Sweden updates its Arctic strategy

At the end of September 2020, the Swedish Government unveiled its updated strategy for the Arctic region. The strategy builds upon a previous document published in 2011 that set the course for Sweden’s Arctic policy for the past decade. Now, however, the pace of de-icing is accelerating in the region, creating both grave environmental risks and massive economic opportunities. At the same time, the global balance of power is starting to shift, and the Arctic region is not immune to competition. Following our article on the Arctic earlier this year, we now look at Sweden’s approach to the Arctic, take a deep dive into the new strategy and consider the new policy in the current political climate.

Until 29 September 2020, Sweden had not published a fresh strategy for the Arctic region since 2011. The geo-political situation in the Arctic little resembles that of nine years ago. At that time, Barack Obama was President of the United States, and no one had ever heard of covid-19. Many countries were barely recovering from the global financial crisis of 2008, and instead of Brexit, Europe was focused on Greece falling out of the eurozone. Most serious policymakers were concerned about climate change, but the world was still working towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, with no idea what Agenda 2030 would come to look like. The Paris Agreement on climate change did not yet exist. All the while, ice in the Arctic has melting twice as fast as in the rest of the world, and the US, Russia, and China are jockeying for dominance over the resulting expanded access to natural resources and new trade routes. It was, to say the least, high time for the Swedish strategy in this region to receive an update.

The strategy until now

Back in 2011, the Government’s Strategy for the Arctic Region positioned Sweden as an “Arctic country” and laid out a policy based broadly on security and international cooperation. It declared that the Arctic Council was – and ought to be – the main forum for international cooperation in the region. The 2011 strategy document stated that a strategy was needed for Sweden in order to address certain key Arctic issues affecting the country and its population, including climate change, the living conditions of indigenous populations, new opportunities for sea transport, extraction of natural resources due to less extensive and thinner ice cover, and a focus on international law. The 2011 strategy laid out key priorities for the Government across three thematic areas: climate and the environment, economic development, and the human dimension. Regarding international cooperation bodies and bilateral channels, Sweden’s main objectives were: Sweden would endeavour to ensure that the Arctic remains an area of low political tensions; Sweden would strive to strengthen the Arctic Council in its role as the central multilateral forum for Arctic-related issues, as well as the role of Barents cooperation bodies in issues of particular relevance to the Barents region; Sweden would actively contribute to the development of an EU Arctic policy and to promote the EU as a relevant cooperation partner; cooperation projects and synergies between the Arctic Council and the Barents Cooperation would be utilised, as well as the EU’s various cooperation programmes and the funds they were supplying; Sweden would work within the Nordic Council of Ministers to sharpen the focus of Arctic-related project activities that have a clear supplementary value for the Arctic Council; and Swedish activities and cooperation projects in the Arctic would be in accordance with international law, including UN conventions and other international treaties. The 2011 strategy also included more extensive and specific goals in each thematic area, including broader targets of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, focusing on the impact of climate change in the Arctic in international negotiations, promoting sustainable economic development in the entire Arctic region, combating barriers to trade in the Arctic region, and bringing attention to the human dimension, including in Sweden’s work on the Nordic Sámi Convention.

The increasing role of the EU has been a particularly crucial point from a foreign policy perspective and for augmenting Swedish influence in a region increasingly dominated by hegemonic powers. As we noted in the April edition of the Monthly Policy Review, the EU’s influence is sorely needed from a Swedish and European perspective. China has declared itself a “near-Arctic state” with clear invested interests in the region and is a permanent observer to the Arctic Council, and Russia has an extensive, comprehensive vision for its dominance. Washington has also begun to pay more attention to the Arctic after a period of relative non-involvement by the US in the region. Meanwhile, the EU is not even an observer at the Arctic Council (although it takes part in many Arctic Council activities), and it did not publish a strategy for the Arctic region until 2016 – which, as noted above, was something the Swedish Government had planned for five years to press the EU to do. That strategy was largely reflective of Sweden’s national strategy, with its three priority policy areas as: climate change and protection of the Arctic environment; sustainable development in and around the Arctic; and international cooperation on Arctic issues. We also noted in April that Sweden had continued acting to bring the EU more firmly in to the Arctic policy arena, including by hosting the first-ever EU Arctic Forum in Umeå in October 2019, at which time the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ann Linde (S), stated that the Arctic affects the entire EU and that the organisation was needed to to ensure peaceful collaboration.

The new strategy

Nine years later, it was time for an update. Sweden’s new strategy, published just a month ago, continues to focus on “peaceful, stable, and sustainable development in the Arctic” and aims to strengthen Sweden’s Arctic profile. The new strategy takes stock of the severe and rapidly worsening impacts that global warming has had on the Arctic in recent years, as well as the changing security situation with increased military presence and activity in the region. It also notes that the covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the need for local communities in the Arctic region to develop resilience and readiness to deal with pandemics. The strategy continues to focus on the importance of international cooperation, and the document states that the Government welcomes the EU’s strengthened profile in Arctic contexts. Yet, the strategy also states that there is a special role for Arctic states to influence developments in the region. The strategy also integrates Sweden’s Arctic policy with Agenda 2030 and the Government’s commitment to demonstrating leadership in implementing the Paris Agreement.

The 2020 strategy states that it is a renewal of the 2011 strategy, with a new “overall approach” to Arctic policy that expands the number of core thematic areas for the Government’s work on the Arctic to six. These six thematic areas include: international cooperation; security and stability; climate and the environment; polar research and environmental monitoring; sustainable economic development and business interests; and ensuring good living conditions. The inclusion of a focus on research is especially crucial, as the Government seeks to leverage Swedish knowledge and expertise on Arctic matters, including not only from the Government and state authorities, but also from regional and local authorities, indigenous peoples’ organisations, universities, companies, and other actors in Sweden.

The first priority area, international cooperation, echoes the themes of Sweden’s previous strategy. There is a focus on a rules-based international order and on multilateralism and strengthening the Arctic Council. It also states that the Government is supporting the EU’s application for a permanent observer position to the Arctic Council. Indigenous peoples are included in the international cooperation priority area as well; Sweden plans to increase their participation in Arctic politics. On the issue of the EU, the strategy states that Sweden will work for the EU to build on the EU Arctic Forum of 2019 and to encourage the EU to more fully develop its policy in the area. The strategy also states that Sweden will work with other Nordic states and non-Arctic EU states with observer status in the Arctic Council (France, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Germany, as well as the UK) to encourage the EU to update its strategy. In addition to the EU, this area of the strategy outlines relevant roles for the United Nations, the Barents cooperation bodies, Nordic cooperation, and cross-national Sámi cooperation, as well as plans for bilateral cooperation with the US, Canada, Russia, and several non-Arctic states, and actors.

Security and stability, the second priority area of the new strategy, focuses both on maintaining peace and developing Swedish capabilities, also with an eye to international cooperation. The Government is committed to ensuring respect for international law and the Law of the Sea in the region, and it will continue to strengthen Sweden’s ability to operate militarily in northern Sweden and adjacent areas. In addition, this area of the strategy emphasises transatlantic cooperation and an increased role for the EU in the Arctic. This cooperation includes cross-border crisis management cooperation, especially through the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

While the melting ice in the Arctic does provide opportunities, including new trade routes and options for natural resources extraction, it also creates severe climate risks. The third priority area of the strategy is therefore climate and the environment. This area is linked directly to Sweden’s goals in line with the Paris Agreement, as well as its targets for preserving biodiversity in line with the Convention on Biological Diversity. Beyond other planned actions in line with these conventions, the Government plans to work specifically on raising these issues in the Arctic Council, and focusing on chemicals and waste in the Arctic in order to develop a non-toxic circular economy. This area also includes preventing and mitigating nuclear emergencies in the Arctic.

The Government is also committed to enhancing Sweden’s polar research and environmental monitoring. This fourth area includes an emphasis on polar research and environmental monitoring, declaring that Sweden wants to be a world-leading polar research nation. Related plans include strengthening international collaboration on polar research, encouraging knowledge exchanges between researchers and indigenous peoples, and continuing to support the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, the state authority whose task is to coordinate and promote Swedish polar research, including by being responsible for carrying out expeditions together with the wider research community. Knowledge exchanges with indigenous peoples will especially be facilitated through the Nordic Council of Ministers and relevant Sami institutions.

The fifth priority area for Sweden’s Arctic strategy is sustainable economic development and business interests. While the third area suggests a sincere commitment to environmental sustainability, Sweden is not foregoing the potential economic opportunities that melting ice sheets afford the country – the development side of sustainable economic development. The Government plans to contribute to “sustainable trade and investment” in the Arctic region and increase economic growth that also benefits local populations. Planned efforts include reducing technical barriers to trade to ease the cross-border flow of goods and services in the Arctic, while also acting as a driving force to minimise the negative effects and risks of using natural resources in the region. This area also focuses on the importance of international cooperation, as exemplified by plans to work with the EU, OECD, and Arctic Council to develop a sustainable minerals industry. Within the Nordic Council of Ministers, Sweden plans to investigate the possibility of tracing and labeling metals for a certification scheme in the region. Sweden will also work with the EU to continue monitoring the implementation of an agreement on the prevention of unregulated fishing in the open sea in the central Arctic Ocean, and the Government will work closely with its Nordic neighbors and Russia to promote long-term sustainable transport systems in the region.

Finally, ensuring good living conditions is the sixth priority area in Sweden’s new Arctic strategy. This area focuses especially on the rights of indigenous peoples and improving the lives of communities in the Arctic. Planned measures include: contributing to the development of robust infrastructure in the Arctic region, including digital infrastructure; increasing opportunities for indigenous peoples in the Arctic to preserve and develop their identity, culture, and traditional industries; working for a vibrant Sami culture based on sustainable reindeer husbandry; promoting the preservation of Arctic indigenous languages; incorporating a gender equality perspective in Arctic cooperation bodies; and working to ensure that young people in the region have influence over societal development.

Political context

Sweden’s new Arctic strategy comes during a time of uncertainty in world politics, if not a total seismic shift. The strategy had been promised in the spring but was not released until September. It was billed as a further development of the 2011 strategy and a “strengthening” of the Government’s 2016 environmental policy for the Arctic from 2016. Upon publication of the new strategy, Linde stated: “The Government wants to strengthen its commitment to the Arctic. Sweden is one of the eight Arctic states. We have a special role and responsibility to contribute to the development in the Arctic in a peaceful and sustainable way.”

Certainly, the Government is responding to the changing geo-political situation, even before covid-19 began to reshape the way it was thinking about international cooperation and a changing world order. The Government has been focused on increasing defense spending and expanding military capabilities in recent months, not least because of a perception of an increased threat from Russia. Russian activities in the Arctic in part prompted a NATO general to say last month that Sweden is likely to receive help from the alliance if needed. China, too, is becoming increasingly active in the Arctic, as discussed in our April edition, at the same time that relations with China have been at a low point. Concerns over China’s influence in the region were noted in the Government’s 2019 China strategy, as well.

The opposition has called for Sweden to demonstrate even greater interest in the Arctic, noting these very geopolitical issues. Hans Wallmark (M), Vice Chairman of the Riksdag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy Spokesperson for the Moderates, wrote a debate article in October in which he noted the link between climate change and military security in the Arctic region. The article expresses concerns over expansive Russian activities in the region, especially the placement of nuclear weapons in the region. It also discusses Chinese power ambitions and Beijing’s questionable approach to the Law of the Sea and noting China’s efforts to acquire ports and establish airports in the region. Wallmark called for Sweden to have more of a long-term strategy that safeguards ties with neighboring countries, the US, and Canada.

Comment

In many ways, Sweden’s latest Arctic strategy is similar to the previous document from 2011, with broadly similar thematic focuses. One might argue that it is the context, more than the policy, that has changed. Some goals outlined in the previous strategy have been met, which allows for an expanded scope for Swedish Arctic policy going forward. In particular, successfully bringing the EU more firmly into the arena, as demonstrated by the organisation’s adopting its own Arctic strategy in 2016 and now applying to be a permanent observer to the Arctic Council, positions Sweden to have greater influence in a region where much larger economic and military powers are flexing their muscles. 

If the EU continues to grow its involvement in the Arctic, Sweden stands to leverage its expertise on Arctic matters to steer EU policy in the area and thus significantly augment its regional influence. Lilliputian in the face of China, Russia, and the US, Sweden could act in tandem with its Nordic peers through the EU to wield substantial power in the region. It is telling that international cooperation is both its own priority area in the strategy and a theme that permeates all of the other five priority areas.

Leveraging expertise in this manner means nurturing it domestically, which could explain why the Government has included a focus on polar research and environmental monitoring in this document. Increasing knowledge and research on the Arctic gives Sweden a competitive edge in international forums, where the Government may be able to demonstrate superior know-how in policymaking and thereby influence global public policy outcomes. Research and knowledge generation also form a core component of several of the Government’s other recent foreign policy strategies; for example, the aforementioned China strategy laid out plans to fund a knowledge centre on China, which will now be housed at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs (UI). A similar centre on Russia and Eastern Europe will also be based at UI.

We expect Sweden to focus especially on the role that the EU can play regionally, and in turn on the role that Sweden can play within the EU. By leveraging its expertise and its special status as an Arctic state, Sweden stands to gain outsize influence within the EU on this issue area. It could thereby present a credible counter to the rise of other actors’ dominance in the Arctic.

Ian is an editor for Mundus News and a contributor for the Monthly Policy Review and Finland Monthly Brief. He is a PhD student at Stockholm University. Prior to that, he worked as a research analyst at EIRIS and as a business researcher for The Boston Consulting Group. He holds an MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BA in International Affairs from The George Washington University.