In Focus: Iceland and the Arctic
There are a few different definitions of what constitutes the Arctic, but it can essentially be defined as the area surrounding the North Pole. This northernmost part of the planet is home to about 4 million people, about 10% of whom are indigenous. It is the most sparsely populated area of the earth. The territories of eight countries lie within the region: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Russia, Canada, the US, and Iceland. The Arctic Ocean and surrounding waters cover about one third of the region’s area, making fishing and waterways some of its most important resources.
Climate change and changes in international relations have put a spotlight on the Arctic in recent years. In the spring of 2019, Iceland started its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council, emphasising the importance of stability, sustainability, and co-operation in the area, and the intention to find ways to tackle its challenges, most notably climate change. A few months later, US President Donald Trump had a different kind of co-operation in mind when he tweeted about purchasing Greenland. The diplomatic kerfuffle than ensued proves relations in the Arctic are anything but simple.
Iceland in particular has also seen increased interest from foreign powers. Russian bombers were spotted entering NATO airspace near Iceland twice this March. While Icelandic-Russian diplomatic ties are stiffer than they have been for a long time (due not only to the military activity but also sanctions over Russia’s indexation of Crimea), just this year, Iceland has received a visit from both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Vice President Mike Pence. Iceland has also gauged increased interest from China, not just as a tourism destination but also as an investment possibility. In light of US, Russian, end even Chinese interest in the Arctic, we’ll be taking a closer look at how international politics might affect the future of Arctic communities.
Cooperation without borders
The Arctic Council was founded in 1996. It consists of emissaries from the eight countries that make up the arctic landmass, as well as indigenous residents’ organisations. According to their website, the council is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting co-operation, co-ordination and interaction among the Arctic states, Arctic indigenous communities, and other inhabitants of the Arctic on common issues, in particular sustainable development and environmental protection. While the Nordic countries have a long history of cultural exchange and co-operation, the same cannot be said for the US and Russia. The result is that while the Arctic Council is the most important international council on Arctic issues, certain matters are completely off the table, including fisheries and defence.
Chairmanship of the council is shared between its member countries. Each country holds the chairmanship for two years, after which it moves to the next. Iceland assumed the chairmanship in spring of 2019 and declared its goals to be to continue the co-operation, sustainability, and stability of the area.
For over two decades, the Arctic Council has been the scene of highly important negotiations that make extremely dull headlines: the drafting of regulations and making of deals necessary to ensure the prospects of the area. One example is the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants or the Minamata Convention on Mercury. Now international interest in the area is increasing, but that’s not necessarily in the best interest of the people who inhabit the area. To put it bluntly, the Arctic is too important, ecologically speaking, to become a monetary or a military bone of contention between powerful nations.
While Russia has long been poised as the yin to the US’s yang in international politics, Russia’s interest and activity in the north Atlantic has long been a known quantity. China’s interest is newer, and if US Vice President’s Pence’s Iceland visit is anything to go by, it’s more of a concern to the US than their old foes in Moscow. Pence remarked on the occasion that the US was happy with Iceland’s decision to decline participation in the Belt and Road Initiative, a Chinese infrastructure investment project. In fact, both Iceland’s Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign affairs corrected the vice president as Iceland hasn’t made any decision to either participate or decline as yet. Pence also warned Icelanders not to accept the technology of the Chinese company Huawei, but there has been speculation that both of these comments were made for Chinese ears, rather than Icelandic ones.
For centuries, the Arctic has been of little international consequence. As climate change continues to ravage the planet, however, the region is warming up. Three hundred billion tonnes of ice melted off the Greenland glacier this summer. The continuous melting of this freshwater is changing the makeup of the Arctic Ocean. Ocean acidification is wreaking havoc on underwater ecosystems. Aside from the effect this has on the global ecosystem, melting ice and receding glaciers are revealing hitherto unreachable land and waters, making the ears of investors, entrepreneurs, and politicians all over the world perk up.
Climate change is one of Iceland’s stated focuses in its leadership of the Arctic Council, but it’s difficult to find a local solution to a global problem. As Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, former president of Iceland, put it, “The future of the Arctic is decided in other parts of the world, on other continents. The way we use energy; pollution; increased carbon dioxide release; will have uncontrollable consequences for the future of the Arctic.”
While Iceland’s intentions may be to prioritise action on climate change, international politics are once again interfering. Last spring, the Council didn’t release a joint statement as is usual, because the US Secretary of State wouldn’t sign a statement which mentioned climate change.
Opportunities and interest
Recently, a vessel owned by Russian gas company Novatek sailed the northeast route from Russia to China in record time. The voyage took 16 days, and no icebreakers were needed to clear the way. According to Novatek, the northeast route takes less than half the time it takes to sail west through the Suez Canal. Indeed, Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson has stated that the effects of the opening of sailing routes through the Arctic are comparable to those of the Suez and Panama Canals when they first went into operation.
In light of that comparison, it’s obvious that control of Arctic waterways could become extremely lucrative. In Iceland, some investors are already thinking to the future. A planned container port in remote Finnafjörður fjord is expected to connect Asia, Europe, and the US. The project has been heavily criticised by environmentalists.
In addition to new trading routes, Arctic resources such as fish stocks are changing with the climate. For some stocks this means less fish, but in other cases, fish species that tend to live further south are migrating north as the water heats up. As the Greenland glacier and sea ice in the Arctic melt, access to oil drilling and mining opportunities becomes easier and therefore more profitable. While it might seem callous to consider business opportunities as climate change ravages the area, this is an important issue for the people of the Arctic, the least populated area in the world. Iceland doesn’t have an army, instead relying on defence co-operation and diplomatic negotiations for safety. If the global superpowers’ struggle for economic influence in the area intensifies, that could spell trouble for a small nation that relies on soft power.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór has stated that “It’s evident that there’s increased interest and emphasis on the Arctic and the Arctic Ocean from the superpowers, as well as others. […] There hasn’t been much military development in the area. And we want to make sure it stays that way.”
But that might prove more difficult than anticipated. Iceland is a founding member of NATO, and the US military has long had a base on the Reykjanes peninsula. Recently, increased US spending in the base’s renovation have caused a stir, and Vice President Pence emphasised the importance of the defence agreement during his visit to Iceland recently. Iceland’s continued defence cooperation with the US and NATO has always muddied the waters and increased defence costs and military exercises in Iceland has roused strong opposition. Increased military activity by Russia in the area might be one of the reasons why the US are fortifying their position, as ever since the Cold War, Iceland has been in a strategically important spot between the two countries.
Historian Sumarliði Ísleifsson has stated that increased interest is not necessarily in the best interest of the people of the Arctic. According to Sumarliði, the Icelandic government should speak clearly of their intent to keep the Arctic peaceful. Military exercises should have no place here, and Iceland should do its best to avoid getting dragged into an arms race. He told Iceland’s national broadcaster RÚV, “The more low-key the politics in the area are, the better.” Eiríkur Bergmann, professor of political science, considers it a matter of worry how the US approaches the countries in the Arctic. President Trump’s attempt to purchase Greenland shows his attitude towards the people of the Arctic and might portray the lack of respect and knowledge international political leaders have for the people of the Arctic.
Do we even have a say in the matter?
International cooperation and bureaucratic regulations and negotiations might not make the best headlines but it’s the best bet Iceland and the other Arctic regions have to keep the power over their resources and land in their own hands. As the Arctic keeps getting hotter, both literally and as a topic, both industry and political leaders are going to want to jump on the opportunities that present themselves. While the soft power of diplomacy might feel like David facing the Goliath of brute military force, let’s not forget who won that one.