Ísland og Bandaríkin – og norðurslóðir – og Kína!

(Byggt á erindi sem ég flutti á fundi Amerísk-íslenska viðskiptaráðsins og haldinn var í tilefni af degi Leifs Eiríkssonar, 9. október síðastliðinn.)

 Á fundinum talaði einnig David Livingston hjá Atlantic Council, sem er bandarísk hugveita. Hann ræddi um bandarísk stjórnmál og hvers væri að vænta varðandi forsetakosningarnar á næsta ári.  Ég var beðinn um að fjalla um stöðuna í bandarískum stjórnmálum en einnig um samskipti Íslands og Bandaríkjanna.

Hvað samskiptin varðaði lagði ég upp með að í þeim hefðu nýir og óvæntir hlutir verið að gerast að undanförnu.

Ég benti á að þrátt fyrir fall Sovétríkjanna hefðu Bandaríkin áfram öryggishagsmuni á Íslandi vegna Rússlands, þótt með allt öðrum hætti væri en varðandi Sovétríkin. Ísland mundi ekki um fyrirsjáanlega framtíð fá svipaða hernaðarlega þýðingu fyrir Bandaríkin og í kalda stríðinu þótt landið tengdist samkeppni þeirra við Rússa.

Nú tengdist Ísland einnig samkeppni Bandaríkjanna og Kína á heimsvísu og hvernig hún væri að birtast á norðurslóðum. Það hefði komið fram í Íslandsheimsókn Mike Pence, varaforseta Bandaríkjanna, og heimsókn Mike Pompeo, utanríkisráðherra. Megináhersla í málflutningi þeirra var á norðurslóðir og áhuga Kínverja á þeim og á að ná fótfestu á Íslandi.

Eftirfarandi er megininntak erindisins, en fundur Amerísk-íslenska viðskiptaráðsins fór fram á ensku.

I was asked to talk about US politics but also the US-Icelandic relationship. So I will begin by making a few remarks about the presidential race in the United States. Then I shall mainly focus on US policy with regard to Iceland and the bilateral relationship – where interesting and rather unexpected things and events – have been taking place.

President Trump seems to me to have a real chance to be reelected if the economy continues to do well, and if he continues to be unusual. The first is obvious and based on conventional wisdom. The latter refers to whether Trump can successfully mobilise the people who really helped make him president in 2016 – the nonvoters who showed up for him and the voters who switched to him. For this to happen he needs to continue to be unusual. That includes being able to say that he keeps his election promises, at least that he is clearly doing his best to do so. He needs to be credible to his base, which means remaining combative and aggressive in the alleged struggle against the elite and the conspiracies of the Democrats, the elite and the liberal media that he maintains he and his followers are up against. The question is – will this work in 2020? Well, it will be an uphill fight for the President, but I think he has more of a chance than many seem to believe.

The president´s chances for reelection are of course strongly a function of who will run against him. I read recently that „With 17 major candidates, the Democratic 2020 presidential field is one of the largest, most competitive, and most unpredictable in modern history.“ Former Vice President Biden is a candidate in the center of the Democratic field and he has been the frontrunner. Now Elizabeth Warren has become a challenge and a threat to Biden from the left – and in what direction will that take Biden? Not to the right, that´s for sure. The Democratic primaries have, I understand, a tendency to push people into a more left – or progressive position – as they say in America. But the Democrats need to influence not the converted, but to persuade swing voters who might vote for Trump -to turn their back on his politics and go for the Democratic candidate. The challenge is to come up with one who can do this. That is what electability means for the Democrats. Electability is a real thing as one commentator put it recently, and it is not to be found by leaning to the left – as far as I understand US politics.

Meanwhile national election day is still more than a year away and in view of that and my modest expertise in the field I shall stop here.

What about the relationship between the United States and Iceland?  – Generally it is not influenced by US politics. That is so primarily for the reason that Iceland is linked to US history and security interests through geography. Iceland´s strategic location is still of interest to the US despite the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. So there is continuity but also a very interesting and recent change, but one which is also due to geography.

Let´s go quickly back in history: In World War II and during the Cold War Iceland´s strategic location was important to the security policy of the United States. The basic tenet of that policy was to prevent the rise of a dominant power on the European Continent. In World War 2 it was Nazi-Germany and later it was the Soviet Union which might become a such a continental hegemon and consequently a threat to Atlantic security and then on to North America.

One result would have been armed conflict in the North Atlantic between the dominant European power and the United States of America – including a battle over Iceland. Thus, from early in World War 2 and until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Icelandic security interests were basically the same as those of the United States. And during the World War allied bases in Iceland made an important contribution to victory over Germany and later to the containment and deterrence of the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union the threat to the Atlantic, North America – and Iceland – from a dominant continental power disappeared. That means Iceland will not in the foreseeable future acquire the strategic significance it had for the United States for a good part of the 20th century. We will not see the return of a permanent US military presence – a US military base – in this country. Nevertheless, Russia remains a nuclear power – including with missiles in submarines kept in the high north – in the Barents Sea.

A grave crisis or conflict between NATO and Russia is generally considered unlikely. But should it come to that, the focus by US forces in this part of the World and – as the case might be, by other NATO forces – would be on the high north. It would be on the defense of Northern Norway, on threatening the missile submarines in the Barents Sea and on attacking Northwest Russia where the Northern Fleet and its bases are located. The flip side of this scenario is, of course, that the primary role of Russia´s Northern Fleet is the defense of the missile submarines and Northwest Russia. Has been since the 1970s.

In the unlikely event, Iceland´s role would most probably be much smaller than in the Cold War. This is mainly due to the Northern Fleet´s limited capability, compared to the Soviet one, to reach out into the North Atlantic. This capability will be further reduced in coming years. Meanwhile a trend towards long range cruise missiles will make such a reach less necessary than before.

Still it is to be expected that some support to US and NATO forces in Norway and the northern Norwegian Sea would come from US military aircraft in Iceland, primarily maritime patrol and anti submarine warfare aircraft. Some support would probably also come from tanker aircraft in Iceland and – which in a way is a different story – to military airlift from North America to Europe.

All these strategic factors are important, and Russia is still a competitor to the United States in international politics – albeit far from being militarily a successor the the Soviet Union. But although they are significant, those strategic factors in northern waters and the Arctic are not central to the main geopolitical dynamics in the World today. Nor are those strategic factors new, but can be traced back several decades or more.

There is, however, a new factor at play in the Arctic and it is already affecting the relationship between Iceland and the US. And this new element is related to the main geopolitical competition in the World.

So, what is this new element?

This year both US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have visited Iceland. Two high level American visits in the same year? Unique in the history of the relationship. And the Vice President and the Secretary apparently came not to talk mainly about Russia or the Atlantic but primarily about the Arctic and more specifically about their concern about China in the Arctic – including in Iceland.

What´s going on?

Pompeo came in February. At a press conference following a meeting with his Icelandic colleague Pompeo said Iceland had been neglected by the US. He put this neglect into the context of US competition with the Chinese and the Russians in the Arctic.

Pompeo said, “We know that when America retreats, nations like China and Russia will fill the vacum…“.  He added that the first thing that needed to be done to counter Russia and China in the Arctic was „to find friends and allies who are in the region…No more will we take our friends, our true allies, our partners for granted. We simply can’t afford to neglect them.”

Although Russia was included in the discourse the focus was much rather on China. At a preview of Pompeo´s trip an unnamed US „senior official“ said that „part of the reason for the stop in Iceland is… the problem of the rivals of the West developing bridgeheads in various parts of the world. We see Iceland as a place where the Chinese would like to develop a bridgehead, including through port capabilities, and doing so would position Iceland to be a natural hub for China vis-a-vis the Arctic”.  The US needed to be more visible and give Iceland an alternative to “Chinese courtship.”

Very interesting.

Admittedly Pompeo spoke in general terms, understandably so since important aspects of developments in the Arctic have yet to emerge more fully. That may take a long time and depends obviously on the progress of global warming.

So this was Pompeo – last February. Vice President Pence came here in early September. He made a statement to the press and took a few questions. Most of what he said was about China and he went further than Pompeo.  Pence warned Iceland against the Chinese telecom giant Huawe. He also expressed US appreciation that the Icelandic Government had rejected China´sproposal that Iceland join China´s Belt and Road Initiative through a Memorandum of Understanding – an MOU. According to Icelandic ministers though, the Government has not rejected the MOU, but has not accepted it either. And seems to be reluctant to do so. The Chinese proposal has lain unanswered in the Foreign Ministry in Reykjavik for two years. By the way the other Nordic countries have not entered agreements with China either although the Baltic states have done so.

So what do the Chinese want in Iceland? Quite a bit it seems.Their Ambassador in Reykjavik says they want to enhance the „connectivity“ between China and Iceland. In his words: „With the great policy support of the Belt and Road Initiative and financial platforms as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Fund and the Silk Road Fund, China and Iceland can work together to build a connectivity network of land, maritime, air and cyberspace featuring tourism infrastructure, Polar Silk Road shipping routes, direct flight and 5G communication network…“ Moreover the Ambassador has said that Iceland fits well into the Belt and Road Initiative due to its geographic location as a hub for shipping and aviation should China succeed in developing a Polar Silk Road in the Arctic. He added that it was premature to speak of individual projects but added that mainly harbors and airports would come under consideration.

Now, what does Iceland want in its relationship with the United States? Well, during the Pence and Pompeo visits, reaching a free trade agreement appeared to be the main issue for the Icelandic Foreign Minister. Pompeo agreed to regular trade consultations between the two countries, but otherwise spoke, at least publicly, in very general terms – evasively even – about actual trade agreements. The Vice President seemed at best noncommittal. He mentioned trade only once when talking to the press – and it was with regard to the US trade conflict with China.

The US is by far the biggest market the Icelanders have with which they do not have a free trade agreement. In the best of circumstances it takes years to reach free trade agreements and business with tiny Iceland is of course of no economic significance to the United States. Perhaps, the apparent new China dimension in American policy towards Iceland may eventually help in this regard.

Let me begin to sum up – and make a couple of additional points.

It is worth repeating and stressing that neither Pence nor Pompeo made Russia a priority in their visits and there was no mention of any permanent presence of US military forces again in Iceland. They were not interested in the Atlantic, but the Arctic.  None of this is surprising given the radically different strategic context now compared to the Cold War and World War 2.

As I explained before:  A return of US military bases to Iceland is dependent on developments on the European Continent – not on developments in the Arctic.

The lack of emphasis by Pence and Pompeo on Russia probably reflects the fact that Russian strategic interests in the Arctic are known and predictable. Have been so for decades. Russia´s reach is limited beyond adjacent areas in that its navy is more and more a green water navy as they say rather than a force for blue water, or open ocean, operations.

The main purpose of the Pompeo and Pence visits seems clearly to have been to underline to the Chinese that Iceland is in the US sphere of influence. The Chinese for their part seem intent on gaining a foothold here and both Pompeo and Pence, but particularly the Vice President, were openly working to counter and preempt such a Chinese move.

So Iceland remains linked to American security interests vis a vis Russia, although more remotely than before and is now also linked to competition between the US and China. For that reason Iceland appears to be of greater interest to US than it has for quite some time. After years of indifference– even neglect, as Secretary Pompeo put it.

So what may the future behold?

The forces primarily shaping the international system are reflected in a historic geopolitical shift from dominance of the Euro-Atlantic area to that of the Asia-Pacific region. That´s where the center of gravity is moving. Away from our part of the World.

However, and with continued global warming and still no prospect of a transformation of world energy from strong dependence on fossil fuels, the signs are that the next several decades will see the opening of the Arctic well beyond what has taken place so far. The consequence will be greatly increased extraction of resources, the full opening of the Northern Sea Route and even –albeit still further in the future – of the Trans Polar Route across the Arctic. The latter would open the area to large container ships – a prerequisite for Arctic sea lanes providing any kind of an alternative to the Suez canal and other main shipping routes of the World.

While most likely quite a long way off, the opening of the Trans Polar Route would obviously lead to major geopolitical change making the Arctic an area of global significance. It would bring the North Atlantic back into geopolitical focus since there would be the Euro Atlantic part of the Trans Polar Route.  And at that Euro Atlantic part is where Iceland is located. – At what would be a crossroads – so to speak – between Europe, North America and Asia. On the Arctic shipping lanes that would then be linking those parts of the World. Finally the Trans Polar Route would open approaches to North America across the Arctic from Asia affecting the security interests of the United States.

All a long way off – most probably. Even so, the importance for the US to signal their interest in our part of the World to China is apparent. What  – in concrete terms – drives the Chinese interest in Iceland at this point in time and why they are pressing for an MOU now – is less clear.  Except as I said to gain a foothold, which to the Chinese may seem a concrete interest, even at this relatively early stage in Arctic developments.

Meanwhile the Icelanders have good reason to keep a close eye on developments and contemplate their short and long term interests when it comes to great power competition the Arctic.

 

 

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