Why is the Arctic at the Center of World Politics?

on October 07, 2014 at 12:00 PM

The University of Tromso's research vess

News coverage of the Arctic has been steadily growing in tandem with the rising importance of the region in recent years. The focus of international politics often tends to revolve around energy security within the context of a global scramble for resources to keep individual countries’ economic growth engines humming. In view of the possibilities of the Arctic as a future abundant natural resources supply base for various pivotal countries, especially in Asia, non-Arctic states such as South Korea, Japan, and China join actual Arctic nations in taking a more active part in contemplating Arctic development and theregion’s future. The Arctic Council accepted India, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy as observers to the Council in May 2013 even though they all lack territory north of the Arctic Circle.This actually constitutes a welcome development because some circumpolar issues – specifically originating from human activities south of the Arctic Circle – are, indeed, transnational in nature such as climate change and marine shipping. The changing climate in the High North can expose countries further south to hostile climatic trends impacting weather and eventually their food security.

Three Definitions of the Arctic

roman arctic

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC); map: courtesy of The Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection with tree line added at NSIDC based on information from National Geographic 1983, Armstrong et al. 1978, and Young 1989. 

The above map incorporates the three most common definitions researchers refer to when discussing the region surrounding the North Pole: the tree line; the 10 degrees Celsius isotherm, and the Arctic Circle at 66° 32″ North.

Last week, during a highly informative event hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) entitled “Passing the Arctic Council Torch” – bringing together leading Arctic experts from government and academia – US Admiral Robert Papp Jr. dwelled on the main US priority in the Arctic, stating: “It is imperative to address the effects of climate change before it is too late.” He went on to describe the US government’s stance on the Arctic as “more active and more forward-leaning” elaborating that the “warming of the Arctic” represents a conditio-sine-qua-non for oil and gas exploration and maritime trade throughout the High North. In this respect, Admiral Papp stressed the importance of safety standards for oil and gas drilling in a “region of shared responsibility”. He did not tie himself down to whether this required a legally binding commitment in the form of a multilateral agreement or whether a voluntary adoption of certain standards sufficed.

Interestingly, Admiral Papp mentioned “regional seas agreements” as a possible model for the Arctic. This is a clear indication that the US government has no intention to soften its long held position with regard to the concept of transit passage through international straits by subsurface, surface and air. This position is meant to counter any efforts of coastal nations to restrict freedom of the seas globally. Note, changing the US stance in the Arctic as it relates to the Northwest Passage – Canada regards the straits as internal waters subject to the full force of Canadian domestic law – could serve as a dangerous precedent for international straits such as the Strait of Malacca or Hormuz – both crucial for US national security.

Moreover, the term used by Admiral Papp – regional seas agreement – basically advocates for a ‘regionally tailored’ approach vis-à-vis a global convention increases the chances of meaningful regional cooperation on environmental matters such as marine oil pollution prevention, search and rescue procedures, and general emergency response. “[E]very regional sea has its own environmental problems and its own needs, and a regional convention is more likely to attract the full interest and commitment of the governments who sign it,”the UNEP explains. Within such a framework, working together on a multitude of issues could further enhance cooperation through the sharing of information and data as well as best practices. Moreover, this could also serve as an effective accountability mechanism if states are required to disclose and/or document any incidents to fellow Arctic stakeholders.

Overall, this statement is significant in its content – shedding light on the current administration’s thinking on the Arctic given who delivered it – and also comes at a great time. Earlier this year on July 16, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the appointment of Admiral Robert J. Papp, a retired Commandant of the US Coast Guard, as the State Department’s Special Representative for the Arctic stressing on that occasion the Obama administration’s commitment to elevate “these issues in America’s foreign policy and national security strategy because the United States is an Arctic nation, and Arctic policy has never been more important, particularly as we prepare to Chair the Arctic Council in 2015.”

Just recently, Leona Aglukkaq – Canada’s Minister for the Arctic Council and current Arctic Council Chair – announced the next Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting to take place in Iqaluit, Nunavut (Canada) on 24-25 April 2015. Every two years this meeting is intended to bring together both ministers of the Arctic states and representatives of Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations to set the Arctic Council’s objectives for the coming two years under a new chairmanship. The US will be the Chair of the Arctic Council from May 2015 through May 2017.

Prioritizing climate change is a distinct departure from the theme chosen for Canada’s Chairmanship to inspire its initiatives/projects: “Development for the People of the North,” with three sub-themes to guide the Council’s work; namely, “Responsible Arctic Resource Development,” “Safe Arctic Shipping,” and “Sustainable Circumpolar Communities.” There is no denying anymore that the Arctic is warming. Most notable, the visible effect is a decline in the historical area of the Arctic Ocean covered by ice year-round. The Arctic Ocean now exhibits a large loss of summer ice. This trend appears to have accelerated in the last decade. And this warming and accompanying loss of ice cover is projected to continue. Major implications are that new shipping routes are opening up coupled with huge economic opportunities related to the extraction of natural resources. Therefore, for the US to recognize – in line with domestic action on climate change – and to address the environmental context and associated risks of human activity on an ecologically and biologically delicate region makes a lot of sense.

During the CSIS event, various Arctic experts on three interesting panels echoed many of Admiral Papp’s remarks in their own. Meanwhile, renowned Canadian Professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia delivered perhaps the punch line of the entire event by stating:

The Arctic is at the center of world politics (…) given the incredible pace of climate change in the Arctic and also given geopolitical developments involving Russia – [specifically because] of those two features, [the Arctic] being on the front line of the greatest challenge humankind may face in this century and given the all-important relationship between Russia and NATO. [This relationship will continue to] be front and center of international diplomacy.”

Specifically, it is the loss of sea ice in summer – what he labels the onset of the “death spiral of climate change” – that brings those two pivotal issues to a head in the Arctic. Professor Byers goes on to explain why the international community needs to keep a lid on this perilous development: “We do not want to get into a situation where we have lost control of geopolitics because climate change has spiraled out of control. That is why we need sea ice. We would lose an ecosystem (…) that is so dependent on ice. (…) Anything we do [then] is simply damage reduction. (…) I want an Arctic in terms of governance that is more like the Mediterranean Sea than the South China Sea.” (Read Breaking Energy coverage on governance in the Arctic here). By the same token, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to intellectually connect the Arctic and Russia too when issuing a stern warning over increasingly aggressive Russian actions in the Arctic to an audience in a talk in Montreal in March. The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail quotes her as follows: “[T]hey have been aggressively reopening military bases.” In her view, given that Russia has the longest coastline in the Arctic along with the opening of general Arctic natural resources exploitation, Canada needs to stand united with the US to counter such Russian behavior in the Arctic, as further reported by the Globe and Mail.

At this point, it is very important to understand that while both – Secretary Clinton and Professor Byers – seem to intellectually agree on an ‘Arctic as center of world politics’, Secretary Clinton appears to come from a distinctly different point of departure; namely, military security. Given that Mrs. Clinton may still decide to run for president in 2016, this could have a tremendous impact on the US Arctic Council Chairmanship. A follow-up article will address why the US should not focus their agenda on military aspects of security in the Arctic during their upcoming Arctic Council Chairmanship.