Why Finland and Iceland want security politics in the Arctic Council

But not everyone thinks its a good idea.

By Siri Gulliksen Tømmerbakke, High North News - October 25, 2019
Finland’s Prime Minister Antti Rinne says he wants to initiate an Arctic Council security policy meeting, an initiative supported by Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir. (Arctic Circle)

The question of whether to include security issues in the Arctic Council is regularly raised in informal Arctic discussions. But at this year’s Arctic Circle, it rose to the main stage.

Many now argue that the international Arctic governance forum should start addressing security policy issues, while others strongly warn against it.

“We need to and should discuss whether the Arctic Council should also address security issues”, said Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir during her opening speech at the world’s largest Arctic conference earlier this month.

[Will the Arctic Council begin addressing national security?]

Antti Rinne, Finland’s Prime Minister, agreed with Jakobsdottir and also argued that these kind of major issues should be discussed during times of peace, and that he wants the EU onboard.

“And the best way in which we can do that, is to handle it with as many as possible at the table”, he added. ( You can watch the full Q&A session here.)

Finland has tried to initiate an Arctic leadership meeting about this, an initiative to which Jakobsdottir lends Iceland’s full support.

“Iceland has been in favor of keeping geo and security politics off the table in the Arctic Council because we have believed it to be important to have a forum in which we can all sit at the same table and have constructive discussions without major conflict issues taking over. However, now that we see geopolitical tensions rise, I believe we need to discuss whether the Arctic Council should also be a forum for so-called ‘hard security’. Or if we should have a separate forum for this.”

“We do not currently have an Arctic forum that addresses such issues, or one that can handle disputes about territories or exploitation of natural resources, she continued and said, in summary: “Securing peace and stability in the North Atlantic and Arctic and preventing the area to become victim of a geopolitical power struggle is our responsibility.”

No faith in an Arctic security forum

Even though security politics most certainly will be addressed in the updated EU strategy for the Arctic, Marie-Anne Coninsx, the EU’s Ambassador at Large for the Arctic, is not so sure that a separate Arctic security policy forum is the way forward.

“Some of the discussions here in Reykjavik have spun around opening up for discussing security politics at the Arctic Council or creating a separate council to address this. However, I do not believe we need to create new organizations. I believe those that already exist will suffice, she tells High North News. Though she warns against putting up a “do-not-disturb” sign:

“If a security risk emerges, the responsibility for that cannot be limited to the Arctic states exclusively. Many argue that the EU should be more engaged than what it is today. The German strategy, for instance, encourages the EU and NATO to intensify their security policy role in the region.

Focusing on avoiding tension

Norway’s Senior Arctic Official, Bård Ivar Svendsen, was also present during the opening session of the Arctic Circle in Reykjavik.

He is not surprised by what he heard from the Icelandic and Finnish prime ministers; however, he stresses:

“We are facing major changes in the Arctic. The climate and the environment are changing, and the ecosystems change. In a longer-term perspective, that will lead to changes in the Arctic reality, for instance when it comes to new transport routes. We know we have to be prepared for that and it is thus both natural and logical for some to ask what this will mean to geopolitics and security politics in the Arctic,” Svendsen says and continues:

“What we are focused on at the [Norwegian] Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to not cause unnecessary tension. The current situation is that the Arctic is a peaceful and stable region. We will do what we can to contribute to continued peace and stability, and we do no not see anything that goes to indicate that that will change significantly. Maintaining the stability and peace we have today is in the interest of all Arctic states.”

Svendsen acknowledges that ideas about finding new ways to formalize talks about security in the Arctic have been presented from various parties recently.

“There have been several proposals, neither of which have been formalized so far. The issue has not been raised by any government bodies, but rather presented as ideas by individuals in this kind of debates in this kind of forums. So as per today, we do not have any concrete proposals on the table about how this might possibly be done”, he says to High North News.

Good reasons to keep the issue off the table

He argues that there are good reasons why the Arctic Council should not address security policy issues.

“If one were to change the mandate of the Arctic Council, that would be a long-term process that would have to be supported by all, and I do not consider that realistic. Norway will continue working under the current circumstances. We take note of the increased number of ideas about how we should discuss security politics, though we will wait and see if any of these ideas come to fruition before we potentially take a stand on it.”

During the opening of the Arctic Circle, both Finland’s and Iceland’s prime ministers raised the issue of finding ways in which to discuss major security policy issues. Nevertheless, Svendsen’s impression is that the member states are satisfied with the current situation at the Arctic Council.

“This is so because the Arctic Council has focused on environment, and on economic and social development, areas in which it has been possible to reach consensus. We should keep in mind that the Arctic Council is one out of very few international forums in which the dialogue between Russia and the West has been good throughout. And that is so exactly because security policy is kept off the table.”

He also refers to how Iceland’s Foreign Minister, Gudlaugur Thor Thordarsson, spoke about the Arctic Council in an “admirable, fact-based and correct way” in his speech.

“We relate to that. It is important to remember that we actually have a solid legal framework for the Arctic in public international law as well as the UN Convention on Law of the Seas.”

Too differentiated to discuss security

Whitney Lackenbauer, professor at Trent University in Canada, is also not a fan of bringing security politics into the Arctic Council.

“Mike Pompeo really did Canada a favor with his Rovaniemi speech last May. He saved us from ourselves, because Canada was also a country trying to bring security politics on to the Arctic Council table back in the 1990s. Back then, the Americans were the ones holding back.”

The professor argues that the Arctic is too differentiated to discuss security politics on a regional level, and he argues that security policy challenges should be solved on a different level.

“As for ‘soft security’, which is about search and rescue, that is a different matter. But we cannot speak about the Arctic as one uniform region; it should be regarded as a series of different security regions, regions that of course have an ongoing dialogue and cooperate.”

“The European Arctic and the Canadian Arctic are vastly different from each other in many ways, including in where we look for allies. There are demographic realities we have to take into account. And the fact is that no-one is threatening Canada’s sovereignty in the High North”, he says and stresses:

“What threatens us as well as the rest of the Arctic, is a different thing altogether: Climate changes. And that will turn into a far more serious threat than security.”

“Yes, there are conflicts between Russia and NATO. Yes, there are conflicts with China and insecurity about its real motives. Economic insecurity, energy security, climate changes. But are these Arctic challenges? Or global?” he asks.

In closing, Lackenbauer says Canada is skeptical of NATO getting more involved with the region.

“We fear that it may provoke the Russians without reason, and that it will add wood to the fire for Putin’s propaganda table. Canada has changed its rhetoric. Today, we see ourselves as a security supplier for Europe, not as a security receiver. We have other security alliances that preserve us in the case of conflict. We are happy to participate in NATO exercises, but we do so with careful considerations and ask ourselves ‘what strategic message are we sending out by this’ and ‘what are the consequences’.”

This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN’s Elisabeth Bergquist.