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Research Questions

  1. What levers of influence does the UK have, or can it develop, to promote a High North future out to 2050 that is coherent with its existing, and future, strategic interests?
  2. Which areas of UK Government policy are likely to be affected by and/or to affect the changing strategic environment in the High North over the next 30 years?
  3. What is the current state of cooperation on High North strategy and policy across the different parts of UK Government?
  4. To what extent and how might the UK's strategic interests be affected in the absence of more coherent cross-government High North strategy and policy?
  5. How might cross-government cooperation on High North strategy and policy be further developed and improved, given anticipated changes in the region out to 2050?
  6. What are threats and opportunities associated with using different multilateral fora to pursue UK strategy and policy in conjunction with other actors?

In recent years, the Arctic and wider High North have re-emerged as an area of concern for policymakers, reflecting changes in climate and geopolitics. Rapid ice-melting and associated changes — such as rising sea levels resulting from higher temperatures — are opening new maritime routes and access to natural resources. Ongoing climate and environmental changes are rightly provoking global concern, but also bring renewed political, security, military and economic interest in the Arctic.

Though the UK is not an Arctic state, its strategic position neighbouring the region, its reliance on sea lines of communication, its role in NATO and its leadership on climate-change issues all entail a need for close engagement with developments in the High North. The Integrated Review released in March 2021 emphasised the UK's strategic interests in the Arctic and broader High North region. The Defence Command Paper that accompanied the Integrated Review similarly emphasised the importance of the High North in maintaining security in defence of the North Atlantic and called for enhanced capabilities and use of multilateral partnerships to better secure the region.

To be successful, the UK's approach must be underpinned by a clear understanding of the different diplomatic, information, military and economic levers through which the government can exert influence, either unilaterally or through cooperation with others. This project identified areas for further action or investigation, including a need to better understand how different parts of government could work together on High North issues and how the UK could maximise its influence over developments in the High North through international fora.

Key Findings

  • The main strategic enabler for the UK to shape developments in the High North resides in sustaining effective relations with Arctic countries.
  • Good bilateral relations can also rely on military cooperation, leveraging the UK's 'hard power' capabilities and mechanisms for defence engagement.
  • On science, climate and environment, the UK has strong assets and arguments to seek a greater role in the Arctic and broader High North region.
  • Development in the Arctic may provide opportunities for growing government and commercial space capabilities, given the UK's access to relevant orbits.
  • The Arctic may become an increasingly important consideration for the UK economy in coming decades, presenting both opportunities and risks.
  • International fora tend to focus on legal and economic levers but offer only limited opportunities to develop military influence within the Arctic.

Recommendations

  • The UK government should develop a cross-governmental strategy of engagement with the High North bringing all relevant stakeholders together.
  • The UK military should reinforce High North-oriented naval cooperation and promote a common threat assessment with relevant countries not limited to the Arctic.
  • The UK should prioritise scientific research and collaboration with academic in the context of a cross-governmental strategy of engagement with the High North.
  • The UK should privilege soft power influence to engage with Arctic-focused fora such as the Arctic Council while exerting a leadership role in NATO on High North issues.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the Global Strategic Partnership (GSP) and conducted by RAND Europe.

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