Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores V: Iceland

The Viking Saga III: Snæland, the Far Island of the North

The Viking Drakkars navigate through the mist and the snow, hoping to catch a glimpse of dry land. They sail for hours but there is no sighting and the mist continues to blind the men on the longships. But then suddenly, as though a curtain was opened for all but a split second, the mist clears. There is a shout, a cry: land. Slowly it reveals itself to the men. Mountains, and lots of them, all covered with snow and towering above the sea shimmering ominously under the Northern Lights. There is little wonder that Naddod the Viking, impressed by such a sight, named the land Snæland, or Snowland. Today that land has a different, albeit very similar, name: Iceland, a name given by Floki, son of Vilgerd.

Nowadays, despite not having any direct coastline with the Arctic Ocean, Iceland is within the Arctic Circle and is an Arctic state facing a similar situation to those already reviewed in this series. It is a state that will also be very sensitive to any rise in any tension there, and it is not the first time Iceland faces  such a situation, having been involved in both the Second World War and the Cold War with Iceland being a key member of NATO. And while the Arctic issues won’t be any different for Iceland, it will be an important actor and element if tensions and clashes erupt in a similar way to Finland.

The Icelandic stance regarding the Arctic already takes account of the previously mentioned changing conditions that are giving the Arctic a new importance in the International and Geopolitical spheres, stating that the possibilities of conflict are minimal but mindful that disputes over continental shelf expansion claims can take place and harm relations among the Arctic states. Additionally, Iceland perceives itself as an Arctic State with great interests at stake in the area, which in turn are shaped by its position and access to resources. Increasing the influence of Iceland on the destiny of the Arctic, the safeguarding of economic, environmental and security issues, and furthered cooperation between other nations and other actors are the main aims of the Icelandic arctic policy (Althingi, 2011).

The Arctic Policy of Iceland is, therefore, supported 12 pillars that frame every action and measure taken by the country in a general sense:

  • The first of them is the strengthening of the Arctic Council as a multilateral instance where decisions are to be taken and in which Iceland can play a significant role.
  • The second pillar is related to the first and states that Iceland must have an increased protagonist paper on Arctic decision making, that the EEZ to the north lies within Arctic area and that Iceland has rights to areas at the north of the Arctic Circle, a claim that ought to be supported by government and institutions.
  • The third pillar is based on the promotion of an extension of the geographical demarcation of the Arctic, including the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean to address issues of economic, political, security and ecological natures.
  • The fourth pillar is the use of International Law for the resolution of dispute and resource exploitation (Althingi, 2011; Hanesson, 2012).
  • The fifth is the increasing of cooperation with Greenland and Faroe Island for their respective and common positions.
  • The sixth is the support of Arctic Indigenous peoples’ rights.
  • The seventh is the construction of agreements and cooperation with other stakeholders in the Arctic.
  • The eighth is the protection of the environment and the promotion for a sustainable development along with the contribution to preserve the culture of the Aboriginal Peoples.
  • The ninth is the prevention of militarization in the Arctic Area, aiming instead at a “civilian security” for the area[1].
  • The tenth is the intent to deepen the development of trade between the Arctic States and provide job opportunities for nationals in the new markets and industries created.
  • The eleventh is the provision of information to citizens on Arctic issues as well as promoting Iceland and its Arctic-related institutions for being the host of related meetings and for its cooperation with other organizations respectively.
  • The twelfth and final pillar is the increasing of domestic consultations and cooperation (Althingi, 2011; Hanesson, 2012).

The Foreign Affairs Minister of Iceland, Össur Skarphéðinsson (2012) explains the reasons behind the Icelandic Arctic policy, by pointing out that Iceland and its population depend on the climate and the exploitation of fisheries. As such, Iceland is very vulnerable to the effects of any alteration in climate; fisheries are dependant on climatic and environmental fluctuations and are extremely sensitive to pollutants carried on the currents that flow between the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic. Even a minor contamination can jeopardize the fisheries and thus one of the main economic activities of the country.

However, environmental and economic concerns are not the only important reasons why Iceland looks to the Frozen North. Hanesson (2012) remarks that on the area of security, that in terms of reaching of an enhanced general security, mutual trust, confidence and the prevention of militarization of the Arctic are all essential, along with the improving of civilian prevention, preparedness and response mechanism to an environmental or other disaster. Hanesson (2012) also recommends that forms of cooperation are be strengthened, not just amongst the Arctics and the EU, but NATO too, which makes the Icelandic case equally interesting. In the same way as Denmark, Canada, Norway and the U.S., Iceland can call upon the presence of NATO in the area as well as serve as a passage due to its location, a geographical quality shared only with Greenland. This is especially important given that the Arctic is turning into a new geopolitical competition between the US, Russia, and China.

It is important to point out that, in respects to the newly open shipping lines, given their location, Iceland can have a key role in the opening of a Transarctic Route. This could help make the country a hub for commercial shipping, as well as a key interchange point along the Euro – Asian and North American Arctic routes, aided by an Icelandic company willing to develop such an initiative. Iceland can also play a role in the research and maritime study of the new shipping routes[2].

In this regard, the President of Iceland remarks that the Arctic is the strategic backyard of the US, having been militarized during the Cold War, and now is a region where there is an Institution like the Arctic Council that exists in order to reach cooperation and agreements among the Arctic states. The council has become especially important since the region gained greater strategic relevance due to its resources which are attracting other states like China[3], India and South Korea. The president also notes the potential new trade routes and points out the need for the US to pay more attention to Arctic events and how they can affect its homeland security (Miks, 2013).

Regarding NATO, there are two aspects that makes Iceland a strategic gateway for a NATO commitment in the arctic. The first fact, following Stringer (2009), is that the opening of new shipping routes means civilian and military ships from non-Arctic nations (such as China) will have access to the area as well as the fact that the territorial disputes between the Coastal Arctic Nations’ claims can lead to high disputes – and do not forget that every arctic nation is increasing its military presence and capacities in the region – making the Arctic prone to facing a volatile situation with the presence of all the elements needed for a perfect storm. The second fact according to Pétursson (2011), is that the Air Policy that followed the withdrawal of US forces in 2006 allows for NATO members to provide air defence with jet fighters and their logistical support for a short period of time[4]. Cooperation with other Nordic nations like Denmark and Norway are, for instance, based on the NATO frameworks, as well as the one with the UK.

This means that Iceland is likely to bring NATO onto the stage in the same way as Norway, given the importance of the organization and that it is a cornerstone in the defence strategies of all the Arctic states except one. This then gives NATO an even more important role in the Arctic, in both military and political aspects, and is an important point to consider when one is reminded that Russia intends to create an aircraft carrier-based combat group along with the possible marauding of Russian submarines in the area and flights of bombers, as in the Canadian case. This means that, no matter Icelandic intentions, the militarization of the Arctic is likely to continue, adding the fact that new shipping routes means new routes for naval as well as merchant shipping (Pétursson, 2011).

Surprisingly, according to STRATFOR (2012), Sweden and Finland decided to collaborate with the Icelandic Air Policy, showing that the security of the Arctic concerns not only NATO and Iceland, but also Scandinavian nations that, although not part of the Alliance, are willing to contribute to it. Additionally, it is a strong sign of cooperation among the Nordic Nations as well as a sign that NATO can cooperate with said countries.

The fact that Iceland is part of NATO, along with Norway and Denmark, is a good and positive sign for its real security, as well as the fact that an increasing cooperation and integration between the Nordic countries might further increase Iceland’s security. Still, as Benediktsson (2011) remarks, NATO is the main cornerstone for any defence plan of Iceland, and in this sense, Iceland has being kept bilateral consultation with the US, continues to advocate for the continuation of the NATO-led exercises known as Northern Viking (in which Sweden as well as Finland took part), and vows for the continuation of its Air Policy. A membership to the EU can only help Iceland even further and in turn, bring the EU into the Arctic Scenario as a new actor. The active taking part on defence consultation at the Nordic Council are also steps that improves the security of Iceland, as it faces the very uncertain and dangerous changes taking place in the Arctic.

The perspectives then, seem quite eased for Iceland and there is more than one aegis shielding Iceland from any possible aggression as during the Cold War. But the fact that there are some Institutions like the Arctic Council and a less tensed environment than there was during the Cold War does not mean that conflicts will not to take place. On the contrary, the Arctic will become another Geopolitical hotspot with the ‘Great Powers’ contesting for the dominion of important parts of it, as well as control over resources and new routes, while increasing their own military presence either to defend or act on their claims.

The positive aspect is that Iceland is furthering on the security aspect no matter the somewhat nïave prediction of a low possibility of conflicts, even if the country wishes no militarization of the Arctic, as it is a process that will take place sooner or later, as though it were a plot of a Greek tragedy. In this sense, cooperation agreements with the Nordic Nations and NATO are on to be furthered, and Iceland is considering bringing back America and other nations to station jet squadrons for longer times to increase the air surveillance system (for air defence and SAR tasks), and to even allow the building up of a harbour to shelter some naval elements of NATO and Nordic navies facing a possible conflict in the area. One way or another, Iceland’s strategic position is too important to be ignored, even if such moves make the island the front-row spectator, along with Finland, to witness and experience any turn in the geopolitical tides. WWII and the Cold War both offer lessons that must not be forgotten in regards to the Arctic.

Just as the climate change that affects the currents that flow through the economically vital fisheries, a political-military change in the Arctic will affect the life and stability of the country that could lead to far worse than economic problems.


[1] In other words, the provision of welfare, SAR capabilities and environment protection, to be met through cooperation with other states as well. See: Althingi, (2011), p. 2.

[2] See: Icelandic Government (2007). Breaking the Ice: Arctic Development and Maritime Transportation. Prospects of the Transarctic Route – Impact and Opportunities, p. 26.

[3] As it was reviewed on the First Article of the Arctic Series, China is one of the new outsiders with a strong impact, and most, if not all of the reviewed states, takes that factor into account.

[4] NATO, as a matter of fact, also provides cooperation in surveillance and Search and Rescue.

Sources

Althingi (2011). A Parliamentary Resolution on Iceland’s Arctic Policy. Reykjavik, Iceland.

Skarphéðinsson, Ö (2012). Icelandic Perspectives on the Arctic. Arctic Frontiers – Arctic Tipping Points. Tromsö, Norway.

Hannesson, H. W (2012). Iceland and the Arctic. [Power Point Presentation]Reykjavik, Iceland: Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.institutenorth.org/assets/images/uploads/articles/Nor%C3%B0ursl%C3%B3%C3%B0astefna_Alaska_2611_2012.pdf on 30.12.2013

Icelandic Government (2007). Breaking the Ice: Arctic Development and Maritime Transportation. Prospects of the Transarctic Route – Impact and Opportunities. Conference Report. Akureyri, Iceland: Prentstofan Stell. Retrieved from: http://www.mfa.is/media/Utgafa/Breaking_The_Ice_Conference_Report.pdf on 30.12.2013.

Petursson, G (2011). Cooperation in the High North: the case of Iceland. In: Nordia Geographical Publications 40: 4, pp. 77 – 86. NGP Yearbook of 2011. Oulu, Finland: Nordia Geographical Publications.

Benediktsson, E (2011). At Crossroads: Iceland’s Defence and Security Relations, 1940 – 2011. Strategic Studies Institute. United States Army War College. Retrieved from: http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/index.cfm/articles/Icelands-Defense-and-Security-Relations-1940-2011/2011/8/18 on 30.12.2013.

STRATFOR (2012). Finland, Sweden: A Step Toward Greater Nordic Security Cooperation. In: International Relations and Security Network. Retrieved from: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?id=154657 on 31.12.2013.

Stringer, D (2009). Iceland: NATO Charts Out Battle for the Arctic: Arctic’s thawing seas bring new security risks. On: Globalresearch, Centre for Research on Globalization. Retrieved from: http://www.globalresearch.ca/iceland-nato-charts-out-battle-for-the-arctic/12085 on 03.01.2014.

Miks, J (2013). Iceland’s President: Arctic Crucial to America. Retrieved from: http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/10/03/icelands-president-arctic-crucial-to-america/ on 30.12.2013.

*Cover image ‘Iceland’ by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

One response to “Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores V: Iceland

  1. Pingback: The Arctic Series. WINTER SKIES, FROZEN SEAS AND NORTHERN SHORES V: ICELAND | Drakkar: Defence, Strategy and Security·

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