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Strategic Implications of an Open Arctic: A Conversation with Norwegian Ambassador Strommen

This is a cross-post from CSIS’ Asia Policy Blog

Strategic Implications of an Open Arctic – Part 2
By Eddie Walsh

[Editor’s Note: The following is the second post in a series on the Strategic Implications of an Open Arctic for the Pacific. You can read part one here]

Norwegian Roald Amundsen is remembered as one of the world’s great explorers. His accomplishments include reaching both the North and South Poles and being the first to sail through the Northwest Passage. Remarkably, these feats were achieved in the early-1900s, long before the age of Gore-Tex® and modern survival gear.

After all of his great adventures, Amundsen was lost not on expedition but rather conducting a rescue mission to save a friend in the Arctic. His death reflects the harsh reality of life in the High North. This is not lost on Ambassador Wegger Chr. Strommen of the Kingdom of Norway, when he pulls down an inflatable globe, points to the Arctic, and stresses, “These are extreme conditions. These are not the tropics. You have to use military assets and military equipped platforms to have any kind of presence for search and rescue.” In this respect, not a lot has changed since Amundsen’s days. But, what has changed is that the ice is melting and Arctic sea lanes are opening. This has profound strategic repercussions for the eight member states of the Arctic Council.

Eddie Walsh, a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, therefore sat down with Ambassador Strommen to discuss his views on the political, economic, and environmental implications of an open Arctic, both for the Arctic-Pacific region and the rest of the world.

In recent years, there has been major progress in delimiting Arctic maritime borders, including the agreement between Norway and Russia. However, a number of border disputes remain, particularly over extended continental shelves. Do you see further progress on the outstanding disputes in the years ahead? If not, can the current security architecture properly manage intractable disputes?

One has to keep these things in perspective. Too often when you study a theme, it grows before your eyes into an enormous problem. These border disputes might cover great areas but these disputes can be resolved between sensible states. What we have in the Arctic shouldn’t be exaggerated. It took us 40 years but we managed to solve our dispute with the Russians. That is a major accomplishment. It split an area almost in two of 175,000 square kilometers. In the end, we succeeded. But, we had to be patient. We now have good bilateral relations and cooperation in these areas as a result.

We must remember that we managed the border with the Russians during the Cold War. That was much, much harder. Now that the Cold War is over, things can improve. We can manage these border disputes separate from other security issues between the West and Russia. They can be dealt with alongside other issues of mutual interest, such as safety and security, maritime coordination, etc. With time and hard work, I am confident they will all be resolved in this way using existing mechanisms.

At the 2011 Henry Bacon Seminar, the Norwegian Deputy Minister of Defense, Roger Ingebrigtsen, “stressedtheimportanceofthealliespresenceintheArcticandthefactthatincreasedactivityandharvestofrenewableresourcescouldbeabenefitforallaslongasittakesplacewithinanagreedlegalframeworkandrespectstheenvironment.” When you speak of urgency, have your other allies in NATO prioritized the Arctic sufficiently and what is your outlook for the future?

Security is more than NATO presence. It is fare to say in terms of the Arctic Council, we welcome more states involvement and building of capacity. Take ice breakers for example, which is an issue everywhere. There is going to be ice for a long, long time. There is Russian capacity and half the Arctic coastline is the Russian Federation. They have ice breakers and operate air fields on floating ice. But, we want others to build up capacity.

If you envision maritime transportation routes in the Arctic, which we need to start thinking more about, we need to start asking important questions. How are we going to deal with search and rescue up there? How are you going to deal with environmental disasters? We would like capacity, plans, and preparedness for disasters. We need anyone who is interested in exploiting the commercial shipping routes to engage in those questions. This is a part of the world with very limited capacity. Even though the ice goes away, the darkness does not. For parts of the year, it is dark. For other parts of the year, it is very, very dark. These are extreme conditions.

What should be the role of non-Arctic states in the Arctic region? Should they have a stronger role in the region?

Within a generation, we have seen a major physical change in the environment in the Arctic.  The ice is melting everyday and the Arctic is already opening up. You will soon be able to sail over the North Pole. As a result, access to oil, gas, and fisheries in the Arctic is now easier to access but no less dangerous. So, we need to sit down together and think about how we manage these changes through international cooperation. The Arctic is a volatile area. There are environmental and safety concerns here that you don’t see in other places on the planet. All countries should be party to those talks.

From Norway’s perspective, it’s perfectly legitimate that others take an interest in the Arctic. That is not to say that non-Arctic countries don’t have to respect the legal frameworks. One cannot address these issues by saying that the normal laws of the sea don’t apply to the Arctic. The legal framework for the Arctic is there. The Arctic is a sea surrounded by states which is regulated by U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is completely the opposite of Antarctica, which is a continent surrounded by sea. Unfortunately, the United States has not ratified UNCLOS yet, and we hope they do so soon.

So, the Arctic follows the same rules as Africa, North America, Asia, and others. But, issues like maritime transportation need to be the joint responsibility of everyone. There are going to be many flags flying in the Arctic as it opens. If a non-Arctic country is going to send a ship and be commercially active, their involvement is necessary.

EddieWalsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He is a non-resident fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum and founder of the AsiaPacificReportingBlog. Follow him on twitter: @AseanReporting

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