Historical archive

Perspectives on Current and Future Challenges in the High North

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

- The High North was just a frozen area during the Cold War. Although changes are already taking place, this is an area where we need to take a broad and generational perspective. Our policy needs to be based on predictability and knowledge, Foreign Minister Støre writes in an article.

Contribution (*) to the book “High North: high stakes. Security, energy, transport, environment” by Rose Gottemoeller and Rolf Tamnes (eds.), Fagbokforlaget Vigmostad & Bjørke AS, Bergen 2008.

The High North was just a frozen area during the Cold War. It is still pretty cold, but it is getting alarmingly warmer in a physical sense, and it is also warming up to far more human activity. Although changes are already taking place, this is an area where we need to take a broad and generational perspective. Our policy needs to be based on predictability and knowledge. We have to update our mental maps of what the High North entails in terms of challenges and opportunities, and what it means for Norway and for our relations with our neighbours, partners and allies.

Upon taking office in October 2005, this Government declared that the High North would be Norway’s most important strategic priority area in the years ahead. This goal was elaborated in our High North Strategy, which was presented in December 2006. Our ambition is to face the challenges in the High North in a bold and timely manner, but also to take advantage of the opportunities in the region. We have achieved considerable results in a relatively short time. International cooperation is an important part of our strategy. My ministry has given emphasis to establishing High North dialogues with our Nordic partners, Russia, the United States, individual European states and EU institutions. We will continue to raise the profile of Norway’s High North policy in regional and international forums.

Climate Change
The challenges we are facing are linked to the combination of climate and environmental change, exploitation of resources, increased transport, and political visions and ambitions. In the years to come, our task as politicians and nations will be to manage all these dimensions in a responsible fashion, while maintaining stability in this important region.

The Arctic Sea ice is melting faster than most experts predicted only a few years ago. The changes are of dramatic and historic proportions. To many of us, the transformation is best illuminated by the plight of the polar bear, and its struggle to survive as the ice recedes. Another severely affected species is the ivory gull. The number of ivory gulls living in the Canadian Arctic has been reduced by 80 per cent over the last 20 years. Studies in the Norwegian–Russian Arctic have also found smaller populations than previously. The Norwegian Polar Institute has raised strong concerns about the pollutant levels in these birds. They are dependent on the ice for finding food, and, through the food chain, they have become carriers of pollutants originating from afar. The ivory gull and the polar bear play a similar role to the canaries once used in the coal mines.

The Arctic Council has monitored and led research on climate change in the region, and has provided important input to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is vital that we continue to study the causes and consequences of climate change in the High North, and Norway allocates considerable funding for this purpose. From 2006 to 2007, our spending on research in this area increased by 40 per cent. This was due in part to the International Polar Year, but our commitment extends beyond this undertaking.

Cooperation on Fisheries, Energy and Transport
Cooperation with Russia is a key element in our High North efforts. Norway and Russia have a proud tradition of sound management of the very important fishery resources in the north, including the North-East Arctic cod. In other waters around the Polar Basin, fisheries management has not been as successful; in some areas it has been disastrous. Therefore, the Norwegian–Russian cooperation on fisheries management will remain a very high on our priority list.

Another key area in our strategy is to combat illegal fishing. In 2005 it was estimated that around 25 per cent of all cod caught in the Barents Sea – every fourth fish – was illegal. Through a comprehensive effort by the Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Directorate of Fisheries, agreements have been entered into with European coastal states, and coastguard inspections on both the Norwegian and the Russian side have been strengthened. As a result, the illegal fishing of cod was reduced by more than 50 per cent in two years – from 100 000 tonnes in 2005 to 40 000 tonnes in 2007. This is equivalent to a saving of NOK 1.2 billion.

Exploration and production of petroleum is one of the main focus areas in the Arctic. Most of this activity has taken place in the Norwegian Sea, but the major potential is on the Russian side. There are huge opportunities for cooperation. The Norwegian town of Kirkenes is the closest harbour to the Shtokman field. This is a Russian field, and the Russians are intent on proceeding on their own terms. We should respect that. Nevertheless, I have raised the issue of infrastructure in my discussions with my Russian colleagues. Is the infrastructure along the coast able to support the extensive offshore activities that are expected to develop in this area? This is a good opportunity for the two coastal states to discuss what will be needed, but we do not need to reach conclusions now; we have to take a generational perspective.

With increased energy production comes an increase in transport, which is another activity we have to manage. It is estimated that 3 000 Russian tankers from the inner parts of the Barents Sea will pass along the coast of Northern Norway every year, and their distance from the shore will be significant for us. We therefore took this issue to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which in 2006 adopted a mandatory routing scheme that ensures that ships sail further north from the Finnmark coast. This illustrates the fact that we really do need the IMO to regulate activities in this region.

The increase in traffic we are witnessing today is probably only a prelude to what will come as the Arctic ice continues to melt. Container ships travelling between Rotterdam and Yokohama via the Northeast Passage will reduce the length of their journey by 40 per cent. Taking the Northwest Passage would give a reduction of 25 per cent. If ships are able to sail straight through the Arctic, the distance will be even shorter. The first container ships might be able to cross the Arctic Basin in the summer of 2009 or 2010. If so, the volume of traffic is likely to increase quite rapidly.

How should we address this new situation? How will we deal with the accidents that may occur? How will we ensure search and rescue capacity? There will be drifting ice in these waters, and, in the winter, it will be dark day and night. The safety of the new sea routes was raised at the high-level meeting between the five coastal states bordering on the Arctic Ocean that took place in Illulisat, Greenland in May 2008. There was a clear understanding of the need for enhanced search and rescue capabilities and capacity around the Arctic Ocean, and it was also pointed out that cooperation, including sharing of information, will be vital for addressing these challenges. There was also agreement that the Law of the Sea provides the basic foundation for resolving differences. This is very promising, but a lot of discussion will still be needed before we have an adequate traffic management scheme in the region.

That brings me to Barentswatch – a pioneering project by the Norwegian research institute SINTEF. The aim of the project is to link civil and military capacity to monitor the region and link up real-time knowledge and photos of the situation. In the event of an accident, what ships are in the best position to provide help? Where are the closest helicopter bases? What is the situation as regards wind and currents? If successful, the project may be expanded to include Iceland and Denmark and have links to the United States, Canada and Russia. At a later stage, it may be extended to the Baltic Sea, where traffic is even denser. This scheme is going to require extensive efforts and funding, but we need to pursue it. Maybe one day we will have a joint Norwegian–Russian rescue coordination centre for the Barents Sea and for the seas even further north.

We also have to consider how to strike the right balance between the various activities in the north. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive approach, both in Norway and in the High North as a whole. The white paper Integrated Management of the Marine Environment of  the Barents Sea and the Sea Areas off the Lofoten islands, which the Norwegian Government presented in March 2006, undertakes to reconcile the interests of the fishery, energy and transport sectors with environmental concerns. The plan will be updated in 2010. We cannot move forward without knowledge. We are therefore carrying out major monitoring studies, and the results will be used to update and adapt the management plan. We have also presented the concept of an integrated management plan in detail to the Russians, and we believe it has been met with interest. We hope that Russia will take a similar approach. The Barents Sea is one sea and one ecosystem, so we have to seek to establish common standards as far as possible.

The Need for More Knowledge
I have pointed to the need for more knowledge in a number of fields. Knowledge is at the core of our High-North efforts: building experience and expertise so that we can show the way, utilise existing opportunities, discover new ones, and attract other countries that want to take part, invest and share knowledge. Our focus on knowledge will include further developing our capacity to safeguard Norway’s foreign policy interests in the High North. The rector of the University of Tromsø, Jarle Aarbakke, has been chairing a group of experts on the High North that has emphasised the importance of knowledge platforms.

One such emerging platform is in the field of bioprospecting. We should learn this word, because it is going to be a very important concept in the years to come. It involves examining the genetic resources and molecules found in the deep seas, and the potential for value creation. Marine bioprospecting is very promising, but further research is needed to realise its huge potential.

Another knowledge platform that needs to be developed is logistics. New transport lines are opening up, and the traffic will become denser. What kind of logistical opportunities and challenges does that pose? What is the potential for Finnmark and the Norwegian coastline as a platform for serving the vast seas of the far north?

Cooperation with Russia
Russia is clearly one of the reasons why the High North is at the top of our policy agenda. We have been at peace with Russia for a thousand years, and we have managed our neighbourly relations in a responsible way during very different times. We have been through some very demanding periods, and we may be entering a new one. This will require wisdom and steadfastness on our part.

What happened in Georgia this summer clearly raises the issue of Russia’s relations with its neighbours and Russia’s respect for international law. We have made Norway’s position clear in multilateral forums such as NATO, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the UN. Our position is that Russia’s operation was in breach of international law. It failed to use the toolbox that Europe has provided for resolving differences. Resorting to military force and attempting to change borders is not in accordance with the principles for how Europe should address such issues.

At the same time, we are making a huge mistake conceptually if we say that this is a new Cold War. We are facing a complex situation. It may be just as serious as the situation we had during the Cold War, but it is different. And we have to analyse it.

In our Norwegian debate, and to some extent in the international debate, some of the old arguments of the Cold War have been taken out of the freezer and simply defrosted. This is too simplistic. Norway will maintain its policy of developing, strengthening and expanding its bilateral relations with Russia. It is our neighbour, and we are managing important resources and ecosystems together.

Norway and Russia had a comprehensive bilateral meeting in June 2008 in Kirkenes and Murmansk, with an agenda that has become broader in recent years than ever before. The extent to which we are able to cooperate on a wide range of issues will affect stability and progress in the north. We will therefore continue our dialogue with Russia, and continue to address issues of common interest.

Besides, there is an ocean of difference between our relations during the Cold War and today. Let me give you some figures. In 1990, there were 3 000 border crossings at Storskog in Finnmark; in 2007 the figure was 105 000. Contacts and investments matter. They make a positive contribution to the way we are work with Russia in Europe. So, we intend to maintain our policy of strengthening this relationship, without compromising one inch on our position when it comes to respect for international law.

Meanwhile, it goes without saying that NATO is Norway’s anchor as regards security. It is of paramount importance to maintain this anchor and to keep it relevant, despite the fact that we are in a different situation today than we were during the Cold War. Norway still depends on NATO to balance its relations in the north. The key in this respect is Article 5 – the collective security guarantee. Article 5 is the lifeline of our security, and we need to safeguard it. Admitting new members into the Alliance has to be a very serious issue, as it was in the past.

At the same time, many of the future challenges in the north will not be threats to Norway’s security and concept of itself as a nation as such, but day-to-day difficulties that arise because we are neighbours and are engaged in a great number of activities. Let me illustrate my point. Two hours after I took office as Foreign Minister in October 2005, the Russian trawler, Elektron, escaped with Norwegian inspectors on board after having been seized on suspicion of illegal fishing in the Barents Sea. This was not a situation where I could pick up the phone to Brussels and say, “Article 5”. We had to deal with the Russians in the way we manage our relationship with Russia. We had to point out Russia’s responsibility as a coastal state and emphasise our procedures for inspecting fishing operations. And Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and I were able to deal with the matter.

There are now many different issues that we need to deal with on a daily basis. This requires the best of our ministries. Rear Admiral Trond Grytting, Commander Regional Headquarters North Norway, put it this way: “Yesterday we were faced with one big military threat. Today we are confronting ten to fifteen important risk factors.” Some of them are military, but many are linked to transport, energy, the environment, potential nuclear accidents, migration and climate change. This is a much wider range of issues than before, and it is going to require the continuous development of a broader web of modern security.

The Government’s High North Strategy takes a comprehensive approach and a generational perspective. It has a dynamic character, also when it comes to its geographical scope. Since I became Foreign Minister in 2005, I have been struck by the way our European High North perspective has merged with the broader Arctic perspective. The meeting in Illulisat, Greenland, in May confirmed the Arctic coastal states’ commitment to the Law of the Sea as the key point of departure for how we deal with our responsibilities.

Another important development is that the Nordic countries are now working much more closely together on issues in the far north. Former Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg has been charged by the Nordic foreign ministers to map out what Nordic foreign policy and security cooperation might look like in a ten-year perspective. There is great potential here.

As Foreign Minister, I am a minority shareholder in the Government’s comprehensive agenda for the High North. All the ministers are involved, and this is reflected in the 22-point strategy we are pursuing. But as far as foreign policy is concerned, the High North is a key focus in our dialogue with our neighbours, our allies, and indeed in all other aspects of our diplomatic relations.


(*) This article is based on a transcript of the Foreign Minister’s address to the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association at the international conference on the High North in Oslo in September 2008.