What the New NATO Secretary General Appointment Means for the Arctic

by Iveta Cherneva

Last week, NATO appointed Norway’s former prime minister Jens Stoltenberg to succeed Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the military alliance chief. Even as NATO tries to fashion a response to the crisis on its eastern frontier in Ukraine, the appointment of Stoltenberg should alert global attention to another region: the Arctic. The Arctic is not at the top of most national agendas, and yet for Stoltenberg, it has been a priority issue. In a recent Harvard International Review piece, Stoltenberg debunked the commonly held view that the Arctic is an isolated area of no global importance.

A 2014 report by the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on the Arctic entitled Demystifying the Arctic highlighted the Arctic’s global significance due to climate change and natural resource issues. Governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the region is increasingly viewed as the next flashpoint of geopolitical one-upmanship. But this is a myth according to the report, as countries generally conform to the law of the sea convention, accept science-based seafloor borders, and use diplomatic channels and the Arctic Council framework to resolve disputes.

This may be true regarding minor disagreements, but Russia’s expansionist foreign policy with the Crimea crisis a case in point, and the appointment of Stoltenberg as NATO chief should draw attention to the Arctic as the next potential conflict fault line. Norway is NATO’s member with the greatest vested economic interest in the Arctic, and it is expected that Stoltenberg will steer NATO’s agenda into a more Arctic-oriented direction.

President Putin recently addressed Russia’s intentions towards the Arctic, vowing to expand Russia’s military presence in the region as a top military priority. Putin made clear that Russia would be “intensifying the development of that promising region” with the need to protect “its security and national interests there.”

In response, NATO carried out a military drill in Norway just 250 miles from the Russian border, as part of the March military Exercise Cold Response 2014, with more than 1,600 troops from sixteen participating NATO countries. This is the sixth timesuch a NATO military exercise has taken place in the Arctic Circle. The drill came just one week before Stoltenberg’s appointment.

As Russia’s seemingly expansionist drive makes waves on the international scene, it is fair to say that the Big Bear is awake, and NATO’s appointment of Stoltenberg is especially important. It was Stoltenberg himself who in 2010 signed a deal with the Russians to end a forty-year dispute over maritime borders and to allow for new oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The Barents Sea conflict between Norway and Russia resolved in 2010 started over the delimitation of arctic sea boundaries in a disputed area spanning 175,000 square kilometers and estimated at holding fifteen to thirty percent of the world’s oil and gas reserves.

For both Norway and Russia, access to hydrocarbon reserves is key. The economic stakes for Norway seem to be higher, asNorway’s production peaked in 2001. For Russia, the 2010 agreement also had a military implication—increasing commercial activity in the Barents Sea region makes it easier for Russian submarines to pass unnoticed in and out of the Barents Sea.

Resurgence of claims on both sides and a conflict between Norway and Russia over the Arctic would trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, whereby an armed attack against one or more members of the alliance in Europe or North America allows for the right of collective self-defense, “including the use of armed force.”

Such a conflict is unlikely to arise out of purely technical disputes over fisheries, or the maritime trade routes and passagesincreasingly affected by global warming. But if Russia assumes a more aggressive role and challenges the status quo in the region—empowered by its Crimea “free pass”—the dynamics will change. NATO led by Stoltenberg will not back down. Then, having Norway’s Stoltenberg at the helm of the most powerful military alliance will make a difference.

About the Author

Iveta Cherneva is an author and commentator on global governance and international organizations, security, human rights, and sustainability. Her career includes work for the UN, U.S. Congress, Oxford University, and think tanks in several of the world's diplomatic capitals. Iveta is the author of Trafficking for Begging (2011); The UN Security Council, the ICJ, and Judicial Review (2013); editor of The Business Case for Sustainable Finance (2012); and co-author of Regulating the Global Security Industry (2009). Appointed Atlantic Council young leader in 2012 and William H. Donner Human Rights Fellow in 2007, she is a frequent commentator in international news media. Iveta has testified before the UN Working Group on business and human rights.

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