Arctic Futures

AUTHOR:  Charles Emmerson

PUBLISHED BY:  PublicAffairs

REVIEWED BY:  Patrick Swan, per Concordiam contributor

Humanity is on the cusp of achieving a long-sought commercial goal: year-round Arctic sea access. This would be a game-changer for international commercial transport, but not an unmitigated panacea, however. Maintaining security along a narrow, icebound corridor through unforgiving, freezing waters presents unique security challenges to nations bordering and transiting the route. These require concerted diligence as great as or greater than what is necessary through the world’s other strategic maritime passages.

Charles Emmerson’s The Future History of the Arctic addresses how such a scenario might unfold and whether a formerly demilitarized zone may revert to traditional contested considerations as nations elbow each other for the lead in developing its transportation lanes.

One can certainly appreciate the lure of a viable Arctic sea passage in reducing travel times between ports. While the open oceans today present few obstacles, save for storms and occasional pirates, natural geographic land chokepoints slow movement, giving ambitious and avaricious nations and nefarious players inviting opportunities to interfere with transport. These maritime chokepoints include the canals of Suez and Panama, straits of Malacca, Bosporus, Bab el-Mandeb, the Danish archipelago, and the Gulf of Hormuz. Presently, naval forces patrol these to ensure safe passage. An Arctic sea route would bypass these chokepoints, “reducing the vulnerability of global trade to disruptions, intentional or otherwise.” However, it would present its own vulnerabilities.

Emmerson notes that the security implications of a more accessible and economically important Arctic will require a reconfiguration of the military and civilian resources of the Arctic states. This is reflected less in plans for warfighting and more in surveillance and control by United States, Canadian, Danish, Norwegian and Russian armed forces.

The prize is great, according to Emmerson, one that realigns the world’s commercial geography and boosts the Arctic’s economic and geostrategic importance. A peaceful transition to routine business depends on politics, power and, above all, economics. These are elements in the so-called future history of the Arctic. After all, who owns the Arctic? Deciding who has legal rights to what is in the Arctic is complicated not because there is an absence of law, but because there is a surfeit that different legal regimes apply to the land, the sea and the seabed. Emmerson writes: “The result is a palimpsest, with each set of rules overlaying a previous set of rules, but not quite effacing them.” Put simply, international law has not caught up with the emerging realities of advancing economic and political interest in the Arctic. Filling those gaps requires changing the status quo, a politically perilous course. “None of the coastal states in the Arctic — Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, the United States — wants to open the Pandora’s box that would result from trying to negotiate some new overarching deal for the Arctic. To do so would invite non-Arctic states to muscle in.”

The open Arctic Ocean entices not just Arctic nations. China, too, seeks access based on its great power status. Does one treat China and other nations with the same free-access privileges that nations using the Panama and Suez canals enjoy today? Or will nations transiting the Arctic instead be granted contingent-use privileges, which is the case in the Bosporus strait, when it closes in times of crisis or conflict to certain nations’ vessels? There is no agreement today, and progress on an international understanding has been slow; however, there has been no rush because the Arctic Ocean has not been ice-free to warrant decisive action.

As for the nations that border the Arctic, all seek to harvest its energy resources, although the U.S. has sought to balance that with environmental considerations. Emmerson states that Russia sees developing the Arctic as a national imperative, reinforced by the global energy context: relatively high oil prices, growing resource scarcity and the potential for control of hydrocarbons to boost geopolitical leverage. Russia’s use of its domestic energy industry to enhance its power means that for producers and consumers of Russian oil and gas, all roads lead to the Kremlin. Its enormous geographic border along the Arctic Ocean ensures that foreign companies and foreign nations must reach accommodation with Russia. A bypass is unfeasible.

And then there are those who hope that nations will use their resources to conquer nature in the Arctic rather than each other. Their image is of an Arctic zone of global cooperation and a focus on scientific research and environmental stewardship. So long as nations such as Russia believe that they need the Arctic to ensure their very survival economically, and thereby politically, this will remain a remote and unrealized dream. Emmerson summarizes: “The Russian vision of the Arctic as a source of material strength and national power — rather than simply a wilderness of ice — remains very much alive.” He cautions that the Arctic is more likely to be a battleground, “fought over not just by states but by the different economic and political interests that are jostling for their part of the Arctic future, trying either to develop its economic potential or to protect its environment. A battleground does not mean war, but it does mean conflict and competition: political, economic, cultural, and diplomatic.”

Emmerson concludes: “The Arctic is not a single place, fenced off from the world. It is a fractured region, increasingly tied to economic and political interests outside it, in Asia and Europe as well as in the Arctic countries themselves. The views from Moscow, Helsinki, Reykjavík and Washington are very different.” Despite existing international agreements on scientific research in the Arctic (and Antarctic regions), greater commercial accessibility all but requires a return to political considerations. “As the Arctic enters the course of global history and as its uniqueness is taken from it, the likelihood of the Arctic escaping the realpolitik of the rest of the world seems low. We can no longer deal with the Arctic as we would wish it to be — in the future, we will have to deal with the Arctic as it is,” Emmerson writes.

That sober assessment is most warranted. Melting sea ice has opened the Arctic to year-round transport. Cargo ships will use it to save time, distance and money. Will nations bordering the Arctic impede such transit or permit it without reservation? Will Chinese vessels taking this route require Chinese navy escorts and will Arctic border nations allow that? These questions and others have not been addressed. We may prefer old and obsolete legal regimes or a utopian international regime that can never be enacted. Emmerson’s book helps us set those aside and instead consider what we must do now with the environment before us. We ought not to wait to develop appropriate protocols until an “incident” threatens to, pardon the term, freeze movement, and possibly lead to armed force by one side or another. Emmerson’s book is useful to chart a historically informed course that avoids such security icebergs.  

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