A Swiss Vision for the Arctic | Polarjournal
Switzerland has a longer Arctic tradition than many may think. Shortly before the Corona Pandemic, the National Museum launched an exhibition on Alfred de Quérvain’s Greenland expedition, which is now virtually accessible. Information can be found on the website of the National Museum. Picture: Michael Wenger

The Arctic is increasingly becoming the focus of the world. Climate change, with its fundamental changes in the environment, also brings social, scientific and political changes and problems with it. Addressing these challenges is one of the main tasks of the members of the Arctic Council. This includes Switzerland, which was the youngest and last country to be granted observer status. It is true that Switzerland presented a general direction of its Arctic policy in 2019. But two Swiss scientists from the think tank “foraus” have now put forward concrete proposals for a future Swiss Arctic strategy.

This text is a short version of the work of Dr. Anna Stünzi and Benno Zogg of the Swiss think tank “foraus” written for PolarJournal entitled “Switzerland and the Arctic: Closer than you think” published on October 27, 2020.

The Arctic is most known for its massive ice and snow masses and polar bears. While the region mostly consists of the Arctic Ocean, 4 million people in eight states live in the vast and largely inhospitable land areas above the polar circle. Apart from research, the Arctic had not received much international attention for a long time, let alone attention in Switzerland. The harsh climatic conditions have impeded trade, the construction of infrastructure or access to resources. However, natural obstacles are literally melting away. The volume of the Arctic ice cover has decreased by 75 percent since 1979, which enables crossing between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans without icebreakers in summer. This uncloses new trading routes to and from East Asia. Some commentators speak of a “new Suez Canal without pirates or queues”. Furthermore, better accessibility of the Arctic enables development for remote areas and populations and facilitates the access to rich reserves of natural resources.

Longer and longer summers without ice allow cargo ships and tankers to sail between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Although the volume of goods is still small globally, many analysts believe that the Northeast Passage may be one day a major transport axis for goods. The Russian President is calling for a total of 80 million tonnes of goods to be transported along the passage by 2024. Photo: RIA Novosti

These developments raise global interest in the Arctic from regional actors, but also from major powers outside the region. Cooperation largely persists with regards to research and resource extraction projects. However, developments also bear risks. However, developments also bear risks. The extraction of fossil resources not only fuels global warming but also puts the fragile local fauna and flora, the population, and indigenous peoples at risk. Tensions between states in an increasingly charged geopolitical environment are exacerbated even more so as some resource deposits lie in disputed territory. Human security of Arctic populations is at risk.

Cooperation of nations via the Arctic Council

Up until now, a cooperative spirit has guided relations between Arctic states. As the Arctic mostly consists of ocean, relations are based on the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which provides an extensive legal framework for issues such as navigational rights or the sovereignty and thus economic zones of Arctic states. Since its foundation in 1996, the Arctic Council has been the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among states, indigenous peoples, and other inhabitants in the Arctic region on common issues, in particular on sustainable development and environmental protection. It has been successful in fostering a constructive dialogue and initiated various treaties, notably on pollution, scientific research and search and rescue. Matters of hard (military) security and territorial issues, meanwhile, are explicitly excluded by the Arctic Council’s charter. The Council comprises eight member states and six organisations representing indigenous Arctic peoples. Thirteen states have observer status.

In a highly acclaimed and expected appearance in 2019, the Swiss representative in the Arctic Council, Ambassador Stefan Estermann, presented the direction of Swiss Arctic policy. In particular, he showed why Switzerland needs an Arctic policy and what the focus should be on in the strategy. A corresponding White Paper is currently being prepared. Photo: Arctic Circle

In 2017, Switzerland became part of this cooperative regime. Observers are partly allowed to make statements at meetings and are explicitly expected to participate in working groups. The principal reason for the application – and its acceptance – was Swiss scientific expertise in polar regions related to ice sheets and in the high Alps related to glaciology, snow, atmosphere, permafrost and mountain ecosystems.. In 2019, the Swiss government presented its Swiss Polar Policy at the Arctic Circle Assembly, focusing on the main pillar of innovation and research cooperation.

A major challenge: environment

The Arctic not only consists of huge snow mountains and ice shelves on land and on the Arctic Ocean but also of an incredible ecosystem. The land is very resource-rich and boasts an estimated 22% of global oil and 30% of gas reserves. However, the Arctic is heavily affected by global climate change and related self-reinforcing feedback effects. The nascent land areas exhibit a lower reflection of the sunlight than the areas covered with snow, resulting in accelerated warming. The thawing of permafrost accelerates the release of greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2 and methane, which further aggravates global warming. Climate change increasingly endangers local fauna, flora, and the population.

The various transport routes that result from the ever-increasing and rapidly melting sea ice could trigger a freight transport boom in the Arctic. At the very least, the Russian government, which is making a big effort to build new icebreakers, hopes to keep its way in winter. Picture: Stünzi & Zogg, 2020, foraus

It is expected that, in a decade or two, multiple sea routes will be ice-free for several weeks in summer. This allows for activities that prompt the change of climate and ecosystems further. First, various countries expressed interests in drilling for fossil fuel energy sources. However, the depletion and burning of oil and gas causes new greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the observed increase in Arctic shipping goes with a higher rate of reported accidents compared to southern waters, vessel noise propagation, and air pollution. Cleanup efforts and rescue operations in the Arctic are much more difficult than in other sea lanes. Third, resource extraction and new commercial activities entail the construction of new infrastructure. Meanwhile, climate change and thawing permafrost put large parts of the current infrastructure at risk. The recent oil spill disaster in Norilsk, Siberia, demonstrates that accidents have devastating effects on the environment and the livelihood of Arctic populations.

The ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi ended in an outcry, as US Secretary of State Pompeo refused to sign a joint statement by the Arctic Council to combat climate change. Photo: Jouni Porsanger / Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland

The Arctic Council has recognised the challenges and risks for the Arctic ecosystems with respect to climate change but also human activities and served as a forum for action plans and framework to enhance environmental protection. In addition, all six working groups focus on the assessment of environmental change and damage, sustainable development and coordination. In doing so, they hope to mitigate and best respond to environmentally damaging events. Despite the official acknowledgment of the environmental value, there is a high risk that national interests outweigh public concerns. In their most recent meeting in May 2019, the foreign ministers of Arctic states could not agree on a joint declaration on how to tackle climate change.

Another major challenge: security

Climate change and technological innovation facilitate navigation and resource extraction in the Arctic, which increases both its importance for security and the economy. In terms of soft security – e.g. dealing with accidents – cooperation between the Arctic states has been fruitful due to clear mutual interests. Regarding hard, military security, the picture looks rather bleak.

Russia has taken numerous measures in recent years to demonstrate its military presence in the Arctic and to consolidate its northern border. An expansion of the Northern Fleet with the aircraft carrier Admiral Kusnetzov as flagship was only one of the steps. New submarines and other equipment were also built. Picture: Michael Wenger

Many Arctic states consider the Arctic crucial for their respective national security. Norway and Canada have stepped up their military presence in the region. The US has reactivated the Keflavík airbase in Iceland, for example. Russia similarly reactivated Cold War-era military bases and built new ones. This salience of the Arctic may exacerbate persisting territorial disputes in the region, for example around the Lomonosov Ridge.

While actual warfare in the Arctic is unlikely, increased geopolitical tensions are likely to affect the region. The dispute between Russia and the West since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 has already had immediate and long-term influence on contacts and cooperation. Tensions have had an economic dimension. . Western sanctions against Russia include a ban on the provision of loans and technology needed for the exploration of Arctic oil and gas fields. Accordingly, Russia had to put on hold several such projects. Tensions particularly had an effect in the military realm. While joint military exercises were called off, parties stepped up the show of force and increased the number of patrols, border violations, and military exercises.

Asian countries also have increased interest in the Arctic, especially in economic terms. The wealth of resources beckons and the hunger of the “tiger states” is great. China, in particular, has excelled here, openly demonstrating its ambitions to be recognized as an “Arctic” neighboring state by building icebreakers and supporting Russian infrastructure projects. Photo: CHINARE

On top of antagonism between Russia and the West, a number of powers in Asia have voiced increased interest in the Arctic. China’s ambitions need to be taken most seriously. It has framed itself as a “near-Arctic state” and increased its stakes in infrastructure and resource extraction projects in the High North.. China may serve as a moderating voice interested in stable seaways and resource flows.

Thus far, all parties in the Arctic have worked through the Arctic Council and stated their commitment to the UN Law of the Sea. Nonetheless, the Arctic as an exceptional space unharmed by geopolitical tensions is no more. This does not bode well for the Arctic Council, which depends on collective decision-making. Members may threaten to abandon such fora or they may disregard legal dispute settlements mechanisms. The threat of current dynamics leading to such moves is exacerbated by the fact that there is no high-level intergovernmental platform to discuss matters of hard security.

A Swiss Vision for the Arctic

Switzerland should recognise these risks to the environment as well as to peace and security. At the same time, Switzerland can perceive the Arctic as offering opportunities for sustainable policies and multilateral cooperation. Our vision aims at safeguarding research cooperation, which forms the foundation of Swiss actors’ current approach to the region and the Arctic Council but goes beyond it.

Switzerland’s prosperity and stability is based on the functioning of the global economy, on trusting relations between states without barriers and sanctions, and on the free flow of goods and people on land and on sea. Increased commerce in the Arctic should be pursued in line with efforts to mitigate climate change and concerns for the local environment. To that end, the extraction of fossil resources should be minimised. An agreement to not extract fossil resources in disputed territory, for example, would benefit the global climate. Oil spills and similar disasters should be prevented. Finally, the infrastructure that is newly built should be constructed in line with ambitious sustainability targets.

In terms of peace and security, Switzerland is geographically far from being a littoral state to the Arctic. However, as a small state without the means of a great power, Switzerland relies on a cooperative spirit and a norm-based order. Switzerland has an interest in more cooperation and communication between states and communities to avoid accidents that could disrupt navigation and trigger escalation dynamics. A Swiss vision for the Arctic entails that geopolitical spillovers into the Arctic are prevented and disagreements are settled within international legal frameworks like UNCLOS. Ideally, the Arctic is kept free of offensive military capabilities and exercises of combat units. Foreseeable increases in military and coast guard activities in the Arctic should serve only narrow, local security interests as well as the protection of communities, critical infrastructure, and the freedom of navigation.

The Swiss Camp in Greenland is certainly a symbol of Swiss Arctic policy. This research facility, founded by the late ETH professor and WSL director Konrad Steffen, has been a place of Swiss Arctic research and international scientific cooperation for 30 years. Photo: Wikimedia

Our vision imagines the Arctic as we would want it to be. It pictures the Arctic as an anchor of stability, an area of free navigation and research, of the legal settlement of disagreements, of mitigating the effects of climate change, of limited military activities and a pragmatic, norms-based approach to security challenges. As such, the region could serve as an example for governance in a spirit of cooperation and multilateralism.

Switzerland can act: through the Arctic Council or the OSCE

Working towards realising such a vision, various Swiss actors have different channels of engagement. The FDFA represents the Swiss government in the Council and at related meetings. A strategic Swiss approach on matters related to the Arctic would be warranted.

One avenue for Swiss engagement could be in the framework of the Arctic Council. The working groups execute the programs and projects mandated by the Arctic Council Ministers. They elaborate content and propose policy guidelines. While the actual implementation of such policy recommendations depends on the member states, the working groups caninfluence the agenda setting of the meetings and shape the focus of the Council.. Swiss delegates can raise concerns and ideas in their official statements at the observer meetings and in the Warsaw Format meetings, a dialogue forum primarily for observers of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council meets once a year at ministerial level to transform the proposals and recommendations of the working groups into decisions. At this level, Switzerland could also influence the direction of the Arctic as an observer state that has no quorum. Photo: Arctic Council – Linnea Nordström

To address specific research areas, the Swiss delegates to the Arctic Council may propose the establishment of a new working group and even contribute to funding. The challenge of the current groups is twofold. First, to not address too many subtopics, which would impede the detailed assessment and progress of specific challenges. And second, to address concrete issues and deliver tangible solutions. Thus, it could be fruitful to allocate research topics to a new working group instead of further increasing the workload of existing groups. Given the Swiss expertise related to alpine and glacial environments, the initiation of a working group focused on sustainable infrastructure may directly benefit the local population as well as carefully accompany the infrastructure development and maintenance.

As a second institutional way to engage, Switzerland may help address security concerns in the region. Military matters and geopolitics should remain excluded from the Arctic Council charter. Given other fora like the NATO-Russia Council are too charged and the United Nations too wide in scope, Switzerland may suggest another institution. It is one that was designed as a platform for East and West to seek minimal consensus in highly sensitive issues: the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). To this day, there appears to be a tacit agreement not to involve the OSCE in Arctic matters, to discuss them largely on a bi- or minilateral basis. However, given ties across the Russian-Western divide are severed, the OSCE as an inclusive platform may offer a rare way to deal with matters of hard security.

The OSCE is the largest intergovernmental security organization. It has its headquarters in Vienna, where permanent council members also meet. At present, 57 countries and 11 partners are part of the OSCE, which is committed to peace and security. Switzerland wants to fill the vacant seat of the Secretary-General itself, which it held until July. Photo: Kaihsu Tai – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Were tensions to escalate further and threaten remaining areas of cooperation in research or environmental policy, Switzerland may suggest activating this forum on Arctic matters as well. The OSCE has some obvious advantages in that regard. All Arctic states are members of the OSCE. It builds on a comprehensive security concept – dealing with the politico-military, the economic and human dimension of security. In its existing security agreements, the OSCE does not seek an unrealistic reduction of military capabilities or activities. It focuses on increasing transparency and predictability about capabilities and doctrines.

A stable Arctic may require extending their coverage or the (re-)establishment of formal or informal arrangements on confidence- and security-building measures. Such agreements could foresee mutual visits of maneuvers or joint military exercises in non-combat activities. Essentially, an “OSCE Tromsö Document” could complement the OSCE’s existing Vienna Document. Such an agreement would be highly ambitious in today’s context, given the currently low level of formalised arrangements in the Arctic and the apparent unwillingness to discuss Arctic matters in the OSCE. However, Switzerland has chaired the OSCE twice as one of its most committed members. It is a non-aligned state having good bilateral relations with all countries involved. As such, it can be an advocate for an involvement of the organisation on Arctic concerns.

More ways for Switzerland to engage

Finally, we suggest additional ways of engagement at the international and national level.

  • Switzerland could offer its Good Offices to facilitate the peaceful resolution of disputes in the Arctic. Such activities would be based on Switzerland’s large credibility as a trusted, impartial actor for international peace that is sensitive to different parties’ concerns and changing contexts. On top of that, many other traditional mediators, such as the Nordic states, are Arctic states themselves and thus drop out as impartial facilitators.
  • In an effort of science diplomacy, Switzerland could promote the elaboration of a joint declaration on the impact of climate change on the Arctic and a commitment by the Arctic states to ambitiously mitigate global warming.
  • Furthermore, Switzerland could facilitate discussions in various formats at the intersection of governments, experts, and civil society. We encourage an intensified exchange with scientists and ahead of formal Council meetings, as well as further and broadened regular meetings with stakeholders in business and civil society (based on the annual exchange “Landsgemeinde der Arktis”). Swiss actors could also partner with NGOs and representatives of indigenous peoples. International Geneva could organise inter-community meetings as a space for constructive dialogue on territory, resources, and cultural preservation.
  • Finally, involving the private sector allows testing and implementing scientific results in practice, offers new business opportunities, and raises awareness of the challenges mentioned above.

As a basis for all these efforts, we encourage Swiss federal departments to analyse these emerging challenges and opportunities in the region in a strategic and comprehensive manner – in a whole-of-government approach. Arctic matters should receive more consideration in relevant government assessments and reports like the Federal Council’s Foreign Policy Report and Security Policy Report, or the Department of Defence’s National Risk Assessment, or Foreign Policy Visions. A White Paper could capture Swiss activities in and interactions with the Arctic across departments. The Swiss government should reflect on the many ways Swiss policies are influenced by and can influence these challenges, as the Arctic and Switzerland are closer than one thinks.

Dr. Anna Stünzi, Benno Zogg, foraus

Anna Stünzi is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany. She studied psychology and economics at the Universities of Zurich and Copenhagen and received her doctorate at the Center of Economic Research at ETH Zurich. Anna Stünzi has co-authored multiple foraus publications and was co-head of the Environment, Energy and Transportation Programme between 2016 and 2019. Since November 2019, she has been President of foraus.

Benno Zogg is a Senior Researcher at the think tank of the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich. He focuses on European security, the international politics of Eurasia, and the nexus between development, trade, and security. Benno Zogg studied Political Science and Modern History at the University of Zurich, and Security and Development at King’s College London. Since 2017, he has been co-head of the Peace & Security Programme at foraus.

Link to work: Stünzi, A. and Zogg, B. (2020). Switzerland and the Arctic: Closer Than You Think. Policy Paper. Zürich: foraus – Forum Aussenpolitik.

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