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Research Topics

Actors and patterns of cooperation and conflict
Russia, Norway and the High North - Past, Present, Future
The United States in the 21 Century Arctic
Defining an Interest: The European Union and the High North
The Power of Energy
Law of the Sea and Ocean Governance
Climate Change and Environmental Protection

Actors and patterns of cooperation and conflict

Some preliminary conclusions from programme research (January 2011) 

Recent programme publications have reinforced the findings from 2009 that the actors’ common interest in maintaining regional stability, for several pragmatic reasons, provides a counterbalance to potential sources of conflict. In this the programme has achieved a coherent profile which stands in contrast to some media coverage, and some policy oriented and scholarly analyses. Programme findings confirm that major actors demonstrate strong support for the legal and institutional framework of High North and Arctic governance. While Arctic stakeholders sometimes and quite naturally have competing interests, cooperation rather than competition dominates the Arctic policy agenda. Analyses undertaken in the programme of the evolution of relevant policy documents, unequivocally indicates this. It is also evident in implemented policies, where cooperation prevails among the Arctic littoral states in e.g. such a potentially sensitive issue as mapping the continental shelf. The clearest example is, however, the border delimitation agreement signed between Russia and Norway in the Barents and Polar Seas. The agreement divides in fair terms for both parties a region that in petroleum terms is one of the most prospective, and thus theoretically most conflict prone in the Arctic.

The research so far indicates that, overall, the interests various state (and non-state) actors were perceived to have in the region within various issue areas, are not as significant as originally anticipated. This preliminary conclusion thus contrasts with the image presented by some analysts and media that cover Arctic and High North issues. The oil and gas industry, to take a non-state actor example, is clearly less aggressive in its pursuit of Arctic resources than what is assumed in the ‘resource race literature’.

Russia is in terms of geographic size and presence the biggest stakeholder in the Arctic, and is often perceived to be the “wild card” in Arctic affairs. The border agreement with Norway indicates, however, that also Russia is fundamentally interested in stability and peaceful development in the region. That said, WP 2 research finds a high degree of permanence in Russian strategic culture and in Russia’s basic understanding of the role of the High North and Arctic in Russia’s strategic posture, inter alia as a key area for the deployment of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

In the United States, the Arctic does to some degree appear on the policy agenda. The US Navy seems to be the state institution outside the intelligence community that takes the greatest interest. In terms of overall attention, however, other parts of the world are, not surprisingly, perceived in Washington as being strategically far more important.

The European Union shows an interest in developing a policy for the Arctic. Partly due to internal institutional constraints, however, the EU has so far been unable to develop policies on specific Arctic issues, such as energy.

There are many platforms on which cooperation on Arctic affairs develops, ranging from the interregional (e.g. the Barents cooperation) to the global (e.g. Arctic related work in the International Maritime Organisation, IMO). The Arctic Council is by most stakeholders seen at the single most important pan-Arctic forum. This is evinced amongst other in the emphasis put by the EU and China on gaining permanent observer status. Given that its decisions are non-binding, it is hard to conceive that the Council will play a direct role in Arctic governance. That said, the Council is well equipped to build the knowledge that typically underlies regulatory strengthening and to facilitate the development of cooperation on specific areas, such as search and rescue.

Relating the preliminary findings to the programme matrix, we observe that the overall geopolitical significance of the High North may be more open to discussion than suggested in the original programme outline and commonly perceived by many observers. There is little doubt that there is a growing interest in the region, but programme research indicates that the geopolitical significance of the Arctic is unlikely to become high in the short to medium term. To some extent, there might be negative repercussions of this lack of strong interest: Interest in the region may turn out to be so low that states will lack the sense of urgency needed in developing governance mechanism and other forms of practical cooperation. In the long term the picture is obviously more uncertain. We cannot exclude the possibility that developments such as climate change and ice melting will lead to increased activity and interests in the region and hence change the geopolitical dynamics. At the sane time however, there may be other factors working in the opposite direction (such as for example developments in the gas markets), blurring the long-term analyses.

These preliminary conclusions have clear implications for Norway as a small state with significant interests in the High North and the Arctic. On the one hand, they confirm the soundness of the basic premises of Norway’s traditional approach to the High North. Throughout the period after the Second World War, Norway has sought stability in the High North by fostering dialogue and cooperation with Russia. At the same time, Norway has sought security and support in close cooperation with NATO allies in general, and the USA in particular. This balancing act has been the premise of Norwegian High North policy also in latter years.

As the research so far indicates, prospects for further developing the cooperation and dialogue line is good. Norway’s approach is and should be on multi-level cooperation and governance. For example: While the Russo-Norwegian bilateral cooperation is still clearly the most practical, core framework for managing fish stocks in the Barents Sea, the likely most effective means for regulating shipping in the Arctic, is through making the IMO Polar Code mandatory.

Research also shows that Norway has had notable success in contributing to a strengthened attention to “in-area” in NATO, thus also those Norway faces in the High North. However, it may also be concluded that while there has been some specific attention to the High North and the Arctic in NATO, Washington and other capitals and institutions, the Arctic can hardly be seen as hot in international policy terms.

This brings a final conclusion, which is that a certain degree of ‘alarmism’ may be necessary for a continued international focus on the Arctic and High North, as indicated above in terms of momentum for building i.a. a governance framework. To Norway this presents a dilemma. Norway has actively sought to emphasise the message of “High North, Low Tension”. Norway’s ambitions to put the region on the international agenda and thus achieve other Norwegian aims may, however, be difficult to achieve if ‘alarmist’ attitudes disappear entirely.




©2014-2017 Geopolitics in the High North. All rights reserved

Norwegian Institute for defence Studies CSIS Fritjof Nansen Institute Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik University of Tromsø Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) of the MFA of Russia University of Oslo Institute of general history Norwegian Defence Research Establishment Econ Pöyry
  The GeoPolitics in the High North research programme is now terminated, and the programme website will be preserved through 2016, but not updated.
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