Food for Thought: "The Challenge of the Arctic"

Once a geopolitical afterthought, today's Arctic is a dynamic field of international cooperation. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Chairman of the Arctic Circle, asks how we can harness its economic and strategic potential in the future.

Plenary session at the Arctic Circle Assembly in October 2016 (Photo: Arctic Circle / Takeshi Kaji).

In just two decades, the Arctic has become a global playing field where the majority of G20 countries seek to advance their interests and positions.

During the Cold War, this vast territory of our planet – ranging from Alaska through the northern provinces of Canada to Greenland and Iceland, through the northern waters of the North Atlantic towards the Scandinavian countries, to Murmansk and the extensive northern regions of Russia – was among the most militarized places in the Northern hemisphere. A multitude of military bases, airports, and harbors as well as deployed missiles, nuclear submarines, and extensive surveillance systems on land and in the oceans indicated that the Arctic was a key component in the military balance of the times – the mutual threat of devastating destruction. However, beyond this role in the Cold War, little attention was paid to the region.

In previous centuries, the Arctic had been almost completely unknown to the enlightened Western world. That is why Norwegian, Canadian, British and other explorers of the polar regions became world-famous in the early years of the 20th century. Their journeys and discoveries marked a new era in scientific, cultural, and political history. For a millennium or longer, the indigenous communities had, however, made the harsh Arctic their home, adjusting customs and economic activity to the frozen world.

When the Cold War came to an end – a process initiated by the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavík's Höfði House, where the Munich Security Conference will hold its first extensive dialogue on Arctic Security this October under the auspices of the Arctic Circle Assembly – the United States, Russia, Canada and the five Nordic countries began to formulate structures for productive dialogue and cooperation in Arctic affairs. Soon, other states joined in; today, China, India, Japan, Korea, France, Germany, Britain, and other countries enjoy Observer status at the Arctic Council.

This new global role of the Arctic can be witnessed every October at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland, where over 2000 participants from more than 50 countries gather to discuss various aspects of the Arctic future, designing projects of cooperation, analyzing potential conflicts and the nature of the security challenges facing the Arctic.

Ministers, members of parliaments, officials, experts, think tanks, coast guards, corporations, universities, and many other organized partners and associations now see the involvement in this emerging Arctic process as a mandatory engagement.

But, still, the Arctic is largely unknown to the traditional political and media worlds, both in Western countries as well as other parts of the world. Many misleading models and misinformed analyses characterize a superficial discourse on the Arctic.

Frequently, terminology from the Cold War era and old-fashioned threat analyses are thrown about when the Arctic is compared with various other territories of genuine crisis and conflict. Sometimes, references are made to the consequences of unresolved territorial disputes in the North. In fact, the list of parties to such disputes mainly consists of the United States, Canada and the Kingdom of Denmark. Russia, on the other hand, is not the main culprit in this respect - especially after the historic agreement with Norway in 2010.

The Law of the Sea and other international protocols have, together with agreements made within the Arctic Council, created a comprehensive legal framework for interaction and cooperation in the Arctic, as well as establishing accepted spheres of sovereignty and influence for every Arctic state. This includes Russia and the United States, even if the latter has not yet ratified the Law of the Sea. There is, therefore, no territorial scramble characterizing the state of affairs in the Arctic.

However, there is a multitude of challenges that will require action and cooperation in the years to come.

The Arctic is rich in multiple resources – oil, gas, clean energy, minerals, rare metals, marine resources – of enormous importance to many nations, especially the leading economies in the 21st century. Access to these resources is already of strategic significance in some cases. The involvement of major Asian and European nations in the region cannot be understood without an analysis of the actors who will potentially have access to these resources and how that access will be organized.

Due to the vastness of the Arctic, its severe weather patterns and the harshness of its climate, there are indeed formidable needs for new infrastructure and capabilities. Some of these investments will inevitably be military in nature or relate to coast guards. Where to draw the line between legitimate, even desirable buildups of this nature and the creation of new military threats – what is simply necessary given the nature of the Arctic and what can be construed as offensive – is one of the fundamental questions facing all countries involved in the Arctic, both now and even more so in the coming years.

Thus, we must very much pay attention to military and security issues in the Arctic, but without exaggerating the dangers. The challenge of the Arctic – in security, economic, political, and environmental respects – can only be dealt with if we are so fortunate as to bring the best tradition of informed and constructive dialogue to the Arctic table.


Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is Chairman of the Arctic Circle, an international non-profit organization. He was President of Iceland from 1996 to 2016.

On October 12, the Munich Security Conference is organizing an Arctic Security Roundtable in Reykjavík.

29 September 2017, by Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson