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Opinion

No nukes in the Arctic

The time is ripe for closer military co-operation in the Arctic. The first goal should be to agree not to deploy nuclear weapons there
Opinion
White storm rising (Photo: US Department of Defense)

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After the Second World War, many a Nordic politician dreamt of combining their militaries with other countries in the region to form a co-operative defence force. The vision never emerged, to the disappointment of Hans Hedtoft, who served as PM of Denmark twice in the 1940s and ‘50s, and who labelled the breakdown in negotiations “my generation’s greatest political defeat”.

Hedtoft needn’t have been so hard on himself. Seen from today’s perspective, it’s clear that the time wasn’t right for grand international collaborations. What’s more, the various Nordic countries each had vastly different challenges and Cold War priorities.

The Cold War is over, but the historic differences can still be seen in defence policies of the Nordic countries. Denmark, Norway and Iceland are all Nato members. Finland and Sweden take part in EU defence policy. Denmark and Norway purchase mostly American war materiel. Sweden has its own defence industry. Finland purchases Russian and Swedish equipment. In Denmark, we are, generally speaking, more likely to take part in international military coalitions than our Nordic neighbours are.

Preventing, pollution, shipwrecks and nuclear war
These are big differences, and they would likely make co-operating difficult. But, allowing them to prevent closer military co-operation in the region would be a serious political mistake. Unlike during Hedtoft’s day, the time is ripe. It also necessary, thanks in large part to the emergence of the Arctic as a geo-political hotspot.

The need for combined Nordic environmental surveillance and search and rescue efforts in the Arctic has already been stated. Such a proposal was made in 2009, by Thorvald Stoltenberg, Norway’s defence and foreign minister at the time, who put the idea forward as part his recommendations for closer Nordic co-operation in defence and foreign policy.

But pollution and the safety of cruise ship passengers are, unfortunately, the least of our worries right now. We need to wake to the Arctic’s new status as an area of significant economic and geo-political interest. It is an area that world powers are gradually taking note of. Their new-found interest opens up the potential for conflict, and leaves us with the possibility of nuclear-armed powers coming into conflict over the region.

Avoiding this needs to be one of the most important security policy goals for the Nordic countries. Such a goal is so important that it will require us to set aside differences in military equipment and attitudes towards international intervention. What it requires is for us to come up with a common vision for Nordic security policy that calls for the Arctic to be made free of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are already banned from a number of areas, including Antarctica, Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the South Pacific. Adding the Arctic to this list would only be natural.

A Nobel idea
Were such a ban to be put in place, countries would be prohibited from developing, producing, stationing, or using nuclear weapons in the Arctic. The ban, however, would not prevent countries from mining uranium or using atomic energy, meaning that Greenland’s plans to develop its mining industry would not come into conflict with an Atomic weapon-free zone. Atomic-powered submarines, ships and icebreakers would also be permitted – provided they weren’t armed with nuclear weapons.

For Danes, the proposal would no doubt call to mind the 1980s and calls to ban nuclear weapons from the Nordic region. At that time, it was Nato that stood in the way. Today, however, it is official policy in America to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons. In 2007 Henry Kissinger caught the world off guard when he argued in favour of eliminating nuclear weapons and drew up a roadmap for how it could happen. In 2009, the US and Russia shook hands on the New START Treaty and agreed to reduce the number of operational nuclear weapons.

When Barack Obama later that year was awarded the Nobel Peace Price, the awarding committee stated that they had done so because of Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons. This is a positive development, but it isn’t a development we should take for granted. We must contribute to efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals. One way we can do that is to drive the process of banning nuclear weapons from the Arctic.

SEE RELATED: The new cold war

This is a realistic vision, but we must begin the fight now. Posturing among the great powers in order to claim the rights to oil and minerals in the Arctic already under way. If we wait, we will lose the chance to act

We must also understand that the countries of the Nordic region must be a part of the solution. The Arctic Council’s members include the Nordic countries, the US, Russia and Canada. No-one doubts that the Nordic countries lack the global influence the other members do, but together with Canada, which does not possess nuclear weapons, we can give our argument not just moral weight but we can also back it up with geo-political influence.

Nuclear weapons do not belong in the Arctic. The Nordic countries have the chance to work towards a common goal. Some would call the opportunity historic. It would be more correct to say that history obliges us to do so.

The author is a member of the Danish parliament sitting on the defence committee.