With growing interest in the Arctic region in recent years, Iceland has again become strategically important due to its location in the North Atlantic. World powers such as the European Union and China have shown increased interest in the country primarily with the aim of strengthening their own position in the region.
The aim of the EU and China has in fact been to fill a certain vacuum of influence which was created after the United States military gradually withdrew from Iceland after the Cold War and then finally left in 2006. Since World War II, Iceland has been considered in an American zone of influence but the withdrawal of the US military has resulted in a number of Icelanders looking more towards other parts of the world for security and support as well as trade.
Embassy with 500 staff members?
During World War II Iceland was considered of great importance because of its location. Britain occupied Iceland in 1940 to prevent the country from falling into the hands of the Germans, which could have had serious consequences for the Battle of the Atlantic. The year after, the Americans agreed to take over the defense of Iceland as the British desperately needed their forces elsewhere.
The U.S. military was in Iceland for about six decades as the country continued to serve an important role during the Cold War in keeping an eye on Soviet military activities in the North Atlantic. With the end of the Cold War, however, the US government wanted to reduce its military in Iceland which eventually led to a total evacuation in 2006 after failed negotiations with the Icelandic government.
Today Iceland's strategic importance is rather economic and geopolitical than from the military point of view. The melting of ice in the Arctic has created both opportunities and challenges. Not the least regarding possible new shipping routes and natural resources, which haven't been accessible before because of the ice.
Both the EU and China have put great emphasis on gaining access to natural resources in Greenland, which are increasingly becoming available. Their interest in Iceland has also grown very much. China has for example sent a number of high profile delegations to the country and its embassy in Iceland has reportedly been greatly expanded to include staff up to 500 people. Furthermore, the two countries concluded a landmark free trade deal last year.
Considers Iceland 'a strategic bridgehead'
The European Union has on the other hand been trying to get Iceland to become one of its member states with the primary aim of strengthening Brussels' position towards the Arctic. The European Parliament for example stated in a resolution on March 14, 2012 that having Iceland onboard would "significantly enhance the Union's prospects of playing a more active and constructive role in Northern Europe and in the Arctic" and that the country "could become a strategic bridgehead in the region and its accession to the EU would further anchor the European presence in the Arctic Council." Brussels also probably has seen Icelandic EU membership as symbolic since the country would then in fact be formally transferred from a US zone of influence to an EU one.
However, despite having sent a membership application to Brussels in 2009, Iceland is nevertheless highly unlikely to ever become member of the EU. The country's new center-right government, which took power after the general elections last spring, has halted the EU accession talks mainly due to a serious lack of political and public support in the country for joining the bloc.
The two political parties which form the new government, the conservative Independence Party and the centrist Progressive Party, are both opposed to EU membership and for more than four and a half years now every opinion poll published in Iceland has shown large majority against joining up. As a consequence the EU application is widely expected to be formally withdrawn later this year.
Relationship that needs to be mended
The relations between Iceland and the United States have been very close for decades. Initially as a result of the military alliance between the two countries but later on because of the close friendship that ensued. This relationship is still strong but has nevertheless become significantly weaker in recent years since the U.S. military left the country in 2006. Both the interests of Iceland and the United States would certainly be well served by strengthening this relationship. Not the least because of the challenges faced in the Arctic.
Today's challenges, however, rather require closer trade ties than direct military cooperation -- although the latter remains very important as always. A free trade agreement between Iceland and the United States, either with Iceland directly or through its membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), would be a large step towards mending the long standing alliance between the two countries. The new Icelandic government has the policy of seeking stronger ties with the U.S. The question is: What about Washington?
Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson is an Icelandic historian and journalist. He holds a master's degree in international affairs with emphasis on European studies and security and defense studies.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.