Will the Arctic Council begin addressing national security?

National security “sucks the air out of the room for everything else,” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski says

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks entitled “Looking North: Sharpening America’s Arctic Focus,” in Rovaniemi, Finland, on May 6, 2019. (State Department / Ron Przysucha)

This year’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting showcased increasingly complicated issues in the region — from national security to climate change and more — and the subsequently complex discussions around them. In its aftermath, attendees and observers are debating where the organization will go from here, and whether its mandates — particularly the exclusion of national security issues — will change.

Although it’s unlikely the council will take on defense issues, observers say, conversations around national security will continue on the sidelines as the region continues to change rapidly.

For the first time in the council’s 20-year history, there was no joint declaration from this year’s ministerial meeting. And U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the occasion to spotlight national security concerns in the Arctic, especially “aggressive behavior” by China and Russia.

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He said the U.S. did not welcome Chinese investments in pursuit of “national security ambitions” in the Arctic; likewise, he criticized Russian “provocative actions” in the region. Pompeo’s blunt speech seemed to cast a range of Arctic issues in light of military and commercial conflict, observers have pointed out.

His speech was particularly notable because of where it took place; the Arctic Council specifically does not address national security.

Furthermore, Pompeo refused to sign the joint ministerial declaration because of its mentions of climate change.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski recently told a group of reporters that she urged Pompeo in Rovaniemi to sign the joint declaration — not just because she recognizes the wide-ranging effects of climate change, but because of the unity the council represents.

“Signing a statement is an important message,” she said, “partly because of the construct of the council.”

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The council focuses on maintaining a zone of peace in the Arctic, while also supporting sustainable development, environmental stewardship, and protection of the Arctic peoples, among other goals.

“Very specifically excluded from the Arctic Council imperative are the issues of national security and defense,” Murkowski said. “And it was very purposeful.”

There are other international venues to discuss national security, she said, but few places exist to discuss the wide range of increasingly complicated issues in the Arctic.

“With each successive council, the issues become more challenging,” she said. “The North and the world up there is changing. And so how we’re able to adapt to that is important.”

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These discussions are even more complicated when national defense enters the conversation.

“There’s a lot that we have to do,” Murkowski said. “And as soon as the conversation about national security comes in, it literally sucks the air out of the room for everything else.”

Yet Murkowski acknowledged the growing concern from some U.S. officials about security issues in the region. She said Pompeo’s remarks prompted an “important conversation” about the defense interests of countries in the region, as well as the question of what role the Arctic Council will take in that conversation. “Because it is something that we cannot avoid,” she said.

“Not only has it not been resolved, it really hasn’t been considered for public discussion, I think, until just really in these past few days,” she said.

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She said Pompeo had “laid out some hard truths out there, that were hard to take on.” However, she questioned whether the council is the right place for these discussions.

“I don’t want us to lose a venue that has been very successful in making sure that we can have peaceful activities in the Arctic,” she said. “Because we’ve been working cooperatively in so many of these other areas of engagement.”

“I imagine that there’s going to be considerable debate over this, and probably no resolve on it, in the short term,” Murkowski said.

Expanding the mission of the council to focus on national security and defense might undercut other important work in the region, she said.

“You’ve got four million people that live in the Arctic. It’s not just about the national security piece.”

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Murkowski was careful to separate national security from other forms of security, such as economic security and food security. The issue of food security, she said, is “imperative” among many residents of the region — particularly in a changing climate — and it was a concern raised by Alaskan indigenous groups that participate in the work of a council during a meeting with Pompeo.

Heather Exner-Pirot, managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook, told ArcticToday that she was surprised Pompeo attended the talks at all, given his unpopular stances.

“But it does say that the United States, like all the other Arctic states, very much values the Arctic Council,” she said.

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The Arctic Council is particularly notable because it’s an international forum where all member states continue to emphasize peaceful cooperation. She said the Arctic Council was unlikely to begin addressing national security officially, but it would continue to bring foreign ministers together to discuss all of the issues facing the region, both in official and unofficial discussions. 

“What the Arctic Council is good at doing is bringing these people together so they can have that dialogue,” Exner-Pirot said. “They’ve always talked about security, I think, on the sidelines of this.”

“It is obviously unconventional for Pompeo to bring up security issues,” Exner-Pirot said. But she pointed to the 2015 ministerial meeting in Iqaluit, shortly after Russia’s actions in Crimea.

At that time, she said, “almost all of the statements brought up the security piece, collaboration, stability.”

“So even that, I don’t think, is new.”

The Arctic Council, Exner-Pirot said, is “always at a crossroads.”

“it’s always interesting and amazing to me that it’s gone as far as it has,” she said. But she doesn’t think this year’s events pose any threats to the forum’s existence.

“My problem is, it doesn’t signal any long-term changes for the Council, and I think there are some long-term changes that are needed,” she said. “That’s more my concern — that it becomes less dynamic, because you can’t get eight states to agree on what the future of the Arctic Council looks like.”