As climate change melts the polar ice caps, threatening wildlife, disrupting the food chain and affecting indigenous cultures, it has also created economic opportunities by opening up new shipping routes and accelerated the scramble for the region’s valuable oil and mineral deposits.
As a result, the Arctic, one of the world’s coldest regions, is transforming into a metaphorical global hotspot which many predict could be the site of major international conflict.
While Steven Lamy, professor of international relations and vice dean of academic programs at USC Dornsife, does not share this pessimistic view, he nevertheless believes the region faces many serious challenges. He recently presented his analysis of Arctic security issues at the first Arctic Circle Assembly, a global forum for international cooperation on Arctic issues held in Reykjavik in Iceland.
“It was breathtaking and refreshing to see a thousand people there, all of whom are concerned about the Arctic,” Lamy said of the conference, which organizers claimed was the largest-ever gathering of people interested in Arctic issues.
More than 1,000 participants from 40 nations, including political and business leaders, indigenous representatives, nongovernmental and environmental representatives, policy and think tank leaders, scientists and other experts, activists, students and media, attended the conference held in the Icelandic capital from October 12 to 14.
As a member of the Northern Research Forum, an international group interested in academic policy issues related to the Arctic, Lamy’s presentation addressed the political and military repercussions of dealing with complex issues of sovereignty and governance in the region.
“Unlike Antarctica which has no sovereignty issues, when you look at the Arctic region, there are states that fall inside the Arctic Circle and that have legitimate claims of sovereignty,” Lamy said.
This raises questions of who is going to govern the area. Should it be the eight-member Arctic Council, the high level intergovernmental forum established in 1996 to address issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous peoples of the Arctic?
“How powerful is the Arctic Council going to get and how effective can it be beyond deciding low level issues?” Lamy said. “So yes, they managed to come to an agreement on rescue and oil spill cleanup, but it took them years. What happens if security threats arise or illegal activities occur in the region? Who controls which weapons are allowed to come into the region? Are we going to have our nuclear subs there and are the Russians going to have theirs? Now the Chinese have observer status, so what are the implications of that?
“I believe the Arctic Council is the way to go but I think you’ve got to give it some teeth,” he added.
How to go about providing those teeth is not so simple, however. Attempting to bring NATO into the equation — while it would be popular with strong NATO members Iceland, Canada, Norway, and the Kingdom of Denmark — would certainly not go down well with Russia.
In Lamy’s view, the greatest challenge facing the member states of the Arctic Council — Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States — is their dramatically different political cultures.
“From the United States perspective it’s all about national interest and great power rivalry,” he said. “Everyone is talking about the Arctic as a common resource area where we can all work together. That’s true, but the basic problem is that is not an approach which is embedded in U.S. strategic or political culture.
"We are much more of an ‘I’ society and the Nordics are much more ‘we,’ or common interest, oriented. We believe in national interest first and cooperation up to a certain point on low level activities, and only if it doesn’t sacrifice our national interest. The Nordics, on the other hand, cooperate to serve their national interests and are much more willing to share, or give up sovereignty, for a larger common good.”
Lamy warned that political difficulties at home are not constructive to the U.S. taking a leading role in the Arctic.
“The U.S. is so polarized domestically that we are going to have a hard time convincing the world that we are willing and able to cooperate,” he said. “The world is saying the Arctic is a common resource that needs to be managed in a cooperative way, but the U.S. has not even signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS], the critical international document governing that whole region. Not only will that limit our ability to participate, it also signals to the rest of the world that once again the U.S. is unwilling to collaborate or cooperate if it doesn’t serve our national interest.”
The U.S. position on the Arctic has stagnated since the Cold War, Lamy said.
“We were very clear about the Arctic as a security region during the Cold War when we had our early warning system. The problem is that we haven’t developed our policy since then and replaced the security priority of the region with a concern about the quality of life, or human security. We don’t have a sextant for our policies in the Arctic. We talk about homeland security, and search and rescue and there are concerns there. But there should be more of a concern about the development of the Arctic, about shared governance.”
While climate change has allowed shipping lanes to open up, creating new opportunities for revenue, Lamy warns of the many accompanying dangers.
“The problem is the lack of infrastructure to deal with search and rescue, so if large cruise ships filled with senior citizens go up there and get stranded, we are in big trouble,” he said.
Oil spills are another issue. Very few precedents exist for cleaning up oil spills in the icy waters of the high Arctic. The potential for disaster is aggravated by a lack of equipment and trained personnel. Another major concern is the existence of nuclear waste and Soviet-era nuclear weapons from old Soviet bases in the region.
Although Lamy disagrees with those who predict the Arctic will be the site of a new war, he acknowledges that collaboration between the major Arctic players will not be plain sailing.
“In my opinion, based on this conference and my other work, the lead is going to come from the Norwegians who were referred to in several sessions as the Saudi Arabia of the Nordics,” Lamy said. “They’ve got the oil and sovereign funds and are thriving economically.”
He has some advice for the United States if it wants to be an effective player in the Arctic.
“First we must sign UNCLOS to show our good faith. That’s absolutely critical. We must then decide to collaborate on low politics issues such as oil spill clean up and search and rescue. We also need to ensure we have a lead agency.”
Rather than the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, Lamy would prefer to see that role filled by the creation of a U.S. ambassador to the Arctic Council. “We need a separate agency, a consolidated group that deals specifically with Arctic issues,” he said.
Countries as far away as India and South Korea have strong interests in the region as a new source of energy and valuable resources. India and Singapore share deep concerns over climate change.
Polar bears are not the only animals in critical danger as global warming causes the polar ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise. Thousands of miles from the Arctic, in the lush, humid, mangrove jungles of Bangladesh, Royal Bengal tigers risk losing their native habitat to rising water levels. By 2070, sea levels near Bangladesh are predicted to rise 11 inches above 2000 levels, submerging 96 percent of the tigers’ habitat. This would provide space for only 20 breeding pairs — an insufficient number to sustain the population.
Singapore, which is only eight feet above sea level, is already planning how to raise land levels. The U.S., however, which also faces the devastating effects of climate change, currently has very low interest in the Arctic.
“We are not long-term planners and the Arctic is so far away,” Lamy said. “Here in the U.S., we just don’t see ourselves as connected to the world. To me, that is one of the most critical issues that we face as a nation.”