Norway's Arctic policy: Still High North, low tension?

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Challenges facing Norway in the domain of foreign and security policy, in terms of the new Arctic policy document.

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​​In 2005, the then Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre urged the people to ‘Look north.’ Speaking in Tromsø, the self-proclaimed Arctic capital of Norway, he launched what was to become Norway’s new foreign policy flagship: the High North policy (nordområdepolitikken). 

With one-third of the landmass and 80% of its maritime domain located north of the Arctic Circle, it is no wonder that Norwegian politicians have been quick to seize the opportunity to promote a hybrid mixture of foreign and regional policy tools as the world has turned its attention northwards. Other Arctic countries – like Denmark, Sweden and the USA – have been much slower to embrace the Arctic as a foreign policy priority, if at all.

Economic opportunities​​​​​

In part, Norway’s orientation towards the Arctic occurred as the result of a domestic initiative because economic opportunities were increasingly becoming apparent in the North. In part, international conditions were ripe as climate awareness, resource potential and Russian re-emergence started to appear on the agenda. Lastly, the new majority government in office beginning in the autumn of 2005 acted as policy entrepreneurs, building on the discrete Northern policy steps taken by the previous government.

When the Norwegian High North policy saw the light of day 15 years ago, it was an optimistic promise of increased attention to the North, new economic opportunities and the strengthening of dialogue and cooperation with Russia. In the beginning, it looked hopeful: after the rather significant maritime boundary agreement with Russia regarding the Barents Sea was enacted in 2010, Russia’s then President Medvedev declared a ‘new era’ of relations between Norway and Russia.5 A border regime was created in 2012 so that the inhabitants of north-eastern Norway could travel visa free across the border to northwest Russia. The Arctic Council, created in 1996 to ensure cooperation on a range of issues in the Arctic, rose in stature and Norway managed to get the secretariat to Tromsø in 2011.

Provocative exercise activities​​

However, in 2014, the mood soured. First and foremost, the Russian annexation of Crimea contributed to changing the political climate in the North. Falling oil prices also led to the disappearance of many of the economic interests associated with the High North and to projects being placed on hold. Those who had expected (or hoped for) a Klondike in the North were disappointed, and the enthusiasm for the entire High North policy began to cool. It went from being an ‘priority’ to a ‘responsibility’.

In late-2020 the government in Oslo, which has held office for almost eight years, released the third Arctic policy of Norway (the first came in 2005 and the second in 2011). In terms of foreign policy, this signalled a third phase of the Norwegian High North policy: a phase that has been characterised by great power rivalry and harsh rhetoric outside Norway’s borders. Of the various parts of the Arctic, challenges are the greatest in the European part – Norway’s northern areas. Here, the military presence and provocative exercise activities have been increasing the most.

Read the entire paper from Andreas Østhagen here​.​


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