Tyler Mongan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects factors that may affect the Arctic region through current geopolitical system in his fourth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The Arctic is currently one of the most stable geopolitical regions in the world, supporting both bilateral agreements and multinational cooperation. As the Great Game moves to the high north, there will be an emerging background of strategic competition. In its current form, the Arctic Council (AC) has limited ability to ensure that cooperation and coordination are sustained. However, expansion or contraction of the AC’s role could have a destabilizing effect on the region and lead to the displacement of the current geopolitical system.
A stronger AC could become an authority for mitigating geopolitical competition, but this would require Arctic Nations to give up some of their unilateral and even bilateral pursuits, while also being constrained by legal agreements. The strategic and economic opportunities in the Arctic are far too significant for US and Russia to support the development of a superior legal authority. Oversight of military operations is a strict no-go for the US and could lead to the US distancing itself from the AC. This would grant Russia and China more political power to pursue their interests in the region.
If a stronger AC uses its power to manage resource extraction or sea routes, it would see push back from Russia, who has already invested heavily in the region as part of their national strategy. Further, because Russia is a political outlier, the Allied nations could use the AC as a means to constrain Russian efforts. This might force Russia to take a more enclosed approach in the Arctic.
In contrast, decreasing the AC’s role could also undermine the geopolitical stability in the region. Funding for the AC is already sparse, which severely constrains its ability operate at full capacity. If the role of the AC is reduced further, then it would become irrelevant. Devoid of a collaborative forum, the Arctic Nations could split into two camps: the US, Canada, and Western Europe on one side, and Russia and China on the other. An open Arctic would begin to enclose, starting a slippery slope to a Polar Cold War.
Even if the AC's current role is sustained, other factors could lead to the displacement of the current system. As bilateral agreements between Russia and China continue to grow, or even expand into military cooperation, western nations could seek economic, political, and military pressures that limit Russia-China activities. China’s Polar Silk Road initiatives will lead to the expansion of bilateral agreements with European nations, while also increasing tension with the US.
Russian military operations will create more tension in the region, but the US and Western Europe will be limited in their ability to respond. Although the US has the most powerful military in the world, its ability to operate in the region is limited because it has not invested in Arctic ports or polar-fit military bases and vessels, which take years to develop. NATO’s interest in the region could also increase, alienating Russia and China while hastening the militarization and destabilization of the region.
As the great game moves to the Arctic competition in the region will heat up. Arctic nations will have to choose between an Arctic that is open for the common good, as it is now, or an Arctic that is enclosed and focused on national interests. Maintaining the Arctic as a common good could lead to the call for a stronger governing body in the Arctic region, especially by smaller Arctic Nations and observer Nations. However, Russia’s continued petitioning to the UN to increase its territorial claim is a signal that a more enclosed Arctic will exist in the future.