New Arctic Policies

Sigtuna, Sweden, 4 May 2009


In my lecture I want to draw your attention to the growing political interest in the High North or the Arctic. We should keep in mind that it is estimated that a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas lies under the Arctic seabed.

I think it is high time for the Nordic countries to formulate a common Arctic policy and I see the recent Stoltenberg-report as an important road map towards that goal as I argue in the latter half of my speech.

On 9 January this year, the departing US President, George W. Bush, signed a new US policy on the Arctic, the first such document in the US since 1994. The 10 page document is forthright about US intentions to protect its security and remain a major player in the Arctic. It states that the US will “protect a sovereign United Sates maritime presence in the Arctic in support of essential United States interests.”  

The document outlines American policy objectives for the Arctic with security, governance and boundary disputes the first three topics. It also underlines the US intent to develop the region´s energy resources in an environmentally responsible way and strengthen ties between the eight Arctic nations: the US, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark. It also recommends that the US should ratify the UN Law of the Sea Treaty and rejects the European Union´s proposal to regulate shipping, fishing and energy development in the Arctic through a new international treaty.

The Canadian government has not published a concise document outlining its goals in the Arctic although Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised what he calls a “northern strategy”. On 10 August 2007, he announced, that two new Canadian military bases were to be established in the Canadian Arctic.

On that occasion the Prime Minister said that Canada had two choices regarding their sovereignty in the Arctic: “We either use it or lose it,” he said, “and make no mistake; this government intends to use it.”  His government decided to spend USD 7 billion on the building of eight Canadian patrol vessels for use in the Arctic region.

The US and Canada are at odds over control over the Northwest Passage, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Canadians claiming the passage to be internal Canadian waters but the Americans considering it a strait used for international navigation.

Work is now being done in the Russian parliament on legislation covering shipping on the north-east shipping route, linking the Pacific and the Atlantic across the north of Russia.  The proposed legislation would define the boundaries of the shipping route and set conditions regarding vessel design and equipment and environmental protection. 

Russia has been developing a new strategy in the Arctic a cross-cutting document covering the work of several ministries and state agencies. The division of the Arctic continental shelf is of prime interest taking special note of “multilateral and bilateral inter-state cooperation” as stated in a press release issued September 2008 by the national Security Council. 

Towards the end of March 2009 (29 March) the Security Council published on its website a document on this new strategy called: “Principles for Russian Politics in the Arctic in the period to 2020 and in a further perspective.” The document outlines according to non-Russian specialists an enhanced Russian military presence in the Arctic. It has on the other hand been stressed by representatives of the Security Council that these principles do not include militarization of the region.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, stated at a recent Arctic Council Meeting in Tromsö (29 April 2009) that the Arctic should be preserved as “zone of peace and cooperation.” Russia had neither plans to enhance its military presence in the Arctic nor to establish military forces there.”

The Danish government published its detailed policy on the Arctic in a 44-page document in May 2008, taking account of Greenland’s interests and position within the Danish kingdom. Danish interests are manifold both on Greenland’s west and east coast and also on the Arctic seabed were it will make claims based on the UN Law of the Sea Convention.

Norway has the High North on top of both its domestic and foreign policy agenda. Norway became in mid-April the first Arctic nation to settle an agreement with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in the north. Norway’s newly defined continental shelf in the north covers 235.000 square km or three quarters of the size of mainland Norway.  

Norway’s Minister of Defense, Anne-Grete Ström-Erichsen, has said that Norway was aware of the presence of a Russia that was wealthier than hitherto, a Russia that went its own way to a greater extent and expressed its position with a stronger nationalistic tone and a one-way direction.  In the minister’s opinion the message was very clear, with Russian aircraft flying near Norway’s coast almost every week, or with the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov in the area: Russia is no longer a weak nation.

The Icelandic Foreign Ministry published on 22 April 2009 a 67-page document, Iceland in the High North, analyzing and describing Iceland’s position.

On 20 November 2008, the European Commission published its policy on the Arctic, declaring its interest in energy resources in the High North, fisheries, new shipping routes, security concerns and environmental perils.  In the document the European Union stated its interest in being granted “observer status” on the Arctic Council.

The European Parliament has passed a resolution calling for the EU to work for a special international legal framework or convention on the Arctic. 

As said before the US rejects the idea of a special Arctic Treaty and last week in Tromsö  (29 April) Arctic Council‘s foreign ministers turned down the European Union´s application  for observer status on the Council, the same went for China, South Korea and Italy.

As regards the EU it was the Canadians who were the main opponents with their Foreign Minister stating: "Canada doesn't feel that the European Union, at this stage, has the required sensitivity to be able to acknowledge the Arctic Council, as well as its membership, and so therefore I'm opposed to it...I see no reason why they should be … a permanent observer on the Arctic Council."

Canada, the world's largest sealing nation, convinced the Arctic council to push back consideration of the EU's application, as Canada is furious that the Union is moving ahead with a ban on seal products despite its insistence that the seal hunt is sustainable and not cruel to the animals.

The EU may yet get another chance, however. Due to the increased activity and interest in the Arctic, the Tromsö meeting decided that the Arctic Council from now on will meet at political level once a year instead of bi-annually.

Separately, the council agreed to negotiate an international instrument on cooperation on search and rescue. As maritime activities in the Arctic increase, there will be increasing need for Arctic search and rescue services.

The council also urged the International Maritime Organization to urgently develop new guidelines for ships operating in Arctic waters, as well as mandatory regulations on safety and environmental protection.

Guidelines on oil and gas exploration and a task force on how to reduce non-CO2 drivers of climate change such as methane, which play a prominent role in Arctic climate change, were also established.

At the meeting in Tromsö the chairmanship of the Arctic Council passed for the next two years to Denmark from Norway.

Iceland arranged a seminar in Reykjavik in collaboration with NATO on January 29-30, 2009, where Arctic issues were under examination from a strategic and geopolitical point of view. In a press release (16 January 2009) introducing the seminar NATO said:

“Important changes are under way in the High North which will have impact on international affairs. The economic interests are reflected in a growing global awareness in the region, competing claims by relevant stakeholders, and resumed military presence in the area. As it is a region of enduring strategic importance for NATO and allied security, developments in the High North require careful and ongoing examination.”

In the Chairman‘s conclusions at the end of the Reykjavík-seminar it is stated, that the participants agreed that the High North is of enduring strategic importance for NATO where NATO continues to have legitimate security interests. Ensuring regional security is considered an integral part of NATO and transatlantic cooperation. Thus, risks and threats in the High North are said to affect the security of NATO Allies and its partners. Participants had also emphasized the invisibility of security for all Allies and concurred that regionalization within the Alliance should be avoided.

At the same time participants in the seminar recognized that not all security risks and threats are best addressed by NATO. It was agreed that strengthened co-operation between NATO and the Allies and Russia, within the existing frameworks, including the NATO-Russia Council when appropriate, was of particular importance.

In the Strasbourg/Khel NATO-summit declaration of April 4 2009 a positive reference is made to the seminar in Reykjavik and declared that developments in the High North have generated increased international attention.  The NATO-leaders also welcomed that interest of Allies in safety- and security-related developments in the High North, including climate change, had been raised.

This short overview shows that both individual nations and international organizations are looking at the Arctic with growing interest.  All stakeholders seem to regard the UN Law of the Sea Convention as the main legal instrument for solving disputes on delimitation but as for regulations on shipping by the coast of Canada in the west and Russia in the east opinions differ.  There is a tendency not to trust the Russians when they claim that their military will not become a player in the High North.

Let me now turn to the Nordic countries and Iceland in particular.

There is naturally a common Nordic interest in strategic issues related to the Arctic. Thorvald Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian Minister, published on 9 of February this year a report on Nordic co-operation on foreign an security policy written at the request of Nordic Foreign Ministers. In the introduction to his report and proposals, Mr. Stoltenberg states the following:

“In general, the geopolitical and strategic importance of the Nordic region is seen as becoming ever greater. This is because of the importance that Nordic waters have as a production and transport area for oil and gas for the European markets and for development in the High North.

There is growing interest in the EU and NATO in regional cooperation between their member states and other non-member states.”

The aim of the Stoltenberg-proposals is to enable the Nordic countries to respond jointly to changes in geopolitical and strategic conditions in their own region.

Two of the five Nordic countries, Finland and Sweden, are not NATO members and two, Iceland and Norway, are not members of the EU.  Only Denmark is a member of both the EU and NATO; this does not apply to the Faroes and Greenland, which come under Denmark in security matters and are of great significance for security in the North Atlantic.  NATO has had facilities in the Faroes and Greenland, and the USA maintains a base in Thule in Greenland; this is part of the US nuclear defense shield.  Greenland left the European Union following a referendum in 1985.

After the departure of US military forces from Iceland in September 2006, the NATO military authorities and the individual NATO states have granted the Icelandic government’s request to send squadrons of aircraft to Iceland regularly to monitor Icelandic and North Atlantic air-space.  This monitoring serves, primarily, a political purpose as NATO draws attention to the fact that this is part of the air-space of NATO states.  

I read the Stoltenberg- proposal for Nordic responsibility for air-space monitoring and security in the skies above Iceland as meaning that he would like to create new bonds between Finland, Sweden and NATO, since NATO will not abandon its strategic defenses of the North Atlantic.

For NATO and the Nordic countries to be able to maintain firm monitoring of the North Atlantic air-space, they need good facilities at an airport or airports in Iceland, and also facilities for radar and other equipment that is necessary for aircraft engaged on such monitoring. 

Russian bombers resumed their regular flights over the Arctic and down into the North Atlantic in the summer of 2007.  Then, and in 2008, these flights were reported in the news, but this year they have made movements off Northern Norway without them being deemed newsworthy.  Air-space monitoring by NATO and the Nordic countries is aimed at avoiding the ocean to the north of Iceland being regarded as part of the home ground of Russian bombers.

Mr. Stoltenberg’s proposal for a Nordic civilian monitoring system at sea is in line with the policy behind the decision to commission a new coastguard vessel and a new aircraft for the Icelandic Coast Guard.  All aspects of resource maintenance, security, monitoring, search and rescue operations and law-enforcement at sea come under the functions of the Icelandic Coast Guard and its collaboration with other nations.  

In May 2008, a projection was published covering coastguard operations in Iceland up to the year 2010.  No one who reads it can fail to realize that the Icelandic Coast Guard has set itself ambitious targets.  It is vital that it continue to work in terms of this vision even though state finances are now in a poorer position.  The projection allows for a great expansion in shipping in the Northeast Atlantic in the years ahead.

Around the year 2000 sea-transfer of oil started from North-West Russia through the Barents Sea to the North Atlantic and in the years 2005 to 2008 around 10 million tons a year were shipped this way, some of it being transferred over to the US and Canada. In 2008 the Icelandic Coast Guard monitored 32 oil tankers and 7 LNG gas tankers en route through Icelandic waters to North America.

The increase in the number of cruise vessels visiting the High North reflects the growing touristic activity in the area. In the summer of 2004 27 cruise vessels made the trip to Iceland and Greenland’s east coast. In 2007 the number of vessels was 250. This dramatic increase is a nightmare for those responsible for safety at sea and has lead to even closer co-operation between the Icelandic Coast Guard and the Danish Navy responsible for search and rescue in Greenland. 

In this context the Stoltenberg- proposals for joint Nordic monitoring of the sea from satellites, ships, land-based stations and acoustic detectors are to be welcomed.  From Icelandic point of view, it is important to extend this surveillance system westwards to the USA and Canada and southwards to the British Isles. 

The aim is to have Iceland join a collaborative agreement with these nations on safety at sea, in addition to which a special bilateral partnership agreement has been concluded between the Icelandic Coast Guard and the US Coast Guard.  The Icelandic Coast Guard collaborates with its sister institutions in 19 states on both sides of the Atlantic in the North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum, which this year is under the chairmanship of the Director of the Icelandic Coast Guard.

The Stoltenberg- report stresses the importance of exploiting the latest satellite and computer technology to develop an integrated marine surveillance system which would bring together individual countries’ systems and those of multinational institutions.  A system of this type would not deliver its full potential without the capacity and equipment to respond if action is called for.  The Coast Guard is the only institution in Iceland with this capacity and equipment.

With a new aircraft and patrol vessel, the Icelandic Coast Guard will be more capable than ever before to participate in Nordic and international collaboration in our part of the world.

Although Iceland does not have a military force of its own and depends on the 1951 bilateral Defense Agreement for its defenses the Icelandic government must adopt a position on those proposals in the Stoltenberg-report that concern military matters.  It is proposed that a Nordic Marine force be established: “A force specialized to act in coastal regions and in narrow shipping channels; this is an example of a specialist area in which the Nordic countries have expertise which is in demand abroad.”

It is assumed that this force would be trained to operate in the High North with the backing of supply ships equipped for use in the Arctic Ocean.  Russia, the immediate neighbour of the Nordic countries, might view exercises by the Marines as a threat to its territorial integrity.

There are good facilities for training and exercises of this type in Iceland.  Buildings at the former American base at Keflavík Airport could be used to provide teaching premises involving little expense.  Facilities for military exercises in Iceland would both be a symbolic contribution towards Nordic cooperation and also give recruits an opportunity to undergo training in highly unfamiliar circumstances.  The exercises could be linked with the existing training camp for rescue teams in Iceland.

The final Stoltenberg-proposal, No. 13, is that the Nordic governments should make a declaration of mutual solidarity in the field of security, involving a binding statement on how they would respond if any of the Nordic countries were to be subjected to an invasion or abnormal external pressure.

Mr. Stoltenberg considers that a declaration in this area would facilitate all decision-making regarding strategic collaboration. This collaboration would be an extra; it would not replace the commitments that the individual Nordic countries have already undertaken in the fields of foreign relations and defense.  This final sentence in his report is important, as it recognizes that the aim is not to change anything that is already in existence but to supplement it by further collaboration on a new, Nordic, basis.

At this time it is not possible to say anything about how the Stoltenberg-report will be followed up in the political arena.  My view is that it is extremely important for the Nordic countries to set themselves a clear common policy on these matters, and such a policy would in fact also constitute a crucial element of their common Arctic policy.  In doing so, they would reiterate their unanimity on the protection of important interests in their part of the world, where great changes are about to take place and other parties have been drawing up new policies to defend their interests.