Iceland is key to NATO — but Iceland’s prime minister worries about militarization in the North Atlantic

Iceland is a key member of NATO. But the nation's 42-year-old Left-Green prime minister is a staunch anti-militarist.

By Martin Breum - November 2, 2018
Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir is welcomed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the start of a NATO summit at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018. (Paul Hanna / Reuters file photo)

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the Prime Minister of Iceland, is rare for her time; a truly left wing European head of government.

She is chairman of Iceland’s Left-Green Movement and since November 2017 also head of Iceland’s coalition government. She is 42, a socialist, focused on diversity and climate issues and a staunch anti-militarist.

This last trait presents some current dilemmas. Even as she welcomed me at her offices in the white stone mansion from 1771 at the end of Hverfisgata (Whale Street) in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, two Canadian frigates were moored in Reykjavik’s old harbor a few hundred meters from her office. Further out in Reykjavik’s industrial harbor another Canadian ship and two British frigates are dwarfed by the USS Iwo Jima, a daunting amphibious assault vessel of the U.S. Navy heavily equipped with helicopters and marines.

In total, some 4,000 foreign troops are in Icelandic waters on this particular day. 400 of these have conducted exercises on land, including an exercise to protect the air fields in Keflavik, Iceland’s international airport. The exercises come in advance of Trident Juncture, the largest NATO exercise in the North Atlantic since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Some 50,000 soldiers from 29 NATO countries are part of Trident Juncture, which runs until November 7. About 60 vessels, 150 aircraft and 10.000 vehicles have been mobilized for the exercise. The focal point of the exercise is Norway, which shares a 195-kilometer Arctic border with Russia, but Trident Juncture also embraces Iceland and tracts of the North Atlantic, which has shifted back into the focus for the U.S. and NATO since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

During World War II, U.S. troops kept Iceland free from German occupation and after the war the U.S. air base at Keflavik remained home to large numbers of US troops — sometimes as many as 5,000, only closing down the base in 2006. Since 2016 U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircrafts, specially equipped to trace Russians submarines, have visited Keflavik more frequently. Iceland’s location in the middle of the North Atlantic makes the country irresistible to NATO planners. In 2016, Magnus Nordenman, an analyst from the Atlantic Council in Washington, fittingly described Iceland as “the unsinkable aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic.”

Let us leave NATO

As we talk, Katrín Jakobsdóttir stresses that we are not witnessing a return of a quasi-permanent U.S. military presence in Iceland. Such a move is not even under discussion between the two. Even so, Katrín Jakobsdóttir has to span a sizable divide when balancing her own views with those of her coalition partners: “My party’s position is that we are against Iceland’s membership of NATO,” she says. “However, we are the only party in Iceland’s parliament that holds that position, and Iceland now has a national security policy which passed through Parliament in 2016. We — as the Left-Green party — recognize that there is a strong majority in Iceland in support of our NATO membership, but we don’t favor for instance the idea of a permanent military presence here in Iceland”.

I ask if she supports a stronger NATO naval presence in the North Atlantic, now that Russia-NATO relations are deteriorating, and again she presents both positions; her own and that of her government:

“We know that there is an increased military presence — or let us call it traffic — in the North Atlantic,” she says.

“My government’s position, based on the national security policy, is that Iceland will stay as a member of NATO. My personal position is that we should leave NATO, so I am critical towards any increased militarization of the North Atlantic, but our government will stick to the security policy that we have agreed upon and a part of that policy is our membership of NATO which includes NATO travelings around in the North Atlantic.”

One of Iceland’s dilemmas is that Russia’s Northern Fleet is harbored on the shores of the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk in the Russian Arctic. This fleet makes up more than half of Russia’s naval might. Large parts of the nuclear arsenal of Russia is managed by this fleet and has been thoroughly upgraded and modernized. Russian jets have increased the number of flights over the North Atlantic. In 2017, according to Norwegian defense forces, Russian forces did a mock attack on several key military installations in northern Norway. New missile carrying submarines have been added to the bases near Murmansk from where they have year-round ice-free access to the North Atlantic and the waters surrounding Iceland. Finally, NATO analysts now fear that in times of crisis unmanned Russian subsea vehicles may be able to sabotage vital data cables in the North Atlantic connecting the U.S. and Europe.

NATO’s shivers of today are identical to those of the World War II, namely that the enemy in times of crisis may interrupt the lines of communications, supply and support between the U.S. and Europe. The basic message then and now is that NATO’s predominance in the straits between Greenland, Iceland and Great Britain (frequently known as the “GIUK gap”) should never be compromised, and Iceland is squarely in the middle of it all.

Earlier this year, one of Norway’s most seasoned analysts, Rolf Tamnes from the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, writing for Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, described the challenge in simple terms: “Russia’s military build-up and subversive activities constitute the most important challenge to the defense of Europe. Russia has revitalized its so-called ‘bastion’ concept, which includes sea control of northern waters, sea denial down into the Greenland–Iceland–UK (GIUK) gap, and force projection into the North Atlantic to disrupt trade flows and military freedom of maneuver.”

Peaceful solutions, thank you!

Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s response to this bleak analysis is that she does not believe that further militarization of the North Atlantic will solve the problem. The 338,000 Icelander’s do not have a military of their own. The government in Reykjavik supports NATO air patrols in Iceland’s airspace politically as well as logistically, but Iceland has no troops, fighter planes or warships of its own and no plans to acquire any.

“We favor more peaceful solutions and we don’t think that increased militarization is a solution,” Katrín Jakobsdóttir says.

“There are far too many conflicts in the world today. For years, there has been a high degree of impotence when it comes to reaching political solutions. Look at Syria or Yemen, for instance, that are dire humanitarian crises areas and where the international community has been unable to find political and peaceful solutions. This is what worries people like me who do not favor increased militarization. Would increased militarization help in those situations? I don’t think so. I think we need to strengthen diplomatic and political relations. Strengthen productive conversations between nations towards peaceful solutions, not the continuing suffering we see in these troubled parts of the world today.”

I point out that relations between Russia and the West are deteriorating and ask what her suggestion is. “We say the same within NATO and outside NATO. We will always emphasize the importance of diplomatic relations,” she says.

“We will not give up that position even if there is trouble around us. It is more important than ever to stay clear here.”

Out of the trenches

To me, the battleships in Reykjavik’s harbor illustrate just how difficult it will be for Icelanders to stem the tide, if the rest of NATO decide to push into the North Atlantic. Katrín Jakobsdóttir maintains, however, that Iceland can make a difference.

“I think each country can make a difference. Iceland has already made a difference when it comes to gender equality and we are setting ambitious goals when it comes to climate change, heading for an energy shift in transportation, heading for carbon neutrality by reclamation of wetlands, and we have been using our renewables for decades. I think we have an important message to deliver in this aspect worldwide”.

She underscores the scope of her political alliance.

“Our coalition government is a broad one and also an odd one in Icelandic terms and in the international context,” she says.

“There is my party, the Left-Green Movement, the centrist Progressives and the right wing Independence party, so it is a very broad government. I think this is interesting in relation to current discussions on multilateral cooperation and how we now see more and more polarization in the west and to the east. Our government can be seen as an experiment on how to fight back against that polarization and on how to bring back politics up from the trenches and reach out for a broader consensus on some very important social issues.”

Iceland’s history as a former part of the Danish Kingdom also plays a role. In the front office of Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s chambers a large oil painting depicts Thingvellir, the first seat of Altinget, Iceland’s parliament, established outdoors in 930. The Icelanders are proud of their Viking past as a self-made Free State and this year they celebrate 100 years of independence from Denmark, achieved through decades of tough but peaceful negotiations.

“It has shaped our identity as a nation,” she says.

“Having been first under Norwegian and then Danish rule from 1262 to 1918 means that we have been under foreign rule for the majority of our existence and our common identity has been shaped by that.”

“The fact that Iceland and Denmark made an agreement on our independence and sovereignty made us a case study of peaceful solutions. It means a lot to us that we made this agreement and that our two nations can still be friends. The struggle for independence in Iceland was peaceful and I think that is part of the reason why we are still a nation without a military and that we still believe in dialogue and peaceful solutions,” she says.

Martin Breum is a Danish journalist and author covering the Arctic. He is based in Copenhagen. His latest book “Cold Rush” on Greenland and Denmark was published in June. Find him at