Whether you read US Army and Coastal Guard Strategies from other Arctic states or the front page of the New York Times, the Arctic is becoming nearly synonymous with fears about Russia and China. Military strategists and journalists alike write about Russian militarization as well as unwelcome Chinese influence in the High North. While there are certainly geopolitical realities to take into consideration when thinking about Arctic policy, in focusing too heavily on questions of “hard” security, policymakers are obscuring other transnational issues, such as climate change and cyber security, where cooperation is not only desired but also necessary.
In other words, discussing interstate competition too much leads the Arctic on a trajectory toward becoming a securitized region. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. This trend can — and should — be reversed to mitigate possible consequences, such as: Focusing on how cooperation can be used to solve key issues in the Arctic rather than thinking solely about military buildup; changing the framing of the Arctic in official policies, speeches, and critical international organizations, such as the Arctic Council, and finding low-stakes issues to encourage relationship-building among actors in the Arctic.
So, can the Arctic be spared from securitization?
EARLY SYMPTOMS OF SECURITIZATION
Securitization is the process of something becoming a security threat or a security issue. It happens when something — such as immigration — is labeled as dangerous, threatening, and as an existential crisis by someone, and then that framing is accepted by an audience. Importantly, securitization implies that security issues are not just out there. Instead, by creating security threats in the way we speak, we create security issues. While the Arctic might seem like a peripheral region globally, there is evidence that it is beginning to rise in importance. Concerns about China, Russia, and resource competition are causing real changes to occur in how states treat the Arctic. The United States, for example, has announced the establishment of the Arctic Regional Center, which will be housed within the Department of Defense and focus on the “unique challenges and security concerns related to the Arctic region.”
As climate change has resulted in new shipping lanes and easier access to resources in the Arctic, the interests of Arctic states — United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden — and non-Arctic states — China, United Kingdom, and EU to name a few — have grown. The Arctic presents virtually untapped amounts of oil, gas, and minerals that attract both Arctic and non-Arctic states. A United States Geological Survey 2008 report also described the Arctic continental shelves as potentially constituting “the geographically largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on Earth.” While it is true that some states, such as China, are finding investment opportunities with Arctic states to build infrastructure as part of the Polar Silk Road (part of the Belt and Road Initiative), it is by no means a necessity to treat Chinese influence as inherently negative. By the same logic, Russian investment and military actions in the Arctic might seem overtly negative, but it is important to contextualize Russian interest in the Arctic as not recent, but historic. Instead, the rhetoric around these issues has treated them as critical security risks, painting the Arctic as the next theater of a new Cold War. But is the Arctic really the next theater?
The most significant concern when it comes to treating the Arctic as a theater of great power competition is the danger it presents in putting the Arctic on a trajectory of becoming a securitized region.
Rather than focusing on these interstate threats, there are more serious concerns, such as climate change and insecurities that stem from it — such as food, water, environmental, and health security concerns — that affect individuals and impact their quality of life. For example, Alaskan communities are suffering from food insecurity because sea ice is melting, causing traditional sea mammals that they would otherwise hunt, to move elsewhere and decreasing their protection from the large ocean waves that have in some cases caused devastating infrastructure damage. On Little Diomede Island, for example, a late storm caused serious damage to a water treatment plant, leaving the town without clean water and without power. By over-emphasizing “hard” security issues from Russia and China, therefore, the rhetoric surrounding Arctic politics ignores other important questions that impact people on the ground, particularly Indigenous people whose livelihoods and societal resilience are threatened by climate change.
The most significant concern when it comes to treating the Arctic as a theater of great power competition is the danger it presents in putting the Arctic on a trajectory of becoming a securitized region. While it can be argued that as it stands, the Arctic is not a contested region or a region fraught with wars, such as the Middle East and parts of Africa, it could be if the trajectory of treating the Arctic as this region of competition and security continues. Regions of the world do not become theaters of competition and conflict overnight, but instead become that way after years of construction that involves a range of activities from rhetoric and to military buildups. Crimea is a telling example of this, where both Ukraine and Russia slowly began ratcheting up bellicose discourse over time which was followed by militarization. Now, Crimea is a point of severe tension between the two states.
The Arctic, however, is not — and should not — be destined for that end state. We, the journalists who report on our news, and the policymakers who create reports, have a choice in how we frame issues. Rather than always treating the Arctic as a place where competition is inherent, we can instead see it as a place of possible cooperation. After all, the largest security threat in the Arctic is climate change. It impacts not only the people living in the Arctic itself, but also states surrounding the Arctic, and the rest of the world, as sea and ocean levels increase, oceans become desalinated, and temperatures increase worldwide. There is a choice to focus on how states can and have been cooperating on this issue, thereby incentivizing further collaboration down the line instead of thinking solely on old-school ways of thinking about security.
HOW TO AVOID THE SECURITIZATION TRAJECTORY
While we can think and write about geopolitical hard security issues in the Arctic, we can do so in a way that also gives airtime to cooperation and collaboration rather than thinking solely about the latest Russian military exercise or most recent scare about Chinese investment in Greenland. This is not to say that reporting on Russia and China is not important or necessary, but rather, reporting in a balanced way that takes the responsibility of reporting all sides of an issue seriously.
On a policy level, policymakers and diplomats can — and should — change the framing of the Arctic in official policies, speeches, and critical international organizations, such as the Arctic Council. Security shouldn’t be only about the construction of new ships, submarines, and military exercises. Planners who are thinking about the role of militaries and institutions should consider how security also refers to the individual security of Arctic residents, focusing on their ability to access food and water, potential insecurities arising from coastal erosion — 70% of which in the Arctic is built on currently thawing permafrost — as well as societal insecurities that come about from a lack of community resilience.
Lastly, there is a tendency in international politics to focus on conflictual issues when instead we should be finding other, more cooperative issues to encourage relationship-building among actors in the Arctic. Instead of immediately pivoting to trying to negotiate arms control treaties amongst Arctic states, countries could instead find issues, such as transparency, search and rescue cooperation, and pollution clean-up that does not require as much political capital. These issues might be framed as low-stakes but they should not be, particularly if all stakeholders want to ensure that the Arctic is not securitized.
RHETORIC MATTERS AFTER ALL
It matters how we talk about the Arctic. Whaling is a great example of where changing rhetoric has impacted policy. While in the first half of the 20th century, whaling was considered a fairly normal aspect of the economy, anti-whaling discourse changed the depiction of whales to intelligent mammals. This transformed the perception of whaling to morally repugnant. It goes to show that the way we talk matters, and it can matter more than material interests that might seem more logical.
We can continue to use bellicose rhetoric to describe relations between states and encourage militarization on every side, but that will end exactly the way worse-case scenarios describe it. Instead, we can — and should — change the way we talk and think about the Arctic to focus on cooperation, change the way we frame the region, and find low-stakes issues on which to cooperate and hopefully reverse or at least slow the trajectory of securitizing the Arctic.
Gabriella Gricius is a PhD student at Colorado State University and Graduate Fellow at the North American & Arctic Defense and Security Network (NAADSN). Her research focuses on securitization, ontological security theory, and Arctic politics.