May 19, 2011

Weathering Friendly Competition in the High North

One of the reasons we host the Natural Security blog is to
have a venue to quickly share material that’s related to our work. And, of
course, the purpose of the Natural Security program is to identify and assess how
natural resource trends (e.g., consumption and scarcity), as well as climate
change and biodiversity, influence U.S. national security and foreign policy.
With that in mind, here is an emerging Natural Security trend that is worth
keeping on the radar.

Yesterday, The
reported that Denmark is preparing to submit evidence to the UN
Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf by 2014 that would lay claim
to the continental shelf extending from Greenland, to include “five
areas around the Faeroe Islands and Greenland, including the North Pole itself.

Denmark, of course, is not the first country to lay claim to the North Pole: Russia
sent a mini-submarine to plant a flag on the North Pole in 2007
, stirring
concerns among Arctic nations, including the United States and Canada. But as
Denmark prepares to make formal claims over the North Pole, it is a reminder
that competition in the Arctic won’t just be with countries like Russia that we
have had longstanding trepidations with. In fact, competition in the Arctic
will likely be the testing ground for our relationships with long-time allies
like Denmark – a NATO ally that has weathered international challenges with the
United States for more than half a century – over how well we can cooperate
together in a changing international environment as natural resources
(including minerals, energy resources and fisheries) become more accessible in
the High North as production in other parts of the world plateaus (or

But cooperation is entirely possible in the Arctic, as well.
International cooperation and coordination in the Arctic has existed for
decades, including through international bodies like the Arctic Council, and important,
yet lesser known international programs such as the Arctic Military
Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) program. AMEC has provided a forum for states
such as Russia,
the United States and other Arctic nations to coordinate military-to-military training
and combined missions around environmental protection
, such as treatment and
disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear powered submarines and waste
generated at military early warning radar facilities that peppered the Arctic
during the Cold War (with many still active today). Indeed, then the Soviet
Union and the United States cooperated quite well under AMEC toward the end of
the Cold War.

Cooperation with our allies and others in the Arctic would
be easier for the United States if it ratified the UN Convention on the Law of
the Sea (a
point I harked on earlier this week
). Canada and the United States, for
example, have
had existing disagreements over whether the Northwest Passage constitutes an
international strait or is sovereign Canadian territory
. (If it were the
latter, the United States would have to seek authorization to send U.S. Coast
Guard and other naval vessels through it.) The Law of the Sea treaty would help
the United States and Canada adjudicate these claims cooperatively by
leveraging an existing international framework for managing these claims
(though bilateral cooperation on this issue will be just as important). And
similarly, the United States, Denmark and others could leverage the UN
convention to mitigate similar challenges over territory around the North Pole
and elsewhere.

The recent announcement that the Arctic Council agreed to coordinate
search-and-rescue missions
is a good indicator that cooperation is
possible. But as Arctic nations assess their own national interests, friendly
competition may be a trend that will continue to emerge among our longtime
allies. It is hard to tell at this point, but it’s a trend worth watching.

Photo: Seawolf-class
submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) surfaces above the ice in the Arctic Ocean
during ICEX 2011 in March. Courtesy of Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class
Kevin S. O'Brien and the U.S. Navy.