All posts by Barry Zellen

About Barry Zellen

Barry Scott Zellen, PhD, is the Class of 1965 Arctic Scholar at the Center for Arctic Study and Policy (CASP) at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where he teaches classes in Arctic IR, geopolitics, and globalization. He served as a 2020 Fulbright Scholar at the Polar Law Centre of the University of Akureyri, and in 2018 was appointed a visiting research scholar at the Department of Geography at the University of Connecticut. In 2016 and 2017, he was a Kone Foundation research scholar, after completing his doctorate in international relations from the University of Lapland in 2015. From 1990-1999, Zellen lived in the Northwest Territories and Yukon where he worked with the Inuvialuit. Dene, Metis and Yukon First Nations managing several indigenous language media organizations associated with the Northern Native Broadcast Access Program (NNBAP). Any views and/or opinions expressed herein are the author's alone and do not represent the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Coast Guard Academy, or the United States Government.

Welcome to Our Special Issue on IR Theory, the Arctic System, and the Individual Theorist in Perspective

Welcome to our special issue of Nordicum-Mediterraneum: The Icelandic E-Journal of Nordic and Mediterranean Studies (NoMe) on the theme of “IR Theory, the Arctic System, and the Individual Theorist in Perspective.” It includes papers submitted to and/or inspired by our Spring 2020 class on Arctic security through the lens of IR theory that I taught at the University of Akureyri while I was a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the Polar Law Centre.

Continue reading Welcome to Our Special Issue on IR Theory, the Arctic System, and the Individual Theorist in Perspective

High Stakes in the High North: Alternative Models for Greenland’s Ongoing Constitutional and Political Transformation

To the surprise of many two years ago, the global media and diplomatic community went into a frenzy after the Wall Street Journal published an article about then President Trump’s keen interest in purchasing Greenland from Denmark, generating worldwide headlines comparable to those that greeted Secretary of State William H. Seward when word leaked out of his 1867 secret treaty with Russia to purchase its ailing Alaskan colony, a move widely ridiculed as “Seward’s folly” (but which proved to be enormously prescient). News of Trump’s Sewardian interest in Greenland generated an immediate critical reaction in both Greenland, where a movement for increased autonomy and a gradual, incremental evolution toward sovereign independence has had majority support for many years, as well as Denmark, leading to a brief display of diplomatic sparks between Denmark and its American ally. As Greenland’s foreign minister Ane Lone Bagger put it, “We are open for business, but we’re not for sale.” Prudently, Greenland’s leaders, while vehemently opposed to the idea floated by Trump, nonetheless embraced the immediate (and sustained) rise in attention his proposal elicited, and in the months that followed, enjoyed multiple benefits associated with America’s rekindled interest in the world’s largest island, including fast-tracking the re-opening of a U.S. consulate in Nuuk for the first time since 1953.

At 2.13 million square kilometers, Greenland is equal in size to the combined areas of the world’s next three largest islands: New Guinea (785,753 square km), Borneo (748,168 square km) and Madagascar (587,041 square km), occupying a strategic location along the northeastern flank of North America comparable to Alaska’s position in the far northwest with a comparable geostrategic importance for hemispheric security, one recognized during World War II, again in the Cold War, and now once again as the polar thaw invites increased global interest in the Arctic. While Greenland has long been a colony of Denmark, its formal governing status has evolved in recent years from outright colonial governance toward more collaborative Home-Rule governance in 1979 to, in the wake of its 2008 referendum on autonomy and independence that garnered overwhelming (75.54%) support of Greenland’s electorate, to increasingly robust and meaningful Self-Rule in 2009 – with a path toward peaceful secession mutually endorsed by both colony and colonizer.

Roots of Greenlandic Autonomy: The Circumpolar Inuit Rights Movement

A key driver of this movement for increasing autonomy has been the steady empowerment of the island’s majority Inuit population – part of a wider, circumpolar movement for Inuit rights spearheaded by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), renamed the Inuit Circumpolar Council in 2006. This movement includes, and for many has been defined by, securing the protection of Inuit land rights through various mechanisms, such as the land claims process in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic which has formally transferred land title to approximately one-tenth the land in Arctic North America to the Inuit along with a variety of co-management tools to protect those lands and its recourses (in contrast to the Russian Arctic, where in the absence of gaining land title, there has instead been a more limited use of joint-venture economic development projects, occasionally augmented by the creation of national parks in the absence of a formal restoration of land title to Native ownership). In addition to regaining (and formalizing) land rights, the Inuit rights movements has sought, and successfully strengthened, the preservation and revitalization of Inuit culture and language, along with the increasing empowerment of Inuit through greater self-governing powers, with notable achievements in both Alaska and the Canadian Arctic in addition to Greenland.

The movement for autonomy in Greenland, and the collaborative path toward its eventual independence with the support of Denmark, is both part of this circumpolar movement and distinct from it, as noted by Hannes Gerhardt in 2011, and takes inspiration in part from the pioneering gains of the Arctic’s evolving experience with Inuit land claims, starting with the historic Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 which jumpstarted the process of Inuit-State reconciliation, and continuing through subsequent revisions as land claims were sequentially settled across Arctic North America until 2005, over three decades later. But at the same time, the constitutional and historical context for the Inuit rights movement in Greenland is markedly different from on the mainland of Arctic North America, with a colonial system largely in place, albeit with much increased autonomy. It is this asymmetry of constitutional and historical contexts that has propelled Greenland on what Gerhardt describes as a Westphalian trajectory, toward the emergence of what would be the first truly sovereign majority-Inuit state.[1]

ANCSA was the first land claim to transform the political geography of the North, and while it had many structural flaws and imperfections, it laid a foundation from which Arctic land claims continued to evolve, with each new iteration providing the Inuit with greater powers, increasingly augmenting Inuit self-governing powers, first through the integration of co-management with a land settlement, and later with the integration of self-government (initially via public governance models, and later – in the 2005 Labrador Inuit (Nunatsiavut) Land Claim – embracing ethnically-defined Inuit self-government.[2] Outside of Greenland, these iterations have been constitutionally subordinated to the sovereign states governing the Arctic region, with Inuit autonomy defined either municipally, regionally or territorially, but always subordinates to constitutional supremacy of the sovereign state itself. But in the case of Greenland, there is for the first time a process in which sovereign independence is a distinct possibility, as mutually recognized by both Greenlanders and the Danish state.

How this movement toward independence evolves, and the diverse constitutional forms the emergent sovereign Greenlandic state may potentially take, has generally not been discussed in great detail in the academic literature or press, apart from being the logical conclusion to the incremental approach to expanded Greenlandic autonomy that has taken place thus far, and thus with sovereignty limited to the island of Greenland itself, and not generally in any other form, expanded or diminished in geographic scope. But this does not mean that Greenland’s independence will remain confined by its present geography, and that over time we won’t see other manifestations of Inuit sovereignty and configurations of Inuit state extent emerge. This article presents a preliminary discussion of some of these variants, primarily sovereign or co-sovereign models that may at the present time seem highly improbable. Because the future of Greenland, and the ultimate extent of Inuit sovereignty asserted, is of such great importance to the stability of the High North Atlantic region and to North American security, it is vital that we consider all possible models and outcomes. The following paper is a preliminary effort to elucidate these possibilities.

Climate Consequences: Energizing the Inuit Rights Movement

Adding urgency to the contemporary circumpolar Inuit rights movement, with roots firmly planted in the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, has been the dramatic and volatile effects of the polar thaw, bringing global attention to a region that has, since the Cold War, been largely neglected. What was once something of a niche field understudied by international relations and strategic studies scholars has, since the polar thaw become a topic of global attention from the lay-public to the highest levels of governance, becoming front and center to not only study, but policy formulation and strategy development around the world – so much so that numerous non-Arctic states have their own Arctic policies, and non-Arctic observer states now outnumber the Arctic member states on the Arctic Council, the post-Cold War international regime that collaboratively overseas the Arctic region on a number of non-defense and non-security issues areas. Growing global interest in the Arctic brings along new diplomatic challenges, most recently the rise of China and its assertions of a special “near-Arctic” status aligned with its “Polar Silk Road” initiative which was noted in the 2019 United States Coast Guard Arctic Strategic Outlook, along with other U.S. policy papers and strategy documents, as particularly concerning.

The results of these competing interests in the near as well as more distant future are exceedingly difficult to predict, so considering a wide range of scenarios is essential. For instance, a determined China could develop regional alliances and dependencies through strategic capital infusions to the sovereign island-states of the High North Atlantic, which owing to their exceedingly small populations remain vulnerable to rapid demographic upheavals resulting from a small number of development projects staffed by overseas contractors – resulting in a potential stealth invasion of the region. Iceland, with a population around 364,000 and a long sovereign experience, far more resilient to such an external demographic threat, though were Iceland to break from NATO and pursue a non-aligned future, its vulnerability could increase. Greenland, while part of the Kingdom of Denmark, likewise remains embedded in a solid alliance architecture, but with only 56,000 people could, once it becomes independent, become highly vulnerable to external pressures, whether economic, demographic, or even military.

Similarly, with Russia resurgent and its recently illustrated appetite for foreign intervention (following its annexation of Crimea, incursion in Eastern Ukraine, and military interventions from Libya to Syria), and the renewed specter of a clash with NATO over the small Baltic states, or potentially, the non-aligned northern European states, scenarios of extreme instability in the High North Atlantic can also again be envisioned. In short, global interest in the Arctic introduces new risks which could in time threaten the hemispheric security of North America. This follows a long period that with few exceptions was marked by a steadiness and predictability; the pre-thaw Arctic region was more a strategic buffer in world politics that – even at the height of the Cold War – was defined foremost by its stability. The movement for Inuit rights emerged during this period of calm, and the incrementally increasing empowerment of the Inuit proceeded with the same stability during a half-century of policy innovation that began with ANCSA, culminated with the formation of the Nunavut Territory in 1999, and achieving its conclusion on the mainland of Arctic North America with the passage of the Labrador Inuit (Nunatsiavut) Land Claim in 2005.

Were the strategic and geographic landscape to remain stable and largely free of uncertainty, the emergence of a sovereign and independent Greenland would likely continue the current mutually amicable autonomy process and its multi-decade incrementalism further, and not upend regional geopolitics. But because of the dynamic uncertainties of the polar thaw, and the return of Westphalian state competition to the Arctic region in recent years, the potential independence of Greenland becomes instead a strategic wildcard needing to be closely studied and pro-actively engaged to ensure a future sovereign Greenland maintains the close, collaborative and friendly relationship with the United States and the West, optimally as part of NATO, that it currently pursues as a constituent component of Denmark.[3]

Alternate Models for a Post-Denmark Greenland: ‘Thinking About the Unthinkable’ Once Again

While most conversations regarding Greenland’s constitutional evolution, at least those  prior to the Trump White House’s surprise overture to purchase the island from Denmark, consider Greenland’s continuing movement for increasing autonomy strictly within the context of peaceful, and negotiated, Danish constitutional politics, there is good reason to consider alternative scenarios not widely discussed – including scenarios of a broader Inuit secession from the states that now assert constitutional authority over Inuit lands catalyzed by Greenland’s successes thus far.

The Inuit homeland has, in contrast to the more complex and diverse subarctic region, a cohesive ethno-political culture, and while it has until now deftly adapted its aspirations for the many different sovereign polities whose borders intersect the Inuit homeland, it is conceivable that as the prospect of formal independence grows for Greenlandic Inuit, the appetite for enhanced autonomy elsewhere, such as in neighboring Nunavut, northern Labrador (Nunatsiavut), Canada’s Western Arctic (the Inuvialuit settlement region), and Alaska’s North Slope, may grow in lockstep. It is imperative to thus ask: What if Nunavut and/or other Inuit regions join Greenland in a coordinated secession movement, or – in the face of successful lobbying by either party or a groundswell of support at home, Greenland decides to change sovereigns, and join either Canada or the United States? While these scenarios may seem unlikely, prior to 1989 one did not hear comparable discussions of a collapse of the Warsaw Pact, breakup of Yugoslavia, or implosion of the Soviet empire before events rapidly spiraled out of control, radically transforming the constitutional fabric of eastern Europe. With the prospect of an Inuit state ultimately and amicably emerging from the negotiated constitutional dialogue between Greenland and Denmark, the consequential implications of this profound and catalyzing transformation must not be overlooked. As Herman Kahn reminded us during the Cold War, it is now essential to think about the unthinkable. Below are what Kahn might dub relevant “metaphors and scenarios” to consider.

Joining Canada and its Exemplary Constitutional Embrace of Indigenous Rights

Were Greenland to change sovereigns rather than seek formal independence, there is much logic to the notion of Greenland selecting Canada as its new constitutional partner – finding in the Nunavut model of territorial self-governance aligned with a land claim treaty many potential benefits well-suited to its needs, and a refreshing break from its current colonial governing structure. Joining Canada is not without precedent: the province of Newfoundland and Labrador did so as late as 1949, around the time the United States was contemplating its own acquisition of Greenland – bringing under the Canadian constitution not only the island of Newfoundland, but the northern coastal territory of Labrador, home to several thousand Inuit who serendipitously are among the most recent beneficiaries of a comprehensive land claim treaty with Ottawa – presenting a logical path for Greenland to follow. Imagining how such a scenario could unfold will require much further study, and would depend, in part, on the emergence of a transnational movement for Inuit unification that, as of now, has not taken root in either Greenland or Nunavut. Should such a movement arise, and for it to succeed, Denmark would have to agree to Greenland’s departure and to Canada’s expansion (as would Canada) unless it were to occur in two separate steps sufficiently paced to forestall Denmark’s opposition – a scenario that may seem extremely unlikely today, but which, in a situation of war in northern Europe, might become more feasible.

Indeed, before Trump’s unsolicited overture, Canada seemed the more likely alternative sovereign partner for Greenland, given the advances achieved by Canadian Inuit through their dynamic mixture of comprehensive land claims, robust co-management, and increasingly powerful self-government processes as well as the long, close collaboration between Greenlandic and Canadian Inuit at the ICC. In recent years, Inuit leaders have expressed much dissatisfaction with Ottawa’s commitment to fulfilling the promises of Nunavut, turning to the courts in frustration on multiple occasions, and in 2006 calling for the moral intervention of famed jurist Thomas Berger, to many Canadian natives the conscience of Canada. More recently, native rail blockages across Canada have re-inflamed long-simmering tensions between the indigenous and settler communities in Canada, straining recent reconciliation efforts of the Trudeau government, a situation that will likely be even further inflamed by the recent discovery of a mass grave at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. Amidst such circumstances, one can no longer presume that Canada, by default, would be the only logical choice for Greenlandic Inuit should they seek to change sovereigns.

Joining the USA: Not Necessarily as Illogical or Ahistorical as Many Think

Indeed, Trump’s unexpected interest in Greenland may – despite the initially critical response to his surprise overture to purchase the island – provide an alternative to choosing between joining Canada or remaining part of Denmark, with Alaska’s transition from territory to state serving as alternative model for Greenland’s future. Such a possibility, of Greenland joining the United States in a constitutional union not unlike that of Alaska, is a scenario that has been considered at the highest levels of the U.S. Government before, particularly in the immediate aftermath of World War II, during which Greenland was an American protectorate and its strategic significance the coming Cold War was keenly appreciated. Such a tectonic shift in North America’s sovereign political geography is uncommon now, and it has been a century and a half since a change of similar magnitude directly affected the United States, when, in 1867, Alaska was purchased from Russia – a move that was widely criticized at the time as a great “folly” but which, in the years since, has contributed much to American security, particularly since World War II. But it’s more frequent, and recent, than many would think, with the aforementioned entry of Newfoundland and Labrador to Canada’s confederation.

And while political leaders in both Greenland and Copenhagen quickly insisted that Trump’s idea was without merit, and inconsistent with their own step-by-step process of decolonization under way in addition to the very needle of history, Greenlandic officials did subsequently, and enthusiastically, embrace America’s renewed diplomatic and economic interest in what had largely been an overlooked Cold War outpost rediscovered amidst the dynamic flux and strategic uncertainty of the polar thaw, and the consequent (and significant) rise in high-profile official delegations to and from Greenland including an accelerated re-opening of an American consulate in Nuuk, the first since 1953, in addition to high profile visits by leading members of America’s strategic and diplomatic community, culminating in the May 14, 2021 visit by current U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken – notably via Copenhagen, and with the Kingdom’s official blessing (and an in-person greeting once arrived on the island by Denmark’s foreign minister and both Greenland’s premier and foreign minister) in contrast to the unilateral nature of the Trump initiative.[4]

Supporters of the Trump’s Greenland purchase initiative, few as they were, noted the increasing strategic importance of Greenland in a thawing Arctic, part of a wider process of Arctic integration with the world economy and its geostrategic architecture under way for many years, with roots dating back to the colonial era when Arctic furs and whale oil fueled the economies of both the New World and Old. They also understood it was a backdoor approach to recognizing the strategic implications of climate change in an administration that did not formally or publicly acknowledge global warming. Indeed, the economic integration of Arctic resources with the global economy is not only a contemporary phenomenon accelerated by climate change, but an historic one dating back centuries with deep and enduring roots. During the Gold Rush era, the mineral potential of the Far North would be equally recognized for its strategic-economic value (leading to a brief demographic imbalance in the Yukon Territory, with more Americans in the Klondike than Canadians, and Ottawa rightly concerned there could be instability and potentially a secession risk); and in the twentieth century, with the advent of air power, the strategic-military value of the region was recognized for its own sake, while its energy and mineral resources continued to be highly sought after by all of the Arctic states, driving a new wave of northern resource development.

During World War II, thousands of U.S. soldiers were stationed across the North, building the strategic Alaska-Canada (Alcan) highway, the lesser-known Canol road, a slew of air bases, and protecting the vital Northwest Staging Route ferrying Lend-Lease aircraft to the Eastern Front, where the Nazi military onslaught was, at great sacrifice by America’s Russian war-time partner, brought to a halt. At the same time, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Greenland Patrol defended Greenland, which came under America’s direct military protection after Denmark fell to the Germans, from becoming a North American beach head for further Nazi advances – indeed, the specter of Greenland falling, and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence becoming vulnerable to Nazi conquest, would concern war planners until the machinery of the Nazi state was decisively demolished. It wasn’t long after World War II came to an end that President Truman floated the idea of purchasing Greenland from Denmark for $100 million, an idea that Time Magazine endorsed for its strategic wisdom the very next year, with widespread encouragement from war planners who recognized Greenland’s strategic prominence for the post-war world.

During the Cold War, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line was built across the Inuit homeland, protecting the North American continent from strategic bomber assault, the Thule air base augmented American air power in the region, and an American consulate in Nuuk helped to reinforce America’s presence. The waters off both Greenland and Iceland, the famed Greenland-Iceland-UK (G-I-UK) gap, would come to play a central role during the U.S.-Soviet confrontation and in America’s forward maritime strategy near the Cold War’s end. Soon after the Cold War ended, columnist and foreign affairs expert Walter Russell Mead proposed in all seriousness, in his July 1992 column in the LA Times, to purchase Siberia from Boris Yeltsin’s Russia for $1-2 trillion USD.

While the outright purchase of such a large portion of the globe is now  uncommon, and due to this relative infrequency is widely perceived to be better-suited to the world of yesteryear than that of today, it wasn’t all that long ago that large-scale shifts in borders were more the norm and less the exception. And in today’s world, so much is in flux, and let’s not forget that it was only a half-dozen years ago that Crimea quickly fell to Moscow’s expansionist ambitions, experiencing a rapid annexation by a resurgent Russia – changing hands largely without bloodshed (in contrast to the subsequent contest for eastern Ukraine), suggesting that such tectonic shifts in political geography do remain possible, and in some cases, might even contribute to geopolitical stability. It is thus conceivable that in a future world, Greenland’s union with the United States could again be envisioned.

It is no secret that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been fortifying his vast Arctic territories, with mothballed military bases unused since the Cold War period undergoing a recent and ongoing strategic refurbishment on a scale comparable to Beijing’s fortifications of contested islands in the South China Sea, gaining increasing strategic attention and media coverage – as both Russia and China seek to expand their global military influence and to secure their most proximate island chains.[5] There is every reason to expect the U.S. to do much the same, by strengthening its own strategic architecture and re-fortifying its own proximate island chains along its ramparts, from the Aleutian Islands guarding the Bering Strait, to the Canadian Arctic archipelago standing watch over North America’s northern flank, to the islands that anchor the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap. America’s rekindled interest in Greenlandic security, along with the return of U.S. forces to Iceland (now on a rotating basis), reflect this strategic re-awakening, as does its icebreaker modernization program, the Polar Security Cutter (PSC) Program. Thinking ahead to a more fluid geopolitical world, and toward the protection of the more isolated island outposts in the Far North that remain vulnerable in such a world, is a prudent exercise given the perceived risks associated with both increasing state rivalry in the Arctic, and of Arctic climate change.

Exchanging Colonial Sovereigns: An Alternative to Independence

To imagine a hypothetical world in which Greenland might become an American territory, on a path toward statehood not unlike that which Alaska followed, is to imagine a world in which North America is more secure and united than it is today. Greenlandic Inuit, who suffer from a long legacy of neglect and whose colonial experience, despite recent gains in autonomy, has not been entirely positive, particularly in the smaller and more remote villages lacking basic infrastructure and economic opportunities, could indeed stand to benefit in multiple ways.

First and foremost, the defense of Greenland in time of war would be strengthened by its constitutional integration into the U.S. polity, much the way Alaska’s has been since its purchase, and this alone could deter war from ever taking place. That the legacy of Russian colonialism, which under the RAC was brutal and exploitative, could be gradually reversed in Alaska over time – where particularly since the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 and the subsequent Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, gains by Alaska natives have been notable, even if still a work in progress – is illustrative of the changes we can expect in such a hypothetical future.

While Greenland’s gradual process of increasing autonomy and decolonization under Danish rule would be up-ended by such a change of sovereigns, a mutually positive outcome of a U.S. purchase could be a win-win for both Greenlanders and for America. There would have to consent to such an exchange of sovereigns, to be sure, and that would require a referendum to be held. But, once the people of Greenland make their choice, if they choose to join the United States in union, it would be an historically transformative event on a scale of the Alaska purchase, and with the same long-term potential strategic and economic benefits. It may not be likely, and at the moment is not under consideration by either the U.S.,  the Danes or the Greenlanders. Indeed, it may well have been just a brief flirtation, and not a long-term strategic commitment of the President’s, and thus different from, say, Secretary of State William H. Seward’s embrace of Alaska as a critical component of America’s expansion. But it is no less a scenario worthy of study.

Because the globalized world is vastly different from the colonial world, however, it would require additional parameters be met than required for the Alaska purchase. Like with the Alaska purchase, which Russia welcomed for the financial relief it provided, as well as its reduction in strategic pressure with the century-old United States providing a much-needed buffer between the British Empire in North America and the remaining territory of mother Russia on the Eurasian side of the Bering Strait. But in addition, the people of Greenland, who are majority Inuit, would have to also welcome a change in sovereigns, and find American policies and investment, in addition to its military protection, attractive enough to forego independence. Because securing and sustaining independence with a population of 56,000 is quite a difficult challenge, a formal sovereign association with the United States might, in some circumstances, appeal to the people of Greenland. Just as the earlier-mentioned scenario of Greenland joining Canada would require Greenlanders to find merit in the Nunavut model of regional self-governance, for the scenario of Greenland becoming part of the United States, Greenlanders would have to find merit in the “Alaska model,” with its combination of multi-level governance, settled land claims, still-evolving structures for co-management between the various levels of governance (federal, state, tribal, and municipal), and robust natural resource development experience.

Indeed, were Greenlanders to one day consider whether to join the United States or Canada (in lieu of pursuing independence), their choice may be between resource-development (more robust in Alaska, with its strong state government, than in Arctic Canada) vs. cultural and environmental protections (which are more robust in Arctic Canada than Alaska, owing to the absence of a powerful state level of government, more readily enabling an alignment of indigenous and federal interests), the very same fault line that divides contemporary Alaska. Issues of future settlement by non-Inuit would also surely be an issue: Alaska today is less than 15% native (and over 85% settler), while Nunavut remains nearly 85% native (and less than 15% settler), as if an inverse mirror image of one another. Greenland is, at present, closer to 90% native, so is more aligned with Nunavut in terms of its ethnography. On the other hand, Canada, by virtue of its proximity to the United States, is largely buffered from the risks and dangers of world politics, and unlikely to face an external threat to its sovereignty. Greenland, however, is quite exposed, on the outer edge of the North American continent, and in waters that are not only increasingly strategic, but also potentially contested. It faces existential risks as a polity much the way Iceland does, perhaps more so because of its smaller demography and more expansive geography. If alliance membership alone does not guarantee its independence, perhaps a closer constitutional relationship, such as territorial status and a path toward statehood, could one day prove to be an appealing option to the people of Greenland.

Dual-Secession Models: Strength through Confederation

Often, when Greenlandic independence is considered critically, its small population and vast territorial breadth (and its even more vast EEZ offshore) is presumed to leave the island in an inevitably unviable position, particularly should its independence ever be contested by force – suggesting there is at least some strategic and economic logic to a change of sovereigns rather than a bid for a fragile sovereign independence. But a mere changing of sovereigns may fail to find domestic support among Greenlanders; even so, going it alone need not be the only path left to pursue. Indeed, Greenland may in the face of so many obstacles to sovereign viability continue to choose to remain part of the Kingdom of Denmark by mutual consent, and thus decelerate its march toward independence and continue to refine its relationship, and expand its autonomy over time, with the same incrementalism as in the past.

Alternatively, it is also possible that the movement for independence in Greenland could inspire a similar movement in Canada – particularly Nunavut, which has close historical, cultural and familial ties to Greenland (with its north settled by Canadian Inuit just over a century ago) in addition to its close geographical proximity to Greenland, where Inuit already govern at the territorial level but face continuing implementation resistance from Ottawa – resulting in the theoretical potential for a transnational movement for dual-secession from both Canada and Denmark. While Canadian Inuit have gained much in native rights and self-governing powers, more than in any other Arctic region, their communities still remain traumatized, with multiple indicators of societal collapse including epidemic levels of suicide, substance abuse, and community violence. Should Ottawa remain unwilling or unable to fulfil the aspirations of Inuit for meaningful autonomy and the many material comforts enjoyed by southern Canadians (ranging from health security and community safety to educational opportunity), one can envision a movement emerging in Nunavut that aligns with Greenland’s independence movement, where seeds for a dual-secession movement may find fertile soil.

Dual-secession would be complex to manage, posing even greater risks to the United States and its NATO partners’ security, comparable in scale to the Quebec independence movement further south, which over the years has threatened to destabilize the northeast of North America, coming perilously close to a Quebec secession in 1995. While much progress has been made toward healing the enduring French-English divide in Canada, it is not inconceivable that the movement could re-intensify, and if it did, the fate of Nunavut to its north and Nunatsiavut to its east could be profoundly affected – either by overt Quebec military expansion to secure these vulnerable, majority-Inuit flanks, or covert efforts to destabilize these regions to prevent them from serving as staging grounds from which Anglo-Canada could destabilize Quebec’s energy-rich north. Further, in the event Quebec one day secedes from Canada, Inuit to Quebec’s north could seize the opportunity to make a similar bid for independence – and in so doing, may find many reasons to partner with Greenland in its quest. Such a scenario, while clearly improbable at the moment, remains worthy of future study, since the role Nunavut and Nunatsiavut might play in a post-Quebec Canadian confederation, and their likelihood of being caught in the whirlwind of chaos precipitated by a Quebec secession, could be of much consequence.

Joining Iceland and/or the Faroes: Dual Secession with a Twist — A Confederation of Former High North Atlantic Colonies

A similar dual-secession movement might emerge to Greenland’s east, where currently separate movements for a gradual and mutual secession from Denmark have emerged in both Greenland and the Faroe Islands, modeled in part on the successful independence movement by Iceland a century ago. If the movements for Faroese and Greenlandic independence were to merge into a single High Atlantic independence movement, once can envision the potential confederation of the Faroes, Greenland and Iceland – a union of former Danish colonies that share a colonial heritage and many post-colonial synergies. This scenario would create, in essence, a greater Icelandic sovereign entity, leveraging Iceland’s diplomatic, economic, and political strengths along with its central strategic role as a strategic hub between Europe and North America within the NATO alliance. The demographic diversity of such a union, united by its shared heritage of remote subsistence marine resource harvesting communities, whether seal, whale, or cod, would lay the foundation for a fascinating polity enriched by its own regional variation and distinctiveness.

In contrast to a dual Nunavut-Greenland secession, with all its risks and complexities, such an island-confederation of former Danish colonies could offer the region much promise of stability and cohesion, since the two new secessions would be equally embraced by both island colonies as well as their mutual colonizing sovereign, and their constitutional union with Iceland would further bring solace to their mutual alliance partners concerned with the emergence of new EEZs in newly independent microstates lacking the self-defense, search and rescue, or monitoring capacity for EEZ enforcement. Reykjavik could serve as a mentor to both Greenland and the Faroes, offering independence through confederation, much the way the union of the Malay peninsula with most of northern Borneo did after World War II – harnessing the movement for independence and away from colonialism while avoiding the specter of balkanization and instability. Originally, Singapore – the economic engine of that region – was set to be part of the new Malaysian state, along with Sarawak and Sabah, and had Singapore stayed in Malaysia, its role would likely mirror that which Reykjavik could play in an Iceland-Greenland-Faroe Islands confederation, as an engine of economic growth, a model for effective, efficient and democratic self-governance, and a center for education and training.

While a constitutional union with the United States was, from the moment the Trump White House proposed it, highly controversial and widely lampooned, a confederation of former High North Atlantic colonies seems less likely to face as much criticism, even if not actively under consideration now. Iceland, independent now for over seventy-five years and autonomous for more than a century, can thus serve as a mentor to its neighbors as they follow down the path that it earlier blazed, with the full blessing of their mutual (former) colonizer, and a close relationship with Copenhagen after independence. While Iceland’s sovereign independence is universally recognized, and a fixture of the Arctic’s political geography that contributes not only to the region’s unique and enduring collaborative balance between East and West dating back to the Cold War, but to its dynamic balancing of the interests of small and large states, as well as between hard-power and soft-power approaches to international relations and regional security; it would not be illogical to view Iceland’s independence experience as part of a sequential process of decolonization across the High North Atlantic, both inspiring and guiding the movements for independence of its neighbors – positioning Iceland as an exemplary leader on how to amicably decolonize, remain friends with the former colonizer, and emerge as a bridge between the many seeming contradictions inherent in the diverse NATO alliance, much the way Greenland (if and when it does secede from Denmark) can serve as a bridge between the indigenous and the Westphalian worlds.

So while each movement for independence in the High North Atlantic is generally viewed as sui generis, viewing them in tandem and in sequence raises an interesting possibility of confederation after independence. All three, once sovereign, will emerge on the world stage as relatively vulnerable microstates, with populations that would be hard pressed to secure independence in war time on their own – but whose strategic geography, despite their asymmetries in scale, infrastructure, and resource potential, positions them as important future alliance partners. With a shared security challenge and a common history of colonization, and with strong cultural, maritime, trade and diplomatic ties, there could be numerous benefits of forging a common union, one highly decentralized to ensure maximal achievement of sovereign aspirations, but not necessarily independent of one another. Just as there is a logic in Greenland uniting with the Inuit of Canada’s Eastern and High Arctic, one can as logically imagine a High North Atlantic union. Whether the will for such a union ever emerges, or can overcome centrifugal forces pulling the three insular polities apart, remains to be seen, but the theoretical potential is no less intriguing.

Village Sovereignty, Multi-Village Secession, and the Return of the Polis?

There is one other secession model to consider, one more complex than these models of dual secession contemplated above, and that is a secessionary cascade in the more isolated and remote villages which share a strong tradition of independence and survival against adversity, harsh climate, and limitations in resources and their accessibility, from both the colonial sovereigns (where they exist), and regional governments (that have gained much autonomy), and which the more remote communities often find pose a common threat to their interests, and in many cases, their survival as distinct ethnolinguistic communities. Whether that means cutting ties with both Ottawa and Iqaluit on one side of Baffin Bay, and with Copenhagen and Nuuk on the other, or just breaking free of Nuuk and Copenhagen, the result is the same: a Balkanization process in favor of localized forms of micro-sovereignty. One can even envision a restoration of a security relationship between pro-Copenhagen remote communities and Denmark even as they sever their ties to what some perceive as a neocolonial governing structure in Nuuk, no better than the more distant sovereign Nuuk aspires to replace.

Such yearnings have been felt across the Arctic and subarctic for generations and appear from time to time in different places, such as a 1992 “study” the Inupiat leadership told the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (as it was then called) they would sponsor to investigate their potential to secede from Alaska and form not an independent sovereign polity, but a “51st state” in the U.S. union, a research endeavor that catalyzed a formal response by the state of Alaska to forestall. After the Alaska land claim was enacted in 1971, standing up a new system of native corporations and in time a new generation of corporate leaders, a tribal sovereignty movement erupted across much of rural Alaska in search of a return to village autonomy, and federal protection from not only state-level governance but from the assimilating pressures of modernization and globalization. Alaska’s constitution allows for the formation of municipal boroughs for Alaska’s distinctive natural regions, such as on the North Slope where the Inupiat reside, providing a path for municipal governance to embody the sovereign aspirations of a unified region – but which in 1992 seemed far too limited against a state government in Alaska that opposed greater protections of Inupiat subsistence rights. Across the border, efforts to construct a Western Arctic Regional Municipality to jointly govern Inuvialuit and Gwich’in communities, shared a similar aspiration, albeit one that ultimately fell short of implementation, despite coming close more than once – for a more localized version of sovereignty and autonomy.

Justice Thomas Berger, when heading up the Alaska Native Review Commission in the mid-1980s, called his series of hearings a “village journey” which ultimately called for a re-tribalization of Alaska lands, away from corporations and corporate values, toward governance more traditional. Not long after, in 1993, the U.S. Department of the Interior recognized the more than two hundred Alaska Native villages as tribes under federal law. It is possible that the people of Greenland, along with their counterparts in the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic, may choose to pursue a similar model, one that will lead to a new conversation about what sovereignty means, and how it can be nurtured at the local level. The fact that the city-state of Singapore, known affectionately as the “little red dot” on maps of peninsular Southeast Asia, has achieved such a vision, building a modern state with its own sovereign form at the municipal level, is proof there is no limit to what can be achieved within the city-gates, and in the Arctic region, each village is in its own way a country of its own, so why not assert a new sovereign form that embodies the strength of the village as a unit?

Seizing the Moment: Asserting a Stronger Commitment to, and Presence in, the Arctic

Given the widespread attention and curiosity that accompanied the critical response to the Trump White House’s Greenland initiative, even in the absence of forward movement on the plan, the White House’s renewed (and continuing) interest in the Arctic and its increasing commitment to engagement and forward presence in the region, has nonetheless been positively reinforced in the many months since – and this surely has not escaped the attention of America’s principal rivals in Beijing and Moscow, nor of its friends in Greenland and across the lightly-settled and strategically vulnerable High North Atlantic.

Leveraging this moment, by extending America’s Arctic presence through greater economic, diplomatic and military engagement with the region and its people, can achieve many of the very same benefits of an outright sovereign accession of Greenland, but without either its risk or controversy. As Greenland considers is many options, and continues its transformation from colony to a more autonomous and beyond toward a more formally independent sovereign status, continued engagement, and support of the people of Greenland, no matter what sovereign model they choose, will go far to ensure the High North Atlantic remains secure and free.


[1] Hannes Gerhardt, “The Inuit and Sovereignty: The Case of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and Greenland,” Politik 14, No. 1 (2011): 6-14.

[2] See the author’s 2008 monograph, Breaking the Ice: From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic (Lexington Books) as well as his 2009 monograph, On Thin Ice: The Inuit, the State and the Challenge of Arctic Sovereignty (Lexington Books) for more details.

[3] For an overview of Arctic geopolitics in the post-Cold War era, including the era of the polar thaw, see the author’s 2010 monograph, Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic (Praeger Books); for more on the evolution of the land claims model and its contribution to Arctic stability and security, see the author’s Chapter 16 of The Fast-Changing Arctic: Rethinking Arctic Security for a Warmer World, “Stability and Security in a Post-Arctic World: Toward a Convergence of Indigenous, State, and Global Interests at the Top of the World.” For a discussion of the complex diplomatic environment of the contemporary Arctic, see the author’s “A Missed Opportunity: How China Ceded its Claims to What Is Now the Russian Far East, Leaving Japan as Asia’s Pre-eminent ‘Near-Arctic state’,” Intersec: The Journal of International Security, October 2019, 26-28; “China and the ‘Near-Arctic’: An Opportunity Lost Over 150 Years Ago,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, September 5, 2019; and “China Lost Chance to Be ‘Near-Arctic’ 150 Years Ago,” Stars and Stripes, August 8, 2019. For a discussion of Inuit involvement in Arctic diplomacy, please see the author’s Spring 2010 article in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, “Cold Front: Hillary, Ottawa, and the Inuit: A Year after the Inuit Re-Assert their Sovereignty, Washington Takes Their Side.” An earlier version of this article was presented by the author at the International Small Islands Studies Association (ISISA)’s Global Island Studies Webinar (GISW) on June 24, 2020, on a panel discussing the future of Greenland chaired by his colleague from the University of Akureyri’s Polar Law Centre, Jonathan Wood, who is also contributing to this special issue of NoMe.

[4] Ned Price, “Press Statement: Secretary Blinken’s Travel to Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland,” U.S. Department of State, May 14, 2021, As noted in the State Department’s press briefing on Secretary Blinken’s visit, before heading to Reykjavik for the Arctic Council ministerial, Blinken began “his trip in Copenhagen, Kingdom of Denmark, where he [met] with Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod to discuss our strong bilateral ties, commitment to combating the climate crisis, and our shared interest in strengthening the transatlantic relationship” and “then travel[ed] to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, where [to] meet with Greenlandic Premier Múte Bourup Egede and Minister Broberg, together with Foreign Minister Kofod [to] discuss the strong partnership between the United States and Greenland and our shared commitment to increase cooperation in the Arctic.”

[5] For instance, see Andrew E. Kramer, “In the Russian Arctic, the First Stirrings of a Very Cold War,” New York Times, May 22, 2021,

Geopolitics, Indigenous Peoples, and the Polar Thaw: Sub- and Transnational Fault Lines of the Coming Arctic Cold War

Pioneering theorist of geopolitics, Sir Halford J. Mackinder, long ago recognized the strategic interconnections between the Eurasian “heartland” (viewed by Mackinder as history’s primary “pivot area”), the “inner-” or “marginal-crescent” (called by many, most famously by Nicholas J. Spykman, the “rimland”), and the more distant “outer-crescent” of the world island, but left the frozen Eurasian Arctic region beyond this vital, dynamic and recurrently contested “pivot area” of the heartland, instead dubbing it “Lenaland” for its strategic isolation from the world island.[1] The Northeast Passage (of which the Northern Sea Route is part), and the offshore islands to its north, were, before the current era of profound and by many counts accelerating Arctic climate change, every bit as remote as “Lenaland,” of much future anticipated value but doomed by climate and geography to remain of minimal strategic importance while Ice Age conditions persisted in the Arctic. But with our era’s polar thaw, “Lenaland” itself has the potential to become a new extension of the heartland, and gain equivalency with the rest of this all-important pivot area, just as even more remote archipelagic regions of the Arctic long impenetrable to state power and thus of limited importance to world politics (particularly prior to the militarization of the global air, space and subsurface domains during the 19th and 20th centuries), may one day emerge as strategically salient rimlands.

Introduction: From Old Geopolitics to New – Arctic Island Chains, Global Security, and the Polar Thaw

That the Arctic was largely insular and archipelagic mattered less in the prior era of near-permanent polar pack ice than it does in our era of polar thaw, as the many islands and archipelagos that define the region’s physical geography remained locked in ice, in some cases all year round, and were thus perceived as strategic buffers due to their inaccessibility, more akin to the vast “wall of sand” defined by the Sahara than the dynamic (and frequently contested) Mediterranean basin. But this is decreasingly the case, and will in time profoundly transform the geopolitics of the Arctic and its strategic significance to the world, weakening sovereign claims to both the Northeast Passage (by Russia) and the Northwest Passage (by Canada) rooted in Section 8, Article 234 of the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) once they’re no longer perceived to be ice-covered areas. Indeed, with the disappearance of much permanent multi-year Arctic ice, it has become increasingly obvious that for the vast majority of the Arctic’s land, a defining geographical feature is increasingly its insular and/or archipelagic nature, comprised of multitudinous individual islets and islands that encircle the entirety of the circumpolar Arctic – as if stepping stones for future northern state expansion and development, and even potential conquest. This plentitude of tightly clustered archipelagos form increasingly strategic and salient island chains that must be held in order to defend against external threats or to deter them from rising altogether. In their aggregate, they in turn form a pan-hemispheric super-island chain, an increasingly salient foundation stone of the global order, each archipelagic component cluster with its own inherent tactical or regionally strategic value. These stretch all the way from the Aleutian Islands in the west to Wrangel Island in the east – between which can be found thousands of others from diminutive (44 square miles) Herschel Island just off the Yukon Territory’s north slope with its storied whaling era history and worrisome (to Ottawa) year-round American commercial presence; and the even smaller Hans Island (0.5 square mile), a rocky outcropping midway between Canada’s Baffin Island and Denmark’s island colony of Greenland which has been amicably contested in a neighborly way by both Ottawa and Denmark through what some have dubbed their “whiskey wars”[2] as the armed forces of each nation leave their liquor of choice – Canadian whiskey, or Danish schnapps, along with their respective national flags – upon departure for their rival to enjoy upon their next arrival); or the slightly larger Grimsey (2 square miles), just off Iceland’s northern shore, straddling the Arctic Circle and making Iceland, by its possession, a bona fide Arctic state.

To the immediate north is Greenland, the world’s largest island – greater in area than the next three largest islands combined (New Guinea, Borneo and Madagascar); and to the immediate west are respectively, Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Islands (where a controversial Cold War resettlement of Inuit families from northern Quebec took place, which critics have described as a callous deployment of “human flagpoles” to strengthen Canada’s sovereign claims to this lightly settled region) in the north[3] and Baffin Island toward the relative south; and farthest west in Arctic North America is the relatively newly settled Banks Island at the western entrance to the Northwest Passage, which has known modern Inuit habitation only since the early 20th century, when schooners brought Inuit trappers over in search of white fox.[4] To Greenland’s immediate east, of course, is the independent and formally sovereign island state of Iceland, and further east is Jan Mayen island, a remote outpost of Norwegian sovereignty, followed by the multinational treaty-governed island of Svalbard (formerly Spitzbergen), formally under Norwegian rule but bound by treaty to remain unmilitarized and to provide full and equal economic access to all treaty signatories, resulting in a permanent though declining Russian economic and consular presence there – and whose proximity to Russia’s northwestern frontier and gateway to both the Northern Sea Route and Russia’s submarine bastion at Murmansk, has long been recognized as a strategic island. Further eastward are the numerous islands and archipelagos off Russia’s mainland – including Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya (so isolated that it served as one of the Soviet Union’s above-ground atomic testing grounds during the early Cold War years), the Zapovednik Islands, Severnaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, and Wrangel Island, among others, where Russia has been busily fortifying its defense installations after they were mothballed at the Cold War’s end.

Arctic Islands, Archipelagos, and Island Chains: Foundation Stones of a More Secure World

Maintaining control over these many islands, archipelagos and island chains of the Arctic and adjacent gateway regions is of increasing importance to not only the security of the Arctic region, but to global stability and world order itself. They present fixed geographical nodes – much as the many insular “unsinkable aircraft carriers” that have been attained and fortified by expanding world powers since the colonial era, and most notably by the United States since its defeat of the Spanish and its rise as a Pacific and later a truly global power – that are essential to homeland defense, and to the dissuasion and deterrence of aggression and other coercive behaviors by external rivals. Here, the Arctic states are especially well positioned by geographical endowment, owing to their firm and globally recognized (and largely uncontested) sovereignty over their respective Arctic lands, waters, and offshore islands, which in their aggregate ring the Arctic basin like a necklace, providing a protective barrier to each Arctic state’s territorial mainlands. It is true that much of the Arctic North America north of Canada’s mainland is either lightly settled or unsettled, with minimal state presence, and with complex histories of resettlement whose soreness still lingers generations later – and this could provide a weakness to otherwise recognized claims of Arctic sovereignty for potential exploitation, such as, hypothetically, by China much the way it did in the South China Sea. But in the latter, China fortified unoccupied islands adjacent to much weaker states lacking effective means of asserting sovereignty against a rival claim by China, while in the former, the islands of Canada’s High Arctic, like those off Russia’s mainland, or the sovereign and semi-sovereign island polities of the High North Atlantic, are internationally recognized – and Canada’s Arctic neighbors recognize its claims, just as Canada reciprocally recognizes the claims of its Arctic neighbors, with few, and largely insignificant, exceptions (mostly border disputes with neighbors who are, by and large, allies first and foremost). This unity of purpose and commonality of values, reflected in governing institutions and international fora across the Arctic (like the Arctic Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum), strengthens the Arctic as a whole and the intra-Arctic bonds between the eight sovereign states of the Arctic region.

This horizontal circumpolar collaboration has been enduring, and will likely withstand new external pressures, or hybrid (dual external/internal) pressures one can envision arising from the strategic triangularity of the competition for power between the United States on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, as discussed so well by Canadian political scientist Rob Huebert.[5] It would thus be immeasurably harder for China to replicate its tactics as developed in the South China Sea, as doing so would almost certainly generate a universal rebuke from the entire membership of the Arctic Council, state and indigenous alike, and lead to China’s isolation – from not only the democratic Arctic states, but its partner-of-the-moment Russia – a consequence Beijing would find humiliating and which would show the fragility of Beijing’s current entente with Moscow. And while China may seek to influence, through its checkbook, the loyalties of indigenous communities across the Arctic, such efforts will likely catalyze a renewed effort by the democratic Arctic sovereigns to invest in the development of their northern frontier communities, as we saw after China sought to assert itself in Greenland recently,[6] which ironically not only precipitated the 2019 White House overture to “buy” Greenland from Denmark, which was initially widely criticized but led to a longer-term and more mutual diplomatic re-engagement between the United States and Greenland that has included the June 10, 2020 re-opening of the U.S. consulate in Nuuk for the first time since the 1950s, and an offer of US aid to help Greenland battle the pandemic threat from Covid-19. This suggests that Beijing will ultimately have to accept its place in the Arctic order as an outsider, a third-party observer state with maritime and commercial interests and many potential economic opportunities, but limited strategic, military, or diplomatic space for expansion.

A more concerted effort by the democratic Arctic states to court Moscow, through existing international institutions like the Arctic Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, can greatly help toward this end. By strengthening ties within the Arctic states to their indigenous communities, and their relationship with fellow Arctic sovereign Russia, the members of the Arctic Council can greatly reduce the likelihood of experiencing a new, polar Cold War. Active participants in the Arctic Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, which already have established a solid foundation for enduring intra-Arctic collaboration, are especially well positioned to take the lead on these initiatives, with deep and broad traditions of indigenous engagement to build upon. While the previous Cold War divided not only the Arctic but much of the planet into competing military-diplomatic-economic blocs, today’s world is much more integrated and much less likely to bifurcate again – and the added unity fostered by the long and continuing processes of Arctic globalization and economic integration will ultimately trump whatever regional advantages China may seek – so as much as Beijing may persist in its pursuit of such advantage, with continued unity among the Arctic states, China will in the end emerge both humbled and disappointed by the results of its efforts.

Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers: From Cold War to Collapsing Cryosphere

The distinctive and strategically important geopolitics of islands, archipelagos, and island chains – perceived as “unsinkable aircraft carriers” since the early Cold War, and in the aggregate as foundation stones of global security today – undergird and reinforce much strategic thinking with regard to emerging zones of maritime and naval competition around the world. This is particularly evident in recent years in the Arctic Ocean amidst the continuing (and by some measures, intensifying) polar thaw, with its circumpolar chain of archipelagos forming natural bridges between the continents, where they have played an outsized role in human history from prehistoric times up to the present. With the polar thaw, these maritime geopolitical structures are re-emerging from the ice in their primordial insular form, transforming the Arctic region and fostering its reconnection to the world ocean.[7] By understanding the geopolitical significance of these marine geographical structures, and their enduring importance to a stable world order, we can better contextualize the emerging strategic importance of the Arctic region, in addition to other remote and peripheral regions in the world.[8]

There has been much attention paid to island chains in discussions of Chinese naval strategy in recent years, and Beijing’s ongoing fleet modernization and naval expansion from its proximate first island chain (running from Japan all the way to the island of Borneo) on out to its more distant, mid-Pacific third island chain as PLAN continues its evolution full throttle from regional brown water fleet to an impressively robust blue water naval power [see Figure 1 and 2 below].[9]

Figure 1: The First and Second Island Chains

Increasingly, PLA Navy strategists refer to the island chains along PRC’s maritime perimeter, with the first connecting the island of Borneo, Taiwan, the Ryukyus (Okinawa) and Kyushu (Japan’s southernmost main island) and the second extending from eastern Indonesia to Japan’s main island of Honshu via Palau, Guam, the Northern Marianas and Iwo Jima. More recently, the third island chain has entered the lexicon as PLAN achieves a more capable blue water presence. Source: Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, May 23, 2006,

Figure 2: Beyond the Second Island Chain

Island Chains within the Western Pacific Ocean. Beyond the first and second island chains are a third, running north through Wake Island to Attu in the western Aleutians (which was invaded and occupied by Japan during World War II), and a possible fourth connecting the Gilberts, Midway and Adak. Source: Martin D. Mitchell, “The South China Sea: A Geopolitical Analysis,” Journal of Geography and Geology 8, No. 3 (2016),

But island chains are an old feature of maritime geopolitics, dating back to well before the colonial era and have been as central to America’s strategic expansion across the Pacific as they were to the imperial Japanese, and before them, the British. American appreciation of island chains intensified during World War II, and achieved its zenith during the Cold War, after consolidating our hard-fought gains in World War II and dismantling Japan’s Pacific empire through an effective island-hopping campaign enroute to our final confrontation with Japan, itself an archipelagic nation, which culminated in the bloody battle of Okinawa and the subsequent atomic strikes on the island of Kyushu), while defending multiple strategic Atlantic Islands (Greenland, Iceland and Britain) from German attack.

America’s Cold War force structure and its geographic distribution consolidated these World War II victories, integrating the continued security of America’s island and archipelagic partners from Britain just offshore the European mainland to Taiwan at the doorstep to Asia’s mainland to that of the United States.[10] While America’s preferred allied partner, Britain, withdrew as a global hegemon, London nonetheless augmented America’s efforts through its own interventions in oceanic Southeast Asia, where it defended an independent Malaysia and Singapore from expansionist Indonesian nationalism in a low-intensity struggle for the stability of the Malay archipelago, to its liberation of a British-ruled Falkland Islands from Argentinian conquest (or, as Argentina viewed it, unification of mainland Argentina with its lost offshore possession – a struggle that parallels in many ways America’s own efforts to defend an independent Taiwan from what Beijing perceives as its rightful reunification.)

Figure 3: Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers

This image, from the Twitter account “Son of Taiwan” illustrates the strategic importance of Taiwan as an unsinkable aircraft carrier and submarine tender early in the Cold War, and a key to U.S. power projection across the Pacific to mainland China. Source: Son of Taiwan Twitter Account,

Securing strategic island chains has been a fixture of America’s containment strategy since the dawn of the Cold War and continues to this day, and China has, by many accounts, embraced our own doctrine of island chain security with gusto, with island chains now perceived in Beijing as strategically vital outposts for asserting its own military control, and containing American influence. Providing more than a network of “unsinkable aircraft carriers”[11] – as Taiwan was famously described during the early Cold War [see Figure 3 above], and a term that has been applied to a diverse constellation of strategic islands that include Britain, Malta, Iceland, the Aleutians, Japan, and Singapore in addition to myriad South Pacific islands and atolls during World War II and the Cold War, in addition to the many islets of the South China Sea fortified by Beijing in recent years [see Figure 4 below] – island chains punctuate the worlds oceans much the way frontier forts punctuated the seemingly endless expanse of forest and grassland of the American West, providing essential forward offshore supply depots; safe harbors for repairs, recovery and maintenance; and air strips for power projection and over-the-horizon air defense – a strategically advantageous and well-fortified zone of persistent presence, force resilience, and effective control of surrounding air and sea space as central to recent Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO)[12] strategies as they were to our island-hopping efforts in World War II.

Figure 4: China’s New ‘Fleet’ of Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers

Borrowing from the United States’ strategic concept of unsinkable aircraft carriers used effectively to contain China during the early Cold War, the PRC has assertively embraced the concept, applying it to its chain of fortified islets in the South China Sea in recent years. Source: David Todd, “New satellite imagery shows Chinese ‘unsinkable aircraft carriers’ built on Spratly Island reefs,, August 9, 2016,

Figure 5: Beijing Erects a ‘Great Wall of Sand’ across the South China Sea

A March 16, 2015 satellite image from CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative illustrates China’s “Great Wall of Sand” under construction in the South China Sea. Source: All Things Considered, “‘Great Wall Of Sand’: China Builds Islands In Contested Waters,” NPR, April 10, 2015.

A modernized version of the offshore coaling stations central to Mahanian naval strategy, well-defended islands and archipelagos can be costly to neutralize during war, and in time of peace become de facto a zone of unrivalled economic, diplomatic and political influence, and a stepping stone toward further strategic expansion. This importance of island- and archipelagic-control to the ability of larger states to project military power, defend trade routes, assert diplomatic influence, and contain regional rivals, explains why Beijing has fortified so many islands and archipelagic clusters in what has been dubbed its “Great Wall of Sand”[13] in the South China Sea [see Figure 5 above], and has shown a comparably strong interest in the strategic-economic integration of its “String of Pearls” that arcs across the Indian Ocean – and why in turn Moscow has done much the same to its own chain of Arctic islands to the immediate north of Russia’s mainland.[14] That both major powers and leading rivals to western influence sense this same vulnerability and opportunity suggests they share a view of geopolitical theory and its intersection with naval strategy, one that the West is now again cognizant of as it was during the Cold War, and moving to counterbalance. This also explains why the White House, amidst the many paralyzing challenges of the present global public health and economic crisis, has mustered the renewed energy, foresight, and policy attention to reassert and clarify its Arctic (and Antarctic) interests, as expressed in its June 9, 2020 memo on Arctic security (“Memorandum on Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions”)[15] – which was aligned with, preceded by just one day, the re-opening of an American consulate in Nuuk, Greenland for the first time since 1953 – and why just a year before, it briefly floated an unsolicited bid for what the business community might liken to a hostile takeover of Greenland from Denmark (which Denmark quickly rejected),[16] while around same time anteing up over a billion dollars in funding for its long-anticipated icebreaker modernization program, renamed, appropriate to the contemporary challenge of projecting American sovereignty across an increasingly contested Arctic region, the Polar Security Program – providing a platform for sovereign assertion with the mobility to reach into the deepest of pack ice, from the shores along the Arctic basin all the way to the North Pole.[17]

Stepping Stones to Everywhere

But beyond the Arctic, in places where tensions remain between America’s armed forces and the communities that host their foreign bases, China rightly perceives an opportunity for strategic expansion without conquest. Its overtures to elites in a long list of remote island, archipelagic, and coastal nations as part of its global Belt and Road Initiative, from its “String of Pearls” to its “Great Wall of Sand,” will invariably yield new economic partnerships from which a closer strategic integration will follow. The onus thus falls to America and its allies to ensure that the many indigenous polities that host its global military presence feel appreciated for their contribution to the current international order. It is their hearts and minds that are essential to America’s continued ability to project military power globally, and to secure western values along the way.

This will require a continued and determined diplomatic effort, and a generosity of investment that can match China’s BRI. It is an arena of strategic competition with which it is intimately familiar, from its early global expansion through to the long, and successfully managed, Cold War. More recent challenges during the Global War on Terror, which presented a series of setbacks to American power on the global stage and precipitated a humbling crash course in counterinsurgency warfare and human terrain mapping, when considered amidst China’s strengthening rise and Moscow’s resurgence, suggest the coming global struggle for the hearts and minds of remote, indigenous islanders around the world – whose homelands are critical nodes for effective global naval operations – will not be easy, but that does not mean it is a lost cause. With a concerted effort, and a clarity of strategic vision – fueled by a proper understanding of maritime geopolitics and the continued (indeed, increasing) strategic saliency of island chains to international order – victory for the West is every bit as possible as it was during the Cold War.

Beyond Strategic Triangularity: Indigenous Peoples, Transnational Polities and the Human Terrain of the Arctic

As noted above, there has been much recent discussion of a triangular strategic competition in the Arctic between the United States (whose interests have remained, historically, in alignment with its democratic Arctic allies) on the one hand, and Russia, whose interests have recently overlapped (if not entirely aligned) with China on the other, as pioneered by Rob Huebert’s introduction of The New Arctic Strategic Triangle Environment (NASTE) [see Figure 6 below].[17] The latter pair of rivals to western influence are widely perceived to have the advantage of momentum, with the former playing catch-up. In this sense, the Arctic region, as it rejoins the world ocean with the continuing polar thaw, mirrors the strategic alignment between Beijing and Moscow evident across much of maritime and continental Eurasia. As Alaska Public Media reported last year, “China and Russia are teaming up to pursue their interests in the Arctic, and regional security expert Rebecca Pincus says the United States needs to pay more attention” – though, as Pincus noted, these “two countries have overlapping interests that don’t always align.”[19] In her Spring 2020 Strategic Studies Quarterly article, “Three-Way Power Dynamics in the Arctic,” Pincus further elaborates that the “Arctic is an important locus for great power competition and triangular balancing between the US, China, and Russia. It is what political science professor Rob Huebert has dubbed the ‘New Arctic Strategic Triangle Environment’ in which ‘the primary security requirements of the three most powerful states are now overlapping in the Arctic region,’ raising tension.”[20]

Figure 6: The US-Russia-China Strategic Triangle

The strategic triangle defined by the pendular diplomatic-strategic relationship between the United States, Russia, and China dates back to the Cold War, and has re-aligned several times. Currently, Canadian political scientist Rob Huebert sees it extending into the increasingly active Arctic basin. But the author of this article believes this overstates the importance of China in the Arctic, while understating the importance of the state-tribe interface across the Arctic basin to the region’s stability. Source: Liu Rui, “China-US-Russia Triangle,” Global Times, October 29, 2018.

While Huebert’s “‘New Arctic Strategic Triangle Environment” is an elegant concept, the reality of Arctic geopolitical competition is much more complex, multilevel, and asymmetrical than the parsimony of trinitarianism can explain. Indeed, instead of a tidy triangle of competing sovereign powers, the Arctic region’s strategic competition can be more accurately visualized as an irregular strategic polygon with a dynamic mix of (largely) stable bilateral, trilateral and multilateral interstate relations, with the added complexity of an overlapping but largely invisible (to outsiders) set of internal and transnational fault lines of conflict. Many of these underlying dynamics are indeed triangular, but at the regional level or interlinking a different trinity of actors. By focusing exclusively on the three-way great power dynamics as Huebert and Pincus do, one can miss the many important triangular dynamics at the regional and local levels that can pit state and non-state interests against one another. Indeed, if we apply tripolarity as a lens to understand Arctic power dynamics, it is essential that we do so at the regional and local level. By adjusting our focal length to identify regional and local power competitions across the Arctic, we will find it can be helpful to clarify what at a higher level looks like complexity – for instance, the Washington-Tokyo-Ryukyus (Okinawa) triangle, the Beijing-Tokyo-Moscow or Beijing-Tokyo-Washington triangles (each a subset of larger strategic quadrangle), or the Washington-Moscow-Aleut triangle – each of these regional triangles complicates the over-arching GPC triangle that Dr. Huebert pioneered, paving the way forward for an expanding conversation on strategic triangularity at multiple levels of analysis that overlap and interact in fascinating ways.

These yield a diverse but largely collaborative group of predominant stakeholders that includes Arctic and non-Arctic states (inclusive of their national, regional, and local governments and major economic actors), indigenous peoples’ organizations (some holding regional and local governing powers), and numerous issue-specific NGOs. These operate within an environment marked by dynamically shifting alignments of interests, and a complex patchwork of governing systems with extreme variance and volatility over time. This is especially evident when examined village by village, region by region, and country by country, yielding a complexity that eludes easy explanation or simple strategic dictum.[21] While triangularity may elegantly describe one of the many salient levels of analysis in Arctic geopolitics (that between the three major world powers), this trinity of major states comprised by the US, China and Russia is anything but equal when it comes to their relative power and influence in the Arctic. Indeed, there China, as a non-Arctic states, is in the most important ways not even a significant player, with no Arctic territory of its own, and no seat at the Arctic Council’s table owing to its status as an observer state. This is in marked contrast to Russia, whose Arctic territories are the world’s largest, or the United States, which in alignment with its Arctic NATO partners (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Iceland and Norway) presents a formidable and historically united bloc [see Figure 7 below]. It is along these sovereign shores that all proposed marine shipping routes in a warming Arctic will pass [see Figure 8 below]. Indeed, as the Arctic continues its historic thaw, its archipelagic nature becomes increasingly apparent [see Figure 9 below].

Figure 7: The Arctic 8 (A8) Span from West to East across the North

This map illustrates the relative scale of Arctic territories of the “A8,” the founding states with full membership in the Arctic Council since its formation in 1996. China is not only not an Arctic state, but its status at the Arctic Council is only as an observer, a rank shared with states as small and far from the Arctic Circle as Singapore, and only since 2016. Source: Drishti IAS, “Arctic Council,” September 17, 2019,,

Figure 8a: Archipelagos and Emergent Arctic Sea Lanes

As the Arctic opens to increasing maritime traffic, and new shipping lanes emerge, the archipelagic nature of a warmer Arctic becomes increasingly clear, as does the strategic importance of the Arctic’s many islands, archipelagos, and increasingly strategic island chains. The defense and security of these islands, and the shipping lanes they abut, has been of increasingly recognized by the Arctic states as a strategic priority. Source: Source: NOAA, The Arctic Institute.

Figure 8b: Archipelagos and Arctic Defense Modernization

As the Arctic basin becomes increasingly active, and perceived to be of increasing value, Arctic states are redoubling their efforts to defend their Arctic territories, both on their mainlands and offshore, as depicted by Gary K. Busch below. Source: Gary K. Busch, “Russia’s New Arctic Military Bases,” Lima Charlie News,

Figure 9: Archipelagos and an Ice-Free Arctic

The Arctic without ice, though unlikely to be experienced before mid-century and then only briefly, reveals a maritime domain defined by islands, archipelagos and increasingly strategic island chains comparable to the Pacific and Atlantic.

If there is going to be a rumble for the Arctic and for control over its emergent sea lanes and vast, untapped repositories of natural resources, it will be a more complex, nuanced, and asymmetrical struggle. Indeed, it is likely to be defined by a concerted multilateral (if not fully aligned) effort by all eight sovereign Arctic states (inclusive of Russia) in response to rising external interest and pressures from an expanding group of non-Arctic states (inclusive of China). All eight Arctic states will not only endeavor to assert effective and meaningful sovereign control over their respective portions of the Arctic, but to also persuasively demonstrate both their individual and collective capacity to secure and defend their Arctic claims from future external threats. And at the same time, the seven Arctic states (all but Iceland) with an indigenous population will endeavor to successfully manage indigenous claims and aspirations for greater domestic engagement and inclusion that, if left unresolved and without achievement of a stable domestic alignment of state and tribal interests, could be exploited by these very same external states looking north to their future economic and strategic needs. It is this potential for exploitation of indigenous claims and aspirations by non-Arctic states that presents the greatest threat to Arctic stability, and which could become the contested battlespace for a future Arctic Cold War.

Foundations for Arctic Stability: Multilateralism at the Top of the World

With all eight of the Arctic states accepting the international legal framework established by the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC), even without, as in our case, formally signing onto the treaty – with particular enthusiasm at and since the first Arctic Oceans Summit at Ilulissat over a decade ago, where the “A5” states littoral to the Arctic basin mutually pledged to adhere to LOSC – the region as a whole remains remarkably stable, and largely uncontested with the exception of several persistent but relatively low-intensity border disputes over the finer details of baselines and maritime boundaries. And though of some economic significance (such as the effect of the boundary demarcation on ownership of offshore petroleum reserves in the Beaufort Sea along the Alaska-Yukon northern boundary), with the universal and mutual circumpolar embrace of LOSC, these lingering border disagreements present virtually no escalation risk, in marked contrast to the transformation of the maritime geopolitics of the South China Sea due to Beijing’s unilateral fortification of numerous contested islands.

Consequently, the United States and Canada can continue to disagree over their Beaufort Sea boundary as well as the legal status of the Northwest Passage while at the same time jointly participating in undersea mapping (in preparation for their respective LOSC claims), search and rescue, and joint military exercises across the region. And, Canada and Denmark (Greenland) can continue to disagree over who governs Hans Island, the tiny outcropping of rock midway between the two, while maintaining a strong, friendly, and growing bilateral diplomatic relationship and partnership within NATO. Additionally, Russia and Norway can amicably settle their historic border dispute amidst intensifying tensions between Russia and NATO,[22] and Russia and the United States, principal adversaries during the Cold War era, can jointly manage their long, and thus far stable, maritime boundary between Alaska and Siberia.[23] (In 2017, Russia and the United States established a joint management regime for safe shipping,[24] through what might otherwise present a geopolitical vulnerability with potential to become every bit as significant and worrisome as that found in the Malacca Strait, presenting a narrow strategic chokepoint right at the Pacific gateway to both the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.[25])

Local tensions may rise and fall, but the broader tenor of amicable international Arctic relations remains notably stable when compared to other regions of the world, and the role of China is at best a peripheral player in the Arctic basin. The multilateral cooperative tradition between Arctic states is nicely illustrated by the 2011 Arctic Search and Rescue (SAR) Agreement agreed to by the eight member states of the Arctic Council, which coordinates SAR coverage and response in the Arctic, and establishes areas of SAR responsibility for each state party – again without any role to play for non-Arctic states, inclusive of China. Parallel to the Arctic Council in structure is the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF), which provides a forum for the coast guards of all eight Arctic states, which despite rising diplomatic and military tensions, have sustained strong bilateral cooperation in their maritime relations.

As described by Andreas Østhagen on the website of The Arctic Institute, “For both Norway and the US, coast guard cooperation with Russia is placed in the context of long-standing bilateral relationships as maritime neighbors in the Arctic. Having formalized cooperation through the exchange of information and joint exercises, the cost of tearing down decades of relationship-building in the Arctic was considered too high by both Norway and the United States. Neighboring states are dependent on dialogue across borders which, in turn, must be kept somewhat separate from the domain of overarching international diplomacy. That this cooperation survived the tensions over the on-going conflict in Ukraine is indicative of as much.”[26] And yet, even amidst this strong tradition of intra-Arctic cooperation between once and future rivals, there has been a marked shift in strategy by the Arctic states in recent years, and a return of a more pragmatic and defensive realism, with national interests again driving decision making. This is illustrated by Washington’s recent policy and budgetary recommitment to an icebreaker modernization program to enhance its capacity to assert sovereignty further offshore in the rapidly warming Arctic, and in its flurry of new bilateral diplomatic initiatives with the world’s largest island, Greenland, standing guard over North America’s northeast flank.

This is equally illustrated by Moscow’s recent fortification of its long-ignored offshore Arctic islands, newly perceived to be a vulnerable island chain of increasingly strategic importance to Russia’s resource and trade economy, and to the territorial integrity of Russia’s mainland. A key driver of these efforts is, of course, the Arctic climate, and in particular the rapidity of the polar thaw. One need not make any assumptions about either the cause, or the end state, of the dynamic climate instability observed in recent years across the Arctic to recognize the military implications of a warming Arctic, and the risks, uncertainties and insecurities revealed with the continuing thaw.

Hearts and Minds: The Looming Battle for the Arctic’s Human Terrain

If there is a system-wide vulnerability that could be exploited by a diplomatically skilled and economically powerful external actor, it would most likely be found in the least populous and most remote areas of the Arctic, such as Canada’s vast Arctic archipelago north of the Canadian mainland, where the Inuit have in recent decades steadily gained more powers, and in 1999 achieved the formation of their own autonomous territory, Nunavut, a vast territory of increasingly strategic lands and waters with a tiny population of just over 40,000. Also vulnerable to external machinations is neighboring Greenland, which has been undergoing its own incremental (and thus far amicable) process of decolonization between its majority Inuit populace and its colonial sovereign, Denmark – and whose small population (just over 50,000) lacks the domestic capacity to effectively defend its vast EEZ (a challenge even for Denmark, itself a small state with a population under six million).

One can envision a comparable vulnerability on both the Arctic mainland of North America and Eurasia, where many struggling interior and coastal villages dot these vast, underpopulated, and disconnected regions, forming isolated islands of humanity separated by vast distances of open, unoccupied space, with an insularity that is as isolating as that on the populated offshore Arctic islands. In these vast archipelagos, real or metaphoric (in much the same way that renown Russian literary giant, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, perceived Siberia, hence the title to his classic book, The Gulag Archipelago), a struggle to win over the hearts and minds, and thus the loyalty, of the locally predominant indigenous peoples there, and which continue to share a distinctive isolation, largely absent of the same intensity of settler pressures as experienced in more populous regions to the south, could emerge as the next salient fault line of conflict, internally dividing each of the otherwise stable Arctic states.

A similar fault line is now apparent, particularly retrospectively, in the outer Aleutians three quarters of a century ago when Japan invaded and occupied the predominantly Unangax̂ (Aleut) islands of Attu and Kiska, and bombed Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island, home to the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base, and U.S. Army’s Fort Mears.[27] As a an example of what was perceived as a “triangular” strategic contest between the armed forces of imperial Japan on the one hand, and the United States and Canada on the other, the indigenous Unangax̂ people were caught in the middle and at the time perceived by combatants on both sides as peripheral to the conflict, the opposite of the “human flagpoles” resettled to Canada’s unoccupied high Arctic Queen Elizabeth Islands in that they were displaced by both warring parties to distant detention centers, with some forcibly relocated to Japan for the remainder of the war (where around half perished), while most were forcibly relocated (ostensibly for their own protection) by American forces – their very own sovereign protectors – to distant, cold and excessively damp detention camps in Southeast Alaska. There, some ten percent of the population died, and many of the survivors were later prevented from ever returning to their home villages, deemed to be economically unviable in the post-war era.[28]

Such tragic consequences to an indigenous populace caught in a war zone between the armed forces of Imperial Japan and the United States were, unfortunately, all too common in World War II, from the liberation of the Aleutians, the first island chain to be retaken from the Japanese in 1943, all the way to the final battle of Okinawa, where once more, the determined forces of the United States wrestled back from Japanese control the Ryukyu Islands, better known as Okinawa, at high cost to the local indigenous population that found itself trapped between these two warring parties much the way the Unangax̂ were. In the case of the Ryukyuans, and endured staggering losses estimated at half their prewar population of 300,000, far more than the 110,000 Japanese and 12,500 American soldiers lost. In the postwar years, America’s military presence in Okinawa, essential to both Cold War and post-Cold War security in the Pacific, has continued to face determined local opposition, as the rift created during the Battle of Okinawa has never completely healed, even three quarters of a century later.

Similar tales of dispossession and exile took place across the Canadian Arctic and in Greenland as well, creating rifts between the Inuit and Ottawa as well as Copenhagen (and Washington, too, which was responsible for the defense of Greenland during World War II and the Cold War, resulting in some displacement of the Inuit of Thule) comparable to that caused by the Unangax̂ displacement in the Aleutians during World War II, and just as slow to heal.[29] The consequences were universally tragic for the Inuit and Unangax̂. As the Qikiqtani Truth Commission has described: “For Inuit, the loss of home is more than the loss of a dwelling — it is a disruption of a critical relationship of people with the land and animals. It represents the loss of independence and replacement of a way of life.”[30]

Understanding the historical context and near universality of this internal fault line across the Arctic thus elevates the strategic saliency of this internal fault line of conflict within the Arctic states, and present a potentially exploitable vector for external manipulation and destabilization that could disrupt the internal balance of power between far-away national and regional governments of the “center” on the one hand, and the isolated indigenous villages (whether on the continental mainland, or offshore – each in its own regional archipelago of sorts) of the “periphery” – forging a new axis of conflict that could come into play during a period of intensified strategic competition in the Arctic. This is true whether a campaign of hybrid warfare of the sort mastered by Moscow in recent years, or the “pocket book” diplomacy (or, the more malicious “debt-trap” diplomacy) favored by China, or the less likely scenario of a formal state of war between rival states for control of the Arctic domain, as experienced during World War II with the Japanese occupation of the outer Aleutians, and narrowly avoided by allied successes in both the Battle of Britain, and the Battle of the Atlantic, which prevented German expansion toward North America [see Figure 10 below].

Figure 10: The Arctic as a ‘Fourth World’ Defined by Continuing Indigenous Inequality

Challenging living conditions in the Arctic, and wealth and health gaps between Arctic communities and their southern counterparts, have given rise to the term “Fourth World”, as evident in the title of Sam Hall’s book, The Fourth World: The Heritage of the Arctic and its Destruction (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987).

Colonial States and Sovereignty by Proxy: Indigenous Polities and Political Order

Whether in the Arctic, or further south throughout the world ocean, such tensions and vulnerabilities are commonplace. Thus, some are felt by American forces in the Pacific, from Guam to Okinawa; and others by allied partners who maintain their own offshore bases on remote islands across Oceania. The Chinese, as they expand their influence, find themselves facing similar tensions and vulnerabilities along indigenous fault lines, creating a vast, interconnected theater of strategic competition where local indigenous polities gain what may seem to be outsized importance to the international order. While their populations and territories may be relatively small, they are nonetheless locally predominant, and essential partners to the security of the entire Pacific basin, just as they are to the security of the Arctic basin.

The perceived triangular strategic rivalry pitting Washington’s interests against those of Moscow and Beijing presumes an inherently “Westphalian” unity of the Arctic states, but this is far from the case in much of the Arctic, where most of the states are not unitary nation-states. They are instead former colonial states cobbled together in earlier centuries by the unitary states of the Westphalian core as they reached across the seas, leaving indigenous peoples and their local governing structures largely intact and enabling colonial rule via local (and for the most part, corporate trading) proxies. Limited in manpower and dependent upon native hunters and trappers to exploit the region’s bounty of furs, the colonial era chartered companies preserved intact prior power relationships and networks of the precolonial world that would be successfully leveraged in the interest of ascendant colonial powers. Because this remains a defining feature of most of today’s Arctic states, a lingering fault line remains between center and periphery, largely aligning with the settler elites in command of the state apparatus to the south, and the indigenous communities in the remote hinterland that have been gradually restoring their self-governing powers (with the one notable Arctic exception being Iceland, which was settled prior to the arrival of the eastward migrating Inuit, leaving this one Arctic state as a truly unitary Westphalian polity). Understanding this internal dynamic, and achieving a stable balance of interests through inclusive and respectful policies of native enrichment and empowerment, may be of momentous consequence in the event of external agitation by a non-Arctic state.

This historic struggle for the human terrain of the Arctic is thus of great importance to the future stability of the region, and requires forward thinking investment, respectful relationship-building and sustainment, and a continuous process of confidence-building measures to ensure that the legitimacy of the rule of the sovereign states of the Arctic remains intact and uncontested, lest a foreign interloper such as China seeks to destabilize the status quo. Because of the many socioeconomic challenges facing northern villages from one end of the Arctic to the other, this is a potential vulnerability that an external power could seek to exploit – and, some argue, has already become a target for exploitation by Beijing. Because these northern indigenous homelands have been imperfectly integrated with the political economies of the Arctic states, despite much progress and ongoing efforts in recent years, this remains a near universal fault line across the Arctic, and a challenge faced by the seven Arctic states that have indigenous populations engaged in long-term processes of cultural renewal, economic development, and restoration of land rights.

Progress on this front varies greatly by region and by state, offering an uneven opportunity for external exploitation. While Russia has in recent years mastered the art of hybrid warfare below the threshold of formally declared war, as demonstrated in its persistent but low-level interventions along the arc of what it once referred to as its “near abroad”[31] and with particularly effective results in Crimea, and Beijing has similarly deployed “checkbook diplomacy”[32] to coopt elites along the global network envisioned by its Belt + Road Initiative (BRI), including its northern component, the Polar Silk Road, the latter has faced strong blowback against what the United States and its allies have successfully reframed as “debt-trap diplomacy,”[33] while the former has on its own generated a near-universal distrust, particularly by states bordering Russia that fear they could become the next Crimea. In short, tactical blunders by both Moscow and Beijing, through their clumsy and overconfident efforts to coerce small polities and peoples, have blunted their capacity to project power into the Arctic (with the exception, of course, of Moscow’s own Arctic territories and waters, where its sovereignty remains uncontested, but where it remains far behind its democratic Arctic counterparts in reconciling state and tribal interests).

Indigenous Engagement and the Containment of China’s Arctic Ambitions

Intriguingly, the strengthening alignment of interests between indigenous peoples and their sovereigns across the non-Russian Arctic from Alaska to Finland can provide the democratic Arctic with an advantage over Russia, whose own native peoples remain marginalized, their lands and resources encroached upon or expropriated, and leaders remain exiled.[34] One can even imagine the democratic Arctic states mastering in turn the art of hybrid warfare, just as many by necessity re-mastered the art of counterinsurgency warfare during the long Global War on Terror (GWOT),[35] and by turning the tables on Moscow, winning the battle for the hearts and minds of Russia’s own oppressed native peoples, a process already underway to a limited degree with the warm diplomatic reception enjoyed by Russian indigenous leaders in Arctic governing institutions like the Arctic Council, where Arctic indigenous organizations enjoy a distinct membership status as Permanent Participants, second only to the founding member states (the A8), and superior in organizational status to the many observer organizations and states, among which China is included [see Figure 11 below].

Figure 11: The Battle for Indigenous Hearts and Minds

Human terrain mapping (HTM) became central to U.S. strategy during the Global War on Terror and its many battles to win indigenous hearts and minds. In 2010, James Der Derian (with David and Michael Udris) released “Human Terrain,” a film that explores the US Army’s Human Terrain Teams and its ‘cultural turn’ in counterinsurgency. In the United States’ intensifying strategic competition with Russia and China, worldwide and in the Arctic, HTM may once again provide a strategic advantage. Source:

But more likely, Russia will eventually realize that its security will be better strengthened by achieving parity with its democratic counterparts on the Arctic Council in the area of native rights and empowerment – already evident in its latest Arctic strategic outlook to the year 2035 (with indigenous issues are mentioned at least 13 times)[xxxvi] – and in so doing, the inter-Arctic collaborative dynamic can be strengthened – further eroding the significance and saliency of the triangularity described above.

With its deep pockets, China may take the opportunity to retool its approach, shifting away from the naked power grab of debt-trap diplomacy to foster a more mutually beneficial model of Arctic economic development, positioning Beijing to more adeptly exploit any failures by the Arctic states to sufficiently support and re-empower their own indigenous peoples, who are intimately aware of any unevenness in Arctic social, cultural and economic development, a shift already achieved at the rhetorical/articulated-policy level in its 2018 Arctic white paper but not yet evident in its ground game. So a triumph by the democratic Arctic states is by no means guaranteed with regard to the battle for indigenous hearts and minds; but they still have many advantages over Russia and China that could make it impossible for either of these rivals to meaningfully undermine western influence in the region, or to dilute the sovereignty they have over their respective Arctic territories.

Thus, if there is indeed a new Cold War in the Arctic region – and many believe there already is one – the home front in each of the Arctic states, where continued gains in native development will be crucial for the political legitimacy, territorial integrity, and political sovereignty they assert, will be an important arena of engagement, one where the United States and its allies have many advantages that provide the opportunity to consolidate victory and ensure unrivaled regional supremacy through more inclusive and effective governance – in partnership with the indigenous peoples of the Arctic [see Figure 12 below].

Figure 12: Alaska Territorial Guard: Guardians of the North

Left: “Guardians of the North” (left) as depicted by Mort Kunstler. Source: Guardians of the North,; Right: Alaska Territorial Guard map by Jay Griffin, The ATG, also known as the Eskimo Scouts, was a military reserve force component of the U.S. Army, organized in 1942 in response to Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor and later the Aleutian Islands. Its members represented 107 Alaska communities with Aleut, Athabaskan, Inupiaq, Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Yupik, and non-native peoples united in their common defense of Alaska, with official membership topping six thousand, and unofficial counts exceeding 20,000.



[1] For a current discussion of Arctic geopolitics, see Nebojša Vuković, “Do we need revision of the key geopolitical paradigms?” Medjunarodni Problemi (International Problems, published by the Institute of International Politics and Economics, Belgrade, Serbia)72, No. 1 (2020): 15-36. In the author’s Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic, Mackinder’s conceptual vocabulary is discussed in application to the warming Arctic. There is a robust literature on geopolitical theory that discussed Mackinder and Spykman, including their own influential works, including Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (New York: Holt, 1919), reissued in 1996 by NDU Press, and his “The Geographical Pivot of History,” The Geographical Journal, Volume 23 (1904), 421–37, as well as his final work, “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” Foreign Affairs, Volume 21 (1943), 595–605 are a good place to begin, as is Nicholas J. Spykman’s The Geography of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944) and America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1942) along with his articles, “Geography and Foreign Policy, I,” American Political Science Review (1938, Issue 1) and “Geography and Foreign Policy, II,” American Political Science Review (1938, issue 2), (with A. A. Rollins) “Geographic Objectives in Foreign Policy, I,” American Political Science Review (1939, issue 3), (with A. A. Rollins), “Geographic Objectives in Foreign Policy, II,” The American Political Science Review (1939, issue 4), and “Frontiers, Security, and International Organization,” Geographical Review 1942, issue 3. Spykman’s scholarly contribution was remarkably prolific given his untimely death in June 1943.

[2] Dan Levin, “Canada and Denmark Fight Over Island With Whisky and Schnapps,” New York Times, November 7, 2016,

[3] For detailed histories of Canada’s Inuit “exiles”, see Melanie McGrath, The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic (New York: Vintage, 2008), or for a more critical view of the conventional narrative, see Gerard I. Kenney, Arctic Smoke and Mirrors (Ottawa: Voyageur Publications, 1994).

[4] For a detailed history of the island, see John Bockstoce, White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic: The Fur Trade, Transportation, and Change in the Early Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019) and Peter J. Usher, The Bankslanders: Economy and Ecology of a Frontier Trapping Community (Ottawa: Northern Science Research Group: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1970)

[5] See Rob Huebert, “The New Arctic Strategic Triangle Environment (NASTE): Ramifications for Canada,” Special Senate Committee on the Arctic, Ottawa, April 3, 2019.

[6] For more on China’s rebuffed efforts to coopt Greenland, see Drew Hinshaw and Jeremy Page, “How the Pentagon Countered China’s Designs on Greenland,” Wall Street Journal, February 10, 2019,

[7] For an in-depth discussion of these macro-level systemic changes to the Arctic, see the author’s Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2010). For an understanding of the interconnected geopolitics of islands and archipelagos and its significance to world politics, consider the pioneering contributions and analytical framework of Sir Halford J. Mackinder, in addition to more recent critical geographical approaches that share an underlying appreciation of the role of islands and their security in international order. To help island studies, also known as nissology, take form as an academic discipline, the International Small Islands Studies Association (ISISA) was formally established in 1992 and this past summer (2020), the very first ISISA Global Island Studies Webinar (GISW) was held on June 24-25, 2020, with 31 consecutive hours of panel presentations in nearly every time zone, with the author participating on a panel discussing the future of Greenland chaired by his colleague from the University of Akureyri’s Polar Law Centre, Jonathan Wood, who is also contributing to this special issue of NoMe. For a discussion of the origins of the field of nissology, see Oscar Campomanes, “The Islandic in the Postcolonial Critique of American Empire,”, an essay that emerged from the Fall 2017 meeting of the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI)’s Asia Theories Network, “Island Life.” Campomanes notes that nissology is “derived from the Greek root for island, nisos and study of, logos,” and “is defined as ‘the study of islands on their own terms.’ This field has multiple centers in unlikely locations, often islandic themselves, and therefore not in the metropolitan ‘mainstreams’ of theoretical and practical knowledge-production.”

[8] This is true not only of the Arctic ocean, but also as far south as the Austral (Antarctic) Ocean , where the security implications of the alliance integration of so many isolated islands, archipelagos, and island chains bears a striking similarity to these respective challenges facing the top of the world today, as they do to the challenges of remote maritime regions around the world. Numerous observers over the centuries have been outspoken and articulate evangelists for appreciating the strategic importance of Alaska and the Arctic to American security, from the architect of the 1867 purchase himself, Secretary of State William H. Seward, to the early apostle of air power and founding father of the USAF, CDR William L. “Billy” Mitchell, along with veteran Arctic scholars such as Oran R. Young, a pioneer in the study of global environmental governance and regime theory in international relations, with regional expertise in the Arctic.

[9] See the prolific work of James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, including Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), in addition to their many articles, such as “Responding to China’s Rising Sea Power,” Orbis, Volume 61, Issue 1, 2017, Pages 91-100; “Asymmetric Warfare, American Style,” Proceedings, April 2012 (Vol. 138),; and “Responding to China’s Rising Sea Power,” Orbis, Volume 61, Issue 1, 2017, Pages 91-100; and Toshi Yoshihara, “China’s Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower,” Asian Politics and Policy Volume 4, Issue 3 (July 2012), Special Issue: How China’s Rise Is Changing Asia’s Landscape and Seascape, 293-314, among others.

[10] In fact, it was General Douglas MacArthur’s public articulation of an island-chain strategy for America in the postwar Pacific in 1950, amidst hostilities in South Korea and asserting the strategic importance of Formosa (Taiwan) as part of an allied island chain linking the Philippines to Okinawa, that precipitated his dismissal by President Truman. See “Texts of Controversial MacArthur Message and Truman’s Formosa Statement,” New York Times, August 29, 1950, 16. Such an island chain, MacArthur argued, if “properly maintained would be an invincible defense against aggression.” It is here that MacArthur famously described what is now known as Taiwan as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier and submarine tender” whose strategic importance had been clearly recognized and lethally leveraged by the Japanese at the “outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941,” and which, if it again falls to a power hostile to the West, “would repeat itself.” MacArthur’s vision reached beyond this first island chain to a hemispheric arc of islands pivotal to western security. In a widely cited quotation, Andrew S. Erickson and Joel Wuthnow write that “MacArthur convinced George Kennan that the US should obtain complete control of Okinawa in order to establish a ‘striking force’ positioned along ‘a U-shaped area embracing the Aleutians, Midway, the former Japanese mandated islands, Clark field in the Philippines, and above all Okinawa.’” See their “Barriers, Springboards and Benchmarks: China Conceptualizes the Pacific ‘Island Chains’,” The China Quarterly, January 2016, 6. In their  “Why Islands Still Matter in Asia,” Erickson and Wuthnow note that MacArthur’s “island chain philosophy indeed encapsulates some important strategic thinking of the era,” adding, “Such thinking unquestionably influenced Chinese strategists as they sought to make sense of their nation’s geostrategic position, the security challenges it faced, and what it might do to address them.” See: “Why Islands Still Matter in Asia,” National Interest, February 5, 2016,

[11] See the following for selected details: Michael O’Hanlon, “China’s Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers: While America builds carriers, China builds islands,” Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2015,; Brad Lendon and Michelle Lim, “Japanese Island Could Become an Unsinkable US Aircraft Carrier,” CNN, December 6, 2019,; Fighter Jets World, “Here Are The Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers Of The World,” June 28, 2020,

[12] For an introduction to EABO, see Marine Corps Association & Foundation, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) Handbook 1.1, June 1, 2018, For a discussion of EABO, see Robbin Laird, “Reshaping Perimeter Defense: A New Pacific Island Strategy,”, August 12, 2019, or Laird’s co-authored book with Edward Timperlake and Richard Weitz, Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st Century Strategy (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio / Praeger Security International, 2013)

[13] This phrase generated worldwide headlines after being utilized in a speech by Admiral Harry B. Harris, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra on March 31, 2015, in which he observed China was “creating a great wall of sand, with dredges and bulldozers, over the course of months.” See “Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., 31 March 2015, As delivered,” For an example of media coverage of this, see BBC News, “China Building ‘Great Wall of Sand’ in South China Sea,” April 1, 2015, For a recent discussion the “String of Pearls,” see Pankaj Jha, “Countering Chinese String of Pearls, India’s ‘Double Fish Hook’ Strategy,” Modern Diplomacy, August 8, 2020,

[14] Gary K. Busch, “Russia’s New Arctic Military Bases,” Lima Charlies News,

[15] The White House, “Memorandum on Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions,” June 9, 2020,

[16] For further discussion of this initiative, see the author’s “Donald Trump is thinking of buying Greenland. That’s not necessarily a bad idea,” The Globe and Mail, August 18, 2019,

[17] For more details of the PSC program, see the USCG Polar Security Cutter program information page,

[18] Rob Huebert, “The New Arctic Strategic Triangle Environment (NASTE): Ramifications for Canada,” Special Senate Committee on the Arctic, Ottawa, April 3, 2019. Also see Rebecca Pincus, “Three-Way Power Dynamics in the Arctic,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring 2020, 40-63.

[19] Liz Ruskin, “China, Russia Find Common Cause in Arctic,” Alaska Public Media, March 21, 2019,

[20] Pincus, “Three-Way Power Dynamics in the Arctic,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring 2020, 40.

[21] A good introduction to the complexity of Arctic governance can be found in Mathieu Landriault, Andrew Chater, Elana Wilson Rowe, and P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Governing Complexity in the Arctic Region (New York: Routledge, 2019).

[22] For more details on the joint US-Canada seabed mapping effort, see Sian Griffiths, “US-Canada Arctic Border Dispute Key to Maritime Riches,” BBC News, August 2, 2010,; for a broader discussion of the multiple overlap disputes across the Arctic region, see Jessica Brown, “Thaw in accord: As Arctic Ice Melts, Territorial Disputes are Hotting Up, Too,” The Independent, March 1, For a discussion of the history of American Arctic policy since the Cold War, see the author’s “U.S. Defense Policy and the North: The Emergent Arctic Power,” Chapter 12 in The Fast-Changing Arctic: Rethinking Arctic Security for a Warmer World, edited by Barry Scott Zellen (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, Northern Lights Series, 2013). or “Where East and West Converge: The US Embrace of Collaborative Security for the Arctic,” Chapter 28 in the Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic, edited by Leif Christian Jensen and Geir Hønneland (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015).

[23] Known as the Baker-Shevardnadze line since its formal demarcation by negotiation in 1990, it remains unratified on the Russian side due to the rapidity of the subsequent Soviet collapse, but has remained nonetheless adhered to throughout the post-Cold War era. See the UN, Agreement between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Maritime Boundary, June 1, 1990, In early 2020, it looked as if Moscow was contemplating ending its support of this still unratified agreement due to the Soviet collapse that quickly followed the treaty’s negotiation by then U.S. Secretary of State James A Baker, and his Soviet counterpart and last foreign minister of the USSR (and first leader of an independent Georgia), Eduard Shevardnadze, for whom the subsequent (and stable) “Baker-Shevardnadze Line” named. Paul Goble, “Moscow May Soon End ‘Provisional Enforcement’ of 1990 Bering Strait Accord With US,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 17, Issue 12 (January 30, 2020),

[24] For an excellent summary of the 2017 agreement, see Emily Russell, “US, Russia Agree on Shipping Standards for Bering Strait,” Alaska Public Media, June 6, 2018,; for the full details of the agreement, see: IMO Sub-Committee on Navigation, Communications and Search And Rescue, “Routeing Measures And Mandatory Ship Reporting Systems: Establishment of two-way routes and precautionary areas in the Bering Sea and Bering Strait,” Submitted by the Russian Federation and the United States, 5th session, Agenda item 3, NCSR 5/3/7, November 17, 2017, – building upon the even longer tradition of amicable maritime border relations that has been sustained between the Cold War’s principal adversaries, both during and after the Cold War.

[25] For more details on the joint US-Canada seabed mapping effort, see Sian Griffiths, “US-Canada Arctic Border Dispute Key to Maritime Riches,” BBC News, August 2, 2010,; for a broader discussion of the multiple overlap disputes across the Arctic region, see Jessica Brown, “Thaw in accord: As Arctic Ice Melts, Territorial Disputes are Hotting Up, Too,” The Independent, March 1, For a discussion of the history of American Arctic policy since the Cold War, see the author’s “U.S. Defense Policy and the North: The Emergent Arctic Power,” Chapter 12 in The Fast-Changing Arctic: Rethinking Arctic Security for a Warmer World, edited by Barry Scott Zellen (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, Northern Lights Series, 2013). or “Where East and West Converge: The US Embrace of Collaborative Security for the Arctic,” Chapter 28 in the Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic, edited by Leif Christian Jensen and Geir Hønneland (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015)

[26] Andreas Østhagen, “Coast Guard Cooperation with Russia in the Arctic,” The Arctic Institute, June 6, 2016,

[27] For a seminal history of the war in the Aleutians, see Galen Roger Perras, Stepping Stones to Nowhere: The Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and American Military Strategy (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003).

[28] For a detailed and moving account of the Unangan displacement, see Carlene J. Arnold, The Legacy of Unjust and Illegal Treatment of Unangan, Master’s Thesis in Global Indigenous Nations Studies, University of Kansas, 2011.

[29] In addition to the publications cited in note 24 above, much insight can be gained from the documentary films by celebrated Inuit filmmaker, Zacharias Kunuk, including “Exile,” his 2009 documentary of the above-mentioned resettlement in the 1950s of Inuit from Kuujjuaq (then called Port Harrison) in northern Quebec to the then unsettled Queen Elizabeth Islands, over 1,000 nautical miles to the north, to found the communities of Resolute and Grise Fjord (Igloolik: Igloolik Isuma Productions, 2009, and his 2018 documentary, Or his 2018 documentary, “Kivitoo: What They Thought of Us” (Igloolik: Igloolik Isuma Productions, 2018, on the 1960s resettlement of the entire village of Kivitoo, on Baffin Island, to Qikiqtarjuaq, some 40 miles away.

[30] Qikiqtani Truth Commission. “Nuutauniq: Moves in Inuit Life. Thematic Reports and Special Studies Qikiqtani Inuit Association,” Qikiqtani Truth Commission website,

[31] For discussions and definitions of hybrid warfare, see Jim Garamone, “Military Must Be Ready to Confront Hybrid Threats, Intel Official Says,”, September 4, 2019,; and Alex Deep, “Hybrid War: Old Concept, New Techniques,” Small Wars Journal, March 2, 2015, On the “Near Abroad,” see William Safire, “ON LANGUAGE; The Near Abroad,” New York Times Magazine, May 22, 1994,

[32] Daniel S. Hamilton, “Checkbook Diplomacy,” The Diplomatist (2016), as reposted by the Center for Transatlantic Relations,

[33] For a discussion of China’s BRI and its association with debt-trap diplomacy, see Hadeeka Taj, “China’s new Silk Road or debt-trap diplomacy?,” Global Risk Insights, May 5, 2019, For a discussion of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s public rebuke of China in a speech during the Rovaniemi Arctic Council ministerial in May 2019, see Marc Lanteigne, “The US Throws Down the Gauntlet at the Arctic Council’s Finland Meeting,” Over the Circle, May 7, 2019, The full text of Pompeo’s May 6, 2019 Rovaniemi speech, “Looking North: Sharpening America’s Arctic Focus,” can be found at

[34] On the struggles of Russia’s Arctic indigenous leadership, see Thomas Nilsen, “Russia Removes Critical Voices Ahead of Arctic Council Chairmanship, Claims Indigenous Peoples Expert,” The Barents Observer, November 27, 2019,

[35] For an historical and theoretical discussion of America’s long history of both insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare, and its relearning the art of COIN during the GWOT, see the author’s The Art of War in an Asymmetric World: Strategy for the Post-Cold War Era (New York: Bloomsbury Academy, 2012).

[36] See the translation by the Russian Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College, “Foundations of the Russian Federation State Policy in the Arctic for the Period up to 2035,” March 5, 2020,