The rise of the Arctic as a zone of competition has prompted calls for a dedicated forum where Arctic nations can discuss security issues. Whether that forum is a new body or an existing institution remains unsettled, but the potential role for NATO should not be overlooked — even if that role must be tempered by geography to accommodate divergent attitudes on the alliance’s scope and its relationship with Russia.
The argument for the alliance to fill the position as host for high-level security dialogue starts with the simple fact that a number of non-Russian littoral nations are already part of the alliance. The Arctic’s shores, divided in this way, clearly invite some NATO role in regional security dialogue. Moreover, as Arctic security and politics become ever more attached to global issues, developments outside of the Arctic are likely to have consequences for Arctic states, and the decisions of Arctic states will likewise have so for others.
It may, therefore, be prudent to manage security dialogue through an institution that has a global, not strictly Arctic, mandate — something NATO already does.
Of course, managing security in the Arctic is not only a matter of providing venues for dialogue; it also relies on the legitimacy of the parties engaging in that dialogue. The 2018 Trident Juncture exercise demonstrated that NATO is operationally active in the Arctic, especially in the High North (the Norwegian and Barents seas).
During the exercise along Norway’s coast, the alliance communicated with Russia through observers, building transparency of intention. The alliance’s frameworks for operational-level information sharing are highly credible. And in light of NATO’s geographic, strategic and operational relevance to security in the Arctic, it is notable that the organization also has a preexisting forum for coordination with Russia through the NATO-Russia Council.
Yet, arguments in favor of an expanded Arctic political role under NATO face several challenges. First, NATO fails to formally incorporate Sweden and Finland. Although both participate in the Partnership for Peace program and often exercise alongside NATO nations, their formal status outside of the alliance belies NATO’s ability to fully represent even just the Western Arctic bloc.
NATO of course also stands in tension with Russia, and NATO is often a toxic issue for Russian leadership. Its promotion as the lead political forum for security engagement in the Arctic could reinforce Russian arguments of an expansionist NATO. Nor is it obvious that Russia would participate in a forum explicitly oriented around a NATO structure, which accounts for critiques that the NATO-Russia Council has itself failed to deliver.
Great power competition in the Arctic
At the same time, as NATO precludes membership of some Arctic states, any NATO role coordinating Arctic security dialogue will result in participation from non-Arctic alliance members. This participation acknowledges the practical reality that any conflict spreading to the Arctic has stakes for non-Arctic NATO nations who may be pulled into the fray.
Yet, it also elevates extra-regional voices when Arctic nations aim to emphasize regional control over decision-making. Janne Kuusela, the defense policy director at the Finnish Ministry of Defence, clarifies this position succinctly: ”In our view, international affairs in the High North should primarily be the responsibility of the Arctic countries.” Put bluntly, a larger political footprint for NATO is contrary to the strategic preferences of several Arctic states.
Given all that, it seems unlikely that NATO is the organization that will assume the dominant mantle in Arctic security diplomacy everywhere. But it can in the High North. This idea is contrary to a tendency to think of the Arctic as one contiguous space requiring one organization for security dialogue, but it reflects a reality that security may best be served when parceled out in more functional subregions.
NATO merits this leadership status in the High North because in that specific terrain it can balance much of the point/counterpoint above. The alliance’s prominence in a specific part of the Arctic long associated with NATO operations should not provoke serious escalation with Russia and is already a point of familiarity for Sweden and Finland. Moreover, the NATO structure enables non-Arctic voices to participate in an Arctic security context that has implications for their own safety, but in a geographically limited space that should not trigger concerns among Arctic nations that their primacy over local governance is under threat.
NATO operates in the High North, has strategic equities in the region and has a track record of maintaining operational-level communications with Moscow to increase transparency. This should be the model for NATO in the north.
Joshua Tallis is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and the author of “The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity.” He is a 2020 fellow in the U.S. Naval War College’s Newport Arctic Scholars Initiative and the host of CNA’s “Polar Politics” podcast.