A soldier assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, in a helicopter’s rotor wash while training with aviators from the Alaska Army National Guard at Neibhur Drop Zone, Nov. 26, 2019.

A soldier assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, in a helicopter’s rotor wash while training with aviators from the Alaska Army National Guard at Neibhur Drop Zone, Nov. 26, 2019. Justin Connahe

Today’s Arctic Diplomacy Can’t Handle Tomorrow’s Problems

A new forum is needed to address military and security issues in the region.

The international structures that have helped address many Arctic problems through negotiation and cooperation are insufficient for the military and security challenges brought on by climate change. 

Decades of diplomacy have fostered forums such as the Arctic Council, which regularly brings together stakeholders (including Arctic and non-Arctic government representatives, indigenous leaders, business interests) to seek agreement on issues such as search and rescue, oil pollution and scientific cooperation. Another one, the Arctic Frontiers conference, wraps up Jan. 30 in Tromsø, Norway. Other meetings like the Arctic Circle, Arctic Dialogues, and the Arctic Shipping Forum enable further debate.

But such meetings and institutions have been less successful at addressing military operations in the region. In part, this is because if armed forces are present in the Arctic, it’s often connected to some high-stakes geopolitical issue — Russian activity in Ukraine or the U.S. stance on Freedom of Navigation — and thus deliberately avoided. The Arctic Council, for example, explicitly eschews any discussion of military matters. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum focuses on issues of safety, environmental stewardship, law enforcement, and operational response — but not military operations.

There is an Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and a limited number of bi-lateral or multi-lateral Arctic security exercises. These provide some opportunities for engagement but lack the consistency or clear mission of non-military Arctic cooperative activities. Furthermore, the Security Forces Roundtable has excluded Russia since 2014, when it seized Crimea and launched military activity in Ukraine.

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Creating a regular, inclusive discussion of defense issues is vital for the Arctic region, where the greatest near-term security risk may be that of military miscalculation. Resource wars are far off and unlikely; most potentially profitable ventures are in undisputed areas. Investors and insurers can weigh profit and risk potential on that front.

But there are at least two scenarios that could lead to dangerous military miscalculation:

  • A race to militarize the Arctic, which will not only result in diplomatic consequences and potentially dampen emerging economic prospects, but also increase the likelihood of military assets coming into close contact; or 
  • The perception that there’s a void in security and stewardship – fueled by potential increases in ship collisions, illegal fishing, and demonstrated limitations in search and rescue ability — that opens the door for countries like China to justify an increase in their own regional capabilities.

The former scenario represents too much security. The latter could emerge under too little. The two scenarios are equally dangerous and shifting conditions could tip the balance in either direction. Either could begin with non-adversarial intensions and “snowball” into increased military activity and decreased space for dialogue and cooperation. Both are avoidable, but only if there are opportunities to gain mutual understanding, if not more formal security cooperation. 

What type of forum would fulfill such a need? There are three existing options, none of which are presently ideal.

First, the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable could be more closely modeled after the Arctic Council and Arctic Coast Guard Forum in their focus on inclusivity, open and regular multi-lateral dialogue, and finding common ground on policy. Given its explicit focus on military issues and direct approach to dialogue, this is probably the best option. The biggest hurdle here could be getting the U.S. to accept Russian and (perhaps) Chinese membership. 

Second, the Arctic Council or Arctic Coast Guard Forum could expand their purviews to include Arctic regional-specific military issues. However, security issues are so sensitive that including them could undermine these organizations’ effectiveness in conducting their present missions.

Third, forums such as the Arctic Circle (and perhaps smaller gatherings such as the upcoming Arctic Frontiers meeting) could more robustly aim for less formal, Track II diplomacy. This may already be happening to some extent. The Arctic Circle especially attracts diverse and sometimes high-level government official participation. It isn’t clear, however, whether such a backchannel diplomatic approach could be sufficiently scaled up in a future Arctic where there are more frequent and fast-moving issues on the table.

Dialogue on touchy military issues in the Arctic is becoming increasingly important to avoid either the “military heavy” or “security void” scenarios. An Arctic war would have no winner. Anyone who ends up on top militarily in the region would be left with the costly and time-intensive task of running security in a region too devastated to enjoy what little economic gains are possible as more of it becomes navigable.