Exemplary, yes, in the sense that the United States, the Soviet Union, and dozens of other eventual signatories came to an agreement in the middle of the Cold War to rule out pushing and shoving over a potentially strategic area. It’s a commitment the world has adhered to for a half century.
The example may stop there. When it comes to the High North — and the prospect of the Arctic with its sea lanes and vast energy reserves opening for the first time as a result of the region’s warming — no similarly ambitious regime looks anywhere at hand.
A couple of weeks ago, at the first Halifax International Security Forum, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Canadian government, there were questions to a panel of military, diplomatic and shipping experts about whether a greater sense of urgency and a less piecemeal approach wouldn’t be appropriate before the ice melts.
There are unresolved and overlapping territorial claims. There is a dispute between the North Americans about whether an operational Northwest Passage, joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is a Canadian or an international waterway. And there is concern that a three-year-long Russian mapping mission of the Arctic seabed will have an unnecessary military escort. (To do what — defend it against attacking seals?)
But there is nothing wide-reaching and specific planned to fend off militarization or address the Arctic’s unique and growing environmental problems.
As for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, sometimes described as a sufficient framework for Arctic governance, Neil Hamilton of the W.W.F. Arctic Program said last year it had failed to address climate change.
Indeed, the U.S. Senate has never ratified the convention’s work. The fact is also that some Americans dealing with the issue who acknowledge the possibility of a “strategic revolution” in the Arctic say there is no need to focus on it for another 10 years.
Following this line, the Antarctic Treaty — and, tacitly, its essential prohibitions — have been referred to as not analogous to the Arctic’s circumstances because the High North is a frozen sea with continents around it, as opposed to Antarctica’s frozen land mass surrounded by water. Besides, you hear, back in 1959 there was a different notion of the regions’ potential.
The Arctic, its wealth and military significance gets a kind of mañana or all’s cool approach in public from its main Western actors — Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark (through its links to Greenland). Alongside Russia, they were the participants in the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, a narrow procedural statement on the Arctic that resolves none of its biggest questions.
A panelist in Halifax, Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s deputy defense minister, said a bit wistfully, “The opening up of the Arctic is not necessarily a good thing.” But he added, “The assumption that there’s going to be some kind of Great Game adventure — that’s not true. The circumstances are important, but not alarming.”
The Canadian armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, also tried to be reassuring, saying, “There is no conventional military threat to the Arctic,” while at the same time suggesting the area was such a difficult place that only the military had sufficient capabilities to operate in some circumstances.
Which leaves the Russians, who seem more in a rush than the Atlantic Alliance players to create their own kind of Arctic facts.
They have experience in the region, but hardly a resounding record as great stewards of the environment. Their claim to half of the Arctic as their own was described in Halifax as “extravagant” by a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker.
In 2007, they planted a Russian flag under the North Pole. This year, Moscow’s National Security Council announced that the Arctic would become its “main resource base” by 2020, and plans for troops “capable of ensuring military security in the region.” In October, a Russian admiral said that helicopter carriers the Russian Navy hopes to buy from France were earmarked, in part, for its Arctic fleet.
But this could be just woofin’. In April, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (the man who introduced the still-active Russian policy line that there is no evidence to indicate Iran seeks to produce nuclear weapons) did a 180 and insisted Russia was not planning any increase of forces in the Arctic. Add to that General Natynczyk telling the Halifax conference that the hulls of the helicopter-carriers Russia wants were not suitable for Arctic conditions.
All the same, said Mr. Volker, who is managing director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations, “The Russians know what they want. They’ve got an Arctic fleet, and incentives to bring people to settle in the region. They want to develop gas fields. It’s not military aggression, but an attempt to build a comprehensive presence.” Washington, he said, “has been a little slow to put the pieces together. And we’re the only country to have the resources and political weight that can get a handle on the development of the region.”
Urgency? A great big idea to rule out the worst-case Great Game perspective of guns, gas leaks and oil spills, tanker collisions and nationalist jostling?
It’s unlikely soon. During a week when big ideas have their shot at the Copenhagen Climate Conference, it’s clear the Arctic isn’t getting its share.
For the original text, see: Russia's Role