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Arctic Diplomacy requires Convergence of Military and Scientific Interests

Charting Diplomacy on Ice (Photograph courtesy TKTK Media)
Charting Diplomacy on Ice (Photograph courtesy TKTK Media)

Scientists and the military have a long history of engagement but largely in a client-donor relationship. Yet, global environmental change is providing another opportunity for more “natural” convergent cooperation that was manifest at an unusual meeting of academia and the military held at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources (RSENR) at the University of Vermont on July 6-7, 2015. The meeting was motivated by the publication earlier this year of an anthology which I coedited with Dr. Rebecca Pincus titled Diplomacy on Ice:  Energy and the Environment in the Arctic and Antarctic. The goal of the gathering was to consider how accessibility to the Arctic through climate change and technological advancement can provide mechanisms for cooperation between countries that have often had trust deficits with each other. Research cooperation between security interests and the scientific community could possibly provide a bridge for inducing cooperative behaviour in the Arctic between nation states as well.

The conference delegates, representing perspectives from Scandinavia, Russia, China, Canada and the US, were convened through a grant from the US Army Research Office to the University of Queensland. Vermont was an opportune location to hold this workshop as a northern state with close proximity and shared watersheds with Canada, and the University of Vermont being home to the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security (IEDS).  In opening the conference, the director of IEDS, Dr. Asim Zia spoke of the importance of science as an agent of diplomacy. The Dean of the RSENR, Dr. Nancy Matthews, particularly spoke about the importance of holding eclectic forums at universities that should provide a safe space for such cooperative conversations. The workshop was held under Chatham House rule – which allows for public discussion of key themes from the event but without specific ascription.

The delegates noted that there were ostensibly two competing narratives around the Arctic that were highly prevalent within security research:

  1. Arctic Exceptionalism: The view that there is an inherent difference between Arctic and other geographies which should be recognized in research and professional interactions about the region.
  2. Arctic Inclusion: The view that the Arctic is now being incorporated into mainstream political economy and should be studied as a subset of broader national interests.

Despite the divergence in the underlying assumptions in these two narratives, the conference delegates concluded that cooperative elements were possible to extract from either perspective.

If we consider the unique features of the Arctic, a sense of “wonderment” has stimulated cooperative gestures such as the “polar bridge”expedition between Canada and Russia even at the height of the Cold War. The specific technological needs of working in the Arctic from ice breakers to drilling rigs could very well foster cooperation and sharing of infrastructure. Particularly harsh environmental considerations themselves foster survivalist impulses so long as there are norms of behavior that prevent resource conflicts. Indigenous communities in the Arctic have exemplified such cooperation for four decades through the Inuit Circumpolar Council which was established in 1980. Westphalian nation states around the Arctic and beyond later realized the same value of cooperation through the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996. The potential for such institutions to realize cooperation between science and security was discussed by the participants with a view towards a comprehensive agenda for collaborative research. The participants also noted that unlike many other parts of the world where voluntary or nonbinding environmental agreements are often flouted, the Arctic thus far has shown the relative efficacy of “soft law.” However, such a cooperative trajectory may well be tested if there is a misalignment or a trust deficit between the various military and scientific interests in the Arctic.

From the Arctic inclusion perspective whereby mainstreaming of Arctic policy was proposed, comparisons were drawn between tourism and development quandaries in other locations – including Alaska and Antarctica. As the first tourism cruise aboard the Crystal Serenity plans to set sail across the Northwest Passage from Seward Alaska to New York City in August 2016, such comparisons may well be worth exploring further.  The importance of good scientific data as a driver of cooperation in other global contexts such as biodiversity conservation was also noted. Conservation has indeed been proposed as a means of creating zones of peace and cooperation in other contexts, and its potential in the Arctic needs to be further developed. The US and Russia have held various meetings on trans-boundary cooperation, and supported a “Shared Beringian Heritage Program” since 1991. However, further development of a trans-boundary conservation area has remained elusive and could benefit from the broader context of Arctic diplomacy.

The delegates recognized that there would be many hurdles to traverse for the military and scientists to fully harness the fruits of Arctic diplomacy. In particular, the distrust of China as a non-Arctic nation taking interest in the region needed to be moderated with a recognition of other global powers having presence in areas very distant from their own regional vicinity. Russia’s view of the world ganging up on them through extant ethno-territorial disputes could not be neglected, and their conservation efforts, particularly in the Arctic Ocean, deserved to be applauded.

At the end of the two-day conference, there was a clear recognition that a nuanced view of the Arctic was only possible if security organizations and scientists considered opportunities for such fruitful cooperation.