BACK TO THE FUTURE: THE GEOPOLITICAL CENTRALITY OF THE NORTH ATLANTIC AND THE ARCTIC
CSIS, WASHINGTON D.C. 16. MAÍ 2018
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me begin by thanking CSIS for organizing this meeting. It is an honour for me to address you and a valuable opportunity to reflect on some of the issues Iceland considers important during times of global uncertainty.
Today, I want to talk to you about three things:
1) Iceland as a strategic partner to the US,
2) how and why we should broaden and strengthen our relationship and
3) the importance of American leadership in the world
Let me begin with the strategic partnership.
They say geography is destiny. How true in the case of Iceland – an island in the middle of North Atlantic Sea where America and Europe meet, literally, in geographical terms, the two continental shelfs of America and Europe.
For centuries our geography was both a curse and a blessing. In addition to an unforgiving climate and destructive volcanoes, a small population lived in relative isolation and relied on imported basic necessities for survival.
At the same time, these conditions meant that Iceland was more or less sheltered from continuous great power conflicts on the Continent, and for about 500 years Iceland remained a part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
The most sought-after resource of Iceland was fish, which was harvested at different times by foreign powers such as England and France.
But none of them left a significant footprint in the country and the last foreign fishing vessels were pushed out of Icelandic waters following the Cod Wars in the 1970´s.
The development of naval technology, particularly submarines, and later aviation, including long-range aircraft, changed our situation dramatically. Iceland suddenly became a strategic hub. The first indications of changing circumstances appeared during the First World War and they were firmly in place when the Second World War broke out.
While our geography, our remoteness, had in previous times ensured foreign nations did not seek to gain a foothold in Iceland permanently, technological progress and a changing strategic landscape meant that by 1940 our geography necessitated an intervention by the Western allies. Our geography had not changed – but other conditions had.
When Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Nazis in 1940, the British had no choice other than to send military forces to Iceland for the defence of their North-Atlantic sea routes. Similarly, in pre-Pearl Harbour 1941, the United States realized that a forward presence in Iceland was essential to sustaining Britain and to the defence of the Eastern US-seaboard. That year, US troops replaced the British force in Iceland.
To be able to take on this role, however, the US Government had to define Iceland as part of its hemisphere, under its sphere of interest, in line with the Monroe Doctrine, which had been the prevailing foreign policy in the US and would remain so until Pearl Harbour was attacked and the US entered the war.
This development indicated a shift in the strategic importance of Iceland and represented the birth of the trans-Atlantic link. During the Cold War, secure communications between North-America and Europe became fundamental to the credibility and viability of NATO and a forward position in the North-Atlantic remained crucial to the defence of the North-American mainland.
In fact, in the 1970´s and 1980´s, experts frequently referred to Keflavík as the „anti-submarine warfare capital of the world” and flights by Soviet long-range bombers into the Icelandic military-identification zone were common. Fortunately, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War ended without a major conflict.
There was no return to geographic remoteness for Iceland, however.
Other factors, including changes taking place in the Arctic, meant it would remain strategically located. And with aviation and tourism experiencing a boom, Iceland has also become a different kind of hub between Europe and North America – linking the two continents together, as well as the people seeking to make use of more frequent flights.
You may not be aware of this, but Iceland has been seeing extraordinary changes in its relationship with US citizens because of the current aviation and tourist boom. In 2017, we saw an increase in visitors from North America of 181 thousand people, which is a 36,3% increase from 2016, bringing the overall number up to 680 thousand people.
As a matter of fact, there are more direct flights every single day from Iceland to the US than there are from all the other Nordic countries in a week.
So while US troops may have left Iceland in 2006, when the Keflavík base was closed, you Americans have recently been coming to visit us in ever bigger numbers – which we welcome.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Turning back to the issue of security, and more specifically Russia, the optimism released by the end of the Cold War has in recent months and years dramatically receded. Indeed, we have lately been confronted with the question whether we are witnessing the beginning of a new Cold War.
I would not go this far in comparison. The Cold War was somewhat unique, and Russia today is not the Soviet Union. However, there is every reason to be worried about Russia´s willingness to use its modernized armed forces unilaterally abroad. Russia´s annexation of Crimea and its direct support for separatists in the Eastern-Ukraine were game-changers, both in terms of respect for international law and post-Cold War European stability and security architecture.
The recent assassination attempt in the United Kingdom, where a Russian-produced nerve agent, Novichok, was used against a British citizen, a former Russian spy and his daughter, was also a shocking development – one which only widens the gulf between the West and Russia. Russia´s intervention in Syria and their defence of the Assad regime, even in the face of repeated use of chemical weapons, has also contributed to the current climate of distrust. Not to mention their suspected interference in the 2016 US elections.
Iceland´s relations with Russia (and before that the Soviet Union) have traditionally been cordial, with particular focus on trade. This all changed in 2014 with Russia´s actions in the Crimea and in Ukraine where territorial borders were violated and changed with the use of military force – something we have not seen in Europe since the second World War.
Iceland has, from the outset, participated in the sanctions regime. Russian counter-measures have not changed our policies although Iceland has been adversely hit – with the Russian counter-sanctions causing 95% decrease in export to Russia.
We feel strongly about the principles involved. For a smaller country like Iceland, the respect and adherence to international law means everything. It is our sword, shield and shelter so to speak.
Iceland´s relationship with Russia is currently also affected by the Salisbury incident, which we take very seriously and have sided with the UK and other Allies. The use of chemical weapons, whether in Syria or Europe cannot be normalised and tolerated, and needs to have consequences.
We have taken measures and postponed all high-level bilateral meetings until further notice, and our dignitaries will be boycotting the World Cup in Russia this summer where our national team has quailified for the first time – an achievement that we, as a nation, are very proud of.
Closer to home, in the North Atlantic, we also experienced a Russian military come-back already 11-12 years ago. Paradoxically, when the last of the US forces permanently based in Iceland had been withdrawn in 2006, Russia on virtually the same day chose to resume its strategic bomber flights.
Furthermore, in recent years, we have seen a steep increase in Russian submarine activities in the North Atlantic and a greater number of operational submarines, including new and more advanced vessels, are sailing through the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap (GIUK Gap) and, thereby, demonstrating a capability to disrupt trans-Atlantic communications and to threaten the North-American mainland, for example with cruise missiles.
This development has resulted in increased and rotational presence of US and Allied forces in Iceland for air-policing and submarine surveillance. In 2014, Allied maritime surveillance aircraft operated out of Iceland for a total of 21 days. Since then, the number has risen year by year and in 2017 the number reached 153 days.
Last year, a large submarine surveillance exercise, Dynamic Mongoose, took place south of Iceland, and later this year, Trident Juncture, will take place in Norway and Iceland.
I can safely say that no Western country wants a return to Cold War conditions, with all the dangers and expense involved. Western countries want normal relations with Russia, as far as this is possible. But to pretend that nothing serious happened in 2014 would be opportunistic and short-sighted, and to ignore Russian behaviour in the UK recently would be naive and wrong. These are not isolated incidents but represent a pattern which also include cyber and hybrid tactics, disinformation and propaganda and meddling in domestic affairs, including elections.
Attempting to sow division between the countries in the West has become a modus operandi for Russian authorities. Thankfully, however, the Western powers have shown remarkable unity and solidarity, which are key features and continue to characterise our transatlantic relations.
Ladies and gentlemen, this brings me to our transatlantic alliance, NATO.
As the only founding member of NATO without national armed forces, Iceland relies on Article 5 and a bilateral Defence Agreement with the US. Nonetheless, we contribute in many different ways to our national defence and the Alliance, through civilian capabilities, personnel and experience, and have our own perspective on security developments in our region in a broad sense.
This is reflected in our National Security Policy, which enjoys cross-party support and sets the framework for the security and defence policy of our broadly-based coalition Government.
Our National Security Policy takes a holistic approach to the security concept and includes elements of active foreign policy, defence policy and civil security alike. This is important and, in our view, we should not only focus on inputs and percentages on defence expenditure.
There are various other ways to contribute to our common security. For example, with the stroke of pen, the Icelandic GDP shrunk by 1% as a result of Russian counter-sanctions. That was the prize of solidarity at that time. We are not complaining; I am simply saying that there are different ways of paying the bill.
There also needs to be a sensible division of labour and balance between us as Allies and Partners. If all nations would reach the 2% on military expenditure tomorrow, there would be chaos. We would not be able to spend that money wisely and for our common good.
We need to respect national sensitivities and different circumstances. At the same time, we all acknowledge that European countries need to assume further responsibility for our own and common security. This also applies to Iceland and, since 2014, we have dramatically increased our contributions to security and defence, 20-30% between years, both at home and to NATO in particular. We will continue on this path.
The themes at the upcoming Brussels Summit this summer are shaping up and burden-sharing and relations with Russia will surely feature prominently. We are also pleased with the increased prominence given to the North-Atlantic in preparations for the Summit, including the establishment of a new trans-atlantic command in Norfolk and a new political-military assessment for the region. After all, NATO stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
The Alliance has a good story to tell and we hope to see continued unity and solidarity at the Summit.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me now turn to my second point on how we should and must broaden and strengthen our partnership and I want to focus on the Arctic in particular.
Recently, increasing attention is being given to security in the Arctic and the circumpolar region, including so-called soft and hard security. I would like to offer an Icelandic perspective on some of the challenges in what we often refer to as the High North and, again, geography plays a key role.
Iceland is located centrally in the North-Atlantic with Greenland to the West and the Faroe Islands, the UK and Norway to the East. The Arctic Circle touches Iceland´s northern tip and straight lines can be drawn through the Atlantic respectively to the North and South Poles.
Successive Icelandic governments have expressed their hope that the Arctic would not be militarized beyond the levels seen following the end of the Cold War; a position that is manifested in our Arctic Policy from 2011, which was adopted through a consensus across the political spectrum.
In most capitals, where the Arctic is on the agenda, there is recognition of legitimate Russian security interests in the region and the need to safeguard them with credible defence capabilities. However, the scope, speed and apparent ambition of the Russian military build-up in the Arctic does raise questions and, again, the pattern we see in the North-Atlantic and elsewhere are causes of major concern as I have mentioned.
Nevertheless, there are many reasons for optimism in the High North where geography is, actually, not constant. In fact, it is rapidly changing. With growing global awareness of the economic potential and ecological fragility of the Arctic as a result of climate change, including concerns over conditions in the oceans, it is reassuring to witness rapidly expanding constructive political contacts and practical cooperation in both bilateral and multilateral fora.
This global focus is long overdue. The geographic size of the Arctic is equal to the whole of Africa. The region includes the largest pristine wilderness in the world; a natural heritage to be safeguarded for future generations, while allowing for economic development for the benefit of the 4 million people who live there.
The emission of greenhouse-gasses is minimal in the Arctic, but the consequences of climate change are faster and more visible there than any other place on Earth. The Arctic Council plays a key role in supporting environmental protection in the Arctic on the basis of scientific cooperation and research, taking into account the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
At the same time, the Council promotes sustainable development in the Arctic. People who live in the Arctic should enjoy security and prosperity, including local health care, education, employment and communications. Hence, we need a balanced and realistic approach, where protection of the environment and economic development go hand-in-hand and the fundamental interests of the inhabitants are respected.
Three legally binding agreements have been negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council; on search-and-rescue, protective measures against oil spills and international scientific cooperation. Furthermore, the member state coast guards cooperate closely within the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. Rapidly growing tourism into distant and vulnerable parts of the region calls for clearer guidelines for tour-operators and more efficient search-and-rescue capabilities as well as preventive measures.
All of these issues are considered in relation to the agenda for the Icelandic chairmanship of the Arctic Council starting in May 2019. More generally, we hope to reinforce the position of the Arctic Council as the premier forum for international deliberations on Arctic issues.
All member states of the Arctic Council have a large stake in its continued success. That is why it has been possible to insulate this important forum from differences in other areas. That also explains why military security is not on the agenda. This separation is not always easy to maintain.
The conflict in Ukraine and chemical attacks in the UK and Syria involve fundamental principles which affect most other aspects of international relations. But there is an understanding that the urgency of safeguarding mutual interests in the Arctic demands specific dialogue and cooperation. The clearly defined focus of the Arctic Council makes this possible.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is worth noting how dramatic the changes taking place in the Arctic really are with the ice cap receding and opening up of alternative sailing routes connecting Asia with Europe and North America.
The Asian powerhouses are all interested in the Arctic and have an observership status in the Arctic Council. This includes, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India and China.
China has recently adopted an Arctic Strategy and the Belt and Road Initiative speaks of a new Arctic Silk Route connecting Asia with Europe.
China is on the rise and growing. The Chinese middle class, which has the means to travel and spend money, is more numerous than all citizens of North-America. This global trend is likely to continue where Asia will continue to grow and prosper.
This is, by and large, good news and all countries, including mine, are increasingly looking towards Asia, including China, in developing our relations.
We are, however, also very mindful of the differences between China and Western countries. We sometimes see the world differently. We do not always share the same values. We do and will have our differences, for example on human rights. Therefore, our cooperation in the Arctic, and elsewhere, needs to be transparent and based on reciprocity and mutual respect.
We welcome China´s and other Asian countries interest in our region as long as international rules are respected. In fact, landmark negotiations on potential future Central Arctic Fisheries have recently been concluded between ten states, including Iceland, United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea. This is the kind of cooperation that we want – built on scientific evidence and international law.
Our bilateral relations with China are also good, for example in the field of geothermal energy and scientific cooperation. We also have a well-functioning bilateral free-trade agreement with China, which has benefitted both countries.
My only remark is the fact that we do not have a similar free trade agreement with the United States – our closest Ally and most important market – and I have used this visit in Washington to reiterate that point.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, brings me to my third and final point; the importance of American leadership going forward.
There are so many things we tend to take for granted. Democracy, rule of law, human rights. But these are not sure things. They must be protected and preserved.
The history of our two nations, the very existence of the trans-atlantic link, is all about those values. The reason why the Americans came to Iceland in 1941 was to uphold freedom against the threat of tyranny.
And following the war America shaped the world order on the basis of security, free trade and the values of free and open societies. And the world has prospered.
Now we see new superpowers emerging. But if given the opportunity to shape the world we live in; will they have positive effects?
We often talk about the free world as a part of the world. Why? Because there is part that is not free. Democracy and freedom are not terms in an international agreement – they are a way of life. Freedom of speech in our understanding also means freedom after speech.
The things we take for granted can easily disappear. The new world order could be totally different from the one that has brought us freedom, security and prosperity over the last seven decades.
This is not the time to be disengaged. This is not the time leave the stage to others. We need positive leadership in these times of rapid changes. We need solidarity between nations that share the same values.
Ronald Reagan described America as a shining city upon a hill. We still need that vision. Now perhaps more than ever.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I want to end my speech by stressing the importance of Iceland´s relationship with the United States. It stands on solid ground and benefits both countries. We have a strong defence cooperation, excellent people-to-people contacts through tourism and frequent flight connections. We look forward to our continued engagement in Arctic affairs as Iceland assumes chairmanship in the Arctic Council and there is still untapped potential in our trade relations.
We will continue to look for US leadership in the global arena in times of increased uncertainties - with Russia growing more assertive, China more confident, and Europe preoccupied with internal affairs.
Old alliances must be maintained and nurtured and in Iceland you have a long-standing and trustworthy Ally. These are testing times and together we must champion of our common values, multilateralism, which both our countries gain from, and the international rules-based order.
Thank you for your attention and I look forward to the discussions.