The Arctic: Hot or Not?

Environmental changes in the Arctic are making the region more accessible which many believe will lead to competition and conflict over its resources. But is this really the case?

The Great Game moves North

A battle to ‘carve up’ the Arctic

‘Ice Wars’ heating up the Arctic

Melting ice caps open up Arctic for ‘white gold rush’

Warming Arctic opens way to competition for resources

Conflict ahead in Arctic waters

The above are just some of the many headlines and titles that have described the state of the Arctic over the last decade. Ever since a Russian flag was planted on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007, media outlets, academics and policy-makers have been pondering the conflict potential of a warming Arctic.

Their concerns surely have a dramatic background. The Arctic, the region commonly defined as all land and water areas above the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees north, has over the past 50 years warmed twice as fast as the global average. Consequently, the Arctic ice sheet has retreated significantly. In September 2012, the ice extend dropped to around half of what it was in the late 1970s, and is lingering on low extent numbers ever since. The diminishing sea ice has made the resources of the Arctic, such as oil and gas, increasingly accessible for exploration and exploitation.

This increasing accessibility of the region combined with, thus far, inaccessible and high-in-demand resources and still existing boundary disputes between the Arctic coastal states, made (and still makes) many believe that we are heading towards a region of conflict.

But is this really so? Should we expect the region in the north to erupt into hot conflicts about access to oil and gas, shipping lanes and fishing grounds that the retreating ice lays open? Does a warming Arctic inevitably mean increasing conflict potential with little hope for cooperation to emerge?

Cooperation and conflict: a misleading dichotomy


Image credit: Fulbright Arctic Initiative/Flickr.

Most of the debates aiming to answer these questions circle around the issue of whether the Arctic is a region of “conflict” or “cooperation”. The cardinal error of this debate is that “cooperation” and “conflict” are taken as two sides of the same coin. Taking cooperation and conflict as the two ends of a continuum inadequately twists the empirical perceptions and expectations as to future developments in the Arctic.

As a matter of fact, cooperation and conflict are part of two different coins. Conflict is first of all a situation in which the interests of two or more actors overlap in the sense that they pursue different goals or that they prefer different means to achieve a specific goal. The opposite of conflict is then harmony, a situation in which actors’ interests do not touch each other. This is one coin.

If there is a case of conflict, actors can react to this situation in different ways. Roughly speaking, they can either react with “cooperation” or “confrontation”. They can decide to solve the conflict through negotiation and looking for compromises, or they can revert to using force of some kind, such as sanctions or military actions. These possible options for actions in a situation of conflict are the second coin.

Once one has understood the difference between these two coins, it is possible to analyze how actors have reacted to Arctic conflict cases in the past (like open boundary disputes, of which many have been solved since the 1970s), and which options for resolution exist in response to possible future Arctic conflict cases (like still open boundary disputes, competing interests for access to resources or shipping lanes etc.).

Unfortunately, in the past and current Arctic conflict debate the existence of a conflict is usually treated the same as a confrontation– a situation in which breakdown of relations and even violent actions are imminent. But if we equalize conflict and confrontation, we face a very alarming situation in the Arctic since there are cases where the interests of Arctic actors (including those from south of the Arctic Circle) overlap. The open maritime delimitations around the area of the North Pole and the question how much of the Arctic is to be legally treated as a common heritage of mankind are just two examples of Arctic conflicts.

But if we were to conduct a sound analysis with the two-coin understanding as outlined above, we would understand that conflict is the very prerequisite to make cooperation and confrontation happen in the first place. In other words, there is no cooperation or confrontation if there is no conflict (since actors do not interact in a situation of harmony). Then we can look at the Arctic world out there and check which options for action Arctic actors choose to react to conflict situations.

The Arctic Council – A prime example of Arctic cooperation

We find a multitude of examples for actors choosing cooperative options for actions, especially among the members of the Arctic Council, which are the eight Arctic states Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Since the flag-planting in 2007, and also since Russia’s more recent assertive actions elsewhere in the world, cooperation in the preeminent political forum of the region, the Arctic Council, has been strengthened. The Council has evolved from a forum for debate to a policy-shaping body through the adoption of several intergovernmental agreements under its auspices. These range from provisions for preparedness and response for oil spills in Arctic waters, a search and rescue cooperation agreement, and will soon be added by an agreement on Arctic scientific cooperation.

On the international level, an “International Code of Safety for Ships Operating in Polar Waters” or short “Polar Code” has been negotiated under the International Maritime Organization to regulate the increasing shipping activity in the Arctic. Arctic countries are working on their submissions to the UN to verify their extensions of their continental shelves, and have in unison pledged to settle any overlapping claims peacefully and in close consultation with each other.

All these cooperative actions have included the Arctic states as well as many state and non-state actors beyond the region, for example in the form of observers to the Arctic Council. The short result of this analysis is: Yes, the Arctic is full of conflict but also full of cooperation since across the board actors are reacting cooperatively to cases of conflict.

The crux is that these instances of cooperation can be observed. In contrast, most foreboding of a confrontation in the Arctic only refers to what could happen now that the Arctic is accessible and its resources up for grasp. In other words, these contributions can only be speculative.

A lingering problem of the Arctic conflict debate is that a conflict over Arctic issues is usually very easily and quickly proclaimed and seldom reflected upon or questioned again. So once a conflict is said to exist, it is hard to get rid of again, even if observations show that there is no real ground for the conflict or if actors react cooperatively to it. A prominent example is the rising Chinese interest in Arctic issues, which peaked 2013 when China was admitted as an observer to the Arctic Council. Since then, many have depicted Chinese Arctic interests as a “conflict” since China as a powerful player would undermine other Arctic voices and generally would bring turmoil to Arctic affairs. In contrast, when talking to the members and Permanent Participants (the representatives of Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations) of the Council, one hears that after some initial concerns everyone is pretty happy about the presence of important players like China. Not least, China has to be part of the solution to the global climate change problem, which heavily affects the Arctic. And having China present at Arctic Council meetings is a rare opportunity for small, Indigenous organizations to get into a direct conversation with countries like China.


In sum, if we consider how often the “next Cold War” in the Arctic has been proclaimed now that we have entered the tenth (!) year after the Russian flag-planting, one keeps wondering why this war has failed to materialize. This may be sign that the assessment of the Arctic as a region of confrontational conflict is not for nothing predominantly based on speculation. In fact, the predication of a next Cold War in the Arctic may be exactly that: a wild guess.

Dr. Kathrin Keil is Scientific Project Leader at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany, where she is leading the Arctic research work on Sustainable Arctic Futures: A Regional and Global Challenge. She is also Senior Fellow at The Arctic Institute – Center for Circumpolar Security Studies where she regularly writes about and comments on current Arctic developments. Further, Kathrin is part of the official German observer delegation to the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) of the Arctic Council.