Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
Stockholm, 18 January 2018
Address by H.E. Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson
Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me to have the opportunity to address such a distinguished audience at such a respected venue. For decades, SIPRI has done valuable research in the field of international security and armaments, including arms control, and made a substantive contribution to an informed debate on these important issues.
Recently, increasing attention is being given to security in the Arctic and the circumpolar region, including so-called soft and hard security, and I would like to offer an Icelandic perspective on some of the challenges in what we often generally refer to as the High North.
Geography is constant and presents us with lasting strategic facts. 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. This geostrategic location has largely determined Iceland´s security policy since the mid-20th Century.
For many centuries, geography was both a curse and a blessing for Iceland. 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 the Hanseatic League, 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, meant that Iceland 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.
When Norway was occupied in 1940, the British had no choice other than to send military forces to Iceland for the defence of their North-Atlantic sea routes. 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.
This was 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 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.
Since Russia was regarded as a strategic partner and the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan demanded huge resources, the last of the US forces were withdrawn from Iceland in 2006. Paradoxically, when this decision could have been seen as a significant step towards reducing US military presence in the North-Atlantic, Russia chose to resume its strategic bomber flights on virtually the same day as the base in Keflavik was closed.
Thereby, the Russian government did not seize this opportunity to de-escalate and, actually, Russian bombers started flying closer to our shores than ever before. The Icelandic government reacted by voicing its concern, including at the NATO-Russia Council Summit Meeting in Bucharest in 2008, and by requesting and receiving NATO air surveillance. So, we experienced the Russian military come-back already 11-12 years ago.
Unfortunately, this general trend has since continued and grown around the Northern hemisphere. It is alarming in the context of 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.
No Western country wants a return to Cold War conditions, with all the dangers and expense involved. All Western countries want normal relations with Russia. But to pretend that nothing serious happened in 2014 would be opportunistic and short-sighted.
NATO has been forced to react with a renewed focus on deterrence and collective defence. Who would have thought a few years ago that territorial defence would again become topical in Northern-Europe?
This has resulted in enhanced forward presence, exercises and capability developments with increased defence budgets. I realize that the security challenges in the Baltic region are in many ways more immediate than in the North-Atlantic. However, the sea-lines of communication and strategic air corridors across the Atlantic are also getting more attention within the Alliance, and security in the Baltic region and North-Atlantic are closely linked. Most recently, this also extends to securing underwater cables which provide essential electronic communications.
Ladies and gentlemen,
How does all of this affect Iceland? 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 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 recently adopted 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. Yes, there is quality in quantity but there are various other ways to contribute to our common security.
For example, with the stroke of pen, the Icelandic GDP shrunk by 1% because of Iceland´s participation in the Western sanctions regime and Russian counter-measures. 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 those money wisely and for our common good.
And there are internal sensitivities involved. Just look at Germany which has been hesitant in moving towards the 2% benchmark for historical reasons.
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 last month, at the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting, I announced further increases and contributions to security and defence, and NATO in particular. We will continue on this path.
Ladies and gentlemen,
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 also 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 understandable questions.
Where is the threat to Russia posed by other states in the Arctic? Why do some of the Russian capabilities seem to be offensive rather than defensive, for example brigade combat teams, which include a parachute battalion?
This pattern is reflected in the North-Atlantic, where enhanced Russian military capabilities have resulted in growing activity. In the vicinity of Iceland, the frequency of strategic bomber flights has fallen slightly in the past two years but, instead, there has been a marked increase in submarine traffic.
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 the trans-Atlantic communications referred to earlier and to threaten the North-American mainland, for example with cruise missiles.
In the post-Cold War period, most NATO-countries regarded anti-submarine warfare expertise as having become almost irrelevant, even to such an extent that the UK decided not to replace its aging maritime surveillance aircraft. Now, there is a rush to catch up, both in terms of equipment and training.
This can be seen in Keflavík. 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. The US Congress has approved the financing of renovations of facilities at what used to be the US Naval Air Station, which will enable more periodic deployments of American P-8 aircraft.
When British and Norwegian P-8 aircraft have become fully operational, NATO´s capability to monitor submarines in the North-Atlantic will be greatly enhanced. In the meantime, operational maintenance and infrastructure improvements are being undertaken at Keflavík to ensure the availability of facilities to support Alliance missions in the North-Atlantic. Iceland cooperates closely with the Allies concerned and takes its responsibilities as a host-nation very seriously.
Last year, I signed a joint declaration with my Norwegian counterpart where we pledge to enhance our co-operation on security and defence. Also, our co-operation with the United States continues to evolve and, as I said, the US has been rapidly increasing their footprint in Iceland. However, for the sake of clarity and to avoid any misunderstanding, I should add that no one is contemplating a permanent military presence in the country.
The North-Atlantic is a large geographic area and the necessary coordination of the activities of a number of Allies is a complex task. Since 2002, when the command of the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT) was re-designated as Allied Commander Transformation (ACT) without a geographic or operational mandate, there has been a vacuum in the NATO military command structure, as far as the North-Atlantic is concerned. This is now being rectified in an ongoing NATO review, with the re-establishment of a trans-Atlantic command.
For understandable reasons, the North-Atlantic is not among the top daily priorities of the Swedish and Finnish armed forces but Iceland highly values the growing consultations, cooperation and coordination of Nordic defence ministers under the hat of NORDEFCO. This adds an important and increasingly relevant dimension to Nordic cooperation.
The training deployments of Swedish and Finnish fighter-interceptors to Iceland, which took place side-by-side of NATO air surveillance mission in 2014, reflect the progress which has been made and are greatly appreciated. Within NATO, Iceland consistently supports close ties with Sweden and Finland as our most valued partners.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Even though there are dark clouds on the horizon, there are many reasons for optimism regarding prospects in the High North. With growing global awareness of the economic potential and ecological fragility of the Arctic as a result of climate change, including concerns over deteriorating 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 setting standards for environmental protection in the Arctic, in conformity with the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, and on the basis of scientific cooperation and research.
At the same time, the Council promotes sustainable development in the Arctic. People who live in the Arctic are entitled to the same security and prosperity as others, including local health, education, employment and communications. Hence, we need a balanced and realistic approach, where protection and 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.
All of these issues will, no doubt, be on the agenda during the two-year 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.
This means that while the prerogatives of the member states will obviously be maintained, we support the inclusive participation of observer states and other relevant actors, most notably indigenous people.
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 easy to maintain.
For example, the conflict in Ukraine involves 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.
For decades, while being a founding-member of NATO, Iceland had quite active political, cultural and commercial relations with the Soviet Union and since the foundation of the Russian Federation bilateral relations have been relatively cordial and constructive.
Following the annexation of Crimea, Iceland, as previously mentioned, joined other Allies in imposing selective and targeted sanctions against Russian individuals and companies involved. Russia responded with wide-ranging counter-sanctions, which have reduced Icelandic exports to Russia by more than 90%.
Despite this, Iceland has maintained contacts with Russia at the highest levels and internationally we continue to advocate a two-track approach, combining steadfastness when necessary and dialogue and cooperation where possible. Iceland wants Russia to have its rightful place in the European family, but it needs to be on the basis of our common European values.
Iceland interacts multilaterally with Russia not only in the Arctic Council but also in the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the Council of Baltic Sea States, both of which are now under the able chairmanship of Sweden, and through the Northern Dimension.
All these fora form a substantial part of established regional cooperation in Northern-Europe, which may sometimes appear redundant or overlapping but continues to provide a framework for constructive engagement and, as originally intended, confidence-building. We strongly support the maintenance and use of this structure. Meeting and talking is always preferable to tension and conflict.
It can be hard to make a clear distinction between hard and soft security, and increasingly so during times of technological advances, hybrid warfare and cyber-attacks. The two concepts and the instruments involved are frequently interlinked. The High North is no exception.
However, in Iceland we hope that this part of the world will become an example of how political and practical regional cooperation can result in an area of stability and cooperation. We have no illusions about the use of „realpolitik“ or the facts on the ground but there is still an opportunity to achieve this objective. High North – but low tension!