Climate change is prompting a rethink regarding the geopolitical significance of the Arctic. Yet while ‘classical’ approaches to geopolitics cast the region as the site of a new Great Game, critical geopolitics suggests exercising caution.
When we think about geopolitics, we typically don’t think about the Arctic or ‘High North’. Yes, we remember the intrepid explorers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who searched, yet again, for lucrative shortcuts to Asian markets. We also remember the near-lethal hide-and-seek games of Cold War nuclear submarines. More often than not, however, the Arctic has not been part of mainstream international relations discourse. In recent years, however, interest in the region has returned; flags have even been planted on the seabed near the North Pole, most notably by a Russian military expedition in 2007. Climate change is obviously the catalyst behind this resurgent interest. Since the Arctic region is the area of the globe that is warming the fastest, the prospect of opening up navigable shipping lanes by the summer of 2013 and accessing energy reserves once locked away underneath plateaus of ice have led many countries to reexamine their geopolitical orientation toward the Arctic. Inevitably, such a reorientation has led some observers to proclaim the Arctic as yet another new Great Game. To interrogate this claim further, let's first consider Scott Borgerson’s widely cited introductory article in Foreign Affairs, “Arctic Meltdown: The Economic and Security Implications of Global Warming,” and then turn to “Have you heard the one about the disappearing ice? Recasting Arctic geopolitics,” by Jason Dittmer, Sami Moisio, Alan Ingram, and Klaus Dodds, which reconsiders the region through different ‘critical geopolitical’ lenses.
A Great Game?
According to Borgerson, “global warming has given birth to a new scramble for territory and resources among five Arctic powers” – Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark. In fact, just days after its 2007 flag-planting expedition, Russia ordered bomber flights over the Arctic for the first time since the Cold War. Such assertiveness quickly prompted other bordering countries to reassess their policies toward the Arctic region. Canada, for example, announced new funding for Arctic patrol vessels and a nearby deep-water port. Norway and Denmark were similarly “anxious to establish their claims,” but the United States curiously was not. Of the five Arctic powers involved, it was initially the only hesitant one, despite its extensive Arctic coastline. Not only did the United States’ continued non-ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) prevent it from making any formal legal claims to the Arctic, it had forfeited its ‘real world’ ability to claim sovereignty in the region by allowing its icebreaker fleet to atrophy over time. And yet, Borgerson argues, without US leadership “the region could erupt in an armed mad dash for its resources.”
The main driver of all this is the 'great melt.' Under what used to be dense, hard “perennial” ice is, according to the US Geological Survey, “as much as one-quarter of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas deposits.” While it is estimated that the Alaskan Arctic could contain up to 27 billion barrels of oil, the most significant deposits would most likely be claimed by Russia. In all, the Russian Ministry of National Resources estimates that the Arctic territory it claims may contain up to 586 billion barrels of oil– more than twice the current proven reserves of Saudi Arabia.
But an even bigger deal than all that oil, or so Borgerson argues, would be the opening of new sea lanes. The once-fabled Northwest Passage above North America would cut thousands of miles off journeys from Europe to the West Coast of the United States. Moreover, the corresponding route above Eurasia would cut shipping distances from Europe to China and Japan in half. Besides saving the shipping industry billions of dollars a year, Arctic routes would also allow commercial and military vessels to avoid sailing through “politically unstable Middle Eastern waters and the pirate-infested South China Sea.” In an era of trans-Arctic shipping, current chokepoints such as the Suez and Panama canals and the Strait of Malacca would no longer dictate global shipping patterns and would decline dramatically in geopolitical significance. So important is the melting of Arctic ice, in other words, that it could change the geopolitics of the entire planet.
To this day, however, the Arctic is not governed by an overarching political or legal structure. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum created for this very purpose in 1996, has proven unable to perform the function. Indeed, the Council was “emasculated” (in Borgerson’s words) by US insistence that it not discuss security-related matters. As a result, the constellation of new shipping routes, trillions of dollars in possible oil and gas resources, and poorly defined ideas of ‘ownership’ makes, in Borgerson’s words, for “a toxic brew.” With no historical precedents to serve as a guide, avoiding conflict in the Arctic may require an imaginative institutional solution. Until one is found, however, the Arctic countries are likely to grab as much territory as possible and exert sovereign control over opening sea-lanes wherever they can.
Not so fast
Borgerson’s highly geopolitical tale is illustrative of a common narrative about the Arctic. It invariably stresses climate change, increasing competition for resources, and the potential for conflict. Last week’s discussion of critical geopolitics , however, should remind us that this narrative is far from the only one that can tell us about the Arctic today. Today’s second article, “Have you heard the one about the disappearing ice? Recasting Arctic Geopolitics,” challenges this conventional narrative. Far from accepting it as an inevitable reflection of global warming or climate change, it argues that the prospect of military conflict in the Arctic is largely a manufactured one. According to the authors, this orthodox construction of Arctic geopolitics has two main elements, neither of which are legitimate – 1) the construction of Arctic space in general as open, indeterminate and therefore dangerous, and 2) the political construction of Arctic space in the neo-realist terms of structural anarchy and territorial competition associated with a ‘great game.’ Together these two groups of representational choices conspire to misread Arctic geography – and the recent events of Arctic history. In particular, they contribute to an almost complete misunderstanding of the 2007 Russian Polar expedition as a geopolitically motivated Arctic resource grab, instead of a routine scientific endeavor that was only retroactively (and self-consciously) exploited by Moscow.
To begin with, the authors argue, the Arctic is represented as a region of new ‘openness’, which signifies indeterminacy, which then signifies danger. “Melting ice,” they write, “is correlated with enhanced accessibility,” and this new accessibility is correlated with the use of the Arctic for hostile purposes. In addition to hostility from traditional states, the authors take Borgerson to task for warning us about Arctic-based illegal immigration and terrorism, to include a scenario in which a future Arctic oil infrastructure becomes a target for terrorist attacks that could undermine North American energy security. “Arctic openness,” argue Dittmer et al “is central to the performance of Arctic geopolitics, enabling sabre-rattling by the five Arctic Ocean coastal states.” All of this, they remind us, ignores the reality in much of the Arctic – e.g., that the movement of goods and persons remains prohibitively expensive for most actors and that actual military combat there is almost unimaginable (as Russian strategic analyst Pavel Baev pointed out at the time).
The second representational move that has become characteristic of orthodox geopolitical portrayals of the Arctic is the idea of it – in general, but in the case of Arctic governance regimes in particular – as weak, frail and vulnerable. In conjunction with the idea of ‘openness,’ this promotes a geopolitics of the Arctic understood as a territorial scramble under conditions of international ‘anarchy’—very much a proverbial ‘great game’. For Dittmer et al, Borgerson’s article is typical of accounts that exaggerate the ‘anarchic’ character of the Arctic by misrepresenting (and underestimating) the strength of international institutions and agreements in the region. In addition to seriously mischaracterizing the workings of UNCLOS, Borgerson, as already noted, describes the Arctic Council as ‘emasculated’ by its inability to address military issues and therefore unable to set ‘ground rules’ for the region. Yet this implicitly assumes that the region has a militarized future rather than providing evidence of the greater likelihood of that future. Indeed, the authors argue, empirical indications that such a future is likely are few and generally ambiguous. The Arctic Council, they suggest, is a vehicle for greater cooperation, peace and security in the Arctic, and not a liability that threatens its future.
This skewed representational climate is most typified by its misreading of the Russian ‘flag-planting’ expedition of 2007. According to Pavel Baev, Moscow was barely even aware of the expedition in advance. Its depiction, therefore, as the opening move in an Arctic ‘great game’ was little more than bald political opportunism by “Putin’s spin masters” who immediately realized how well it might suit “the ‘Putin project’ of consolidating Russian State authority on the basis of a supposedly threatening international environment.” Nevertheless, the expedition was widely interpreted in the West as “prima facie evidence of Russian realpolitik” in trying to annex the Arctic.
Instead of attributing the above expedition to “some sovereign geopolitical master-logic,” argue Dittmer et al, Arctic geographies should instead provide “a more complex picture that highlights how the expedition was improvised, with its supposed geopolitical meaning and significance emerging afterwards.” Borgerson and his fellow travelers, in other words, draw a dubious straight line from the “realistically irreversible” melting of polar ice to an inevitable military-political conflict for the region’s resources. There are, argue Dittmer and co, alternatives to this type of lockstep geopolitical determinism.