Perceptions of security in the Arctic are complex and multiple. Security is about freedom from worry or care, which can pertain to various actors including individuals, communities, nations, regions, as well as globally. Security “actors” seek to protect and ensure the survival into the future of that which they value most, using practices ranging from cooperative networks to military operations. As such, Arctic security ranges from state protection and military-based security perceptions to environmental security including consequences of climate change and human security concerns for different Arctic communities and populations. Arctic security concerns cannot and should not be understood as separate from broader global politics, trends, and claims to security.
Peace and security in the Arctic is often characterized by the concept of “Arctic exceptionalism,” describing the region as one that experiences “exceptional” peace and security (Käpylä and Mikkola 2015; Heininen 2019). The institutions and regimes that manage Arctic relations, including the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Arctic Council, are considered to be among the core measures that ensure that Arctic states do not come into (violent) conflict with each other. This situation is striking, not least as two Arctic states are the former superpowers of the Cold War era, the USA and Russia (former USSR), which continue to dominate the geopolitical landscape as heavily militarized, nuclear states. In addition, outside of the Arctic context, there is a polarized disagreement, if not conflict, between Russia and the other Arctic member states over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. Thus far, there has not been any overt spill-over effect into Arctic issues and the Arctic region itself.
What Is Security?
The Arctic makes an important case for understanding the linkages between security and ethics. The concept of security is about eliminating care or worry and reducing or eliminating fear. The security concept relies on the interplay between five elements: actors, values, practices, survival, and the future (Hoogensen Gjørv 2017). Historically, the concept of security has reflected multiple actors, ranging from the state to individuals, with values ranging from the material (physical wellbeing) to the immaterial (identity) (Rothschild 1995; Hoogensen 2005). The value of human survival played a central role. As well, security, as noted above, pertains to the unknown (future), “[f]or security concerns precisely what we do not know” (Burgess 2011: 2). Further, “[t]he unknown, in its essence, by virtue of being unknown, is the foundation of ethics” (ibid.: 4). Security therefore is about making decisions – engaging in practice – in the absence of security, where one must make a choice: it is “the disquieting task of making decisions under conditions of inadequate knowledge – decisions where it is the incalculable, the unforeseeable, the passionate, zealous or perhaps even apathetic, that counts” (ibid.: 5). Arctic security is subject to a myriad of such decisions within the unknown, from within questions of traditional geopolitics to pressing issues on environment, energy, and Arctic economies.
Traditional security studies came to dominate and define security studies as a field, where the value for human survival was transferred to an abstract concept called the state, limiting both the security referent (the subject of security) and the securitizing actor, to one actor – the state. In many respects this made sense, as the state has traditionally been conceptualized as relying on the deployment of the most extreme measures, usually the military, to address issues of immediate and existential danger. The concept of human security came into use through its introduction in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) 1994 Human Development Report (UNDP 1994). Human security made explicit the possibility of thinking about security beyond the confines of the state. By distinguishing human security from the dominant (state) security, the fears, needs, and priorities of ordinary people were brought to the forefront, highlighting that the security (and interests) of states did not necessarily coincide with the security (and interests) of people.
Arctic Security Traditionally Understood
Arctic security pertains to a broad range of issues from state security to human security, and the decisions made within these different security contexts are continual exercises in ethics. It is a region where traditional geopolitics and security played out during the Cold War (Tamnes and Offerdal 2014). The Arctic region played a strategic geopolitical role “because of its position between the hostile superpowers and its potential wartime role as a corridor for a nuclear strategic exchange” (ibid.: 13). The Arctic itself was never the center of disputes or conflicts; the causes lay south of the region. The interest between Arctic states to develop and maintain peaceful relations in the region was significant. The Arctic’s importance as a space full of resources made conflict resolution and “the delimitation of Arctic sea and land areas” paramount (ibid.: 18). The “warming” in relations between Arctic states that took place after the Cold War was the evidence of this commitment to low tension and cooperation. Already in 1991, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) was signed by representatives of the governments of Canada, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the USA, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at the First Ministerial Conference on the Protection of the Arctic Environment (Roveniemi Declaration 1991). This was soon followed by the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996 when “institutionalized, intergovernmental Arctic cooperation began” (Heininen 2019). Though relegated to a footnote, a central element of the Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council is that it will “not deal with matters related to military security” (Ottawa Declaration 1996). This vow has largely gone uncontested, though military experts have been included on discussions of search and rescue issues (Bailes 2015). Thus far, this commitment has dominated deliberations about security in the Arctic, where military tensions do not enter into the discussion and where issues of the environment play a prominent role. This constellation of priorities has tried to ensure that future uncertainties and decisions about (environmental) security are embedded within an established spirit of cooperation.
The question is whether or not this sense of cooperation and commitment to solely nonmilitary issues and low military tension will continue. Geopolitical uncertainty between Arctic member states has been on the rise, and established norms of cooperation could be under pressure. Questions continue to arise regarding possible digital attacks/cyberattacks designed to destabilize target countries and societies (Cox and Stranley 2017). Among the “Arctic Eight” – Canada, the USA, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, and the Russian Federation – five states are members of NATO. NATO-Russia relations have become increasingly tense since the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The Environment and Human Security
Simultaneously, these same Arctic states continue their committed and cooperative focus upon environmental issues. Here too, however, the Arctic states are confronted by a balance of uncertainties confronting our collective future. On the one hand is the priority of environmental protection, and not least the prevention of and mitigation against further climate change. At the same time, natural resources, including petroleum resources, play a pivotal role in Arctic economic and energy security (Hoogensen Gjørv 2017). Despite the severe dip in oil prices since 2014, there continues to be an increase in proposed activities regarding energy and mineral resource development in the Arctic region. Therefore even with the downturn in prices for oil and gas that threatened a number of oil companies with potential and actual bankruptcy (Fortune/Reuters 01.04.2016), as the 2015 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP 21 Paris agreement, many analysts claim that oil and gas (particularly in the Arctic) will still have a role to play in global economies and politics, not least replacing dependencies on coal (Topdahl and Stokka 14.12.2015). The tensions between economic security, energy needs and energy security, and environmental security continue to be heightened within the context of increasing global attention to and scrutiny over extractive industries and their potential impact on global climate change, habitat degradation, community health and welfare, and apprehensions regarding offshore drilling that powerfully resurfaced in the aftermath of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Environmental impacts of continued oil and gas exploration in the Arctic thus have implications globally, but also locally, where climate change and environmental contamination of territories occupied by indigenous peoples impact food and health security, as well as the ability of communities to continue traditional economic and social activities such as hunting marine mammals (whale, seal) and reindeer herding (Huntington et al. 2016; Stammler and Ivanova 2017). At the same time, however, the reduction or elimination of oil and gas development in the Arctic has a profound impact on the economic security of regions that have become reliant on these extractive industries as a promised or actual primary source of income and way out of poverty, including the Murmansk region in northwest Russia (Goes 2018). Human insecurities in the Arctic provide important case studies for understanding the contextualized, at times competing, and complex nature of human security.
While a human security lens is most often applied to contexts of the global south, dynamics in the Arctic region also serve to illustrate the relevance of a multi-actor, state-to-human security perspective. Theoretically and conceptually, those who argued for a less limiting definition of security were able to more loudly argue for environmental security and human security, which engaged multiple actors and multiple contexts in which “survival,” “values,” “practices,” and “future” could be understood. Within developments in human security, the values that are relevant for survival are often understood within particular categories – economy, identity, food, health, energy, or the environment. Fear, and indeed fear for our future survival, has played an increasing role in climate change narratives but can also be found in justifications for continued oil and gas extraction. In the Arctic, the preeminence of environmental and economic security issues is increasingly confronted with tensions driven by traditional security and geopolitical concerns. With these more complex definitions of security, we expect more complex understandings of the ethical security dilemmas the Arctic faces.
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