in the Arctic. Currently, the organization is emphasizing diplomacy and communication over military disputes.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen delivering speech. © Luke Varley
Anders Fogh Rasmussen delivering speech to NATO and Lloyd's. © Luke Varley

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the new Secretary General of NATO and former Prime Minister of Denmark, spoke at a joint conference organized by NATO and Lloyd’s of London on October 1 (video and transcript). His speech covered climate change, piracy, and cyber defense – all issues which have also been important to Denmark itself. The country has been at the forefront of tackling climate change and will host the Copenhagen talks in December. The Danish navy has helped to escort ships through the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden and is also part of the multinational Combined Task Force 150, which is combatting piracy. Finally, as one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, Denmark is concerned about securing its cyber connections to the rest of the world. All the way back in 1995, the government established the Danish Government IT Cybersecurity Council.

Hence, it’s quite possible that the new Danish leadership is coloring NATO’s public diplomacy. If this is true, we can expect to see an even greater emphasis on the Arctic in the future, since Denmark is one of the five Arctic countries. Whether NATO will tend towards diplomacy or military action, however, remains to be seen. Fogh Rasmussen was cautious in his views, warning of the security implications of climate change. He said,

We know that Arctic ice is retreating.  In fact the Arctic is warming faster than other part of the world.  This is not necessarily a threat.  In many ways it’s an opportunity – opening up the Northwest Passage cuts 4000 nautical miles off the trip from Europe to Asia.    You can bet a lot of companies have done that math.   But we can’t wish away the security implications.  An entire side of North America will be much more exposed.  Increased shipping means a greater need for search and rescue.  And there will be competition for resources that had, until now, been covered under ice.

There are more examples, but to my mind, the bottom line is clear.  We may not yet know the precise effects, the exact costs or the definite dates of how climate change will affect security. But we already know enough to start taking action.  This is my first point: either we start to pay now, or we will pay much more later.

By “pay now,” Fogh Rasmussen means that countries need to look at climate change as a serious threat to national security and prioritize diplomatic resolution of conflicts. He continued,

“The political track should be used to the fullest to ensure that the High North remains an area of low tension.  The international community has made a good start, including through the Arctic Council. We should ensure that the right deals are done now – on jurisdiction, on access to resources, on fishing — so that we head off tensions in future.

This echoes what NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoof Scheffer said in his speech in January 2009 regarding the potential for NATO involvement in the Arctic.

I think that NATO might also have a contribution to make. Of course, the Arctic Council should remain the focus for much of the discussions and cooperation amongst the Arctic rim states. However, once the conditions are right for resuming normal business with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council, and I hope we will see that development soon, I see merit in using that particular forum for including Russia in wider cooperation, and also as vital element in building mutual confidence.

In both of these speeches, the Arctic Council remains the go-to body for resolving Arctic issues. NATO hopes that disputes between the four Arctic states which are NATO members (Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the U.S.) and the one that isn’t (Russia) will be peacefully resolved. At the same time, the potential for NATO involvement could possibly increase due to the opening of waterways and the fights for resources, which could entail international military conflicts.

SACEUR James Stavridis
SACEUR James Stavridis

While a speech yesterday by Admiral James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, ratcheted up the military rhetoric a few notches further, the focus still seemed to be on maintaining peace and security in the Arctic.

“This is something we are starting to spend more time looking at. I look at the high north and I think it could either be a zone of conflict, I hope not, a zone of competition, probably. It could also be co-operative … and as an alliance we should make this as co-operative as we possibly can.

He added,

“There are certainly going to be areas of disagreement between the alliance and Russia, but the issues are so big and so important that a cooperative approach, finding zones of cooperation, will be very important in the time ahead.”

More ominously, when prompted by worried Eastern European diplomats already feeling somewhat exposed due to the cancellation of the U.S. missile defense system, Stavridis brought up Article 5 of NATO, which states that “an attack on one NATO party is an attack on all.”  Therefore, if Russia were to attack any of the other four Arctic countries, all of which are NATO members, the retaliation could be swift. Yet at the same time, Stavridis was clear to say that NATO should not be thought of as a “world policeman.”

News links

“NATO commander warns of conflict with Russia in the Arctic Circle,” The London Times

Categories: Geopolitics Russia


NATO pushes diplomacy to resolve Arctic conflicts

  1. Why do intelligent, literate people persist in the global warming/ice is melting viewpoint? Arctic ice is increasing, global temperatures are falling.
    I know scientists are clinging to their moment of fame, but science has to be based on the evidence. Forget the North-West Passage, it is not happening.
    Please read read the data and beat the rush to blame everybody else for this decades-old piece of nonsense.

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