Sweden’s new Arctic strategy was published last week and it is indeed a marked improvement compared to the country’s previous strategic dossier on the region. Its creative mix of both human and national/state concepts of security signals a much welcomed, yet imperfect, evolution in the country’s strategic thinking about the Arctic and its own role as an Arctic, Nordic, and European democracy within it.
The document represents continuity because the cornerstone of Stockholm’s Arctic strategy still revolves around its concerns with climate change and its dramatic effects on the social, political and economic dynamics of the region.
In other words, and similar to the 2011 document, the root causes of all the opportunities and challenges in Arctic is still perceived to lay in the environmental changes which are taking place in, and simultaneously shaping, the Arctic.
Whether it is increased military and commercial activities, the urgent need for increased resiliency of local communities, infrastructural development, or buttressing of legal and institutional frameworks for crisis and dispute management, the view from Stockholm is that most of these issues would have not been as dominating as they are today had it not been for rapid, and fast accelerating, environmental changes around the globe.
The new strategy also constitutes a clear departure from the 2011 roadmap and its goal of preserving the region as a zone of peace and stability. Although such characterisation has found its way into the new document as a novel objective, it is crystal clear, reading between the lines, that the government has serious reservations about the materialisation of such idealistic prospect.
Invoking the concept of national security, therefore, Sweden is now attaching the same level of strategic importance to its Arctic region as it does with regard to the Baltic Sea.
The cornerstone of Stockholm’s Arctic strategy still revolves around its concerns with climate change
Reading the document in its entirety, overall, one can detect a strong element of, for the lack of better word, Finlandisation of Swedish thinking on the Arctic; one that is more geopolitical in tune and substance.
Since the issuing of its first Arctic strategy, Helsinki has sought to underscore its expertise in certain industries, like shipping, and familiarity with the regions’s climate and topography in order to strengthen its position and bargaining power amongst the Arctic states.
Moreover, it has sought to take the lead in industries where it has a niche by investing in innovative solutions and/or products. Stockholm seems to have taken notice of these efforts, and that it is now highlighting its own expertise in certain industries like mining.
Furthermore, Helsinki has been at forefront of calls for an increased EU role in the region. In fact, it was Finland that introduced the Northern Dimension initiative in 1999; an initiative that Sweden sought to water down and frustrate its full realisation.
Thanks to increased military and commercial activities in the region, unreliability of the US under its current administration, and a resurgent Russia, Stockholm seems to have finally begun to realise the benefits of a strong EU presence in the region via, among other things, the Northern Dimension initiative.
Sure, Stockholm has its own concerns with regard to the future of the EU and its ability to remain a coherent political block. However, it has more chances of influencing policy making in the EU compared to its leverage over decision making processes in the US, Russia or China.
Stockholm seems to have finally begun to realise the benefits of a strong EU presence in the region
On the downside, two main shortcomings and/or ambiguities stand out.
First, it is not at all clear how one can increase scientific collaborations between research centres of Arctic and non-Arctic states at a time when national governments have just begun to politicise science and technology. This is certainly more true with regard to some specific fields and sectors such as space, material science, and telecommunication.
Citing national security concerns, for instance, Sweden itself has sought to reduce the scope of academic exchanges and collaborations between its universities and their counterparts in China.
As Arctic continues its ascend on the geopolitical ladder, Stockholm’s call for expansive and depoliticised scientific cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic states mount to nothing but shallow PR soundbites.
Secondly, so much hope has been pinned on the Arctic Council and yet the future relevance of it cannot be taken for granted; an important issue that is not even mentioned in the new strategy.
If one is to agree with Swedish officials’ own assessment that hard security issues are to become more prevalent in Arctic affairs, establishment of an institutional setting where these issues can be openly discussed and decided upon is an inevitability.
As it stands, defence and security issues are outside the Arctic Council mandate and hence it can only provide an informal venue for officials to discuss such matters. Although valuable, to borrow from Henry Kissinger, it is hard to know who to call when one wants to talk to Arctic.
Delegating such tasks to the UN Security Council is a none-starter since the Council is dominated by non-Arctic states. The only other options are to either reform the Council and expand its mandate or risk its obscurity.
Capitalising on its non-aligned status, Stockholm could have used its updated strategy to initiate an idea on this and place itself in a strong position to take the lead on such discussions when they occur. It has not and as a result it has lost a golden opportunity to shape the debate on this vital subject.