After the ice: the Arctic and European security

European Defence Studies

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe

For most of the three decades since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic has been a zone of low tension, a glacial oasis of multilateral cooperation and a geopolitical backwater.

That relative harmony is now under growing strain chiefly because of the resurgence of great power competition worldwide against a backdrop of accelerating global warming which is melting the polar ice cap at a record pace. This threatens disaster for the environment and the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, but also whets appetites for new shipping routes and access to undeveloped oil, gas and mineral resources.

Arctic states have long discouraged outsiders from interfering in their affairs, wary of attempts to internationalise Arctic governance or constrain their economic development in the name of nature conservation or ‘global commons’. By contrast, China and the European Union, while respecting the territorial rights of the Arctic states, assert the international community’s shared responsibility to protect the endangered ecosystem. Effectively, Beijing and Brussels concur that the Arctic is too important to be left to the Arctic states alone.

In this context, Friends of Europe released a study on Arctic defence cooperation, considering the implications of the changing strategic and physical environment in the Arctic for European and Euro-Atlantic security. It seeks to disentangle fact from hype, examine the functioning of regional institutions, consider possible triggers for conflict and explore whether more can be done to defuse tensions and build confidence in the region.

With a total of six chapters, the report examines the strategic and political context surrounding Arctic security and defence, focusing on the changing Arctic environment (1) the Arctic economy, including energy and shipping, (2) minerals, connectivity, and tourism (3) as well as diplomatic (4) and military dynamics. Finally, the report concludes with recommendations on how Arctic stakeholders can make better use of existing institutions, cooperate more pro-actively in fighting climate change, and seek solutions to its security concerns through negotiation and confidence-building as well as through a measured increase in its military vigilance in the High North. (6).

The study complements similar studies on transatlantic defence cooperation and France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland and Italy’s roles in European security and defence.

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