H.E. Thordur Aegir Oskarsson

The considerably successful work of the Arctic Council since its launch in 1996 has increasingly been characterized by the pragmatic cooperation among the eight Arctic state members in various fields.

The Arctic Council has enjoyed a solid political tailwind for almost two decades, resulting in a robust institution that has moved away from being exclusively a policy shaping body into the territory of pragmatic policy making reflected in two Arctic-wide agreements on search and rescue and prevention of oil spills.

However, currently the Council is facing increasing challenges, not only rising from its agenda, but more acutely from challenges stemming from events external to the Arctic region. Juha Käpylä and Harri Mikkola, in a previously published briefing paper, have argued that “should an interstate conflict surface in the Arctic, the source is most likely to be related to a complex global dynamics that may spill over to the region and which cannot be addressed with existing Arctic governance mechanisms.” The crisis in the Ukraine is a testament to this argument. Last September the United States and the European Union introduced economic sanctions against Russia that directly affect offshore hydrocarbon resource development in the Arctic. These sanctions are not high on the political and economic risk scale, but they confirm that the Arctic region is not absolutely immune from external events.


Apart from external effects on Arctic cooperation, it is irresponsible to disregard the possibility of emerging tensions arising among the member states of the Arctic Council on Arctic specific issues. History teaches us that the scale of foreseen Arctic commercialization and resource development will likely create security challenges that the present arrangements for Arctic governance will not be able to handle. Adding to this is the accelerating climate change and its many unknown consequence that will make the future challenges even more complicated.

Indeed, there are already signs of fragmentation surfacing in the region. The five Arctic “coastal” states have carved out the fisheries in the Arctic as an exclusive subject matter for them to discuss. This seems to contravene the cooperative spirit of the Arctic Council and undermine its role and legitimacy. Iceland has been working on securing its place as a partner in such arrangements due to its location in the High North to no avail.

All Arctic Council members have strong national interests in the development of the region related to territorial claims and ultimately, resource exploitation. There are of course international mechanisms in place that can aid the Arctic Council members in tackling these challenges and possible disputes such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for solving outstanding territorial claims.

There is however one missing piece in the whole cooperative puzzle of the High North, and that is the traditional security dimension, which is not part of the Arctic Council agenda. All the participating states have strong security and safety interests when it comes to this expansive region. Efforts have been made to define the traditional security dimension or “hard security” as irrelevant to the general Arctic dialogue while emphasizing the importance of the security dimension of other Arctic issues, such as environment, shipping etc.1 The fact is that there is a lot of residual and active military power in the Arctic that has a role to play in the traditional sense and also very possibly when it comes to threats affecting other issue areas of the Arctic agenda, be it the environment, resource development, shipping, tourism or human security.

This is reflected in various ways in the domestic security policies of the Arctic states. The Foreign Minister of Iceland, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, has emphasized the importance of ensuring Iceland's broad security interests in the Arctic and has defined security issues as one of the main challenges for Iceland’s Arctic policy. Sveinsson has further stated that the increased international importance of the Arctic region has firmly linked it with security development in other parts of the world. Iceland, a NATO member, has for a long time emphasized the necessity of “situational awareness” in the High North as an important aspect of NATO’s role as security provider.

To introduce the issue of “hard” security dialogue in the Arctic Council is premature, but that does not mean that this important topic should or can be disregarded. The academic literature on the Arctic is awash with discussion on the Arctic military security. The military of the Arctic states has already taken the issue on in regular meetings of the top military leaders of the eight Arctic Council states, the Northern Chiefs of Defense Forum, and in meetings of the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, a more obscure military group of 11-12 states whose role is to discuss the future of security operations in the Arctic. In the past Russia has been attending these 2 forums.

Those who handle policy- and decision-making in the field of traditional security have been conspicuously absent from any discussion on military security. It is an absolute necessity to prevent military and academic representatives to “monopolize” traditional security discussions about the High North. It is high time that military security needs and concerns are addressed as an integral and legitimate part of the Arctic agenda.

There are different means to reach this objective, and under present conditions an ad hoc method is preferable to an attempt to put it directly on the Arctic Council agenda. The establishment of an informal forum of the senior officials from those ministries that handle security policy in the Arctic Council member states could be an important first step. In the spirit of Arctic cooperation and trust, the first task of such a senior officials forum should be the comprehensive examination of security military issues above the Arctic Circle. A first substantive step might be to evaluate the feasibility of introducing politically binding confidence and security-building mechanisms (CSBMs) into the region. All the Arctic states are also members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and as such are committed to sophisticated CSBMs measures that even cover their Arctic areas. Arctic specific measures should be contemplated for the broad and very unique Arctic security environment.

These are not new ideas but the need to introduce this security dialogue into the Arctic agenda has gained urgency with rapid international and regional geopolitical change. Last but not least it is arguable that the smaller Arctic partners have most to gain from stronger institutional capacity and expanded political agenda for the Arctic, so the initiative should perhaps be theirs.


  1. David A. Welch. (2013, December). The Arctic and Geopolitics. CIGI paper. 6.

Designed & hosted by Arctic Portal