This year, Sept. 11 will be remarkable for more than the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City. Its foreboding of a changed global security environment will nevertheless remain firmly entrenched. The scheduled arrival of the ship Yong Shen in Rotterdam on this Sept. 11 will also mark the first voyage of a commercial container vessel from China to Europe using an Arctic rather than a southerly sea route via the Suez Canal, cutting travel time by two weeks and distance by 2,400 nautical miles. By 2020, as much as 15 percent of Chinese trade is projected to pass through Arctic waters. The United States and its NATO allies must prepare to address the inevitable security challenges that accompany this global transformation for five key reasons.
First, NATO, the most successful political-military alliance in history, cannot afford to ignore the fact that an ice-free Arctic has the potential to fundamentally alter the global military balance. Most Arctic states have already embarked on northern rearmament plans. Even if they abide by their 2008 pledge to settle peacefully any territorial disputes among them, conflict with other powers protecting their interests cannot be ruled out. In “Race to the North,” a recent study for the Naval War College Review, Shiloh Rainwater observes: “With its naval modernization program now aimed at ‘far-sea defence,’ a Chinese military presence in the Arctic could materialize as Beijing becomes more reliant on Arctic resources and sea-lanes to fuel its economy.” NATO’s global partners are also concerned. As one commentator recently concluded in the Japan News: “It is worrying … that Russia, which has been pursuing a policy of southward advancement for decades, may start utilizing the Arctic routes for national defence.”
Second, the increased international human activity in the Arctic carries other security concerns. These include the risk of shipping accidents, ecological disasters like oil spills and even the specters of terrorism, piracy and unlawful commerce. Given the austere operating environment, the military often is the only instrument able to address them. Few national armed forces, however, can “go it alone” in such circumstances. The US National Strategy for the Arctic Region released by President Barack Obama earlier this year observes that the “remote and complex operating conditions in the Arctic environment are well suited for collaborative efforts by nations.” Hence the case for more pooling and sharing with allies and partners to address risks in a region where five NATO member states — Canada, the US, Iceland, Norway, Denmark (Greenland) — possess significant geography.
Third, addressing security threats in the Arctic clearly falls within NATO’s mandate. Its collective defense provisions delineate only a southern border — the Tropic of Cancer. Moreover, NATO’s 2011 Maritime Strategy, to which all 28 member states also agreed, states: “Climatic changes pose new opportunities and challenges … The maintenance of freedom of navigation, sea-based trade routes, critical infrastructure, energy flows, protection of marine resources and environmental safety are all in Allies’ security interests.” And if there was still any doubt about increasing allied concern with the region, one need only turn to the Arctic Council, where 12 NATO member states are already represented (most recently non-Arctic Italy).
Fourth, in an age of sequestration and shrinking defense budgets, NATO members have little choice but to work together to tackle contemporary security challenges. The Arctic is no exception. The commander of US Northern Command has advocated for an inclusive approach with stakeholders to build enhanced capabilities in communications, domain awareness, infrastructure and presence. Canada’s curbed ambition for its Arctic Patrol Vessel program due to cost concerns, the stalled development of its Navy’s Arctic refuelling station, and the recent audit of the Canadian Coast Guard’s limited capacity to deal with oil spoils in the region equally point to the reason for more, not less, collaboration among allies.
Fifth, with the 2014 drawdown of NATO’s most ambitious out-of-area mission in history — Afghanistan — the time is ripe for its member states to mark this home-coming with a renewed commitment to the core business of territorial defense. As for the Arctic, this means seeking opportunities to secure allied interests through more cooperation. This includes the discrete yet deliberate development of the collective capabilities and know-how needed to address any northern contingency that would threaten the sacrosanct principle of the indivisibility of allied security.
By taking into account these five reasons for a renewed focus on one of the most rapidly changing places on earth, NATO and the Arctic should become synonymous with a clear northern security policy of the Western powers, which creates stability and predictability for all parties concerned.
And as the indispensable NATO ally, with a significant stake in Arctic affairs, the United States has every opportunity and reason to make sure that it does.
By Brooke Smith-Windsor, a senior policy adviser in the research division at the NATO Defense College (NDC), Rome. The views are the author’s and may not reflect those of NATO or the NDC.