In international relations, some regions have a more troubled history than others. In the 20th century, at least, most observers’ lists of the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods would have the Balkans and the Middle East near the top. Near the bottom, if they were counted at all, would be the two polar regions, although for quite different reasons.

International rivalry over Antarctica has been contained by the reasonably effective regime of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. There is no equivalent for the Arctic. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, how that region is to be managed has emerged as a critical issue.

For most of their history, the states of northern Eurasia and North America have directed their foreign policies anywhere but northward. Over the last 20 years, that has begun to change. The surging forces of globalization and climate change have turned a vast, inhospitable region from a neglected backyard into an international arena where the proven benefits of cooperation must compete in the minds of governments with ever-present tendencies toward rivalry and the consequent risk of intensified conflict.

Accelerating physical changes in the region have opened up the prospects of new shipping routes, access to mineral resources and fisheries, opportunities for scientific research, and the accompanying risks to a fragile environment, to aboriginal ways of life, and to international security.

Most immediately affected by these changes are the states bordering on the region – Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark (and, by association with the last three, the European Union). But states from well outside the region – including China and South Korea – have asserted their interest in its scientific and environmental prospects, its security and, above all, its resources.

Transnational corporations, NGOs and other non-state actors, as well as international organizations such as the Arctic Council and NATO, also crowd onto the stage. And the voices of the aboriginal peoples, in both national and international fora, are being heard as never before.

The states ringing the Arctic have, in recent years, begun to develop strategic visions to frame the mix of social, cultural, environmental and economic policies through which they have sought to manage their sectors of the region, including their territorial waters. Abundant, if low-profile, evidence of well-established cooperation among them has, in recent years, come to be overshadowed by rhetoric of rivalry and conflict, usually focused on territorial claims. Accompanying these competing national interests are varying understandings of security in the region, from narrowly military to comprehensive, and from national to multilateral.

For the actors on this increasingly crowded international stage, therefore, the Arctic poses a set of questions transcending those that challenged them during the Cold War. Among these are the following:

First, why and how has the Arctic moved to the forefront of so many national agendas in recent years? What has changed in the geo-politics of the region, and why? Who are the principal players and what visions, goals, political forces, assets and liabilities shape their policies? In what legal and institutional frameworks do they pursue their interests?

Second, how are current expressions of the traditional national security concerns of sovereignty and borders likely to play out, in particular Canadian-American disputes over the Beaufort Sea and the Northwest Passage, Russia’s claims to an extended continental shelf, and issues of cooperative North American defence?

A third set of questions centres on the rush for resources, driven by economic competition and enabled by climate change. How will the economic benefits of exploration and extraction be spread among the players? What are the likely costs for the environment and the people of the region, and how will they be borne? As the risk of disasters and other security threats inevitably rises, how will the governments of the region prepare to respond, individually and collectively?

Most of these questions are linked to matters of culture, governance and international cooperation. At the local end of the spectrum, what are the prospects for prosperity, well-being and good government in indigenous communities throughout the Arctic? At the national level, how can the states of the regional develop, and learn from each other, more effective, comprehensive modes of governance? And at the transnational and international levels, can we devise more effective approaches to conflict-management and functional cooperation through multilateral agencies such as the Arctic Council?

How the states and peoples with a stake in the Arctic respond to these critical issues will determine what kind of neighbourhood it becomes for all of us.

Professor Charles Pentland is director of the Queen’s Centre for International Relations.

June 13-15
Kingston Conference on International Security

The Changing Arctic: Sovereignty, Resources and Security
Organized by Land Force Doctrine and Training System, U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute and Queen’s University
Location: Residence Inn by Marriott Water Edge, Kingston