Post-nuclear Security Arrangements: Indications from the Arctic

Tasneem Jamal

Franklyn Griffiths

Franklyn Griffiths is George Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Toronto

Each of the panelists at the Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence & Alternative Security Arrangement, held in Ottawa on September 28-31, 2001, was asked to submit a short paper relating to the topic of their presentation. The other Consultation participants were asked to submit brief papers responding to one or more of the following questions:

1. What changes to its nuclear policies should NATO be realistically asked to make, in the context of the current review, to move it towards fuller compliance with global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation obligations and imperatives?

2. Are there realistic and credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interest in missile defense?

3. What are the most realistic short-term or interim measures that should be taken by nuclear weapon states and nuclear alliances to demonstrate a commitment to significantly reducing the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of elimination?

International experience in the Arctic has some guidance value for NATO members and others insofar as they would ease the transition to a post-nuclear world. The guidance here turns out to be strategic, applicable primarily in the long haul, and not greatly relevant to the invention of technical fixes for current problems of denuclearization. A non-nuclear world necessarily being quite different from today’s, we should be ready for some fairly jarring implications of Arctic practice for the business of the North Atlantic Alliance and for how it’s done.

Features of the Region

The Arctic or circumpolar North consists of an ice-covered Mediterranean which is surrounded by the territories of five littoral states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia, the United States) and three states that do not face directly onto the Arctic Ocean (Finland, Iceland, Sweden). Prior to and during the Cold War, this part of the world was heavily militarized. The Soviet Union went first. Having determined to acquire the basis for new military power by means of Arctic resource exploitation as five-year planning began late in the 1920s, Russia adopted an exclusionary stance in fending foreigners away from her holdings in the region, which then, as now, amounted to nearly 180 degrees of the ocean frontage. Russian exclusivity was interrupted by allied naval operations off the shores of Northwestern Europe in World War II, but resumed with a vengeance as the S.U. and U.S. deployed intercontinental bombers and bomber defences in the region, as landbased and then also seabased intercontinental missiles appeared that would move largely on transpolar flight paths, as the Soviets created a formidable concentration of nuclear and conventional naval power on the Kola Peninsula, as the U.S. Navy sought to be able to get at Soviet SSBNs in their Arctic bastion in the event of crisis, and so on. The result of all of this was that the Arctic NATO states (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, the United States) and the Soviet Union, together with the two non-aligned (Finland, Sweden) were caught up in an intense military-political rivalry that left virtually no room whatsoever for region-wide cooperation until Gorbachev came along.

Fifteen years later, the situation is very different, although not irreversibly so. Strategic nuclear rivalry has abated worldwide, together with the likelihood of acute nuclear crisis except perhaps as confined to South Asia. Profound transformations in Russia’s security situation, and in the threat she presents to others, are exemplified by the descent of the Kursk to the bottom of the Barents Sea. Nor are the Barents Sea and, beyond it, the circumpolar North what they used to be. As bipolar competition eased, the polar political climate improved. Arctic institutions for multilateral cooperation began to appear after 1989: the International Arctic Science Committee, the Northern Forum (joining Arctic territorial governments only), the Rovaneimi Process which then became the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, various organizations of circumpolar aboriginal peoples, and, above all, in 1996, the Arctic Council—now the central intergovernmental institution for regional collaboration and a forum in which Arctic aboriginal peoples have gained special rights of representation.

Significant changes, yes. But there are also certain continuities. First, it has all along been a reality that while states may come to blows in the Arctic, they are unlikely to come to blows over anything in the Arctic. Accidental war excepted, warfare in the region prompted by conflict specific to the region is hard to imagine. Secondly, as long as Russia has a navy and lacks warm-water ports with ready access to the world ocean, the Arctic region will be militarily significant. Indeed, during the period of time that may be required to rid the world of nuclear weapons, global warming could make for substantially increased naval mobility and commercial activity in Arctic waters. Meanwhile, interim measures to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, such as basing single-warhead intercontinental missiles on SSBNs or establishing SSBN sanctuaries, would reinforce the military significance of the Arctic and risk making it into a kind of Jurassic Park for strategic nuclear weapons. The same holds for NMD and all that it may entail.

Overall, then, there’s growing amity and diminishing enmity in the circumpolar North. The volume and quality of strategic military activity in the region has and will doubtless continue to depend not on regionally-based interaction among the states of the region, but on events and decisions that occur elsewhere. Although there are a great many influences at work on the region, ultimately the Soviet and U.S. navies, and now the U.S. Navy, have been unwilling to limit their freedom of action in Arctic waters and, by precedent, in other oceans, by allocating a significant say to the other Arctic states on military matters. It’s not totally unlike the way the U.S. guards its prerogatives within NATO as an alliance. Nevertheless, interaction occurring elsewhere in the world has served to open the way for a upsurge in regional institution-building and cooperation among the Arctic Eight.

“Security”: The Arctic Solution

This state of affairs has led to singular Arctic ways of dealing with matters of “security.” To begin, all of the Eight are agreed that there is to be no discussion of military questions in the various intergovernmental institutions that have sprung up in the region over the past decade. The Arctic Council, in particular, is specifically enjoined not to consider “matters related to military security.” Where the traditional understanding of “security” is concerned, multilateral practice in the Arctic is one of silence: no talking about it at the table.

Secondly, Arctic multilateralism has been keyed to non-military or civil matters of common concern such as the environment, sustainable development, health, education, trade, and so on. Some of this is clearly a response to the ban on military talk. Basically, however, the live interest in collaboration on civil matters stems from the fact that these are the items on which peoples and governments of the region want action most eagerly. Accordingly, while cooperation on a civil agenda may in principle be viewed as a form of CSBM, this is not the Arctic way: civil matters are very much treated on their merits and as such are decoupled from tasks of political-military reassurance except for relations with Russia to some degree.

Third, Arctic states and civil societies alike have refrained from attempts to redefine matters subject to multilateral civil cooperation as matters of “security.” No one, or at most only few, is talking about “environmental security,” “economic security,” the “security” of the Arctic’s children and youth, etc. No significant effort has been made to “securitize” the thickening agenda of civil multilateralism, either for rhetorical purposes in seeking political attention and budget, or in the conviction that a discourse of “security” is capable of framing the issues most productively. For the Arctic region, arrangements that might be considered as alternatives to nuclear deterrence are decidedly not “security” arrangements.

Finally, multilateral interaction among the states of the circumpolar North is marked by an exceptional readiness to include in the decision process representatives of those most directly exposed to the consequences of collective action. I am referring to aboriginal peoples here. In the Arctic Council, international Arctic aboriginal organizations are present at the table, speak freely, and contribute to the consensus which however is stated, when all is said and done, by the Arctic Eight alone. The multilateral decision-making practice that’s evolving in the Arctic is one that includes the most vulnerable in civil society so as to ensure that governments are fully apprised not only of the situation on the ground, but of injustices that are risked in any collective action.


Arctic experience suggests the following interrelated points for a discussion of how “North Atlantic Post-Nuclear Security Arrangements” might be pursued by NATO and by Canada in particular:

1. Regard the Russian Federation as integral to the common space and enlarging community of the North Atlantic. Act on this understanding by incorporating Russia wholly and unreservedly into the Alliance on matters of multilateral civil cooperation. Give these matters vastly increased priority consistent with Article 2 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

2. Find ways for NATO to fall silent on matters of military security, starting with nuclear weapons. “Fall silent” would follow upon the growth of such dissention among members over nuclear retention and nuclear abolition that no consensus could be reached on language for the Alliance as a whole. Look forward, therefore, to a period of greatly intensified talk which should lead eventually to silence at the table where nuclear weapons are concerned. Silence, amplified by the media and public opinion, should in time translate into the disengagement of non-nuclear members from nuclear-related roles, and to growing parallel unilateral support of NATO members for abolition in fora such as the NPT and CD. See to it also that in due course the United Nations becomes the lead institution for talk about military security and for collective action employing conventional forces.

3. Reorient NATO’s raison d’etre and activity increasingly to Article 2, starting with economic and social affairs and taking care not to securitize the Alliance’s new multilateral civil agenda. In short, get out of the traditional security business, do not redefine the new business as one of security, and act on matters that most clearly meet the needs of the peoples of the community. For Canada in particular, consider abandoning the notion of “human security” as a well-intended but ultimately unhelpful transfer of military thought and practice to areas of human activity best kept free of the martial arts.

4. Within the Alliance, find new procedures and mechanisms to incorporate representation from civil society in the determination of collective action on civil matters of common concern.

It will be asked why, if NATO is to be brought to silence on nuclear-weapons matters, shouldn’t a coalition of members go on to bring the Alliance to resolute support for nuclear abolition. My thought is that, as in the Arctic, there are encumbrances and prohibitions that the nuclear-weapons states will not accept from their non-nuclear friends, but will accept under the compulsion of domestic politics. NATO is not a place to wage a battle for the hearts and minds of the American, British, or French people, to say nothing of the Russians. Nor is it easy to see how much could be made of an Alliance keyed increasingly to Article 2 if the United States and also the Russian Federation were not directly and heavily involved. As in the Arctic, let’s settle for silence and for a degree of mutual restraint as the transition from security to civility gains momentum.

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