Foreign Affairs Focus: Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson on the Arctic Scramble
U.S. Navy safety swimmers stand on the deck of the USS New Hampshire after it surfaced through thin ice in the Arctic Ocean.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

It's "paradoxical" for the United States "to be so engaged with Russia and Ukraine, and be very passive in the Arctic," says Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, president of Iceland. And with Washington set to chair the Arctic Council beginning in 2015, "this will be a testing time." Grímsson recently sat down with Stuart Reid, senior editor at Foreign Affairs, to discuss ongoing developments in the rapidly melting Arctic. A transcript is available below:

REID: Welcome. We have the pleasure today of being joined by President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, president of Iceland since 1996. President Grímsson, thank you so much for joining us.

GRÍMSSON: Thank you.

REID: Iceland is the quintessential Artic nation, and as global warming opened up the region, some people worried that this would lead to increased competition over the resources and shipping routes that global warming made available. Has that happened?

GRÍMSSON: Well, we have been fortunate in the success of the eight Arctic countries in creating a framework of cooperation and a prevailing spirit of positive engagement. And I think the new arrivals, the leading powers and the European powers that are now engaged in the Arctic, they respect that legacy.
But of course, we are seeing individual companies, whether they are shipping companies or harbor companies or companies interested in the oil and the gas and the mining, positioning themselves in different parts of the Arctic. So there is, of course, a commercial competition, but the comprehensive framework is one of mutual respect and cooperation.

REID: Let's talk about some of those interested powers. Russia is obviously a big player in the Arctic, and recently, with Ukraine, we've seen some decidedly unstatesmanlike behavior on its part, to put it mildly Are you worried that Russia might start getting more territorially ambitious in the Arctic?

GRÍMSSON: Well I hope not, and if we go back about 15 years or so there was a lot of speculation how Russia would behave in the Arctic, and mainly were crisis issues. But the track record so far is that Russia has been positively engaged, has taken a lead together with the U.S. in negotiating the search and rescue agreement, the oil spills agreement, has concluded agreements with Norway and regarding longstanding disputes and has been quite positive on scientific cooperation, and has in the last three years invited various participants, including myself and the president of Finland and others to their annual Arctic conference. So at this moment, there is at the Arctic very little of anything that one can complain about the Russian performance. And I have said very clearly that I hope we can keep the Arctic free of conflict in other parts of the world.

REID: And do you think we're seeing that cooperation because, in fact, there's no other way that it's sort of necessary to work together in order to benefit from the vast resources in the region?

GRÍMSSON: I think so. I think the Arctic, the north, the high north, given the ice, the extreme weather patterns, the vastness of the territory, humbles people. People realize that despite all of the technology and even despite the military strength of the greatest powers, the tough natural forces in the north can defeat any military power of this kind.

So not one country, whether it's Russia or the United States, can alone make a success of the Arctic. So given the strong northern partition, the legacy of the Arctic within Russian history and Russian culture, I believe that they are very much aware of this in the same way as people up in Alaska, and absolutely are aware that Alaska alone cannot make a success of the Arctic.

REID: Now what about China -- it's been investing in the Arctic and has its own ice breaker, the "Snow Dragon" -- what do you see as its appetite in the region?

GRÍMSSON: Well, China has, in my opinion, two very legitimate reasons to engage in the Arctic. One is that the scientific research of the China Polar Institute in the Arctic has demonstrated that there is a very close linkage between the aggressive melting of the Arctic sea ice and extreme weather patterns in China. This was demonstrated a year ago in very dramatic destructions of infrastructures, food productions and other parts of China. So in order to monitor extreme weather patterns in China, they need to do research on the Arctic.

The other legitimate reason is that this also the melting of the Arctic Sea ice a new sea route as we know opens up through the north, which is much shorter than going through the Suez Canal, saves a lot of fuel, and when China is becoming the leading trading country of the twenty-first century, it's only natural that it should be interested in trading routes that links China to Europe and Asia and takes ten days shorter than going through the old routes. And so far I think China has behaved well in this respect. Its involvement so far has been led by science and examination of these sea routes, as well as Chinese companies trying to explore, for example, access to the resources in Greenland, but I think for a leading economic power of the twenty-first century, this is only to be expected.

REID: Now if you were advising United States what it should do in the Arctic, what advice would you give? Some people have argued that America is sort of asleep at the wheel when it comes to Arctic issues.

GRÍMSSON: To some extent you are. I mean unfortunately the Arctic, although its America's backyard, although you are one of the true leading Arctic countries, in Washington the Arctic so far has a very low priority. Although both Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry have been very much aware of its importance, somehow this country is always otherwise engaged in other issues.

Next year, the U.S. will take on the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. This will be a testing time for the U.S. because the chairmanship is not a normal diplomatic function, it is expected to provide the leadership, the policy leadership and the direction. And I hope in the coming months, both in Washington and elsewhere, the political establishment of the U.S. will realize that it is not only America's backyard, this is already becoming a leading center for global and economic interests in the twenty-first century. And given all of this discussion about Russia as you referred to before, it's kind of a paradoxical to be so engaged with Russia and Ukraine, and be very passive in the Arctic.

REID: It's fascinating stuff. President Grímsson, thank you so much for joining us today.

GRÍMSSON: Thank you very much.

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