As the Arctic Heats Up, How to Keep the Peace

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, back in 1987, called for the Arctic to be a “zone of peace” — and it has been. Yet warmer temperatures are heralding ice-free summers, opening up all sorts of economic opportunities from potential oil and gas riches to new shipping routes. Military might is being cranked up, too. Decades of harmonious exceptionalism may be coming to an end. 

It is still possible to shield the region from rising tensions elsewhere. That will require rethinking the role of states without polar territory, China among them, and creating an informal venue for security discussions that includes sanctions-hit Russia. The eight Arctic states,  including the U.S., Canada and Russia, must also take real action to tackle the region’s greatest threat: climate change. A statement after this week’s Arctic Council meeting made multiple mentions of global warming, but tough national targets need to match that talk.

It won’t be an easy balance to strike. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned against encroachment ahead of the Council meeting, which included government ministers from the region. “This is our land and our waters,” he said, before Moscow officially took the two-year rotating leadership of the Council. Framing the discussion as raw competition helps no one.

Fortunately, there’s a track record of substantive cooperation. A “race for resources” narrative underplays the real cost of extracting oil in the Arctic, despite oft-cited estimates of untapped mineral wealth. New shipping routes such as the Northern Sea Route along the Russian Arctic coast are swifter and matter greatly for fossil fuels. But practical difficulties like pricier fuel bills, the need for stronger hulls and crews trained to deal with unpredictable sea ice mean these routes aren’t about to displace other options.

As the Arctic Heats Up, How to Keep the Peace

Nevertheless, the Arctic is changing fast. Temperatures have warmed at three times the global average over the past 50 years, according to the Council. Shrinking sea ice will probably make matters worse as more heat is absorbed, rather than reflected back. Melting permafrost has already contributed to one of Russia’s worst fuel spills. Pathogens are a major concern.

The surge in human activity increases the risk for misunderstandings and accidents. There are more soldiers and military hardware as Russia builds up capacity, resuming operations at Soviet-era bases. The U.S. reestablished the Navy’s Second Fleet, responsible for the northern Atlantic Ocean, and is adding icebreaker capacity. In February, Denmark said it would invest in drones and radar for Arctic surveillance.

As the Arctic Heats Up, How to Keep the Peace

It’s a very different place than it was in 1996, when the Council, the closest thing to a regional governing body, was set up.

So what needs to be done? First, recognize the change. No one denies the rights of Arctic states and we won’t see a wholesale revamp of the consensus-run structure. But the Arctic doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Beijing’s inflated language on its Arctic policy has done it few favors, but Mike Pompeo, former U.S. Secretary of State, was wrong to say that China, and by extension other outsiders, were entitled to “exactly nothing.”

A proliferation of issue-specific arrangements show the need for a broader approach, albeit one with the Council at its core. It’s significant that Lavrov mentioned the need to “evaluate” and “improve” the observer nation set-up that allows some countries from outside the region to take part, even if it’s less clear what he has in mind. A stronger Council needs this.

Russia wasn’t keen to allow China observer status in 2013, but Beijing is a key investor in Russian Arctic ventures such as the Yamal LNG project. As Elana Wilson Rowe at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs says, it’s unclear how Moscow can keep pursuing an independent policy in the region and keep Beijing at arm’s length as China becomes more integral to the Arctic’s development.

Where security is concerned, something has to be done to foster dialogue and ensure more frequent armed forces’ maneuvers don’t lead to confrontation. Military affairs are explicitly outside the Council’s mandate. Yet sideline discussions bridging Western and Russian interests stopped after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and activity has hardly cooled since. Informal meetings or expert discussions are overdue — in a set-up that explicitly doesn’t exonerate Russia’s actions elsewhere, as Mathieu Boulegue of Chatham House points out. A code of conduct is also essential.

Finally, for Arctic nations to maintain credibility as the primary custodians of the High North, they need to show they’re serious about global warming — even if they are not alone in causing it. Under the Trump administration, Washington did significant damage by blocking a final statement over words suggesting climate change was a serious threat. This year’s statement is better, but focuses on adaptation.

Russia, with the greatest economic stake, faces a delicate balancing act as it takes the Council’s helm. Moscow appears set to deal with contradictions between its poor climate performance and mitigation promises by breaking down the problem — say, by studying permafrost damage and methane release separately, while avoiding any overarching commitments.

But alarms keep ringing. As the Council ministers met in Reykjavik this week, an exceptional heatwave wilted the Arctic.

The High North has been a bright spot for multilateralism. Action can keep it that way.

The eight Arctic states are Russia, Canada, the United States (Alaska), Finland, Denmark (Greenland), Sweden, Norway and Iceland.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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