Skip to main content

No. 26 | NATO in the Arctic: 75 years of Security, Cooperation, and Adaptation

Elley Donnelly

As NATO commemorates its 75th birthday on April 4th, we celebrate the alliance’s steadfast commitment to a peaceful and prosperous Arctic. The High North has been intricately woven into NATO's trajectory since its inception, embodying a nexus of geopolitical importance and strategic interests that have profoundly influenced the alliance's evolution. 

Formed in 1949 in collective response to the threat of Soviet aggression, NATO’s foundational membership included Arctic states such as Canada, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, and the United States. These countries held national interests in the Arctic, and understood the strategic significance of the region, its potential as a military theater, and its role in global maritime trade. The participation of these states laid the groundwork for NATO's consideration of the Arctic as a crucial frontier for security interests from the outset.  

The Arctic’s unique geography is characterized by unforgiving icy waters, remote islands, and vast expanses, which have continually influenced NATO's strategic calculus. During World War II, the Arctic theater saw the tactical importance of weather control, known as the Weather War, where Allied and Axis powers sought to manipulate weather patterns to gain military advantage in the region. The proximity of NATO’s Arctic boundaries to Russia's northern borders further underscores the region’s significance as a potential flashpoint for geopolitical competition.  

Cold War Era: Tension in the Arctic 

During the Cold War, the Arctic emerged as a critical frontline in the confrontation between NATO and the Soviet Union. The distinctive Arctic landscape, including the strategic Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap, proved conducive to intelligence gathering and asset positioning. The Arctic Ocean also served as a potential route for Soviet submarines and bombers, heightening NATO’s concerns. The increased military activity and perceived threat prompted NATO to establish a robust defensive presence in the region. The Cold War era witnessed the deployment of early warning systems, military bases, and surveillance efforts designed for Soviet deterrence and safeguarding NATO's interests in the Arctic, while also securing transatlantic supply lines critical for Western defense.   

The end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of cooperation in the Arctic, characterized by dialogue and collaboration among Arctic states. NATO, in recognition of the changing dynamics of the region, adapted its approach to emphasize cooperation and engagement with regional partners, including NATO partners Finland and Sweden, and adopting the Norwegian motto “High North, Low Tension.” One product of this era of renewed cooperation was the creation of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which laid the groundwork for the Arctic Council; the strategy is a multilateral agreement amongst Arctic states which addressed monitoring and assessments, environmental protections, emergency preparedness and response, and Arctic conservation. The new attitude towards an Arctic future materialized in participation in joint exercises and diplomatic cooperation with non-NATO members, through forums such as the NATO-Russia Council, further reflecting NATO's commitment to promoting wide-ranging stability and dialogue in the region.   

Adapting to a Changing Arctic Landscape 

In recent years, the Arctic has once again emerged as a focal point for geopolitical competition and security challenges. Rapid climate change has led to the melting of ice caps, opening new shipping routes, access to natural resources, and potential military activity. Moreover, Russia's assertive actions, which include military buildup and exercises in the Arctic, have raised concerns about security and stability in the region. Diplomatic forums for dialogue, such as the operations of the Arctic Council, have been interrupted. These developments pose complex challenges that require a comprehensive and adaptive approach from NATO. 

In response to these challenges, NATO has reaffirmed its commitment to the defense and security of the Arctic. The organization recognizes the need for a flexible and forward-looking approach that adapts to the evolving Arctic landscape. In his keynote address at the 10th Arctic Circle Assembly last year, Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee, unveiled Regional Plan North—one of several regional plans to be implemented by NATO as part of the organization’s restructuring. Alongside the regional plan, NATO’s new Arctic posture includes enhancing surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, improving interoperability among member states, and strengthening partnerships with Arctic nations and multilateral organizations, such as the Arctic Council. This new posture was reiterated in the NATO Vilnius Summit Communique in July 2023, which stated “NATO and Allies will continue to undertake necessary, calibrated, and coordinated activities, including by exercising relevant plans.” NATO's strategy in the Arctic emphasizes the importance of addressing both traditional and emerging security threats, ensuring the region remains stable and secure. 

As NATO celebrates its 75th year, the enduring importance of the Arctic to the alliance underscores a dynamic partnership rooted in security, cooperation, and adaptation. Finland and Sweden joined the organization’s ranks during the last year, bringing the total number of Arctic states in NATO to seven—the only outlying Arctic state being Russia. Despite contemporary geopolitical challenges, NATO's sustained involvement in the Arctic reflects a commitment to safeguarding its member states. As the Arctic continues to evolve, NATO will remain poised to adapt and respond, ensuring a peaceful and prosperous future for all members of the Arctic community 

About the Author

Elley Donnelly

Elley Donnelly

Program Associate, Polar Institute
Read More

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more