Published July 26, 2018
Following the predictably contentious NATO summit in Brussels July 11th-12th, the office of Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir announced that Iceland would host the organisation’s fourteenth annual Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Conference on October 29th & 30th in Reykjavík.
The purpose of the yearly meeting is to coordinate efforts on WMD nonproliferation and eventual disarmament. Much of the rancour at the summit was about defence spending. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg issued a report showing an increase in spending across the alliance, but the U.S. President wanted more. The United States, already the alliance’s biggest spender, has substantially upped its defence expenditures since Trump took office. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, meanwhile, is the leader of Iceland’s avowedly pacifist Left-Green party. This is a very unusual position for the leader of a NATO member state, which is reflected in the Prime Minister’s statement issued to The Reykjavík Grapevine:
“I would say that a crucial element in security is not only active, ongoing, and productive conversations between nations and heads of state but also between grassroot organisations such as Nobel Peace Prize Winners ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) and organisations such as NATO. This is why I believe we would all benefit from a side event with the participation from organisations such as ICAN on the margins of this upcoming NATO summit on WMD in Iceland. I would also like to add that Iceland is a nation without a military and we will always advocate for a peaceful solution to conflict.”
Against chemical weapons
The foreign ministry is expecting around one hundred attendees, including senior government officials, experts in WMD, and directors-general of international organisation, such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation. The agenda has not been finalized, but sessions will focus on how NATO can help stop the spread of WMD and facilitate disarmament in accordance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There will aso be discussions on developments in the use of chemical weapons and missile technology. The event with ICAN is not expected to be on the formal agenda but will be attended by the prime minister and many conference attendees.
Indeed, Iceland does not have a standing military but has committed personnel and resources to combat zones, including the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and, most controversially, Iraq. Then prime minister, Davíð Oddsson, committed Iceland to George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” in what many believe was an illegal decision. Davíð strongly opposed the closure of the US base in Iceland and thought joining the coalition might save it. The base closed in 2006.
Reaching the summit
NATO in general, and the Keflavík basein particular, been a contentious issue since the organisation was founded in 1949. After World War II, US and allied forces withdrew from Iceland, which was shortly after the republic was declared. A newly fully independent state being obliged to engage in a military alliance angered many and caused impassioned protests, leading to the first use of tear gas in Icelandic history. The second was almost 60 years later during the financial crisis.
A few years after the alliance was formed, US forces returned to the Island, largely as a response to the Korean War and fears of further Communist expansion. A large group of Icelanders marched to Keflavík in protest every year the base stayed open. Since the base closed the issue has become less contentious, with most parties in parliament supporting membership.
Logi Einarsson, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Alliance and second deputy chair of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, supports the government’s decision to host the summit.
“It gives us certain control of topics and the agenda, which is valuable for a small state like ours,” said Logi. “In my view, we should play an active role in NATO as well as other international organisations and institutions and uphold values like human rights and peace between and within nations. Therefore, if we do hold the summit, I will advocate for Iceland taking the lead in agenda setting and playing an active role in the negotiations.”
You can’t nuke global warming
The increase in United States’ military spending, including on nuclear weapons, and that country’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal will hang over the summit. Logi thinks progress is possible, but not necessarily probable.
“Increased military spending and the tendency to try and settle conflicts with violence is a worrying development,” he says. “Especially in light of the fact that a lot of global challenges can’t be solved with guns or bombs. Take global warming, it’s probably our biggest global security threat, and increased military spending isn’t going to help. The refugee crisis is another challenge that is actually exacerbated by conflict. The international community must show responsibility and work together to welcome people fleeing insecurity and war. I think we can still make progress if we manage to work together—at least, it’s our responsibility to keep trying, even if current political events sometimes makes it difficult.”
Representatives from other opposition parties were contacted but not did not respond.
History of peace
As a small, unarmed island nation between two continents, Iceland has long been an excellent symbolic host for peace summits. In 1973, another disgraced US president, Richard Nixon, met French president Georges Pompidou in Reykjavík. However, a much more well-known and consequential meeting was held in 1986 between Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. It was their first in a series of disarmament talks. Although the negotiations in Iceland did not end with a formal agreement, a great deal of progress was made and trust established.
The site of those talks, Höfði, now houses the Reykjavík Peace Centre, a cooperation between the city of Reykjavík and the University of Iceland. Iceland is also the home of the yearly Arctic Circle conference, a forum co-founded by former Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson to discuss the effects of climate change on the Arctic and its many stakeholders.
The subjects of the upcoming WMD conference are challenging but perhaps, with its decades of diplomatic experience, Iceland can act as a venue for progress on these contentious political issues.