The Arctic: The Ice Is Melting, Security Too
While the ice in the Arctic is disappearing at a drastic rate, the sense of security is also threatening to melt away: Russia is testing new hypersonic weapons, the US is conducting exercises with its Seawolf submarines off the Norwegian coast and neutral Sweden increases military spending by 40%. With China, a major power without territory in the Arctic has also announced its ambitions. While the likelihood of a direct escalation is currently low, a spillover from another region could according to Tony van der Togt quickly disrupt the Arctic peace. The current dynamic can only be stopped by considering long-lasting causes in a differentiated way.
2014 is often mentioned as the shifting point for stability in the Arctic. With the annexation of Crimea, all military cooperation via the Arctic Security Forces Round Table (ASFR) and the Northern Chief of Defence Conference (NCDC) was suspended. Under no circumstances should this major rupture be understood as a simple concatenation of two events or as what Paul Pierson would call a tornado: Cause and effect of an event are only of short duration. Much more was the abrupt ending of military cooperation in the Arctic an earthquake. For earthquakes, friction builds up tension between the tectonic plates. At a certain threshold, friction is overcome, and the tension is suddenly discharged. Following Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones, this can be transferred to policy. Policy change occurs when information signals coming from outside reach a certain volume. At the suspension of military cooperation in the Arctic, this was certainly the case from a Western perspective. An increased interest in the Arctic had been announced beforehand and the annexation of Crimea was an extraordinary event. So, relations between East and West had already deteriorated before 2014 due to NATO and EU enlargement to the East. President Putin indicated this point in a memorable speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. In the same year, Russia hinted at its ambitions in the Arctic by placing a flag at the North Pole.
However, reducing the suspension of military cooperation and the increased interest in the Arctic to the East-West tensions falls short. With climate change, another variable is at play whose pace is just accelerating. Whereas merchant ships benefit from shorter routes through the Arctic waters, resources that used to be inaccessible can now be exploited profitably. For this reason, climate change cannot be treated as fixed development in the background because it helps determine when actors change their expectations about the behaviour of their adversaries. Using Barbara Adam's timescape perspective, we should be aware of these two developments' embeddedness and that they interlock with each other constantly.
In contrast to an earthquake, however, the tension here is anything but relieved. The outcome of the earthquake of 2014 could just be the forerunner of an even more devastating earthquake. In comparison to 2014, there is with China another major power involved which has a strategic partnership with Russia that seeks to exploit energy resources. At first glance, one might think that without confidence-building measures the actors are falling into the trap of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The armament is intended to improve their security but would prove harmful in the event of a spillover. On closer inspection, one realises that this does not apply here. According to Michael Biggs, misapprehension is a central element of a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, negotiations on an extension of the New Start Treaty show that Moscow and Washington do not necessarily want to play with fire. Therefore, the task is now to do structural prevention since the next earthquake could be more violent. Key is here to successfully link the causes of the tensions with long time horizons like climate change or the rise of China with common opportunities to recreate trust through numerous small steps.
A concrete approach that takes this idea into account would be to extend the OSCE's Vienna Document by a naval component as it was suggested by Benjamin Schaller. Due to the melting ice and the emerging trade routes, the use of naval forces is becoming more and more likely. Russia already proposed this in 2008. Involving the OSCE also makes sense given China's increased interest. Besides the OSCE's experience with subregional agreements, it also knows how to include non-OSCE members like China into agreements. Moreover, with the Special Representative on Arctic Issues, some point of contact with the region already exists. In this sense, an OSCE Arctic Military Code of Conduct could ensure that it stays cool in the far north.
Simon Stocker is pursuing a Master in International Affairs degree at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, where he is majoring in trade and international finance and minoring in global security. His dissertation focuses on the role of science diplomacy in the Arctic. He received his Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from the University of Geneva and gained work experience at German public television (ARD) and the Center for Security Studies of ETH Zurich.