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NATO’s Role in Securing a Changing Arctic

May 6, 2020


Maddy Bennet


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in 1949 to protect Europe from the Soviet Union by integrating European militaries with each other and with those of the United States and Canada. Over its 70 years in existence, NATO has responded to a variety of threats, including civil wars, invasions, and terrorism (Valášek 2019). Today, NATO faces challenges that have arisen not from human actions against other humans, but from human actions against the natural environment. Climate change is disrupting NATO’s conception of security and creating unforeseen issues in the Arctic. The Arctic is less familiar to NATO than mainland Europe, partly because the very physical characteristics of the region are transforming and party because the Arctic has traditionally been an international zone of “low tension” (Lanteigne 2019). Yet the increasing possibility of instability in the Arctic, which includes multiple NATO member states (United States, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Denmark) as well as Russia, prompts the question of NATO’s role north of the North Atlantic. This paper will describe the current situation, followed by an analysis of NATO’s limitations and strengths regarding Arctic security. Three policy recommendations for NATO are then offered: NATO should protect the sovereignty of Arctic member states and partners, avoid unnecessarily aggravating tensions, and reduce its own impact on the environment.

The Changing Arctic

NATO has a history of researching and accounting for climate change, which will likely inform its future decisions about involvement in the Arctic. NATO has recognized environmental changes as a potential security threat since 1969 but did not officially add climate change to its Strategic Concept until 2010 (Causevic 2017, 72). In 2020, as NATO prepares to create its new Strategic Concept that will guide its actions, the outsize impact of climate change on the Arctic relative to other world regions has become apparent (Lanteigne 2019). Since 1961, the average temperature in Oslo, Norway has increased by 2 degrees Celsius; beyond the Arctic Circle it has gone up by 5.6 degrees (Schellnhuber et al. 2019). NATO leadership recognizes the impact of climate change, even its potential to cause or exacerbate geopolitical conflicts (Causevic 2017, 60). Yet due to its status as a military alliance and not a governing or regulatory body, NATO’s hands appear to be tied when it comes to defeating climate change.

NATO has confronted energy-related threats before, but the challenges emerging in the Arctic are somewhat different. Previously, NATO has had to contend with Russia manipulating energy shipments to European countries for political reasons and exploiting potential conflicts of interest in energy markets to sow divisions among NATO members. This was exemplified by the Nord Stream pipelines. NATO was wary of the pipelines, especially because they suspected that there was an ulterior motive to the decision to have the pipeline bypass Ukraine. However, the Alliance did not directly get involved militarily (Valášek 2019, 43). Unlike the energy security debates that used to concern NATO, questions about the Arctic may prompt a direct response. Climate change in the Arctic certainly has economic- and shipping-related dimensions, but it will also have much bigger environmental ramifications than the Nord Stream pipelines (Lanteigne 2019). NATO must now also consider the sovereignty of Arctic Indigenous peoples and of states outside its membership and core area of activity as the Alliance prepares to face northward.

The Arctic is becoming an active zone for infrastructure development and a convenient avenue for transportation, both of which could contribute to increased tensions. The Arctic has vast deposits of fossil fuels and rare earth elements like gold, silver, and uranium. Russia and China are quickly moving to build facilities for the extraction and trade of these resources, as are Finland, the U.S., Canada, and Norway (Dillow 2011). Along with opportunity, economic developments in the Arctic can bring conflict. With increasing traffic in Arctic waters will come “more incidents at sea and environmental accidents, which will require careful management to ensure they do not escalate” (Boulègue 2019, 32). With so many actors, high economic stakes, and existing tensions between the U.S., Russia, and China, it is possible that even contact through everyday activities could become magnified into a crisis. Russia is not helping matters by augmenting its Arctic military presence (Lanteigne 2019) now that new sea routes from which they could attack Norway have opened (Valášek 2019, 47). Arctic militarization, also underway in Norway with help from NATO, has not yet flared into violence. However, that only means the timing is right for NATO to clarify its strategy in the region and help establish norms so that Arctic economic opportunities do not escalate tensions over natural resources, with the environment being among the casualties.

NATO’s Limitations with Regard to Arctic Security

A niche exists for NATO in Arctic security, though as an institution it is not poised to solve every dilemma. Examining its limitations can be useful for identifying its strengths. Firstly, NATO’s involvement in the Arctic is complicated by the fact that it has not expressed a cohesive strategy for the region. A 2019 NATO Defense College report stresses the need for NATO to develop a military code of conduct for the Arctic, which would “decrease the risk of miscalculation… [and] also regulate irresponsible behavior, brinksmanship-prone activities and dangerous military activities” (Boulègue 2019, 35). NATO’s options for peaceful conflict resolution also need to be clarified, as the Prime Minister of NATO member state Iceland has expressed a desire for her country—which is geopolitically important in the Arctic—to leave NATO over concerns that the Alliance’s Arctic policy is too militaristic (Breum and DeGeorge 2018). Overall, it looks as though NATO does not have a detailed set of goals in the Arctic or steps to take if their goals were to be thwarted (Wesley 2017, 110). This is not an insurmountable issue, as NATO has abundant capacity to develop strategies as events unfold. As they do, though, it will be important to continually keep in mind the vast framework of institutions and agreements governing the Arctic. As Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg pointed out, the Arctic is not a “free zone” for any state, or NATO for that matter, to plunder or control (Schellnhuber et al. 2019). By staying aware of happenings in the Arctic, NATO can form a strategy that determines what actions it can take and does not overstep into the domain of Arctic countries and institutions.

In the realm of Arctic security, NATO’s strategic uncertainty is not its only limitation; the constraints imposed on NATO by its own mandate also limit its ability to intervene. As previously discussed, NATO cannot reverse the underlying environmental changes that are making the Arctic increasingly volatile. NATO has no control over the domestic policies of its member states, and therefore cannot set or enforce environmental standards. It can only recommend them, such as when at the 2014 NATO Wales Summit, member states agreed to reduce the environmental impacts of their respective militaries (Valášek 2019, 42). Since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016, unified NATO efforts to address climate change have stalled (Causevic 2017, 78). NATO is not the solution to climate change, and it is very likely not a panacea for Arctic communication, either. Arctic states have a number of platforms which they currently use to resolve disputes among themselves, including the Arctic Council, the Arctic Shipping Forum, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (Tingstad 2020). Based on descriptions of these organizations by Tingstad (2020), it seems as though the best option for Arctic diplomacy would be to revitalize the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable by extending membership to Russia and maybe even China so that transparency is assured for countries heavily engaging in military and commercial activities in the Arctic. NATO is not able to offer membership to all the relevant parties, meaning that NATO does not appear to hold the answer to Arctic communication. NATO’s military might does not always give it the ability to solve security challenges.

NATO’s Strengths with Regard to Arctic Security

Despite not being the perfect institution to craft Arctic military norms, stop climate change at the source, or provide a channel of communication for Arctic states, NATO has important strengths which it can use to increase security in the region. NATO’s 70-year history has enabled the Alliance to research threats and form adaptive responses. The Prime Minister of Norway, a NATO member state, has said that “NATO’s role is to make sure that they analyze the root causes for  changes in security in different areas,” which can include climate change (Schellnhuber et al. 2019). NATO is extremely well-equipped to provide a nuanced understanding of any conflicts that break out in the Arctic. While it does not have a specific Arctic strategy yet, it has many research centers and lessons from past conflict management to guide future actions (Valášek 2019, 48). Once NATO does determine the causes of conflict, it can bring immense military might to deal with any situation. NATO is “the biggest and most powerful military alliance in the world” (Causevic 2017, 60). If NATO, in conversation with Arctic governing bodies, determines that a military response to a security threat is needed, then the Alliance is supremely able to provide it.

NATO’s involvement in the Arctic to date indicates that the Alliance has extensive and growing capabilities to deal with aggression from states like Russia and China. This March, NATO countries were supposed to conduct a military exercise called Cold Response 2020 meant to augment and demonstrate Arctic defenses (Staalesen 2020). The exercise was cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but it was going to feature over 15,000 troops from multiple NATO countries, led by Norway (Nilsen 2020). Norway has been very active in Arctic defense preparations by providing equipment, regional knowledge, and strategies for deterring Russia (Wesley 2017, 95). Other NATO countries are also doing their part to prepare their militaries. In 2019, the US Navy finalized plans for two new icebreaker ships to replace the older two that were in place, though this is only a start toward matching the 40 icebreakers that Russia has in operation (Lanteigne 2019). NATO’s new Joint Task Force Command Norfolk was created in 2017, and its focus on maintaining sea lines of communication through the North Atlantic demonstrates the military attention that NATO is giving to the Arctic (Boulègue 2019, 36). NATO’s military resources are considerable, and as such they also prompt large questions. NATO must decide how much its forces will get involved in responding to environmental incidents and accidents, which will become more common with increasing human involvement in the Arctic and accelerating climate change. On a related note, NATO must factor in the environmental impacts of its military operations. Sending in troops, for example, could create short-term security but multiply threats in the long term due to environmental damage.

Policy Recommendations for NATO Regarding Arctic Security

In light of the changing Arctic and taking into consideration the strengths and limitations of what NATO can provide there, this paper offers three policy recommendations for NATO. NATO should protect the sovereignty of Arctic member states and partners, avoid unnecessarily aggravating tensions, and reduce its own impact on the environment.

Protecting the sovereignty of member states and partners is a nebulous concept, which is likely why NATO has had some difficulty crafting its Arctic strategy. NATO has a mandate to prevent expansionist states like Russia from limiting freedom and security in Europe. However, knowing when a metaphorical line has been crossed in the Arctic is difficult, as disputes right now are mostly economic and norms are uncertain (Dillow 2011). Calibrating responses is especially difficult in the case of China, as the challenge is long-term (Valášek 2019, 47) and involves a state exerting influence far outside its borders (Lanteigne 2019). To make matters of sovereignty more difficult, some NATO members, such as Iceland, perceive NATO as restricting their decisions in the Arctic (Breum 2018). The best solution to help deter aggressive states and ensure NATO partners are respected is probably to revive an existing Arctic forum of communication that already has a security element. The Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, for example, could be expanded to include relevant parties even if they are outside the Arctic. Of course, in protecting the sovereignty of Arctic states, NATO will also have to take into account the voices of Arctic Indigenous people.

NATO does not want military conflict in the Arctic, so avoiding unnecessarily aggravating tensions is a priority. NATO is building an extensive military presence in the Arctic, but in doing so it is important to be transparent and simultaneously establish clear lines of communication, even with potential adversaries like Russia and China (Valášek 2019, 49). The Arctic is a relatively uncertain environment for NATO, so proceeding carefully is critical. Analysts at Carnegie Europe pointed out that if NATO treated the Arctic the same as it does the familiar North Atlantic region, then this would likely be seen as an “escalating move” by Russia. Such a treatment  should therefore be avoided (Valášek 2019, 48). NATO can instead gain more “domain awareness” in the Arctic by creating an “Arctic working group,” as was proposed at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in 2017 (Boulègue 2019, 37). As NATO gains a better understanding of the changing Arctic and how to avoid conflict there, it should avoid disruption to the network of overlapping institutions that characterize Arctic international dialogue. Cooperation on a variety of areas has been achieved through these forums, especially the Arctic Council (Tingstad 2020). Even Norway and Russia are able to cooperate on a number of Arctic-specific issues, through venues such as the Barents Secretariat (Wesley 2017, 105). The Arctic is a unique region with its own effective governance structures, so in suggesting modifications to mechanisms like the Arctic Security Forces, NATO must not be heavy-handed. Instead, it should be prepared to defer to its Arctic members and partners—and be ready to provide these states with military assistance.

While the rewards from doing so will not be immediately apparent as security benefits, it is recommended that NATO reduce its own impact on the environment. The world’s biggest military alliance has the potential to release astronomical quantities of pollution, or to set an example for how organizations can reduce emissions. Even as NATO addresses security issues that stem from climate change, their own actions could inadvertently be leading to the next conflict (Causevic 2017, 60). NATO has already made a commitment to reduce pollution according to guidelines that all Allies agreed to at the 2014 Wales Summit (Valášek 2019, 42). But it is likely that more than this concession will be needed to make sure that NATO does not exacerbate climate change through its involvement globally and especially in the environmentally precarious Arctic. Leadership of Arctic countries already recognizes that the Arctic is where “tipping points” that will affect the climate of NATO members and the world will occur (Schellnhuber et al. 2019). Now is the time for NATO to make reducing emissions a priority on par with defense. Climate change is not an enemy military that can be fought, and NATO cannot legislate solutions from governments. Reducing its own emissions, carefully accounting for the environmental risks of actions such as deploying icebreakers in the Arctic, and setting an example for other organizations is the best it can do and, hopefully,  will allow NATO to continue to holistically promote security now and into the future.


Whether or not NATO has an imperative to become involved in the Arctic is no longer an open question. Member states and the Alliance as a whole are already increasing their military presence in the region in preparation for conflicts that will likely arise as people compete for resources and information, experiencing accidents and sabotage along the way. The question as NATO forms its new Strategic Concept in 2020 is how NATO will be involved in the Arctic responsibly. NATO cannot address every international issue in the region, but its technical expertise and ability to mobilize troops will make it an important player. As long as NATO respects the sovereignty of Arctic states, avoids unnecessarily increasing tensions, and reduces its own environmental impact, the Alliance will find its place alongside those Arctic institutions that actively work for the betterment of the region.


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