Established in 1996, the Arctic Council exists to address issues that present themselves to the Arctic and the eight nations that hold territory inside the Arctic Circle — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, the US and Russia. However, one area that is noticeable by omission from the responsibilities of the Council is the region’s security. And this should continue — despite increasing militarisation in the region.
As the sea ice melts, there will be more and more activity in the Arctic. Some of it will be military some scientific, but the vast majority will be commercial. More and more passages through the ice are opening up. As the sea ice melts, there will be a huge increase in activity in the region — particularly as the prospect of a passable Norwest Passage becomes closer and closer to realisation. The shorter route between Atlantic and Pacific holds significant economic appeal as the trend towards the passage freeing itself of ice is unmistakable. There is also vast mineral wealth to be found below the sea — hence the importance of maintaining the Arctic Council’s relevance, as currently, it is a model of efficiency.
There has been something of a ‘Polar Pivot’ in Russian strategy. There has yet to be a significant raising of tensions in the area — indeed, relations are notably positive — but many of the Arctic nations are concerned about the ambitions of Russia in the region. Their thinking in the region now, however, necessarily features an increasing military dimension. The US has begun thinking of how to fight in the Arctic; Norway is looking for a new fleet of submarines; Canada is also building up a presence.
Yet the expansion of the Arctic Council’s responsibilities to include a security dimension would be a mistake. Currently, the council allows Arctic nations a sphere in which to co-operate, rather than compete. This even includes non natural partners, such as the US and Russia — through co-operation in the Arctic Council, for instance, the US is able to rent icebreakers from Russia. Russia’s level of interest in the Arctic, coincidentally, is easy to discern from its number of icebreakers — Russia has a fleet of some 40 ships (6 of which are nuclear). America, by comparison, has three — and these are in such poor condition, they are barely in service at the same time.
If the Arctic Council succumbs to the relentless calls for securitisation of its activities, then it must be balanced against the fact the Council will do less. It will do less, and it will do less better. As its agenda expands, there will be more space through which the Arctic can be exploited. Given that China is attempting to infiltrate the region, the minor Arctic nations should look to the Council to protect their interests, whilst the larger powers should seek to utilise the Council to maintain the global balance of power.
Currently, the Arctic Council is in good stead to cope with the challenges of the most dynamic environment in the world — it allows its member a significant arena in which to work on co-operative commercial navigation, search and rescue, and general support missions. To alter one of the few arenas in which nations co-operate well in order to simply grandstand against Russia would be pointless and counterproductive.