By Andreas Kuersten
The National Interest
Anyone who’s paid any attention to media coverage of the Arctic, even just in passing, knows that there’s a battle brewing for the top of the world. Climate change is melting the region’s protective shield of ice and opening its vast lands, seas, and associated bountiful natural resources to human activity. But Arctic states don’t agree on how these prizes should be divided, with many proffering overlapping claims to the far north. As such, the dominant Arctic narrative presents the region as one to be scrambled to and claimed, and even fought for. Headlines touting a “Race for the Arctic” and a “New Cold War”—and yes, even a “Battle for the Arctic”—pervade Arctic discourse and are often how the public and policymakers are exposed to the region.
In this narrative, Russia and its robust Arctic presence are regularly trotted out to dramatize the situation and present as an ominous reason for other countries to more proactively turn their attention and investments northward. The frequent comparisons between Russia and the United States are good examples of this practice: Russia has over 40 icebreakers while the United States has only two; Russia is massively upgrading its Arctic military capabilities while the United States remains relatively stagnant; etc. If the United States doesn’t shift into high gear Arctic-wise, the implication is that Russia will follow its horde of icebreakers to conquest and riches while America simply looks on.
All of this fear-mongering and beating of the drums of war is, however, misguided. In 2008, the five states with Arctic coastlines, and that have overlapping territorial and jurisdictional claims to the region, publicly reaffirmed their commitment to settling their disputes peacefully according to international law through a document called the Ilulissat Declaration (In so doing, then-Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller hoped that the countries had, “once and for all, killed all the myths of a ‘race to the North Pole.’” Time would tell that they hadn’t). It was a reaffirmation because Russia actually made the first submission under this body of law in 2001, which is additionally important for two reasons. First, it shows that Arctic states have been actively dedicated to the peaceful resolution of their differences for 15 years. Second, it shows the substantial commitment of the Arctic’s most unpredictable actor to this peaceful, rules-based process. Even in the face of Russia’s belligerent incursions into Ukraine, Arctic cooperation has remained steady.
Picture: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons