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Cooperation in the Cold: The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement

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Cooperation in the Cold: The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement

Abstract

In spite of sensationalist accounts of Arctic geopolitics, states cooperate on a wide range of issue areas in the region. Accounts of this behavior usually take a rationalist approach where cooperation is explained variously by compatible national interests, interdependence, the work of regional institutions or the fact that these are 'low politics' issues. These explanations highlight useful variables but this paper argues that such a discussion should also include the material properties of the Arctic space and the human activities therein. I use a case study of the Arctic Search and Rescue (SAR) Agreement to illustrate this point. Negotiations towards the SAR Agreement went with noticeable smoothness and speed, starting in 2009 and culminating in the signing in 2011. This betrays an unusual confluence of interests among state parties which were at least partly determined by the environmental and economic properties of the region. Given the very limited SAR infrastructure in a vast region with harsh climatic conditions which was projected to see a rapid increase in shipping and exploitation, there was a huge pressure on states to quickly agree on a cooperative framework so as not to impede the commercial expansion of this economically underdeveloped region.
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Cooperation in the Cold: The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement
Daniel Lambach (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, lambach@normativeorders.net)
Abstract
Arctic states cooperate on many issues in the region. Accounts of this behavior often take a
rationalist approach where cooperation is explained by compatible national interests,
interdependence, the work of regional institutions or the ‘low politics’ nature of those issues. These
explanations are useful but this paper argues that such a discussion should also include the material
properties of the Arctic space and human activities therein. I use a case study of the Arctic Search
and Rescue (SAR) Agreement to illustrate this point. Negotiations towards the SAR Agreement went
with noticeable smoothness and speed from 2009 to the signing in 2011. Since then, implementation
has proceeded apace, with little disruption by deteriorating relations between Russia and the West in
the post-Crimea phase. This highlights an unusual confluence of interests among state parties which
were at least partly determined by the environmental and economic properties of the Arctic. Given
the very limited SAR infrastructure in a vast, climatically harsh area which was projected to see a
rapid increase in shipping and resource access, there was huge pressure on states to quickly agree on
a cooperative framework so as not to impede the commercial exploitation of this economically
underdeveloped region.
Author Bio
Daniel Lambach is a Heisenberg Fellow at the Cluster Normative Orders at Goethe University
Frankfurt, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Institute for Development and Peace and a Privatdozent at
the Faculty of Social Sciences, both at the University of Duisburg-Essen. He holds a PhD in Political
Science from the University of Cologne. His research interests are territoriality and political space in
the international system, especially the Arctic and the high seas, cyberspace and outer space.
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1. Introduction
The Arctic Search and Rescue (SAR) Agreement is a quite remarkable piece of international negotiation.
From the first meeting of the Task Force under the auspices of the Arctic Council (AC) in 2009 to the
signing of the agreement in 2011 lay less than two years. This is not only an unusually speedy example
of multilateral treaty negotiation, this was also a momentous occasion for the Arctic, as Heather Exner-
Pirot points out: ‘the first legally binding instrument developed under the auspices of the Arctic
Council, the intergovernmental forum established in 1996; and the first international legal agreement
developed for the Arctic since the Polar Bear Agreement of 1973’ (Exner-Pirot 2012, 195). It came at a
time where the AC had come to be seen as slow, inflexible and irrelevant, and where relations between
Russia and the United States and its Western allies were starting to worsen.
This kind of clean, uncontroversial cooperation is not how relations among Arctic nations are supposed
to go, at least if we go by widespread narratives that paint the region as one of conflict and as the site
of geopolitical and geoeconomic rivalry (Brosnan et al. 2011). This is not to say that such narratives are
wrong there are many issues where conflicts are clearly visible or at least latent, such as the
adjudication of competing continental shelf claims. However, there are also issue areas such as
environmental protection, fisheries and shipping where Arctic states cooperate efficiently and quietly
(Dodds 2019). Quite evidently, states compartmentalize and refrain from linking disparate issues
together (Østhagen 2016b).
Conflict narratives rely on explanations focusing on power politics, often from a Neorealist or Strategic
Studies perspective. In contrast, Liberal Institutionalist approaches highlight the economic upsides of
cooperation, interdependence among Arctic nations, and the role of the AC as a facilitator or even
driver of negotiations (see the surveys by Knecht and Keil 2013; and Keil 2014; also Dittmer et al. 2011).
This article explores the latter of these approaches to make sense of the unusually smooth negotiation
and implementation process of the SAR Agreement. The explanation will also address not just the fact
of the Agreement but also why it came about at this specific point in time and in spite of an unfavorable
institutional and geopolitical context. A theory of Arctic cooperation therefore needs to account for
change. From a Liberal Institutionalist perspective, such change may be explained via changes in
relations of interdependence, the institutional framework or from domestic politics. As for
interdependence and institutions, there was little change if anything, prospects for cooperation were
actually decreasing. As for the third, SAR cooperation is such a depoliticized issue that there simply is
no domestic political debate or pressure around it. Change therefore has to come from elsewhere. The
obvious answer is that change is happening in the environment, with global warming ‘opening up’ the
Arctic as an economic space.
Such climate-driven explanations are fairly popular among Arctic experts and commentators but they
sit at odds with more general International Relations (IR) theories of conflict and cooperation where
the environment is little more than a static, and mostly unimportant backdrop to politics. This is not
to argue for some ‘Arctic exceptionalism’, i.e. that the Arctic can only be understood on its own terms
(although there is an argument for that, see Young 1992), but to draw on the Arctic experience to
refine our understanding of international politics more generally. The major IR theories, drawn as they
are from Neorealism, Liberal Institutionalism and Social Constructivism, are missing an explanatory
dimension that really comes to the fore in the Arctic. The material structures of the region, meaning
the materiality and geography of the natural and the built environment, are that missing piece.
Crucially, this material environment should not be conceived as independent of, or prior to politics.
Instead, the environment is tightly enmeshed in international relations, shaping and being shaped by
political understandings, practices and discourses about the Arctic (Dittmer et al. 2011; Dalby 2013).
In that sense, we should not look at the Arctic as (another) case to test hypotheses derived from some
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IR paradigm, but ask what we can learn from the Arctic to help us improve IR theory so that we can
look at other regions and ask how the material environment matters for politics there.
The aim of this chapter is to move explanations for international cooperation towards a more
systematic engagement with material issues. To this end, it first offers a brief survey of existing
accounts of Arctic cooperation, highlighting their rationalist assumptions and geographic detachment.
It then explicates an alternative theoretical approach that supplements existing theories with a
material dimension, focusing on how the geographic properties of the Arctic and its existing human
infrastructure interact with discourses and practices of Arctic cooperation. The fourth part presents
the Arctic SAR Agreement as an example of cooperation that can be better explained by including this
material dimension in its account.
2. Explaining Arctic Cooperation
The literature on Arctic politics has expanded considerably since the mid-2000s. One strand of this
literature has been most concerned with geopolitical conflict risks as major regional powers start to
compete for territory and natural resources (Borgerson 2008; Huebert 2010; Kraska 2011). This
approach, which Dodds characterizes somewhat uncharitably as a ‘nightmarish neo-realist vision
of international politics with the central Arctic Ocean as an anarchic space’ (Dodds 2010, 63), has
received a lot of attention in the popular media. As a result, articles referring to an ‘Arctic oil rush’, a
Great Game’ or a ‘new Cold War’ (a particular favorite among newspaper subeditors) are a dime a
dozen, even as actual, overt conflict among Arctic states has, at least thus far, not materialized.
Another strand consists of contributions from political scientists, geographers and international
lawyers who focus on cooperation in a warming Arctic. Their accounts of why Arctic states cooperate
refer to a mix of factors. One is a convergence of interests among Arctic states. Brosnan, Leschine and
Miles (2011) compare Arctic strategies of the United States, Canada, Norway, Russia and Denmark
issued between 2006 and 2009, respectively, and identify several common themes, such as
environmental concerns, resource development, sovereignty, governance, scientific research and
shipping. They argue that ‘(t)he five coastal Arctic states have incentives to cooperate in all the
thematic areas examined in this article and there are opportunities for both collaboration and
coordination […] . In each case, a more optimal outcome advancing or preserving the interests of the
state may result from cooperation’ (Brosnan et al. 2011, 202), whether using a bilateral or multilateral
approach (similarly Haftendorn 2016). Keil broadly agrees with this analysis but cautions that states
attach different levels of importance to the Arctic as a whole or to particular issue areas. For instance,
she finds that Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark assign different priorities to sovereignty or
economic concerns, while the United States places a lower strategic importance on the region as a
whole compared to the other Arctic littoral states (Keil 2014, 164-165).
A second explanation attributes cooperation to a dense web of interdependent ties among Arctic
states. Of course, such an explanation is not incompatible with the first interdependence may be a
cause of shared interests as much as their result. But this approach takes a more systemic look
compared to the domestic-level view offered by the ‘converging interests’ explanation. As a prominent
example, Byers (2017) argues that the emergence of complex interdependence in the post-Cold War
era explains regional cooperation on a range of issues like the management of transboundary fish
stocks, continental shelf claims, shipping safety, access to oil and gas resources, Arctic science,
institution-building surrounding the AC as well as military cooperation through joint exercises (see also
Humrich 2018; Exner-Pirot 2013). Byers buttresses his argument by pointing out how small the effect
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of worsening Russian-Western relations after the 2014 Crimea invasion has been on Arctic
cooperation.
A third explanation comes from a more security-minded direction. It argues that great power
competition does not preclude cooperation in specific policy areas (‘low politics’) that have little effect
on national security (‘high politics’). Østhagen (2016b) uses such an approach to explain coast guard
cooperation between Russia and several Western countries which only saw a brief disruption post-
Crimea. This kind of sectoral Arctic cooperation between East and West in low-politics areas has a long
history, going as far back as the 1970s. Keskitalo describes the Cold War overtures between the Soviet
Union and Western states as follows: ‘Cooperation across Arctic areas was thus focused on the civilian
rather than on the military or strategic sphere and, in the main, on “soft” values for the area, one being
the environment a concern both at the time and historically’ (Keskitalo 2007, 194).
Such a long view also alerts us towards a fourth explanation around the role of trust. Through
continued interaction, Arctic actors have developed relationships of trust that facilitate agreement and
sustained cooperation. Transnational networks among polar scientists, military officers, diplomats,
indigenous communities and environmental activists (and sometimes across these groups) have
developed a depth and density that is not easily undone. That is why, e.g., Manicom (2011) is cautiously
optimistic that even boundary and resource conflicts among Arctic states can be managed if political
rhetoric can refrain from incendiary ‘sovereignty’ frames.
These explanations clearly have merit. In fact, cooperation in the Arctic often prevails even in difficult
times. These difficulties include the question how to manage Russian-Western relations after Crimea.
This has been a diplomatic challenge from which Arctic politics could not be entirely insulated. In
addition, there are long-standing frames of Arctic conflict that have to be overcome: ‘Harking back to
Cold War-era suspicions, analyses of the geostrategic importance of the Arctic often focus on Russia's
relations with the rest of the world and in particular the other Arctic states’ (Bruun and Medby 2014,
917). However, states have often managed to deal with these complications in constructive ways.
Converging interests, interdependence, the lower stakes of certain issues and a history of trust-
building go some way towards explaing these outcomes. States might even seem somewhat more
predisposed towards cooperation in the Arctic than they are in other regional arenas. For instance,
Wilson Rowe and Blakkisrud point out that the Arctic ‘is well-established in Russian political discourse
and foreign policy practice as an international relations “zone” where cooperation, a positive image
and stable relations with the “West” are valued’ (Wilson Rowe and Blakkisrud 2014, 67). As a result,
most cooperative institutions like the AC and initiatives in areas like shipping, fisheries, science and
SAR have survived Crimea and other crises more or less unscathed.
But the four explanations of cooperation also have two limitations. First, they all take rationalist
approaches to cooperation. Only the fourth one, trust-building, is open for mechanisms that move
beyond a rationalist paradigm. Rationalist explanations, in addition to Neo-realist takes that provide
important correctives regarding the limits of cooperation, usefully highlight a variety of factors that
help us understand why Arctic nations cooperate, but by their nature such explanations downplay the
role of identities and ideas in policy formulation. This is basically the critique by Knecht and Keil (2013)
who survey neorealist and liberal institutionalist accounts of conflict and cooperation in the Arctic and
find them both lacking (see also Dittmer et al. 2011; Dodds 2010). They advocate a constructivist
explanation of cooperation drawing on critical geopolitics, suggesting ‘that the way actors re-imagine
Arctic territory in the wake of the region’s climate change-induced politicisation shapes their foreign
policy behaviour and responsiveness to new risks and opportunities’ (Knecht and Keil 2013, 186). In
their analysis of US, Canadian and Russian strategies Knecht and Keil find that all states see little
contradiction between Arctic sovereignty and national territorial claims on the one hand, and the
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multilateral governance of issues of common concern on the other. From this we can take that
geopolitical discourse, images, narratives and ideas can also help us make sense of Arctic cooperation.
The second limitation is that the four explanations make little reference to the geographic
characteristics of the Arctic. Again, without wishing to argue for some kind of Arctic exceptionalism,
the Arctic is in many ways an unusual space and our explanations of international politics in that space
ought to reflect that, even as we try not to exoticize the region. This goes beyond present IR theorizing
about cooperation and makes for a richer theoretical approach which is explained in the section.
3. A Materialist Perspective on Arctic Cooperation
This paper argues that rationalist and constructivist explanations do not fully capture the forces driving
Arctic cooperation. To explain the puzzle of cooperation, we also have to look at the material
properties of the Arctic space and the human activities therein. To explain what I mean by that, I want
to first set out explicitly what I do not mean. First, this is not to advocate for any kind of geo-
determinism or geo-possibilism. Speaking of the material environment may sound like an evocation of
tropes associated with classical geopolitics but geography is not destiny. Geography and the
environment should not be understood as static but as something dynamic that changes in its relation
to human agents and systems (Dalby 2013). Second, I am not interested in theories of assemblages
and actor-networks where the agency of humans is conflated with that of things and the networks
surrounding them. Instead, my aim is to properly situate the material environment in the complex
interplay of spaces, discursive representations, technology and politics.
We can take the constructivist approach by Knecht and Keil as a point of departure. They write: ‘Our
main argument is that in the course of diminishing Arctic ice, the coastal states politicise a yet
“geopolitically undefined” region’ (Knecht and Keil 2013, 180). This is a fairly commonplace reading of
how climate change affects spatial constructions of the Arctic through localized environmental change,
placing ontological primacy on the environment. But the relationship between the two can also be
reversed. For example, Dittmer et al. (2011, 202-203) point out that the construction of Arctic space
works through the incorporation of the geographic and material properties of the land/seascape into
political discourses but that such discourses are selective in which properties they identify as salient.
Securitizing and exceptionalizing discourses of the Arctic refer to climate change but this shift in how
the Arctic is constructed is driven by political agents selecting discursive frames, not by environmental
change itself.
This shows how spatial constructions and environmental change in the Arctic go hand in hand.
Constructions make reference to the environment but are not necessarily immediate reactions to
climate change. Instead, agents select which kinds of change are politically salient (e.g. the opening up
of shipping routes or the accessibility of hydrocarbon resources) and which are not (e.g. permafrost
collapse or risks to livelihoods of indigenous peoples), and construct the Arctic space accordingly.
Albert and Vasilache sum it up well: ‘Neither is the Arctic a region that can be characterized by
supposedly “neutral” facts, nor is it amenable to arbitrary social constructions “at will”, so to speak’
(Albert and Vasilache 2017, 6). In other words, the environment places bounds on which social
constructions are tenable but there are always many possible interpretations. This entanglement of
the physical/material with the social/discursive in geopolitics should caution us against trying to tease
apart the various factors involved but rather conceptualize it as an interconnected web of causes which
are governed by their ‘intra-actions’ (Squire 2014).
Applying this approach to the Arctic, we start with its material properties. In terms of its physical
geography, the Arctic is still a very difficult environment for human activity. It is a geographically
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vast maritime domain that is far away from major population centers. It is extremely cold for most of
the year, posing a risk for humans and human-made artifacts. Daylight conditions vary dramatically
from season to season. These facts were important for traditional geopolitical constructions of the
Arctic as a ‘frozen wasteland over which intercontinental missiles might fly’ (Young 1997, 54). With
global warming setting off rapid changes in the physical environment of the Arctic, this ‘Arctic
wasteland’ construction has been long since retired. Nowadays, a multitude of constructions compete
for discursive hegemony (Albert and Vasilache 2017). One of the most prominent of these
constructions is of the Arctic as a region of economic prospects, as climate change makes shipping
routes, fishing grounds and undersea resources accessible (but see Buixadé Farré et al. 2014). This view
of the Arctic is widely shared among political decision-makers and regularly invoked in political
discourse.
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Constructing the Arctic as a future site of commercial exploitation directs our attention to the
infrastructure necessary to sustain economic activity in the region, such as ports, emergency services
or radio communications. In its 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), the AC concluded
that ‘(w)hen compared with marine infrastructure in the world’s other oceans, the Arctic is significantly
lacking throughout most of the circumpolar north’ (Arctic Council 2009, 154). Although the AMSA is a
already a decade old by now, this assessment of Arctic maritime infrastructure as being insufficient for
the projected growth of human activity still applies. We can break down these deficits in more detail.
The first thing to note is the low population density of the Arctic only about 4 million people live
north of the Arctic Circle, with only two cities (Murmansk and Norilsk) having more than 100,000
inhabitants. Such a low population density makes it very difficult to sustain a state presence as the
remoteness of the region imposes additional costs. Any asset will be more expensive and more difficult
to build, maintain and supply. Qualified personnel will be reluctant to move to the Arctic and will
require specialized training to work in extreme weather. Occupational health and providing adequate
health care in general are particular challenges in the Arctic (Dudarev et al. 2013).
A recurring theme in the AMSA and similar assessments (e.g. Buixadé Farré et al. 2014; Kiiski et al.
2016) is that the present shipping infrastructure of the Arctic is not capable of handling a significantly
larger traffic throughput. This includes aspects like port infrastructures as well as maritime traffic
control and monitoring. Since Arctic shipping lanes are mostly too far from the infrequent coastal
stations, they are in Sea Areas A3 (coverage through Inmarsat geostationary satellites, up to about 70-
75° latitute) or A4 (no coverage, beyond 75° latitude) of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety
System, requiring ships to carry specialized communications equipment (Łuszczuk 2014, 47, Fn. 49).
This is further compounded by the bad coverage of satellites and other forms of radiocommunications
in the region. It was only in 2010 that the Arctic was fully integrated into the World-Wide Navigational
Warning System, which is administered by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in
collaboration with the International Hydrographic Organization, through the creation of the five Arctic
NAVAREAs/METAREAs XVII-XXI.
Another vital aspect is emergency preparedness against human and environmental catastrophes.
Drewniak and Dalaklis warn that ‘there are vulnerabilities in the capabilities of certain countries within
the Arctic region to support safe and secure shipping operations and/or viable development
opportunities. In fact, the current state of readiness to respond to incidents related to health
emergencies, search and rescue (SAR) operations, and oil spill response is largely untested’ (Drewniak
and Dalaklis 2018, 428). Search and Rescue capabilities in particular ‘require specialised equipment
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It should be noted that this discourse tends to underestimate the inconvenient risks of sea ice becoming more
dynamic as the polar icesheet breaks up (Shake et al. 2017) another example how politically motivated framing
‘selects’ which material facts are incorporated into discourse and spatial constructions.
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and infrastructure that is land-based, such as radar and satellite stations, weather observation or GPS
infrastructure, as well as sea-based, such as vessels in other words, SAR is capacity-intensive’
(Hansen-Magnusson 2019, 11; see also Steinicke and Albrecht 2012). Responses to pollution incidents
are also very demanding.
Vessels with icebreaking capability are a core technology for many of the aforementioned tasks
(Drewniak and Dalaklis 2018, 441). The problem is that most Arctic states only have small numbers of
aging icebreakers, with new vessels only recently being commissioned (Moe and Brigham 2017). As a
result, there are doubts whether icebreaking capabilities can be renewed fast enough, and if such an
investment will even pay off. In models run by Kiiski et al. (2016), shipping along the Northern Sea
Route (NSR) will continue to require icebreakers far into the 21st century, limiting the economic payoffs
from the development of that route. But if upfront investments in icebreaking capabilities are not
made, any growth to shipping along the NSR will be sharply curtailed.
The NSR is a good example of current infrastructural deficits in the Arctic. Drewniak and Dalaklis
highlight a lack of trained crews, a reliable marine traffic system, navigational charts, ice navigation
training, port services capable of dealing with ship-generated waste, and an adequate emergency
management system as major issues in need of addressing (Drewniak and Dalaklis 2018, 437). And this
is for a route that is entirely controlled by a single country Russia so there are not even any of the
inefficiencies that are generated by the multilateral governance of a waterway! By way of comparison,
Drewniak and Dalaklis describe the infrastructure along the Northwest Passage (NWP) in even more
negative terms, calling it ‘extremely underdeveloped’ (Drewniak and Dalaklis 2018, 446), although this
is conditioned by the fact that the route has only been reliably navigable for larger ships for a much
shorter time than the NSR.
In sum, optimistic discourses about the economic prospects of a changing Arctic are inevitably
tempered by more sceptical counter-claims referring to the physical (the vast size of the Arctic and the
difficult climatic and daylight conditions) and the built environment (the lack of a suitable
infrastructure). Where these two discourses meet, they agree on an obvious way forward: If current
conditions inhibit economic expansion, then Arctic states need to increase their presence and
capabilities (Østhagen 2015, 145) by upgrading ports and communications systems and setting up
emergency response infrastructure. Where national efforts are not sufficient to close the capability
gap, states need to cooperate to pool their capabilities. That this implication has tremendous political
power is evidenced by several multilateral initiatives beyond the SAR Agreement, such as the Arctic
Council’s Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response (2013) and
the IMO’s International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (2014).
Hence, the mainstream position tells a tale of economic opportunity hampered by a still-difficult
environment. But from a critical perspective in the vein of Dittmer et al., this is a tale of political actors
seizing an opportunity to establish a discourse consistent with their economic, political and military
goals in the Arctic. From the perspective of this article, it is both and neither: Both perspectives would
not work without reference to the material properties of the Arctic environment, its geography and
their respective changes. Discursive representations have to correspond somewhat to physical reality
and cannot be deployed and evaluated in a detached manner. All these things the material
environment, the physical infrastructure, discourse constructions of space, and politics are
interrelated (see Steinberg 2001, 21-22). If we assume, simply as a thought experiment, that there
were an SAR and shipping infrastructure in the Arctic comparable to that of major oceanic traffic lanes
in the world, then constructions of the Arctic as ‘vast’ and ‘empty’ would not get much traction. But
these constructions still hold and are based on physical geography and a lack of human presence and
activity. And now that activity is projected to increase, so do infrastructural needs. This means that a)
both rational interests and self-conceptions of Arctic states point towards cooperation to provide the
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necessary SAR capacities but b) that these determinants of state interests cannot be divorced from the
Arctic environment and its changes.
4. The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement
The Arctic SAR Agreement is a good example of this interaction of the environment, discourse and
politics. As mentioned above, the Arctic represent a difficult environment for search and rescue
operations. The vast distances involved, the harsh climatic conditions, the darkness and the lack of
support infrastructure (ports, airstrips, hospitals, communications) are particular challenges (Steinicke
and Albrecht 2012, 6-7). Since shipping and tourism are dependent on sufficient SAR capabilities, this
area was quickly identified as in need of improvement by Arctic states (Brosnan et al. 2011). But SAR
had always been a concern in the region, even before current discourses of the economic potential of
the Arctic became predominant. Arctic states had negotiated bilateral and subregional SAR
agreements among each other to coordinate SAR in specific parts of the Arctic Ocean long before the
Arctic SAR Agreement came about (Arctic Council 2009, 172). Sydnes et al. (2017) discuss the example
of the 1995 Norway-Russia agreement covering the Barents Sea which continued a tradition of SAR
cooperation between the two countries going back as far as 1956. Takei (2013, 84, Fn. 20) lists no
fewer than ten different, mostly bilateral agreements and memoranda from between 1949 and 1994.
Given that this patchwork regime was already in place, why did AC members decide to negotiate a
comprehensive SAR Agreement at all? First, the issue was clearly gaining salience throughout the
2000s. Russia had pushed for an international agreement on Arctic SAR since 2001, likely to facilitate
increased transport through the Northern Sea Route. In 2004, the Arctic Council’s Protection of the
Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) working group commissioned a study that was published in 2009
as the AMSA. In the meantime, improving SAR capabilities was prominently mentioned in the 2008
Ilulissat Declaration of the Arctic Five (A5), where it was explicitly tied to the increased use of Arctic
waters for shipping, tourism and resource exploitation. The AMSA provided the ‘political impetus’
(Exner-Pirot 2012, 197) for a SAR agreement. It called for a comprehensive multilateral instrument to
pool national SAR capabilities. The AC took note of the AMSA’s recommendations and established a
task force to hammer out an agreement at its biannual ministerial meeting in April 2009 (Rottem 2014,
286-287). This task force first met in December 2009, co-chaired by the United States and the Russian
Federation. It conducted another four meetings in 2010. ‘The most contentious issue was whether the
Arctic SAR treaty should be binding, which the Russians favored to ensure mandatory internal
compliance, or non-binding, which the Americans favored to facilitate quicker adoption. Ultimately,
the agreement was established as a legally-binding instrument, a year and a half after formal
negotiations began’ (Exner-Pirot 2012, 197). The Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and
Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, as it is formally called, was signed by AC members on 12
May 2011 in Nuuk, Greenland. It entered into force on 19 January 2013 upon ratification by all states
parties.
The reasons for this unusually smooth negotiation and ratification process cannot be pinned down
with complete certainty. As discussed above, we can see a strong convergence of interests and shared
framings of the problem among all Arctic states. Anton Vasiliev (2013, 56-57), co-chair of the Task
Force, highlights the constructive and friendly atmosphere of the deliberations. In addition, the
agreement heavily draws on legal templates provided by the IMO’s SAR Convention, Annex 12 of the
International Civil Aviation Organization Convention, and article 98 of UNCLOS (Exner-Pirot 2012, 197).
Having such established international legal language at their disposal surely made the negotiation
process easier for state delegates who were already in broad agreement on the purpose and scope of
the treaty. However, we cannot be certain of this, because, as Wood-Donnelly reports, ‘in the case of
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the SAR Agreement, no negotiation documents exist and most participants in this process were
unwilling or unable to make comment on the reason for their nonexistence. The lack of negotiation
documents makes it impossible to precisely determine the elements of state interest discussed during
the negotiation process’ (Wood-Donnelly 2013, 301).
The agreement itself is relatively brief. It consists of 20 articles, an annex and three one-page
appendices, and frequently refers to other conventions. Notably, its geographical coverage extends
beyond the Arctic Circle. The SAR regions in the Pacific Ocean (for Russia and the United States) and in
the North Atlantic (for Canada, Denmark and Iceland) extend south of the Arctic Circle to line up with
existing SAR regions (Takei 2013, 86-87).
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The aim of the agreement is relatively modest, to improve
SAR cooperation in the Arctic: ‘Amongst those efforts specifically encouraged by the agreement are
the exchange of information around positions, weather, facilities, training, and experience;
arrangement of visits between key search and rescue personnel and joint exercises and training; and
the sharing of personnel, equipment, and services in search and rescue operations’ (Exner-Pirot 2012,
198). The Agreement’s main improvement is enhanced collaboration between the national Search and
Rescue Agencies identified in Appendix II, but otherwise domestic legislation remains paramount. The
process for entering the internal waters of another country remains complicated, still requiring the
permission of that country even during emergencies (Art. 8).
In terms of content alone, it is hard to dispute Exner-Pirot’s assessment that ‘(t)he agreement itself is
not overly impressive’ (Exner-Pirot 2012, 195). But despite its limited practical impact, we should ‘not
underestimate the agreement’s symbolic and political significance’ (Rottem 2014, 289). First, the
Agreement was the first new legal instrument developed for the Arctic in almost four decades (Exner-
Pirot 2012, 195). Second, being the first instrument worked out through the AC, it gave that institution,
which had been criticized as slow and inflexible and whose value was called into question by the
formation of the A5, a much-needed boost. Wood-Donnelly points out that ‘(t)he SAR Agreement was
signed at the same Ministerial Meeting at which the Arctic Council provided for a permanent
secretariat’, thereby consolidating ‘the council as the central organisation of Arctic international
relations’ (Wood-Donnelly 2013, 300). Third, Exner-Pirot (2012) argues that the SAR Agreement
matters in terms of confidence-building among policymakers and militaries, prioritizing the diplomatic
success over any substantial advance in SAR coverage. In that, we may compare the SAR Agreement
to the 2018 Fisheries Agreement, which Dodds characterizes as a ‘starting point for further negotiation
over the CAO [Central Arctic Ocean] as an object of interest’ (Dodds 2019, 10). Finally, Rottem points
out that the SAR Agreement ‘may increase awareness of the safety challenges in the Arctic’ (Rottem
2014, 289).
Since the Agreement has been in force, states have expanded their national SAR capabilities. As for the
forms of cooperation stipulated in Art. 9 of the Agreement, implementation has focused on institution-
building to deepen and expand contacts among participating agencies, and on holding multinational
training exercises. Institutionally, the biggest innovation has been the inauguration of the Arctic Coast
Guard Forum (ACGF) in 2015. The ACGF brings together representatives from Coast Guards and other
SAR agencies from among the eight AC members for an annual meeting, workshops and exercises to
2
States showed considerable flexibility in the delimitation of SAR regions. The SAR regions established under the
SAR Agreement (see the Agreement’s Annex) mostly conform to existing bilateral treaty lines (Wood-Donnelly
2013, 306). Crucially, Art. 3 (2) of the Agreement states that [t]he delimitation of [SAR] regions is not related to
and shall not prejudice the delimitation of any boundary between States or their sovereignty, sovereign rights or
jurisdiction. This allowed states to agree to SAR zones without prejudicing their maritime territorial claims, e.g.
in the Beaufort Sea the 141° W meridian is used to divide the Canadian and American SSRs all the way to the
North Pole, notwithstanding the on-going dispute between the two countries as to the location of the maritime
boundary, while the remote and nearly unpopulated Norwegian island of Jan Mayen is placed entirely within the
Icelandic SSR(Byers 2013, 277, Fn. 154).
10
strengthen multilateral cooperation and coordination (Østhagen 2016a). It coordinates its activities
with the AC, specifically its Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group.
The EPPR has set up, also in 2015, a permanent SAR Experts Group to monitor and promote the
implementation of the SAR Agreement. Beyond the AC, SAR cooperation also works through
established institutions outside the AC like the Barents Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (BEAR) framework
and through new, dedicated institutions like the Arctic and North Atlantic Security and Emergency
Preparedness Network (ARCSAR). ARCSAR is a network funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 program
involving SAR agencies, ship operators and universities from 13 countries to share and disseminate
knowledge and research about Arctic SAR.
There have been a number of joint SAR exercises under the auspices of the Arctic SAR Agreement (see
Sydnes et al. 2017, 119-121; Finnish Border Guard 2017, 29 plus various websites). These are:
Arctic SAR Table Top Exercise (Whitehorse, Canada, 5-6 October 2011)
SAREX Greenland Sea 2012, live exercise involving ships from Canada, US, Russia, Norway,
Denmark and Iceland (off Eastern Greenland, 10-14 September 2012)
SAREX Greenland Sea 2013, live exercise involving ships from Canada, US, Iceland and
Denmark (off Eastern Greenland, 2-6 September 2013)
Arctic Zephyr, table-top exercise involving all AC countries except Russia (Anchorage, United
States, 19-22 October 2015)
Arctic Chinook, US-Canadian exercise with all AC countries observing (including Russia)
(Kotzebue, United States, 22-25 August 2016)
Arctic Guardian 2017, live exercise organized by the ACGF involving all eight AC members (off
Iceland, 5-9 September 2017)
Polaris 2019, live exercise organized by the ACGF involving all eight AC members (off Finland,
2 April 2019)
There are also frequent cooperative exercises outside of the SAR Agreement, such as the biannual
‘Barents Rescue Exercises’ under the umbrella of the BEAR’s Joint Committee on Rescue Cooperation
in the Barents Region. There is also a series of Arctic SAR Workshop and Table Top Exercises, held
annually in Reykjavik since 2016, initiated by the Association of Arctic Cruise Operators in tandem with
coast guards and other SAR responders as well as shipping and cruise companies from Iceland, the
Nordic states, Canada and the US. In addition, Norway and Russia have held annual bilateral exercises
(‘Exercise Barents’) since the 1980s.
Notably, these joint exercises have been held without disruption, whatever the state of relations
between Russia and Western states. Even as joint military exercises, such as the long-running biannual
US-Russian-Norwegian ‘Northern Eagle exercise, were cancelled in 2014, SAR cooperation continued
without a hitch. In November 2014, the Russian Kamchatka Border Guard District requested US Coast
Guard assistance when a South Korean fishing vessel sank in the Bering Sea, with US ships participating
in the seach for survivors under Russian coordination (Østhagen 2016b, 90). Only at a diplomatic level
was Crimea briefly felt, in two instances. First, Canada denied visas to Russian Coast Guard officials for
two expert meetings preparing the inauguration of the ACGF in 2014. But even there, normality was
quickly restored. Russian delegates were present at further meetings in the United States in 2015, the
second of which formally inaugurated the Forum (Østhagen 2016b, 90). Second, Russia, as the only AC
member state, declined to participate in the 2015 Arctic Zephyr exercise. Beyond these two instances,
Russia and Western powers fence off SAR from other areas of (defence) cooperation. In some cases,
there were NATO military exercises in Northern Europe with a clear anti-Russian posture and live SAR
exercises involving both Russian and Western agencies within a few weeks of each other. In short,
Crimea has had surprisingly little impact on SAR cooperation.
11
On a political level, SAR cooperation is reasonably secure. SAR is well insulated from other issues and
AC member states stand behind the agreement. Institutions are in place and states adhere to the
agreement. But there are still deficits in practical SAR coverage. For one, there are still significant
capability gaps at the national level that require further investment. The number of ship transits is still
small and the SAR arrangements have not been put to any great test, but as traffic increases, deficits
will start to show. Finally, a survey of ACGF members shows that there are still areas where cooperation
can be improved at a practical level. Respondents indicate that information-sharing can be improved
e.g. through information sharing platforms connecting different national reporting systems, that there
are inefficiences in the utilization of foreign units during emergencies requiring international
cooperation, and that SAR personnel should have more access to cross-national training (Finnish
Border Guard 2017, 16-28). So, as much as the SAR Agreement is a political success, there is still much
to do before there are sufficient SAR services in the Arctic.
5. Conclusion
The negotiation, ratification and implementation of the Arctic SAR Agreement is one of the smoothest
processes of interstate cooperation we are likely to find in contemporary global politics. And there are
many factors that made this possible, such as the expected payoffs, the complex interdependence, the
‘low politics’ nature of SAR, and a regional institutional framework. But the explanation would be
incomplete without factoring in the specific materiality of the Arctic and the human-built
infrastructure.
The SAR Agreement was made possible, or even necessary, by a strong disconnect between discourse
and the material environment. On the discursive side, all actors follow a script of the Arctic as an
emerging economic space, with an increase in shipping throughput and alluring prospects of resource
access. On the material side, the Arctic as a natural environment is a very inhospitable space in which
to pursue these economic opportunities, and will continue to be so for a long time even as climate
change continues to break up the polar icesheet. The material infrastructure as it exists today is
incapable of sustaining a much higher level of human activity. As a result, states have articulated strong
interests to invest into Arctic infrastructure. But given the size of the area, its remoteness, and its low
population density, making up the infrastructure shortfall would be very expensive and difficult for any
state on their own. That, plus the transboudary nature of many of the resources (including shipping
lanes), creates strong pressures to improve cooperation among national SAR services (but see
Østhagen 2016a for the limitations of SAR cooperation).
This shows how mutually entangled geography, the built infrastructure, discursive constructions and
political incentives are. Of course, the SAR case is particularly emblematic of that, and its lessons might
not travel well to other issues, such as defence cooperation where Arctic relations are more tightly
entangled with global politics. But it seems possible to apply a similar approach to other issue areas
with strong spatial and infrastructural components, e.g. natural resource governance, fisheries or
environmental protection. Not coincidentally, these are also areas where Arctic states have taken steps
to deepen international cooperation, e.g. through the 2013 Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil
Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (under AC auspices) or the 2018 Agreement to
Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean (signed by the A5 plus the EU,
China, Iceland, Japan and South Korea)
At least for these and similar fields, if we seek to disentangle geography, infrastructure, discourse and
politics in the pursuit of theoretical parsimony we risk painting an incomplete picture. Instead, we
should explore their interconnections in more depth to see how we can bring idealist, rationalist and
12
materialist explanations together. That would go some way towards de-exoticising and de-
exceptionalising the Arctic even though this article might seem to suggest the opposite. The Arctic
throws the entangledness of space, discourse and politics into sharp relief, allowing us to revise our
theoretical assumptions not just about Arctic politics but about international politics more generally.
We can see, for instance, that the Arctic is subject to the same process of ‘zoning and routinization’
(Ryan 2015, 571) as other parts of the global ocean (Steinberg 2001). The ‘wild’ Arctic is slowly being
transformed into a managed, routinized and governed maritime space. The SAR Agreement is but one
of the pieces of this larger puzzle.
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