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Containment and Conflation in the Arctic

By Klaus Dodds

Ever since the Crimean/Ukrainian crisis burst to the fore, Arctic observers have expressed concerns, and even fears, that the spirit of co-operation and dialogue with Russia might be compromised. Subsequent developments, including EU-led sanctions against Russia, added extra zest to those anxieties, as did the downing of the Malaysian airline flight MH-17 over Eastern Ukraine. Eager to register its displeasure at this turn of events, Canada inter alia boycotted an Arctic Council task force meeting in April 2014 in response to the crisis. The decision was described at the time as a “principled stand against Russia.”

What has intrigued me ever since is how the Arctic and the Arctic Council became bound up in a series of symbolic, territorial, and institutional registers. Symbolically, the Arctic is a space of co-operation liberated from Cold War geopolitical tensions. Territorially, it is a space of circumpolar co-operation where environmental matters can be considered holistically and institutionally. The Arctic is also a space of and for progressive governance where indigenous peoples and northern communities are acknowledged and listened to. But within these registers there lurks two fundamental geographical questions—where does the Arctic begin and end? And what kind of Arctic is at stake?

In posing that first question, incidentally, I am not imploring you to look to your wall maps and atlases (or online maps, if you prefer) and to argue with me whether there are lines on the map such as the Arctic Circle or even 60 degrees north, which aid and abet such definitional labor. My point is to think about how the Arctic as a region enjoys a flexible quality, both imaginatively and materially.

Imaginatively, the Arctic is capable of being defined in multiple ways. Materially, when we consider the dynamic intersection between land, sea, and ice, we encounter a space that defies straightforward definition. It can be encountered and experienced, for example, as ‘homeland,’ ‘frozen desert,’ and ‘polar Mediterranean,’ each of which conjures up different geopolitical possibilities. And as some of the debates about the Arctic Ocean suggest, it can be treated as a maritime space no different than any other under the terms and conditions of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.

When the Ukrainian crisis broke, there had already been a degree of tension in Arctic affairs. ‘Observers’ who were eager to be enrolled in the Arctic Council, the premier intergovernmental forum, were making demands on Arctic states. In May 2013, the Arctic Council admitted new member states such as China, Japan, and Korea. Some of those new members have openly depicted themselves as ‘near Arctic,’ suggestive of relative proximity and connectivity to the region. Arctic states made demands themselves, as they appropriated a leading role in shaping the maritime governance of the Arctic Ocean, leading other Arctic states to complain that their relative proximity was being neglected (e.g. Iceland). Indigenous peoples and northern communities also continue to make demands for greater recognition of their needs, with due emphasis given to their rootedness as opposed to the relative proximity of other ‘southern’ domestic constituencies in the Arctic region. 

This desire to contain on the one hand and open up on the other litters much of the post-Cold War history of Arctic geopolitics. Another way to frame it is to think of a relationship between exceptionality (the Arctic as a special space) and normality (the Arctic as a region within a mosaic of other regions).

Arctic states struggle with these kinds of dilemmas as they want to promote international business in the region, through innovations like the Arctic Economic Council but champion their role in partnership with northern communities to shape who is, for example, an observer to the Arctic Council or not. In the former scenario, the Arctic becomes a more rootless space, ideally free from impediments on mobility of capital, knowledge, technology, and skilled labor. In the latter, the Artic's inhabited and rooted qualities are stressed.

As a geographer, Arctic geopolitics is not something to be found in ‘military and security affairs,’ which can somehow be safely divorced from the working business and culture of the Arctic Council. Geopolitics is literally the politics of the earth, so to see it as a term fixated with security matters is mistaken, at least etymologically. It makes a difference to our understanding of the Arctic if we see it less as a fixated landmark and more of a melting space, as a frozen space, as a fluid space, as a crossroads, a bridge, a global region, and so on. Does the material presence of sea ice help to consolidate a fixed territorial view of the Arctic, as opposed to say a more fluid and flexible Arctic characterized by open sea?

If you think this is all very abstract, read Secretary of State John Kerry’s ‘intervention’ at the recent Arctic Council ministerial meeting in April 2015, which provides plenty of evidence of how multiple geographical representations of the Arctic can be put to work as a bridge, a home, or global space, for example.

With the undeniable influence of more actors in the region, multiple understandings of the Arctic are at stake: where the region begins and ends; who is close and farther away; how the region is defined materially; and the status of associated claims regarding security and stewardship. Much of the post-Ukraine international conversation has been about ‘containing’ the fall-out and preserving a working relationship with Russia so that the work of the Arctic Council is not adversely affected. The underlying conceit being that the Arctic should be considered an exceptional space—a space free from geopolitical cross-contamination, which is endorsed by the Arctic Council’s reluctance to embrace security and military matters. But as northern communities have discovered first hand with contaminants and pollutants, if nothing else, what happens in Europe does not stay in Europe.

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Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and co-author of a forthcoming book, Scrambles for the Poles: Contemporary Geopolitics of the Arctic and Antarctic (with Mark Nuttall, Polity 2015).

[Photo courtesy of Greenland Travel and Luke Jones]

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