Britain’s Arctic Conundrum (Part 1): Climate Change and Strategic Uncertainty

Dr Duraid Jalili and Dr Zeno Leoni, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

Nestled amongst the various catastrophic implications of global heating is an increasingly prominent discussion on the impact melting ice caps have for international collaboration and conflict within the Arctic region itself.

Conservative estimates indicate that the Arctic Ocean could be navigable in summer months by 2050. This raises new concerns and frictions regarding environmental conservation, newly accessible natural resources, inter-state security threats and sea routes for cargo. Directing, for example, large cargo vessels transiting from Western Europe to China through the Arctic, rather than through the traditional route via the Suez Canal, could save over two-weeks in transportation time, hundreds of tonnes of fuel and hundreds of thousands of euros.

The implications are particularly significant for countries with territory either in or close to the Arctic Circle, including the United States, Canada, Russia, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden (all permanent members of the Arctic Council). Yet they also affect other countries who are self-designated Arctic stakeholders and ‘official observers’ of the Arctic Council. These include European states such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Switzerland, alongside Asian states including China, Japan, India, Korea and Singapore. As noted by Yoichi Funabashi, Chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative, the consequences of rising temperatures in the Arctic represent a geopolitical x-factor. In the short- to medium-term, activity surrounding issues in the Arctic will likely reflect in the international relations dynamics of other arenas.

The early 21st century has already featured a range of cooperative environmental and scientific endeavours relating to the Arctic, achieved both bi-laterally and through multi-lateral organisations such as the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). Yet various politicians and scholars are increasingly arguing that the period of ‘Arctic exceptionalism’ during which the region was managed as a ‘depoliticized zone’ – that is, to look upon the area as one untouched by geopolitical intrigues – may now be over. Indeed, this perspective is already readily noticeable in British government thinking.

Arctic Exceptionalism and Global Britain

In its 2018 report On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic, the UK House of Commons Defence Committee questioned the UK policy of ‘Arctic exceptionalism’. In line with the opportunities and threats raised by the rapid melting of Arctic ice caps, the committee warned of the increasing security risks posed by states who have consistently failed to follow international norms in regard to their global endeavours elsewhere in the world. This concern is tied to an increasing governmental focus, across both the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the UK Ministry of Defence (UK MoD), on the wider geopolitical tensions resulting from both the increased great-power competition and the shift to a more multi-polar world order that have emerged since 2008.

In the wake of Brexit, the British government must weigh its renewal of its self-perceived status as a key influencer and protagonist on the global stage within these growing geopolitical tensions. This renewal is tied, of course, to governmental attempts to increase Britain’s access to new economic opportunities outside of the EU. As laid out in Boris Johnson’s 2016 speech Beyond Brexit: a Global Britain, this vision would see Britain placing itself ‘at the centre of a network of relationships and alliances that span the world’ as well as taking ‘a distinctive approach to policy-making as regards China and East Asia’.

In the short- to medium-term, the combination of global heating, melting Arctic ice, great power rivalry and the government’s vision of a Global Britain, is liable to lead to increasing UK investment in securing access to and the stability of the Arctic region. Britain’s approach to this newly emerging domain will likely replicate its wider ‘hedging’ strategy. That is, providing support to its key ally in the US whilst trying to mitigate Russian belligerence and increasing trade opportunities with various key powers.

Indeed, Britain has already been engaging in diplomatic sabre-rattling with Russia regarding the Arctic. In the Munich Security Conference in 2019, for example, and when the subject of the Arctic had come up, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov disparagingly described then UK Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson as the ‘minister for war’. This comment was met the day afterwards by Williamson’s own statement that the UK’s ‘new Defence Arctic Strategy will put the Arctic and the High North central to the security of the United Kingdom’. It could be argued that the government’s recent investment of an additional £16.5 billion in UK defence signals its intention to make good on Williamson’s bluster in some way. Financial investment, however, does not equate to a coherent strategy.

An Integrated Strategy for a divided nation

Indeed, two years after Gavin Williamson’s statement, no clear UK MoD strategy concerning the Arctic has been forthcoming. The Arctic is mentioned in key documents such as the Strategic Defence and Security Review (2015) as well as the most recent Global Strategic Trends (2018) published by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), but not as part of a clear doctrine or strategy. Furthermore, mention of the Arctic is entirely absent from the National Security Capability Review (2018) and the UK MoD’s Single Departmental Plan (2019). Although doctrine lag is perhaps to be expected, this lack of clear guidance on the UK’s Arctic strategy is puzzling if not concerning. It remains to be seen whether or to what degree this deficit will be resolved in the UK MoD’s upcoming Integrated Review, which will represent, according to Boris Johnson, ‘the most radical assessment of the UK’s place in the world since the end of the Cold War’.

Yet, even if the Integrated Review does indeed engage with the Arctic conundrum, it must also account for the significant influence that internal political quarrels, public opinion and environmental crises may have on Britain’s Arctic ambitions. For example, a new UK strategy for the Arctic and the wider North could compound growing tensions between London and Scotland. The Scottish government has already developed its own separate Arctic policy, entitled Arctic Connections: Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework (2019), which appears to be far less preoccupied with Russian deterrence and more interested in benefitting from its shared economic, political and cultural interests with Nordic neighbours.

The potential for Scottish independence – increased by Brexit – represents, therefore, a particularly concerning prospect for London. If Scotland were to decouple itself from the UK’s defence infrastructure this could theoretically enable Russian bombers from Murmansk reaching Scotland before British Typhoon aircraft from Southern England were able to intercept them, as well as limiting the capacity to stop Russian submarines from entering the “GIUK gap” (a choke point between Greenland, Iceland and the UK which gives access to the North Atlantic). In a worst-case scenario, Scottish independence could mean that Britain will have a competing geopolitical actor within its current borders.  

In addition to this, Britain’s capacity to adopt a more forceful military stance is dependent on wider public support at a time of increasing societal awareness of the threat posed by global heating and biocapacity loss, as well as significant levels of public discontent with key aspects of globalization. In the medium-term, the multi-generational economic deficit resulting from COVID-19 combined with the increasing impact of climate change on the lives and welfare of Britons may shift public preferences towards investment in national community building and resilience efforts in contrast to any increased military spending.

Getting the house in order

Indeed, alongside its lack of a clear Arctic defence strategy, the UK government has faced cogent criticisms regarding its lack of strategy for dealing with the wider human security challenges posed by global heating and biocapacity loss. Successive independent reports by the government’s own Committee on Climate Change (CCC), for example, have concluded that national investment in climate mitigation and adaptation is falling far short of what is required. This is further compounded by continued delays to the development and release of the government’s flagship environmental bill, which is required to provide the legislative foundation for the country’s post-EU approach to environmental protection. This lack of a coherent environmental approach represents a clear challenge to the government’s capacity to achieve a truly ambitious Arctic strategy.

Specifically, as a threat multiplier, climate change may congenitally limit Britain’s capacity to achieve its expansive global vision, by increasing the likelihood of multiple synchronous shocks and unforeseen systemic failures that can overwhelm Critical National Infrastructures. This is both within the UK itself and amongst the states that represent its current allies and adversaries. Unless it sufficiently expands its investment in climate adaptation efforts – from safeguarding national infrastructures and increasing national supply chain redundancies through to supporting local community-led resilience and adaptation initiatives – the government is liable to continue falling back on its military forces as a support mechanism in national resilience scenarios.

Thus, in seeking to anticipate the impact of climate change and the melting of the Arctic ice caps on the government’s implementation of its Global Britain vision, it is important to account for the growing prospect of continuous national and international upheaval. Indeed, whether Britain’s future in the Arctic is one of success or failure, or indeed geopolitical conflict or mutual collaboration, may be less informed by the ways in which it stakes its claim in the region, and more informed by the wider environmental repercussions of the very global heating that has catalysed this new domain.

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