A "posterchild" for cooperation? Report from the MSC Arctic Security Roundtable Reykjavík

Which elements of Arctic governance work well, and which ones have to be improved? How can Western states and Russia cooperate in the region? What are the biggest security challenges in the Arctic today? Yesterday, just before the start of the 2017 Assembly of the Arctic Circle in Reykjavík, the Munich Security Conference brought together 40 leaders and experts from governments, navies and coast guards, research institutes, and civil society for an MSC Arctic Security Roundtable to advance the discussion on these and other important Arctic questions.

The roundtable venue at Höfði House in Reykjavík, Iceland (Photo: MSC).

"The Arctic is no longer emerging. It has emerged." – In the first few minutes of the discussions, one participant summed up what many others expressed later on. The importance of the Arctic will keep increasing. A number of countries from the Euro-Atlantic space, including, of course, the United States and Russia, have great stakes in the region.

New waterways, resources, and economic opportunities become available. Arctic states reinforce their presence. and non-Arctic states are now defining and pursuing their Arctic interests more forcefully.
But does that also mean the Arctic will become a more contested region – maybe even one of conflict and confrontation? And, if so, how do states deal with it? That issue was the major thread that went through all the discussions at the MSC Arctic Security Roundtable, which took place at the Harpa concert hall, storied Höfði House (where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met, exactly 31 years ago on October 11/12, 1986, to discuss nuclear disarmament) and aboard an Arctia icebreaker in the port of Reykjavík. The discussion was held off the record; we make a few photo impressions available here.

Participants of the MSC Arctic Security Roundtable included US Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, Finnish Minister for Nordic Cooperation Anne-Catherine Berner, Prime Minister of Iceland Bjarni Benediktsson, Swedish Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist, US Senator Lisa Murkowski and the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon. It included senior participation from all Arctic states, including Russia, Canada, and Norway.


"Problems are solved with dialogue and cooperation"

Participants agreed that, as of today, governance and cooperation in the Arctic were in good shape – and certainly in much better shape than in other regions. One discussant stressed that, from their government's point of view, the Arctic represented a "posterchild": "Problems are solved with dialogue and cooperation." Another government official stressed that the Arctic was a stable and secure region because of functioning multilateral cooperation – and that very good legal frameworks were in place: "We really have a shot to get the Arctic right." Participants pointed to economic and scientific cooperation as particularly useful and promising areas of strong joint action in the region. Similarly, cooperation in synthesizing and linking data- and information-sharing on the Arctic could and should be deepened; but, to some extent, there was a lack of structure to further those efforts.

There was significant debate over whether the Arctic was and would remain a rather special case – a region in which countries would be able to set aside many of the difference they had elsewhere. Some stressed that it was important to prevent spillover of tensions from other regions to the Arctic. Others, however, argued that this was hardly possible: One should try to keep relationships in the Arctic as cooperative as possible, but one should not "falsely base the debate in Arctic exceptionalism" – the idea that Arctic governance was immune to problems in other regions. Moreover, some said, it was unwise to overlook security problems that would necessarily arise with major powers' increased presence and growing interests in the region.


What does the expansion of Russia's military infrastructure mean?

In this context, discussion arose over China’s large investments in the region – and about how Russia's building of military infrastructure should be interpreted. Some participants argued that one could not ignore Russia's actions in Europe and its antagonistic relationship with Western countries when assessing what Russia was doing in the Arctic. Others emphasized that, on the other hand, it was completely normal that there would be more military activity in the region. With increased shipping and other economic activity, there was a stronger need to be able to deal with search and rescue and the protection of navigation. After all, several discussants emphasized, the Arctic was an important section of Russia's economy. Russia would have to develop the Arctic and protect its investments there, including with some necessary military infrastructure.


Even if that were true, some interjected, at the very least Russia would have to explain its policies better and less ambiguously. Transparency was key – otherwise it was only natural that Russia's military build-up would be seen as problematic. One European participant said: Russia always asks the United States to respect and consider its views. Russia should also consider what its actions mean to small Nordic states. Moreover, officials stressed, robust direct dialogue between Arctic states' militaries was of critical importance. One official suggested biannual joint military joint exercises between US and Russian naval forces in the Arctic. Finally, speakers emphaiszed it was critical to address unresolved issue concerning access to waterways in the Arctic. Navigation rights were being challenged, which had the potential to disrupt cooperation in the region.

The MSC Arctic Security Roundtable in Reykjavík was supported by the Government of Finland, the Mayor of Reykjavík, and Arctia Ltd., as well as the Munich Security Conference's partners in our Arctic Security Series: the Polar Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the NATO Center of Excellence for Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters, and the Arctic Circle.

The next MSC Arctic Security Roundtable will take place at the Munich Security Conference (February 16-18, 2018).

About the MSC Arctic Security Series
Arctic Security has become a key topic on the international security agenda: Warming at a pace of at least twice the global average, the Arctic is undergoing a dramatic transformation that could have far-reaching geopolitical and security implications. The MSC wants to contribute to the debate through a series of events aimed at select decision-makers at the highest levels of government, the private sector and civil society. The MSC hosted its first Arctic Security Roundtables during the Munich Security Conference 2017 and at the MSC Core Group Meeting in Washington this May.

13. Oktober 2017, von MSC