True North

True North

Lawson W. Brigham’s insightful dissection of the core issues facing the Arctic (“Think Again: The Arctic,” September/October 2010) is both succinct and largely correct. But he goes off track by suggesting that there is little likelihood of a serious conflict in the region. Hopefully he is correct, but some recent developments contradict his assessment. Although there is little likelihood of conflict in the Arctic now, there are three emerging trends that suggest that Brigham’s optimism will unfortunately be short-lived.

First, all the Arctic states have recently developed Arctic foreign and defense policy statements. These tend to begin with a commitment to cooperate, but warn that the country will take unilateral action to defend its Arctic interests in case of any threat. Within these documents, most of the Arctic states have also begun to re-emphasize a central role for their military forces. Second, almost all the Arctic states have begun to conduct larger and more complex military exercises in the Arctic. Third, and most importantly, several of the Arctic states — the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Russia — have begun to substantially strengthen their militaries’ abilities to operate in the high north.

Taken as a whole, Arctic states are dedicating considerable effort and resources to bolster their combat capabilities in the Arctic. This does not automatically mean conflict is imminent, but it is clear that the Arctic states now think it is necessary to rearm themselves in the region. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they think the possibility of conflict is growing.

Rob Huebert
Professor of Political Science
University of Calgary
Calgary, Canada

Lawson W. Brigham replies:

I agree with Rob Huebert — in part. There has indeed been some modest military buildup by the Arctic states. But that buildup hardly signals aggressive designs. Rather, it seems little more than a prosaic response to continued resource development — national and commercial investment demand some sort of protection — and to the greater transport and increased communication lines that will accompany the opening of the Arctic seascape.

Yes, the Arctic Ocean is a strategic waterway. It’s not a surprise — and not inconsistent with my article — that Arctic states are revising their security postures in light of new economic opportunities and political priorities in the region. Those states increasing their military presence are acting to deter aggressive challenges from Arctic and non-Arctic states alike, thereby increasing stability. That the military buildups are largely benign is underscored by Nanook 10, a recent “sovereignty” exercise in the Canadian Arctic. Ottawa didn’t conduct its business in secrecy; it actually invited Danish and U.S. forces to join their Canadian colleagues.

The Arctic situation has shifted from a Cold War posture to an emphasis on cooperative resource use, law enforcement, and environmental security. Thankfully, direct military conflict among the Arctic states is an increasingly distant possibility.