Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

Disputes in the Arctic: Threats and Opportunities

Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

Disputes in the Arctic: Threats and Opportunities

Article excerpt


For centuries, the Arctic was a "sacred place" for humanity. This frozen void was a magnet for adventurers and explorers, for everybody who wanted to challenge both themselves and nature. In nineteenth century, the "top of the world" became a field of competition for major European and North American nations. During this race, the main prize was the North Pole. Which state would be the first to claim it? Even at the climax of the era of colonial conquest, no nation was ready to declare the Arctic entirely for itself. The twentieth century brought new developments to the Arctic. Two World Wars went almost unnoticed in the extreme North. But during the Cold War, the Arctic became a new battleground. For two superpowers - the United States and the Soviet Union - the route through the Arctic provided the shortest course for nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles and planes loaded with thermonuclear bombs bound for targets in one nation or the other. The thick ice cap provided additional protection for the nuclear submarines trying to edge ever closer to enemy territory. After the end of Cold War and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the attention given to the Arctic waned. With the beginning of the twenty-first century, new challenges arose in the Arctic. Climate change, a global race for natural resources, new transportation routes, and old territorial disputes created not only new threats to security, but also opportunities for cooperation between the Arctic countries.

The purpose of this article is to examine the problems that have arisen in the Arctic in the post-Cold War era. This essay will analyze the role of the major players in the Arctic; the territorial disputes between the Arctic countries; sovereign rights over natural resources; and disputes over new transportation routes. It is particularly important to examine Russia's military build-up and its more assertive foreign policy in the Arctic region.

There are two main reasons why the Arctic has increasingly come to take a place at the center of global politics. The first reason is climate change. The process of global warming is a byproduct of human activities, yet up to this point the global community has failed to establish common rules to reduce the use of fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions in order to reduce the effects of climate change. Melting of year-round sea ice in the Arctic has opened completely new sea routes, and the reduction in size of the polar ice cap in the Arctic has uncovered natural resources that were hidden for millennia. The second reason is the rise of Russia. Even before the war with Georgia in 2008, Russia had been demonstrating that it was coming to rely more on "hard power" than on the primacy of international law. By stepping up its nationalistic rhetoric and increasingly acting unilaterally, Russia's political and military leadership is trying to reassess and create a vision for a "New Russia."

The Major Players

There are five "Arctic Rim" countries: the United States, Canada, Denmark (through its possession of Greenland), Norway, and Russia. In addition, there are three more nations with territory bordering or above the Arctic Circle: Iceland, Sweden, and Finland. By extension, the European Union (EU) is a major stakeholder in all Arctic disputes (given Denmark, Sweden, and Finland's status as EU members). These eight countries are members of the Arctic Council. This high-level forum was established in 1996 to increase cooperation between the Arctic countries. There are six working groups that administer a range of projects - from regulations on shipping in the "High North" to assessments of the impact of climate change. The Arctic Council works by consensus, and has no regulatory mandate nor any enforcement mechanism.1 Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Great Britain hold the status of permanent observers. China, Japan, South Korea, and Italy all hold ad hoc observer status. …

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