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The future of the Arctic will be defined in Asia – Iceland’s ex-president

The race for the Arctic is gaining pace as more countries seek to expand their presence there. Is the world’s coldest place turning into a major hotspot? We asked Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, Iceland’s former president and founder of the Arctic Circle.

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Podcast https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/sophieco  

Sophie Shevardnadze: President Grimsson, thank you so much for being on our programme today, a pleasure to have you as our guest. 

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:Thank you. 

SS: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has actually said that Washington needs to be engaged in the Arctic, because otherwise, Russia and China's growing domination in the region is, quote, a threat to freedom-loving nations, like Iceland and the United States. Do you feel like your country is somehow being threatened? 

OG: No, we don't. Quite frankly, Iceland now enjoys the most peaceful cooperation and position that we have had for decades. Don't forget that the United States had a military base in Iceland for more than half a century. And then, during the George W. Bush administration, they closed it down. So, paradoxically, while Washington was telling the rest of the world that it was now such a dangerous place, that there was a need to go to wars in faraway places, they were telling us that the Northern Arctic neighbourhood was now so peaceful and secure that America could remove their military presence completely out of Iceland. So, since we don't have any armed forces of our own, for now, almost a decade, there has not been a single soldier in Iceland, and it hasn't caused any problem. But of course, it is important to have the engagement of the big Arctic states, Russia and the United States, in the Arctic cooperation, and the good news is, despite conflicts in other parts of the world, Russia and America have, together with the rest of us, managed to conclude treaties and agreements on the Arctic, despite the conflicts and difficulties in other parts of the world. During my chairmanship of the Arctic Circle, which I established six years ago, I am also very much aware of the growing interest of China, Japan, Korea, France, Germany in the Arctic. So, together, the U.S., and Russia, and the rest of the Arctic states, including Iceland, have also to come together on a coherent policy with respect to what I call the “new arrivals” in the Arctic from Asia, and also from the European continent. 

SS: The topics of U.S.-Russian relations and tensions between them always come up in context of the Arctic, and how that would affect the situation there. Trump's most recent National Security Strategy prioritizes the so-called great power rivalry, and the Pentagon is actually currently working on the Arctic defence strategy. What do you think this could lead to? I mean, no one wants war, that's for sure, but is it a situation where no one wants a war, but everyone just pumps funds into cold weather capabilities?  

OG: We are in fact talking about a part of the planet which is almost the size of Africa. So when people want to bring the military model from the Cold War to this huge part of the planet, I say, let us start distinguishing different parts of the Arctic. And I sometimes divide the Arctic into three parts: the Western Arctic, which is primarily Alaska and the Northern provinces of Canada, then you have the Eastern Arctic, which is predominantly Russia. Seven time zones, little part of Finland and Sweden. And then you have the Centre Arctic, which basically is few small countries, like Greenland, Iceland, Norway, the Faroe islands, but the big ocean territory as well. And these three parts are very different. And when you want to talk about defence, and security, and military issues, you have to distinguish between these parts. I sometimes jokingly say to my American friends: “You have been preoccupied by what's happening on your front yard, the border with Mexico. But you pay very little attention to what's happening in your backyard, in Alaska, because there, the ice is melting, and during the summer months, anybody on a boat can enter the United States on the coast of Alaska!” So it is, in fact, inevitable, that the U.S. would start paying more attention to the infrastructure, the capabilities in the Arctic, in Alaska, in the same way as it is inevitable and understandable that Russia, given the huge economic importance of the Russian Arctic to the Russian economy, will build capabilities, infrastructure, security mechanism in the Arctic. 

SS: So yes, actually, Norway's Foreign Defence minister also said that there is nothing surprising and wrong with this heightened military presence in the Arctic, and it doesn't mean that there's a threat. It's normal, because the Arctic is such an important region, like you have just pointed out. Do you think the situation in the Arctic could be similar to what's going on in the South China Sea, where China and the United States are demonstrating capabilities but not...

OG: No-no-no, absolutely not. Absolutely not. Don't forget, Norway and Russia solved their major territorial dispute in the Arctic with a treaty which both countries agreed to. And if you look at border disputes in the Arctic, most of them are between Canada and the United States, and Canada and the Kingdom of Denmark. So if U.S., Canada and Denmark manage to solve their border dispute in the Arctic, we will really almost have an Arctic free of border dispute. And, of course, taking models like the South China Sea ignores the fact that we have the Law of the Sea that every Arctic state follows, even the U.S., although they have not formally signed it. This determines in quite definite way the rights and the obligations of all these countries, and what's even more remarkable, even if the world has not noticed it very much, is that last year Russia, United States, other Arctic states, also China, Japan, Korea, the EU managed to conclude the Treaty on the Arctic Ocean, how not only we in the Arctic, including U.S. and Russia, but also these Asian powers and the EU, are going to common the ocean resources of the emerging Arctic Ocean. And that is, I think, a sign of how the possibilities in the Arctic are not being prevented from being realised because of some tension. But you are right. The need for what I call enhanced capabilities in the Arctic could lead to a series of misunderstandings about whether it's a militarization or whether it is threatening. That's why I have advocated recently that we need to get an agreement on infrastructure capability standards in the Arctic, what is normal, what is understandable, and what will then start to constitute a threat if it goes beyond a stage, because if we don't have certain agreed standard of capabilities, those who want to introduce scaremongering and old Cold War models into the Arctic have a much easier task.

SS: Arctic Council is something that focuses on scientific research, on rescue and search operations, but it doesn't necessarily focus on security. Given the situation in the Arctic now, do you think, maybe, we need an organization where all these countries just can vent off?

OG: Well I believe very strongly that in the 21st century we have available to us new models of international cooperation, where you don't have to have the same institutional structures as you did in the 20th and the 19th century. And I will explain this. You mentioned the Arctic Council, the Arctic Council is an intergovernmental body of the Arctic states with a number of observers. But I, together with other Arctic partners, created in 2013 the Arctic Circle, which is an open international platform, where any state can come: China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and others, or business companies, or environmental organizations, on the same level, and introduce their projects and their vision, but also be examined in the public square, and anybody can ask them questions. And this has turned out to be a very successful model. So now, every year in Iceland in October, we have over 2000 participants, it's the largest annual international gathering on the Arctic, from more than 60 countries, where all these countries I mentioned have accepted to send the delegation, representing their policies and their projects, and then to answer questions from anybody in the audience, whether it's a young student, an activist or a political leader. And in addition to these assemblies, we organise forums in other parts of the world. They are smaller in scale, but they're very prominent. Last December, we had one in Korea. We will have one in China next month, on China in the Arctic. We will follow up with a forum in France. Previously, we had one in Washington, on the Russia and U.S. relations in the Arctic, in Canada, Singapore and others. And all of this, together with other Arctic gatherings, have in fact made the Arctic dialogue on the Arctic cooperation very transparent, very transparent. So in addition to the formalized Arctic Council, we have all these public squares that countries and other participants and players come together in an open, transparent, accountable dialogue. And I believe very strongly that this is one of the reasons why the Arctic has been such a successful territory of cooperation, because the dialogue has been open, it’s not just where diplomats can say something, or you have to be a minister in order to come. Whether you are a concerned citizen, or a journalist, or a scientist, or an environmentalist, or a leader of a Russian region like Yamal-Nenets or Murmansk, or Arkhangelsk and others, everybody can come on the same level. So what I find interesting about the Arctic progress in the last 10 to 15 years, is that we, in addition to the Arctic cooperation, we have demonstrated a new global model of dealing with challenges, and tasks, and common endeavours, and so far, we have turned out to be pretty successful.

SS: And then there is always a big topic of the air temperature change in the Arctic and the guess is that it’s going to rise 5 to 10 percent by 2080 and that would mean that vast spaces with mineral resources would be accessible. And that's changing the whole picture. So do you think this whole ramping up of the presence in the Arctic is really about being in the right place at the right time?

OG: Well, at the Arctic Circle Forum in China in the month’s time we will have plenary session which is called “Breathing Cities - Arctic Future” because the fact of the matter is that pollution in Chinese and other Asian cities whether it's in India, Indonesia or Japan, or Korea, is probably among the greatest threats to the future of the Arctic. But without a comprehensive clean energy transformation in Asia, in Africa as well as the Americas and Europe we will continue to see the Arctic ice melt, the sea ice melt, the Greenland ice sheet melt. So to some extent the future of the Arctic will be defined in Asia and in Africa, and if these parts of the world continue to pollute the planet, of course, the ice will continue to melt, the resources will become more available. And that's just one of the reason why I always encouraged the involvement of the Asian countries and others in the debate on the future of the Arctic. Whether we like it or not, the Arctic is now more global than perhaps any other part of the planet. Because the future of the Arctic will determine the sea level and extreme weather patterns all over the world. And the fossil fuel energy systems in other parts of the world will determine the future of the Arctic more than the decisions of the Russian government or the American government, or the Icelandic government.

SS: So we're going to talk about the Asian involvement and the Chinese you know live in it. But before that I want to ask you a question about Europe. There is so much talk about securing EU energy right now. Do you maybe think that Arctic's rich reserves could be the key actually, and maybe that would be the long-awaited diversification for the European Union?

OG: So I think on the one hand you'll see continuous dependency on the Arctic energy resources. But on the other, the low cost of renewable clean energy and the technological transformation and the smart grid is also creating another race where countries and continents become energy independent through these own resources. So I think, those who want economically to define their future on the basis that they will have a revenue from fossil fuel resources in the Arctic for the next 50 years, not to say a hundred years, should take a second look at the picture.

SS: I want to talk about Russia a little bit and, I mean, we've talked about this that it has seemingly moved furthest right now in developing its Arctic capabilities, and there are investments involved as well. But when it comes to gas and oil deposits Europe can’t be and America can’t be involved because of the sanctions but China can. Do you think, Europe and the United States are missing a window of opportunity here?

OG: Well, it's difficult to say. One of the fascinating observations that I have been able to witness is the transformation of Russia in the Arctic. When I first came to Russia as president in 2002 the federal government of Russia was not particularly interested in the Arctic. It was primarily a concern of the governors. And even then President Putin (this was in his first period as President) referred me to talking to the governors to talk about the future of the Arctic. I have also attended all the Arctic territorial dialogue conferences. The first one in Moscow was a relatively small conference in one medium-size lecture hall in university-based operation in Moscow. If you compare that with the spectacle we now have here in St. Petersburg in terms of the international participation of this great exhibition, the discussion of the importance for the future of the Russian economy - it's a revolutionary change and that should not be underestimated. How Russia has come in to Arctic awareness on an Arctic economy and an Arctic political leadership in the last 15 years is a revolutionary transformation of the role of Russia. 

SS: To be fair, I think, when you came in 2002 Russia was still sort of coming out of the really tough 90s period... 

OG: No-no,I'm not blaming Russia. I'm simply making the point and I could give you other examples. The arrival of China, Japan and Korea in the Arctic is another example. I am simply saying: in the last 10 or 15 years we have sheet monumental changes in the Arctic. So most people have this picture of the Arctic as a stable, unchanging, rather remote part of the world. It is probably the part of the planet where we have seen in geopolitical terms, in economic terms, in scientific terms the most transformative picture that will affect the future much more than what is happening on the European continent and in other parts of the world. And that is why I say to many people: nobody can now predict how the Arctic will evolve in the next 10 or 15 or 20 years. And that to me is a fascinating aspect of the Arctic participation because, coming back to my previous point, the Arctic being the size of Africa. This is the first time in human history that we both have the challenge and the opportunity to define the structure of co-operation for such a large part of the planet. And there, of course, the United States and Russia have to play a greater role.

SS: Ok, but there's also China's involvement and we've brought a couple of times. People are saying: we’re wary of the Chinese takeover of the Arctic. China is not an Arctic state and it's very actively going into it. So what are your thoughts? 

OG: I have also been privileged to work a lot with China on this. China has some very legitimate reasons for being interested, concerned and involved in the Arctic. First of all, the Polar Institute of China has done extensive research to make the Chinese leadership realise that aggressive melting of the Arctic sea ice causes extreme weather patterns in China with monumental destructions in the last 10 years, only a few months later. Secondly, like the polar research of China has pointed out, with the continuous melting of the Greenland ice sheet most of the cities in southern China will be uninhabitable during this century. So the climate change in the Arctic constitute a threat to infrastructure and whole cities in China.

Secondly, becoming the largest economy on the planet, it is inevitable that they will take a look at the resource rich area like the Arctic, like every big economy has taken a look at resources in other parts of the world. Thirdly, with the North Sea routes opening up and shortening the distance between China and Europe and America, this is also a legitimate reason for China to participate in Arctic co-operation. And so far, and I say this very frankly, I have not seen any signs, and I've probably worked more with China on the Arctic than most of the people, I have not seen any signs of any ulterior aggressive motives from the Chinese leadership with respect to the Arctic. 

SS: So I just wonder what it could do to the balance of powers in the region. As the ice melts the navigation is becoming easier, so currently the maritime traffic accounts to 80 percent of the global trade in terms of volume. Could the Chinese Polar Silk Road give this region like a whole new strategic meaning? 

OG: Well, look, we in Europe (and that includes Russia) have somewhat been trained by our culture and we think that we are the center of the universe. The future of the global economy in this century will be determined in Asia, whether we like it or not. And that this often the reason why I point out to people when they bring up China like you did. I bring up South Korea. South Korea has a very extensive Arctic policy. They are building the containers that bring the LNG gas from Saint Petersburg to Asia and Europe. Korea has now a formal policy which is called ‘Korean Polar Vision 2050’. They have a 30 year plan with respect to the Arctic. So it's not just China. Japan - we are cooperating with Japan in the Arctic Circle. The foreign minister of Japan travelled all the way to Iceland last October to make a keynote policy speech at the opening of the Arctic Circle assembly. So all the major Asian powers - China, Japan and Korea - are now actively involving themselves in the Arctic. And there’s an evidence of the emphasis in the global economy moving towards Asia and we should not look at this as a threat, we should look at this as an aspect of the global economic transformation and then engage with these countries about responsible constructive behavior in the Arctic. 

SS: Absolutely. Once again, I’m just talking about the balance of powers here one more time because it seems like China's aspirations in terms of the cargo transit through the Arctic is really just aimed mainly at Europe, the prospect of Arctic trade end up pushing you towards Beijing from Washington economically - is it possible? 

OG: Well, of course, it is possible. But as a matter of fact Russia covers seven time zones in the Arctic. it's a very resource rich part of the Arctic. So by nature there will be any economic cooperation axis between the Asian powers and Russia with respect to the Arctic. So far both the corporate part of America as well as the political part of America has not woken up to the future potential of the Arctic. When I tell my friends in Washington about what China, Japan and Korea are doing, I even do this exercise often in my meetings in America, I ask people how many of you will have heard of St. Petersburg and very few people put their hands up. So I think the question is simply this: does America want to be a part of this global transformation? Nobody can decide that except the United States. All of us, including Russia, say: “Please, be a part of it, please, come and join us, France, Germany and the Asian powers, in creating a constructive prosperous and responsible future in the Arctic.” But if they for their corporate reasons on Wall Street or for political reasons in Washington are preoccupied with other things there's no power that we have that can actually change that. And then you're absolutely right. The end result could be that in 20 years time the rest of the world has moved to an extensive Arctic co-operation and the U.S. somehow is left behind. And that is why I find it kind of a wakeup call that at this conference here you will have all the Nordic countries represented either by presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers cooperating with Russia and talking with Russia on the future of the Arctic. Despite conflicts in other parts of the world all these leaders of the Nordic countries have found it necessary to come to St. Petersburg to engage with Russia on the future of the Arctic.

SS: President Grimsson, thank you very much for this interview. Enjoy the rest of your stay in St. Petersburg.

OG: Thank you.

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