Keeping the gunpowder dry? -North by Northwest


This brief op-ed discusses the securitization of the North. As the author,  Marc Lanteigne, points out, securitization does not mean that there is an imminent threat. Rather it means that an issue is being framed as a security issue, which usually means it seen in realist terms: It is conceptualized in terms of potential threats that need to be contained or perhaps leveraged, and the issue becomes the object of competition and a 0-sum thinking. The North has escaped securitization for the most part, but perhaps not for much longer:

  • “The Arctic, despite the unlikelihood of a military confrontation or unfriendly economic competition, has nonetheless been securitised by many Arctic and non-Arctic actors, including governments, as the region falls under greater international scrutiny. This securitisation process is coming from a variety of different directions:
    • Resources: Although oil, gas and commodity prices have remained largely depressed going into the new year, as more uncovered land and more open water appears every summer in the Arctic, the possibility of more resources being easier and cheaper to access grows in tandem. While most of these riches lie in uncontested areas, environmental strains and differences over demarcation in the central Arctic Ocean could still create future tensions.
    • Access: It is still largely a matter of guesswork as to exactly when the NSR and other Arctic sea routes will be usable to the point where transits become commonplace, and provisions are being put into place, including the Polar Code, which entered into force last month, but as long as jurisdiction over some of these routes remain disputed, the possibility of access becoming a source of insecurity and even conflict should not be dismissed. This matter may be further complicated as non-Arctic actors, such as those in Western Europe and East Asia, also vie to make use of Arctic sea routes to lessen travel time and trading costs.
    • Power: As the report stated, the Arctic has been distinguished as a place where adversaries can and have ‘checked their grievances at the door’. Whether that situation can continue indefinitely, however, is another question. The United States has recently expressed concern over Russian remilitarisation of its northern regions, and the two great powers remain at odds over the Ukraine conflict and possible future instability along Eastern European borders. Maintaining the Arctic as a cordon sanitaire in the face of these disputes is unlikely to get easier in the short term.
    • Governance: The Arctic, at present, has no dedicated security community despite various security issues appearing from many different directions on the margins. The Arctic Council is not (yet?) equipped to address emerging hard security concerns, such as those suggested above, due to its lack of a security mandate and its structure, which has begun to resemble a pyramid. Eight states form the core membership, but several major non-Arctic governments, including China, Germany, India, Japan and the United Kingdom sit as observers, with another, the European Union, possibly attaining that status in May. As the Munich report noted, ‘Arctic affairs have become a matter of global attention.’ This situation situation is unlikely to reverse itself even if a resource scramble never comes to pass. Differences between Arctic and non-Arctic actors over the direction of regional governance, and worries about the Arctic becoming a ‘closed shop’, could create tensions and strain the council’s ability to address future security issues.”