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Research Questions

  1. What are the areas of potential conflict among stakeholders in the Arctic region?
  2. What are the gaps in existing governance mechanisms?
  3. How should existing governance mechanisms evolve to mitigate the identified risks?

The eight recognized Arctic states—Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—have long cooperated in the Arctic region, even when their respective interests, especially those between Russia and the United States, have clashed on other matters. They have done so because each state perceives that it benefits from the current state of cooperation, which occurs through a set of international, regional, and subregional governance mechanisms. But conditions in the Arctic are evolving—driven by such factors as climate change, economics, and geopolitics—and thus its governance mechanisms must also evolve in order to mitigate new risks before they potentially escalate into conflict. What are these risks? How should existing governance mechanisms evolve to mitigate those risks? In this report, researchers propose and implement an adaptive, four-stage approach to identify potential Arctic conflict catalysts; determine, confirm, and prioritize the catalysts that cannot be solved through existing Arctic governance mechanisms; and identify potential governance mechanisms that can evolve to mitigate identified risks. The researchers conclude that, to decrease the risk of unraveling cooperation by 2030, Arctic stakeholders should work toward resolving gaps in Arctic governance in three ways: improving currently limited dialogue and transparency on military issues, updating and providing new capabilities to implement existing governance agreements, and enabling more inclusivity in Arctic-relevant decisionmaking without challenging the sovereignty of Arctic states.

Key Findings

The researchers identified six categories of potential conflict catalysts in the Arctic

  • The categories are Russia's central role in Arctic access, increasing safety and environmental risks, the Arctic as a gray zone, challenges to the current rules of Arctic governance, China's increased economic and political involvement in the Arctic, and uncertainty about Greenland's geopolitical future.

The research revealed three key governance gaps and related potential solutions

  • The literature review, interviews, and tabletop exercise conducted for this study revealed three key governance gaps in relation to these catalysts: limited dialogue and transparency on military issues, limited capability to execute governance agreements, and tension between the growing need for inclusivity and Arctic states' interests. Such gaps do not themselves create conflict but could provide an opportunity or a motivation for states to resolve conflicts in ways other than regional cooperation, including military ones.
  • To address these gaps, Arctic stakeholders should improve currently limited dialogue and transparency on military issues, update and provide new capabilities to implement existing governance agreements, and enable more inclusivity in Arctic-relevant decisionmaking without challenging the sovereignty of Arctic states.

Funding for this effort was provided by the generous contributions of the RAND Center for Global Risk and Security Advisory Board. This research was conducted within the Center for Global Risk and Security (CGRS), part of International Programs at the RAND Corporation, and within the International Security and Defense Policy (ISDP) Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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