Tag Archives: geopolitics

Remarks on Science, Epistemology and Education in Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth

Bruno Latour, in his book Où atterrir? Comment s’orienter en politique (La Découverte 2017)/ Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity Press 2018), lends us a diagnosis of the Trump era, which highlights the climate debate as a war, and all other geopolitical problems as related to this war. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accords 2015 and the extensive rise of protective nationalist movements, emphasize the inertness of Modernism’s idea about Globalization and the need for geopolitics to look elsewhere in order to answer the question: What to do? Latour’s answer is to look at man’s belonging to a territory, to a ‘soil’, in order to, in the first place, describe how ‘the earthly’, the belongingness, is put together. Painstaking description necessarily precedes political action, he declares. However, what is it, exactly, that stands in need of description? From which epistemic stance can a soil be seen, and how, precisely, is the ensuing description carried out? This paper addresses these questions.

Latour argues that any effort to sustain life in the critical zone of our planet must leave behind the modern epistemologies, which both reify and partition nature and science. In order to clear the ground for a proper descriptive stance, he dismisses ‘the view from nowhere’, ‘a view from out there’ and corresponding epistemic notions like ‘naturalism’, ‘scientism’, ‘rationalism’ and ‘Galileism’.[1]

I argue that Latour’s fight against the scientific-epistemological stances he calls ‘Galileism’ and ‘the view from nowhere’ is misguided and wrong in the details. Also, at best, it is largely irrelevant for the constructive use of science in the guidance of political action. At worst it risks to impede reaching the ultimate goal he has in mind through redescribing the earthly conditions for Mankind – the goal of landing on Earth, and, perhaps, saving our planet.

The premises

I take Latour’s premise, that a geopolitical change would be powerless considered as a philosophical idea, to be true. Indeed, isn’t this a mere truism? Ideas need to be contextualized in order to get hold of people. They need transformation in order to be recognizable as ideas important to their own particular life. A number of ideas aren’t useful anymore (if they ever were) for helping us out, or so Latour thinks. Thus, there are several respects in which we are conceptually unprepared for the present situation, according to him. As he already argued for in Facing Gaia (2017)[2], we are unprepared politically, ethically and epistemologically for the challenge of the New Climate Regime. I’d like to add ‘educationally’ as a fourth dimension of our life, along which we might not be properly prepared for this challenge. Interestingly, Latour is indeed quite dismissive with respect to a potential for the educational system to contribute in a positive way (Down to Earth, p.25), although he does not justify this claim. I have a few remarks on the educational dimension, following my analysis of Latour’s critique of the scientific-epistemological stance. I leave the political and ethical dimensions pretty much untouched.

What is it then precisely Latour criticizes in Down to Earth, when it comes to epistemology and science? Latour’s earlier critiques of a number of classical perspectives in theory of science are well known. There is a long history going back to what the 1990s witnessed as the so-called ‘science wars’ between ‘realists’, who held that facts were objective, isolable and freestanding, and ‘social constructionists’, such as Latour, who argued that such facts were created by the scientific research.

These issues, however, are not at stake in Down to Earth. With respect to epistemology and science, Latour’s stance has now changed. The hot wars of science have indeed come to an end. No winners, just casualties. Latour for his part would probably say that history has proved, that he and researchers of his ilk in science and technology studies were right: With respect to, say, the new climate regime, scientific facts appear to remain robust only when supported by a culture which is trustworthy, by reliable media, and by a decent public. And nowadays there is indeed a strong acknowledgement from research communities and politicians of the social dimensions of science: dissemination of knowledge, the peer-review systems, bibliometric concerns, the importance of ‘research management’, etc.. But at the same time, most natural science pretty much unaffected tugs on in a traditional way: by endorsing realism in the belief that it carves nature at its joints, little by little accumulating facts and thus contributing to the extension of the set of true propositions.

In addition to the de facto, but not declared ceasefire in the science wars, a number of particular concerns has for Latour’s part also mitigated his bellicosity and made him change direction. Hence, for the purpose of clarifying the premises for his particular critique in Down to Earth, it is useful to look into the 2004 paper ’Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’. In this paper the reasons for Latour’s change are made clear. Latour expresses deep concerns and worries about the threat of an equivocation between constructivism’s sceptical attitude towards the existence of ‘pure, objective, scientific facts’ and a strong, rampant, tendency to systematically distrust matters of scientific fact for ideological reasons: “[…] dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.”[3]

Latour’s concern is about the argumentative pattern, which says that since evidence is never complete, we would have to distrust scientists, even when an overwhelming majority of them tell us, that, say, largely man-made pollutants cause global warming. In the light of this danger of equivocation, Latour distinguishes between ‘matters of fact’ and ‘matters of concern’. The purpose is to demonstrate the possibility of cultivating a critical, realistic stance, which doesn’t fight with empiricism (like old days’ constructivism), but instead indeed seeks to renew it, by dealing with matters of concern, not matters of freestanding facts (cf. 2004, p.231). He asks for a new powerful descriptive tool, looking back at the long tradition from Enlightenment preoccupied with matters of fact, and, on the other hand, the recent, debunking critical attitude against ‘matters of fact-realism’ so prominent during the science wars. Latour instead wants a critique which turns around and engage with ‘matters of fact’ in order ‘to protect and to care’ about those facts which really are of our concern. By adopting and developing the Ding/Gegenstand bifurcation from Martin Heidegger[4], he attempts at pointing in a new direction for a critical thinking: “What would happen, I wonder, if we tried to talk about the object of science and technology, the Gegenstand, as if it had the rich and complicated qualities of the celebrated Thing?”[5]

Although Latour in the 2004 paper is dissatisfied with Heidegger’s strict bifurcation between Gegenstände (objects) and Dinge (things) – and at one point even re-digs the war hatchet by expressing the strong anti-realistic claim that all matters of fact, in order to exist, require a bewildering variety of matters of concern[6] – Latour implicitly admits ‘matter of fact’ an independent meaning. He now worries about ‘an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases’ (2004, p.227). Hence, Latour suggests that matters of fact are considered as processes of entangled concern instead of being debunked as fictitious. In the words of Puig de la Bellacasa, who has further developed Latour’s suggestion:

The purpose of showing how things are assembled is not to dismantle things, nor undermine the reality of matters of fact with critical suspicion about the powerful (human) interests they might reflect and convey. Instead, to exhibit the concerns that attach and hold together matters of fact is to enrich and affirm their reality by adding further articulations.[7]

These considerations are part of the premises for the critique launched in Down to Earth. Thus, the very real concern for Latour in Down to Earth is of course our home, Planet Earth. This home is of primary concern when we acknowledge what we have done to it. The climate crisis now threatens the conditions for our life ‘at home’. And what is of a very real concern to Latour is the denial of the existence of a climate change, one of the phenomena he sees as a symptom of a new, historical situation: The dawning awareness, that there is not any longer any common world for Human Mankind to share (Down to Earth, pp.1-2). The bankruptcy of the idea of Globalization, the huge amounts of refugees, the rise of nationalism, the flee towards the Local, towards colonization of Mars, towards gated communities, and the idea about self-sufficient, bio-dynamical farming, are all either symptoms of this situation or exemplifications of it.

On the one hand, then, Latour in Down to Earth puts the theoretical discussions of the science wars at rest; he leaves them in epoché, because his concerns are much more pressing. As a matter of fact, we are facing a serious climate crisis, threatening to end our lives on Earth. On the other hand, he also has reservations with respect to the adequate scientific-epistemological stance along which our concerns can and should be addressed, since the tools pertaining to our Planet Earth are of a peculiar kind. The reason for this is that the very object of research is peculiar. Our conception of ‘nature’ is wrong: “We need to be able to count on the full power of the sciences, but without the ideology of “nature” that has been attached to that power. We have to be materialist and rational, but we have to shift these qualities onto the right grounds.”[8]

The dichotomies between nature and culture, necessity and freedom, objective and subjective block the way to describe and understand the Terrestrial. The problem is, that in order to mold a politics, you need agents, but agents are not objects, external to society, which, according to Latour, they keep appearing as if we continue doing science from the epistemological stance which dictates that ‘to know is to know from the outside’ (Down to Earth, p.68). Thus, Latour’s main objection is against the conception of science where we gain objective knowledge by adopting, ideally, the ‘view from nowhere’ perspective.

This perspective is traced back to Galilei, who gave a mechanistic description of movement conforming to the model of falling bodies. The application of this epistemological perspective through the mechanical model of the whole universe treated the earth as just one planet among other planets in an infinite universe. In natural science, this is the outcome of a radical transition from a perspective on our closed world to one on the infinite universe.[9] Although the success of the mechanical model is undeniable, Latour thinks that it isn’t of much use as a tool in the description of the rich variety of processes taking place at our planet. He is not alone with this critique. A strong tradition in epistemology and theory of science going back to Edmund Husserl has vehemently argued against the idea that natural science gives us the ultimate basis for epistemology and the norms from which the understanding of our lifeworld must be taken. This critique against a ‘one-eyed view from nowhere’ and the invention of abstract ‘Galiean objects’, also briefly alluded to by Latour[10], found an extensive expression in Husserl’s late work Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie[11] and it has been a standard theme in orthodox phenomenology ever since.

In politics, Latour argues, we have seen a move away from the Terrestrial toward a problematic ideal of ‘Globalization’, to the extent that a one-eyed, single vision, conceived by a small elite, representing only a small number of interests, has replaced (the idea of) multiplying viewpoints ‘registering a greater number of varieties, taking into account a larger number of beings, cultures, phenomena, organisms, and people’ (Down to Earth, pp.12-13).

Latour’s worry is of a very similar sort when it comes to the scientific tools and the underlying epistemological perspective necessary to describe the Terrestrial in order to begin anew. Instead of moving away from the earth and adopt what he calls a perspective where ‘everything has to be viewed as if from Sirius’, we must adopt a much closer view, which makes it possible to see, register and acknowledge the varieties of Terrestrial life. It isn’t as if Latour does not admit the existence of the ecological movements and parties and their attempt to raise people’s interest in and concern for ‘nature’. But as long as their concept of ‘nature’ really is the ‘nature-universe’, seen from nowhere, a conception which puts neutron stars on the same level as cells of a body, it can’t seriously motivate people and mobilize any politics, he believes:

There is no point looking any further for the slow pace of mobilizations in favor of nature-as-universe. It is completely incapable of churning anything political. To make that type of beings – the Galilean objects – the model for what is going to mobilize us in geo-social conflicts is to court failure.[12]

The flipside of this critique of science and epistemology is Latour’s defense of the Actor-Network Theory (ANT). Only through this particular scientific approach, we shall be able to achieve a secure scientific understanding of Planet Earth that in the end can help us out, and give us a basis for a new politics, he seems to think.[13] ANT doesn’t take up much space in Down to Earth, and it is not my intention to go into a discussion of ANT here. I am only interested in putting forth the basis for Latour’s critical remarks on epistemology and science. A number of valuable remarks and considerations in Down to Earth of an ANT kind should, however, in fairness to Latour, be mentioned in order to round off my exposition of the premises of his critique of ‘the view from nowhere’ and its preoccupation with ‘Galilean objects’. Three things related to ANT stand out.

Firstly, it is important for Latour to stress, that the only relevant sciences for dealing with a new description of Planet Earth are those that fully acknowledge that the Earth system is not a system of production, but a self-regulating system of actors reacting against other actors, including against human beings, because it suffers from the actions of these. It is a question about coming to consciousness about a much richer, varied set of objects for science by adopting a new epistemic stance towards ‘nature’: “[…] if we take the model of falling bodies as the yardstick for movement in general, all the other movements, agitations, transformations, initiatives, combinations, metamorphoses, processes, entanglements, and overlaps are going to appear bizarre.”[14]

The important – and difficult – thing is to understand the role of living beings, their power to act, their agency. The overlap of themes from Latour’s earlier book Facing Gaia, his inspiration from John Lovelock’s Gaia theory, is evident. Still, however, it should be noticed, that Latour also remarks that there is no need for adopting Lovelock’s approach as such (Down to Earth, p.76). The important point is rather the possibility of a political revitalization through the reorientation of the natural sciences if (and only if) these were ‘encompassing all the activities necessary to our existence’ (Down to Earth, p.77).

Secondly, it is important ‘to try to single out the sciences that bear upon what some researchers call ‘the Critical Zone’’. This refers to a minuscule zone a few kilometers thick between the atmosphere and bedrock, of central and sine qua non concern and interest for understanding the Terrestrial and ultimately for survival – ‘a biofilm, a varnish, a skin, a few infinitely folded layers’ (Down to Earth, p.78).:

It is Earth’s permeable near-surface layer […] It is a living, breathing, constantly evolving boundary layer, where rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms interact. These complex interactions regulate the natural habitat and determine the availability of life-sustaining resources, including our food production and water quality.[15]

Thirdly, a new libido sciendi is required. ‘Earthseeking emancipation’ calls for other virtues than ‘weightless emancipation’, Latour claims. This means another psychological mindset, another sensitivity required for the different, scientific task and the new politics. Latour doesn’t say much about this issue, but it is interesting in itself, and I deal with it below in relation to my critical points.

Critical remarks

The central problem with Latour’s critique of science is his ambiguity in his own reliance on science and scientific results. On the one hand, he appears to endorse the results of science, and on the other denounces the epistemological stance, which is constitutive for the scientific approach, that lends him those very results.

Let me be precise. What I have in mind here is not the epistemological outlook of ‘the new sciences’ (say ANT), and the results gained from them. Not in the first place. It is rather the ‘good old science’ (let me refer to it as ‘GOOSE’), which ‘pretty much unaffected tugs on in a traditional way: by endorsing realism in the belief that it carves nature at its joints, little by little accumulating facts and thus contributing to the extension of the set of true propositions’, as I described it above. Thus, Latour acknowledges the facts about the climate condition, all the accumulating results from statistics achieved by geophysics, meteorology, biology and so on and so forth. By means like satellite-photos, ice core samples and much else besides he indirectly acknowledges GOOSE, which brings forth these facts. Facts, that are neither more nor less than examples of ‘hard-won evidence that could save our lives’. Matters of fact – of concern. Latour undoubtedly would respond to this by pointing out, that he certainly approves the obtained GOOSE facts which helped to draw our attention to the climate crisis and which justified the assumption, that it is a man-made crisis. But he would not approve these sciences as helpful when it comes to the task of doing research in the critical zone or describing the Terrestrial conditions for human life.

If the choice is between GOOSE and ANT as the scientific approach to the actors on Planet Earth, ANT wins.

But let us look more closely at the differences between the denounced ‘view from nowhere’ and the replacing stance toward the Terrestrial, Latour is arguing for.

‘A view from nowhere’ is for all practical purposes a contradiction in terms, but occurs as a useful abstract conception of the ideally, disinterested objective description of an entity. I shall return to this purely abstract notion below. But Latour also denounces concrete points of view far away from Planet Earth. He indeed transforms the abstract idea into something very concrete: The perspective of the infinite univers – ‘from Sirius’. And from that observation site, there is pretty much about the Terrestrial, the life on Earth, you cannot see and which therefore is of no concern whatsoever. Latour is of course right about that, and makes a vivid point out of the absurdity of our interest in far-away objects in an infinite space compared to the critical condition of Planet Earth, at home, right here. But if you move from Sirius towards Planet Earth, you reach an orbit of observation sites which should be of utmost importance to Latour: This is the geostationary orbit, some 35.786 kilometers above Earth’s equator, and following the direction of Earth’s rotation, from where the critical zone and much besides on our planet can be observed by satellites. Thus, favorable observation points appear in a good distance from where earthly actors live their lives; as a matter of fact observation points for those of the earthly actors we call ‘human beings’. Whereas Heidegger could allow himself to be shocked when he saw the first pictures of the earth taken from space[16], Latour cannot and should not.  Mediated by satellites we gain valuable information about the critical zone, the important stratum for the ‘proper sciences’ dealing with the Terrestrial. Latour at one point passes by this favorability of observation points from space (Down to Earth, p.78), without noticing the mild irony of our having this important orbit of outer observation posts, considered his occupation with a Terrestrial point of view. This at least demonstrates, I believe, that it is not an easy task to draw a line between the importance and unimportance of adopting a point of view distant from the Terrestrial. It also shows that facts from GOOSE might blend in and become very useful – indeed essential – for ANT or other non-GOOSE type of sciences doing research in the critical zone. Latour would perhaps admit these points, and argue, that a view from nowhere considered as an abstract ideal makes us blind in the real world to what we experience and consequently turn actors into objects, which implies mis-describing and devaluating them:

If we swallow the usual epistemology whole, we shall find ourselves again prisoners of a conception of “nature” that is impossible to politicize since it has been invented precisely to limit human action thanks to an appeal to the laws of objective nature that cannot be questioned. […] Every time we want to count on the power to act of other actors, we’re going to encounter the same objection: “Don’t even think about it, these are mere objects, they cannot react,” the way Descartes said of animals that they cannot suffer.[17]

Whether or not Latour is right in his historical consideration about the motifs for inventing the conception of ‘objective nature’, I believe that ‘the view from nowhere’ is not only highly useful (in addition to being potentially demeaning), but indeed an inevitable epistemological element of any thinking endeavor. The ability to form conceptions towards a view from nowhere is constitutive for being able to think. I take the liberty to include Latour here. ‘Towards’, but without ultimately succeeding. We are apparently able to put our respective subjective points of view in epoché in our attempts to reach a more objective understanding in a variety of human endeavors, including science, philosophy and education. But it is our fate that we never succeed in escaping ourselves completely when reaching towards an objective understanding, and we certainly know a number of examples from the history of philosophy and science, where claims about successful ‘escapes’ are made, but eventually end up as classical, prominent examples of mistaken reductions. Some of these are certainly grandiose and keep attracting us; (probably) mistaken they nevertheless are.[18] Thomas Nagel in his book The View from Nowhere from 1986[19] has argued in detail for this epistemological ‘fate’ of human beings – a kind of ‘double vision’, since we can transcend our subjective selves – although not fully so: “Double vision is the fate of creatures with a glimpse of the view sub specie aeternitatis.”[20]

Somewhat surprisingly, Latour neither refers to Nagel nor to this influential book in Facing Gaia and Down to Earth.[21]

With respect to a strive towards objectivity, I believe that it is an essential part of our pursuits of truth – that we are able to attempt at putting ourselves to a side, including being able to acknowledge another subject’s point of view. This is neither to say that we are ever able to fully succeed, nor to say that scepticism in any easy way can be rejected.

Latour’s discussion of the genesis of the conception of ‘the view from nowhere’ through the invention of ‘Galilean objects’, gives rise to another critical point, we need to take into consideration in order to understand his use of the notions ‘point of view’ and ‘vantage point’ :

From the fact that one can, from the vantage point of the earth, grasp the planet as a falling body among other falling bodies in the infinite universe, some thinkers go on to conclude that it is necessary to occupy, virtually, the vantage point of the universe to understand what is happening on this planet. The fact that one can gain access to remote sites from the earth becomes the duty to gain access to the earth from remote sites.[22]

I do not know whom the thinkers Latour is referring to here are, and I don’t understand what he means by a duty to gain access to the earth from remote sites. But notice that Latour is very concrete here in his use of ‘vantage point’. He is not thinking of vantage point in an abstract way like when we disregard the sensible properties of a physical object in order to conceive it ideally for the purpose of explaining and predicting its behavior from the laws of mechanics. However, he also remarks that: “[…] this vision from the vantage point of the universe – “the view from nowhere” – has become the new common sense to which the terms “rational” and even “scientific” find themselves durably attached.”[23]

Thus, he apparently mixes up the existence of concrete vantage points with the abstract, ideal notion of ‘a view from nowhere’. This is a mistake. He might be right, that there are points in space – e.g. the view from Sirius – that it doesn’t make sense to occupy in order to see anything of concern at Planet Earth. But the existence of an abstract view from nowhere is something differently, qua abstract – whether or not it is constitutive for our ability to think and do science. Latour thinks concretely about the vantage points, and is therefore only in a banal sense right when he claims, that even when it becomes a duty to gain access to the earth from remote sites, it will always in practice remain a contradiction in terms. Offices, labs, instruments, the entire production and validation of knowledge etc. etc. has never left the old terrestrial soil (Down to Earth, pp.67-68). Put differently, Latour’s discussion of ‘vantage points’ is not addressing the question about the genesis, power and possible constitutive role of adopting an abstract ‘view from nowhere’. He refers to Husserl as the source of the notion ‘Galilean objects’, but his discussion of these issues is consistent with the view, that Husserl’s critique of the scientific-epistemological stance ‘Galileism’ and ‘the view from nowhere’ implies a total dismissal of this stance. This is not correct, however. Husserl’s objections in Krisis were not directed against natural science adopting ‘a view from nowhere’ and the possibility of describing and explaining natural phenomena as ‘Galilean objects’, but instead and only against natural science if this is taken as the true and only epistemological basis for understanding our world and ourselves in this world.

With these remarks I have indicated where I believe Latour is mistaken with respect to his fight against certain scientific-epistemological stances. He has valuable points about our conceptions of ‘nature’, but does not succeed with the demonstration that the epistemic notion of ‘the view from nowhere’ is neither unsound nor useless. I have tentatively argued for the possibility along Nagelian lines, that the ability to form conceptions towards a view from nowhere is constitutive for being able to think and fortiori for doing science – be it GOOSE-, ANT-, or otherwise. Still, the risks of our exploitative and disparaging behavior towards nature would not be less imminent, even if my critical remarks are correct. Latour’s points about the dangers of treating actors as objects still stands.

This is where his idea about a new libido sciendi is to the point. I am not sure what he precisely means by the virtues ‘weightless emancipation’ – needed for heading toward the Global – and ‘earthseeking emancipation’, which is required if we decide to turn toward the Terrestrial. (Down to Earth, p.81) Latour probably believes, that what is needed is a different sensitivity towards those actors which before were treated as mere objects. It is a question about taking the Earth’s reactions to our actions into account (Down to Earth, ibid.). But even if we for the sake of argument grant Latour, that a redistribution of agency/actors is required, and new ‘positive bodies of knowledge’ is sought for, why should this situation involve different laboratories, instruments, and researchers (Ibid.)? What are the reasons for that? After all Latour sometimes also writes much more liberally as if many different sciences could be involved. ‘We must count on the full power of the sciences – but get rid of the ideology about ‘nature’; and ‘we have to be materialist and rational, but we have to shift these qualities onto the right grounds.’ (Down to Earth, p.65). So GOOSE and ANT can work together after all? It seems all too adventurous to call in new sciences, instruments, researchers and labs in order to address our ‘new Earth’ scientifically.

Consider a small thought experiment, in line with the idea about a redistribution of actors: Assume that plants are phenomenally conscious. Certainly, that would have an enormous effect on the discussion about the attribution of rights to them, just as much as the acknowledgement of animals’ capability for suffering and having experiences of pain had on the discussions of animal rights back in 1970s. If plants indeed have pain qualia and are capable of being consciously aware of their immediate surroundings, we will probably think very differently about what we experienced, when we went for a walk in the forest or ‘into the wild’.[24] We would think and act differently when it came to producing and consuming plant-based food and cloth, about bringing cut flowers into our sitting room etc., etc. But should we really stand in need for whole new sciences, researchers, instruments and labs? I don’t see any reasons for that.

Preparing for landing

Latour in Down to Earth is deliberately vague about what ‘an Eartly stance’ comes to. One thing is his inclinations towards ANT and the role of sciences in general. But he also, in parallel, hints at a required, new description of the multifarious ways we inhabit our soil, the conditions for the Terrestrial, for life, for living at our Earth. Latour’s tentative gesture is partially due to his invitation to the reader to co-develop this stance; to contribute in the positive, if Latour’s geopolitical diagnosis is sound. He indeed suggests the initiation of a massive, new descriptive task: “What to do? First of all, generate alternative descriptions. How could we act politically without having inventoried, surveyed, measured, centimeter by centimeter, being by being, person by person, the stuff that makes up the Earth for us?”[25]

Latour reminds the reader of an episode in the history of France, between January and May 1789, where a ledger of complaints was constructed, at the request of the king.[26] The purpose was to let the corporations, cities and estates all have a voice, all have a chance to describe their environments, conditions for living a live, their privileges, taxes etc. Latour’s idea now is that all actors in a similar way should be granted the opportunity to (in principle) define their dwelling place:

To define a dwelling place, for a terrestrial, is to list what it needs for its subsistence, and, consequently, what it is ready to defend, with its own life if need be. This holds as true for a wolf as for a bacterium, for a business enterprise as for a forest, for a divinity as for a family. What must be documented are the properties of a terrestrial – in all the senses of the word property – by which it is possessed and on which it depends, to the extent that if it were deprived of them, it would disappear.[27]

Surprisingly, Latour himself cannot refrain from coming up with his own defence of and effusive tribute to EU’s Europe as the best place, by his lights, to live right now at Planet Earth (Down to Earth, pp.100ff). This is surprising, since landing somewhere on Earth is supposed to follow after the description of the properties of an environment, the conditions for living a live, has taken place. But no attempt at drawing such a list is presented. Certainly, Latour points at moral reasons for choosing Europe as a (his?) landing site:

It is as though Europe had made a centennial pact with the potential migrants: we went to your lands without asking your permission; you will come to ours without asking. Give and take. There is no way out of this. Europe has invaded all peoples; all peoples are coming to Europe in their turn.[28]

But whether or not Europe and the European Union for historical reasons has a special moral obligation towards refugees and migrants, this is not a description of basic needs and properties of an individual actor, or of a type of actor, it is not ‘to list what it needs for its subsistence, and, consequently, what it is ready to defend, with its own life if need be’ (Down to Earth, p.95). Pointing towards EU and Europe harmonizes poorly with Latour’s conviction, that a redescription of a dwelling place unlikely coincides ‘with a classic legal, spatial, administrative, or geographic entity’ (Ibid.). His pointing appears more like a geopolitical manifestation, the first draft of a political programme – what he himself warns against: “Any politics that failed to propose redescribing the dwelling places that have become invisible would be dishonest. We cannot allow ourselves to skip the stage of description. No political lie is more brazen than proposing a program.”[29]

Another surprising fact is, that just as much Latour invites the reader to think and act, he airs a pessimism with respect to any role whatsoever for education toward raising a consciousness about the climate crisis and the motivation for a new geopolitics (cf. Down to Earth, p.25) . This is surprising, because it is very difficult to see a direction from which collective, massive mobilization should come, if not the educational system. I believe that Latour’s pessimism in this regard is locally grounded in the problems with the French school system (L’Éducation Nationale).[30] Be that as it may, he is also inconsistent in his attitude towards education. He notices a strong and long lasting tendency to see other peoples’ attitudes, myths and rituals as ‘mere vestiges of old forms of subjectivity, of archaic cultures irreversibly outstripped by the modernization front’. Accordingly, such cultural remains have been seen as belonging at the ethnographic museums. But he also remarks, that: ‘it is only today that all these practices have become precious models for learning how to survive in the future’. (Down to Earth, p.75) Learning about other ways to live Terrestrially takes place. If practices have become models for learning, there is no principled hindrance to educational institutions for transforming these models into their practices. And after all: When it comes to Latour’s critique of ‘the view from nowhere’, of ‘the Galilean objects’, of ‘the nature-as-universe’ – what else is this but an attempt in the direction of a new heuristics, a pedagogy for doing science in new ways? Perhaps Latour is right in his critique of science and epistemology. Or perhaps a massive, buildup of GOOSE, invariably addressing the climate crisis, really is what is needed.

Either way education will have a mandatory role to play through the concrete pedagogical tasks of reflecting and informing on our situation, developing models for how to address the climate situation in the classroom and for motivating geopolitical action in order to save our home, Planet Earth. Education lends us hope.

Whether or not the current global corona pandemic extinguishes this hope due to recession and ensuing depression – or on the contrary leaves us with a window that is open for a very short period, enabling Global or even Terrestrial reflection and political action – remains to be seen.


Heidegger, M. (1976). ‘Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten’, (Ein Spiegel-Gespräch mit Rudolf Augstein und Georg Wolff geführt im 1966), Der Spiegel, 23, 193-219.

Heidegger, M. (2000). ‘Das Ding’, in Gesamtausgabe, 1. Abteilung: Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976. Band 7, Vorträge und Aufsätze. Vittorio Klostermann GmbH, Frankfurt am Main.

Husserl, E. (1976). Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie. Hrsg. von Walter Biemel. Martinus Nijhoff, Haag. (Husserliana, bd. 6).

Koyré, A. (1957). From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Latour, B. (1996). ‘On actor-network theory. A few clarifications’, Soziale Welt, 47, 369-381.

Latour, B. (2004). ’Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’, Critical Inquiry, 30, 225-248.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Latour, B. (2017). Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climate regime. Polity Press, Cambridge, Medford, 2017.

Latour, B. (2017). Où atterrir? Comment s’orienter en politique. La Découverte, Paris.

Latour, B. (2018). Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Nagel, T. (1986). The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M (2011).‘Matters of care in Technoscience: Assembling neglected things’, Social Studies of Science, 41(1), 85-106.

Shapiro, G. & Markoff, J. (With contributions by Timothy Tackett and Philip Dawson) (1998). Revolutionary Demands. A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.


[1] These themes are legio in Latour’s writings. In the present book, particularly chapter 14 deals with these issues.

[2] Latour, B. Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climate regime. Polity Press, Cambridge, Medford, 2017.

[3] Latour, B. (2004): ’Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’, Critical Inquiry, 30, 225-248, p. 227.

[4] The inspiration for Latour comes in particular from Martin Heidegger’s paper ‘Das Ding’, in Gesamtausgabe, 1. Abteilung: Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976. Band 7, Vorträge und Aufsätze. Vittorio Klostermann GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2000.

[5] Latour 2004, p.233.

[6] Op.cit., p. 247.

[7] Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2011): ‘Matters of care in Technoscience: Assembling neglected things’, Social Studies of Science, 41(1), 85-106, p. 89.

[8] Down to Earth, p.65.

[9] Latour refers the reader to Alexandre Koyré’s book From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe in which this transition is described.

[10] Down to Earth, p.67, see also note 64.

[11] Husserl, E. Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie (Husserliana, bd. 6).

[12] Down to Earth, p.73.

[13] For a recent formulation of the theory, see Latour, B. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005. Latour, B. (1996): ‘On actor-network theory. A few clarifications’, Soziale Welt, 47, 369-381 is an attempt to clarify the basic elements of ANT and respond to objections. An early influential presentation of ANT is Latour, B. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1987.

[14] Down to Earth, p.76.

[15] Critical Zone Observatories/ US NSF National Program https://criticalzone.org/national/research/the-critical-zone-1national/ (retrieved April 12th, 2020).

[16] Cf. The interview with Heidegger ‘Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten’ from 1966.

[17] Down to Earth, p.65.

[18] Psychologism and biologism are examples.

[19] Nagel, T. The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986.

[20] The View from Nowhere, p.88.

[21] A curiously fact is, that Nagel and Latour have chosen the same cover illustration for Facing Gaia and The View from Nowhere: Caspar David Fridrich’s ‘The Large Enclosure near Dresden’, a painting from 1832.

[22] Down to Earth, p.67.

[23] Op. cit., p.68.

[24] This might sound a bit more adventurous, than it perhaps is. See e.g. this call for papers from Journal of Consciousness Studies on plant sentience and consciousness: https://philevents.org/event/show/80510 (retrieved April 21th, 2020).

[25] Op. cit., p.94.

[26] Cahiers de Doléances. See e.g. Shapiro, G. & Markoff, J. Revolutionary Demands. A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1998.

[27] Down to Earth, p.95.

[28] Op. cit., p.103.

[29] Op. cit., p.94.

[30] I thank the audience at École des Arts de la Sorbonne, Université Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, on March 31st, 2019, for sharing valuable information with me on this issue.

Leif Christian Jensen & Geir Hønneland (eds.), 2017 Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2017)

Over the last four decades, the study of Arctic politics has developed into a considerable disciplinary niche, extending to also incorporate perspectives from other fields such as developmental studies and law. Leif Christian Jensen and Geir Hønneland’s edited collection, Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic is a large and useful addition to this body that supplies current topics of relevance to the overall field. Employing contributing authors from multiple areas of expertise and institutions, this handbook provides an extensive and dynamic overview of the Arctic’s most pressing political issues and topics.

As pointed out in the introduction, Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic was compiled in response to a change in political climates, from the “age of the Arctic” to the “scramble for the Arctic”. This volume consists of twenty-nine unique articles of impressive assortment, separated into four thematic sections: ‘Geopolitics and Strategic Resources’, ‘Law of the Sea’, ‘Arctic Institutions and Specific Fields of Cooperation’, and ‘National Approaches to the Arctic’. As the title suggests, the collection was intended cover the breadth of political development and change experienced by today’s Arctic, with all manner of expertise addressed by many contributors from European countries, North America and Australia. As the editor remarks, other additional functional fields are also covered, such as climate change, energy, indigenous issues, jurisdiction, marine resources, pollution and preparedness and emergency response.

The first section is “Geopolitics and Strategic Resources”. In this part, articles such as “Arctic Securitization and Climate Change”, and “Strengthening US Arctic Policy through US-Russia Maritime Cooperation” trace the developments and conundrums transforming the political arena of our contemporary Arctic. Of particular interest in this section is Mark Nuttall’s piece “Subsurface Politics: Greenlandic Discourses on Extractive Industries”. In his article, Nuttall takes an ethnographic approach to explore and discuss the challenges of Greenland’s position as a new resource frontier, emphasising how political discourse surrounding the subsurface (what it entails and how it is imagined) intersects with resource development. Nuttall details the politics surrounding resource development in Greenland with sufficient enough range as to give the reader a general snapshot into the overall resource debate encountered by other Artic nations. Other articles in “Geopolitics and Strategic Resources” have also been chosen for their ability to render specific issues into their larger implications.

The second section, “Law of the Sea”, confronts many of the Arctic’s delicate legal enigmas, such as maritime boundary disputes, Arctic marine mammals in environmental and trade law, legal frameworks of outer continental shelf claims, and Canada’s Artic sovereignty. Purposely approached from a legal point of view, these articles manage to dissect the various arguments encompassing these legal dilemmas without any accompanied personal opinions. Unique to this book of Arctic politics is a dedicated legal section. Its utilization helps to both separate the many voices of this collection and lend clarity to overall debates in current Arctic politics.

The third section, “Arctic Institutions and Specific Fields of Cooperation”, is a carefully chosen collection with the specific purpose of highlighting the abundance and importance of cooperation in the Arctic. Well known topics, such as the Arctic council, are blended with newer subjects, such as China’s increasing Arctic ambitions, and together generate fresh ideas and areas of research pertaining to Arctic cooperation. This section is of particular interest due to its bridging of cooperation topics with alternative social concepts, such as Carina and Keskitalo’s article on “The role of discourse analysis in understanding spatial systems”, in which the concept of the Arctic is analyzed through discourse topics. While this section’s inclusion into the overall work is important for its coverage of new topics in cooperation, it has gathered some of the articles that may not have been easily classified into the other three sections, such as “Arctic change through a political reading” by Monica Tennberg. As a result, this section does seem to lack a general cohesive theme with regards to the articles presented. Regardless of its slightly miscellaneous nature, this section still helps take in the pertinent articles that would have been perhaps otherwise overlooked due to their contrasting content.

The final section is “National Approaches to the Arctic”, an interesting juxtaposition to its preceding section on Arctic cooperation, whose articles command the final pages of this collection to illustrate the various political interests, policies and complexities of Arctic and non-Arctic nations. This section exhibits the new and current policies in regards to national interests produced in the last while. This section particularly succeeds at demonstrating the book’s theme of demonstrating the changing from the “age of the Arctic” to the “scramble for the Arctic”, with articles on Russia’s northern interests, the European Union’s Arctic policy and Poland’s new science diplomacy approach. It is this collection that helps allude toward the plausible political topics and conundrums of the future, and leave the reader with these possibilities churning in mind.

Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic is superb overall. One of the volume’s few drawbacks is its size. In reality, the book’s title as “handbook”, may justify its extensiveness, however the length of this 617-page collection simply doesn’t make for light reading. Consequently, the targeted audience is slightly limited by its size and specialized content. Indeed, this book can be enjoyed by all readers, however it is better employed and possibly appreciated by Arctic scholars, students, and experts.

This minor criticism aside, Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic serves as an excellent and essential compendium of current topics in Arctic politics. This collection should be celebrated as a fundamental staple to any person involved in the field or study of Arctic politics.

Singapore and the Arctic: Is the Gibraltar of the East Going to Materialize its Geopolitical Ambitions?

In 1965, Singapore achieved independence after being expelled from the Federation of Malaysia. Having no natural resources and being one of the smallest countries in the world, Singapore had to shape itself as a State, regional and global player in order not to become, like most micro-states, gobbled up by expanding, neighboring states, or an inaudible voice and non-existing international diplomatic and political structures[1]. To do so, Singapore saw the action of a team led by one man that directed the country for 25 years, shaped its political system, diplomacy, economy and society: Lee Kuan Yew[2]. But to understand Singapore, we must understand its unique conditions that led to a unique economic, political, diplomatic and social system that drove its survival and, later, prosperity.

Singapore: an “Independent Gibraltar” in Asia

From its British colonial past, Singapore inherited the title of “Gibraltar of the East”, an analogy based on geographic, strategic and commercial features both cities enjoy[3]. However, Singapore is an independent country which had to reinvent and adapt itself to a new rising international order, being in a difficult region at the time (and still today): there was war in Vietnam, Communism in Cambodia and China, unstable political and religious conditions in Indonesia, and the United States’ military presence in the region. In order to survive in such a regional context, Singapore crafted what I will call its “Singaporean Survival” philosophy adopting national and diplomatic core values[4]:

  • Successful and Vibrant Economy: How?
  • Not Being a Vassal State: Why?
  • Friendly to All, Enemy of None: Who?
  • Global World Governed by the Rule of Law and International Norms: Where and How?

The first core value may be considered as a “How?” in the international relations analysis of the “Singaporean Survival” philosophy. It is the means for Singapore to achieve primary survival as a sovereign nation, ensure an income and opportunities for its inhabitants, as well as ensuring an economic income for the national government with the goal to secure a political system to run the country. The second core value may be considered as a “Why?”, as it reflects Singapore’s fears driven by the concept of Westphalian Statehood: not having full sovereignty within its borders and not having a strong international status. It is a fear driven by the fact that Singapore is a small nation without resources, and with a small population[5], meaning it would be relying on other countries to secure its status as a microstate. The third is a “Who?” in the sense of identity. Singapore had to shape itself as a nation, implying the creation of an international identity that would fit its regional geopolitical context and thus avoiding conflict, as it would not be strong enough to be an international military power. Furthermore, this approach helped Singapore in cooperating with everyone and then shape economic partnerships. It is a barrier-free approach to Liberalism. However, Singapore does not want to have friendly relations at any cost as its primary interest is its own security[6]. Finally, the fourth component is a “Where and How?”. This last point reflects Singapore’s ambition to promote freedom and stability to strengthen its image as a safe State willing to play by the rules. In this sense, this core value shows Singapore’s faith in peace and international cooperation, promoting international institutions as the primary international rule to avoid conflicts of interest by promoting the common international rules for all states and not a particular foreign state’s philosophy.

Singapore and International Relations Theories: the 2-Stroke State

Singapore created, through its philosophy, a development structure for its small nation, in which we may identify several points:

From Independence to Security and Stability:

As a small State, Singapore may not be able to compete with other States in terms of military capacity and technology, being rapidly outnumbered and outpowered by larger States due to its relatively small population (around 5,7 million people), small territory and therefore limited natural resources. This implies that the realist definition of power given by Waltz: “size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence”[7] is overall not favorable to Singapore. This means that Singapore had to find new ways of asserting power while still developing such traditional fields with the development of an army, the implementation of compulsory military service and a constant progression towards cutting-edge military technology[8]. Therefore, Singapore achieved a version of soft Realism to achieve a primary survival: despite being small and limited in resources, be consistent, trustworthy, competent, stable politically, and keep asserting your position in the world as a state[9]. By recognizing its own features and the regional context in which it had to develop itself, Singapore accepted the vision of chaos and State-driven interests, starting with its own[10]. This Singaporean approach targeted the promotion of national wealth through the development of international cooperation where Singapore would play a key role, trying to be a “necessary, competent and wealthy” actor on the international scene. In this sense, the goal was the creation of a strong economy and then transition towards a more liberal approach. The process was a 2-step one: first reaching security, stability and international recognition, and then reaching sustainability and prosperity by using its key status to continue running its economy. I will call this process the 2-Stroke Singaporean Engine: 2 strokes that complement each other and meant to keep the Singaporean ball of survival rolling while increasing its wellbeing, international high-level status as an untouchable state, and therefore security. A philosophy marked by a progressive mix between realism (dominant at the beginning of Singapore’s history for its own survival) and liberalism (a philosophy progressively introduced over time). In this sense, Lee Kuan Yew’s approach to Realism and political stability was based on a hybrid regime[11] with a dominant – party system, a political system that still continues today. This political system would help in controlling all aspects of the State’s development without contestation, building continuity within government policies and society, with strong measures such as implementing compulsory military service to raise an army and to limit freedom of press[12]. In this sense, the shift from Realism to Liberalism is the first of the 2-Stroke Singaporean Engine: materialization of national effort to secure the international position of the State in a chaotic region with almost no natural resources but with a high strategic geographic position.

From Security and Sustainability to Sustainability and Prosperity:

The implementation of a strong liberalist approach to economy mixed with an institutionalist perspective[13] is the second stroke, where Singapore increases its liberal approach by creating and promoting all the required frameworks and values to enhance its economy and take the most out of it[14], frameworks based on the analysis of foreign countries and international companies’ policies[15]. However, the second stroke is still based on soft Realism, where Liberalism plays a stronger role of catalyst than traditional realist concepts of power such as military strength by achieving economic capability and, to some extent, competence. In this sense, Singapore has secured its survival and stability, starting then the building of a wealthy nation that is meant to be a model of sustainability and prosperity, attracting two of the core values promoted by Liberalism: investment and free trade. Singapore progressively achieved this shift, notably with the creation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967[16] and its membership to the General Agreement on tariffs and Trade in 1973 (that would become later the World Trade Organization in 1995)[17]. Therefore, Singapore is promoting a very aggressive form of Liberalism and Pragmatism[18], supported nationally by a hybrid political regime that is still meant to achieve, at the same time, a soft form of Realism. An example and cornerstone of Singapore’s success may be the creation of the Economic Development Board in 1961, which laid the foundations for the economic development of Singapore through industrialization and the import of high-level engineering skills[19]. Therefore, this soft form is diversified in terms of tools used to achieve prosperity while serving the purpose of strengthening constantly the state of security, such as the production of high-level technology and the concentration of financial services and institutions, generating therefore economic, social, industrial and ultimately geopolitical stability for the benefit of all actors connected to the country.

Overall, with this second stroke, Singapore means to increase its wealth and develop its nation, capacity, resources and international gravitas, not forgetting to improve its own security at the same time. In this sense, the second stroke achieves a shift in terms of priorities, in which economic, diplomatic, technological and social development are the first goal, serving at the same time the purpose of security as a secondary but not so far away goal.

Friendly to All, Enemy of None: Is Singapore the Maximum Exponent of the Democratic Peace and Regime Theory?

Singapore’s international approach to diplomacy is mainly cooperative and peace-focused[20]. Despite its larger GDP[21], stronger military alliances (with the US for example) and technological development, Singapore remains a small city-state facing bigger neighbors in case of conflict. Therefore, Singapore developed an international diplomatic policy of “Friendly to All, Enemy of None”[22] to survive as a micro-state in the international scene. This policy might be compared to the democratic peace theory as it promotes a peaceful relationship between Singapore and its regional belligerent and bigger neighbors such as Malaysia and Indonesia[23]. In order to be successful, and not being a full-scale democracy (hybrid regime) by itself, Singapore adopted a dyadic approach to the democratic peace, making no difference between democratic and non-democratic States in its diplomatic and economic relations[24].

However, it can be argued that Singapore, as a hybrid regime, may not be associated with the concept of Democratic Peace. Despite such feature, Singapore still represents, in many aspects, a credible and successful representative of the Democratic Peace. Going further, the country represents a true alternative in terms of governance, stability, prosperity, international relations, social and economic development. In this sense, the country tops the world ranking highlighted in the Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum since 2019, in which metrics such as health, infrastructures, environment, institutions, skills, education, employment conditions and workers’ rights play a prominent role in evaluating the country’s economy[25]. Therefore, it can be argued that despite being a hybrid regime with a dominant – party syndrome, Singapore is performing pretty close to, or even better than, traditional democracies, as highlighted in the Global Competitiveness Report 2019. This implies that Singapore’s government succeeded in building a strong, stable, sustainable and prosperous country despite being a dominant – party system.

In this sense, despite the political sacrifice of democracy as a cost of opportunity, this effort has been materialized in a successful and innovative model, in which the People’s Action Party (PAP) plays the dominant political party building governmental authority, stability and consistency. Therefore, Singapore’s representation of the Democratic Peace may be justified by the fact that the PAP appears to be largely approved by Singaporeans, as the party won the 2020 general elections[26]. Nevertheless, it may be argued that Singapore is not a democracy and thus the elections may be flawed. However, it is harder to argue Singapore’s success since its independence, outperforming regional and international competitors, leaving a clear legacy and an existential question for other countries: “What is the ultimate purpose of government?”[27].

In this sense, as the goal was to achieve survival and reach a minimum level of security, Singapore’s government efforts were oriented towards the creation of stability and make use of opportunities and commonalities between states to create a fruitful cooperation. The country was ultimately showing to the World that it is safe and profitable to work with them, despite being an atypical country in many aspects above-mentioned.

This perspective is strengthened by the fact that Singapore has shown a strong belief in and commitment towards international institutions, building supra-national protection against its more powerful partners and bringing the necessary stability its cooperation agreements needed to survive[28]. But not confident in its militarily weak situation in Southeast Asia, Singapore nuanced its liberal policy with a strong realist component: military cooperation with the US. In this sense, Singapore is friendly towards the US, perhaps in an attempt of applying the shelter theory, and is definitely frustrating any regional threat to its sovereignty[29][30]. It is a double protection in the end: an economically “necessary” partner and protected militarily by a superpower.

Singaporean Geopolitical Pillars

To understand what the Singaporean interest in the Arctic would be, four geopolitical pillars have been identified: Geography, maritime sector, financial sector, and education sector. Singapore is located right in a key junction of the main international sea routes between Asia and Europe: Malacca. Being the shortest passage for maritime routes between East Asia and Europe, Malacca is a heavy traffic and maritime strategic area as well as a converging point between the Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) and the South China Sea[31]. The development of harbor facilities, bunkering and a friendly policy towards shipping positioned Singapore to get the most out of its geographic location: becoming a key harbor within the main trade routes as it provides all the shipping-related services before entering the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea[32]. Furthermore, the maritime sector is vital for the country as it allows its industrial and manufacturing sectors to continue developing as it is an important logistic factor for exports and imports. Alongside the maritime sector, which constitutes up to 7% of its GDP[33], the financial sector was developed with tax-friendly policies to attract foreign investments[34]. This policy would bring another nickname for Singapore: the Switzerland of the East[35]. Bank secrecy and favorable tax policies, in addition to its neutrality and stability, would lead Singapore to become a central marketplace and one of the most economically competitive countries in the world[36]. But Singapore did forecast future trends and saw that its citizens would have to follow the country’s growing path, realizing as well that a highly educated population would represent a strong asset to further development of the country. Education was a central social component of the State’s social policy, increasing its budget every year and considerably (up to 70% increase between 2007 and 2018)[37]. It is a way to mitigate or “compensate” the regime theory approach to State, so population would not feel being apart and ignored totally. We may find points of comparison with the famous Roman “Panem et Circenses” (Bread and Circus), best analyzed by Fyodor Dostoevsky in his poem “The Grand Inquisitor”, in which he describes how persons may bow down to the person who will give them bread[38]. However, seduction of mind may constitute a barrier to this “power” given by bread, but Singapore has found the way to achieve both: ensure social security and prosperity (bread) and promote opportunities and provide a strong international status to its citizens[39].

Global Role Translated in Arctic Affairs

Therefore, what are the possible interests of Singapore in the Arctic? According to the previous short analysis, and in light of the recent developments in the Arctic (e.g., the increasing in traffic and tonnage on the Northern Sea Route[40]), we may identify three main fields of interest: diplomacy, shipping and natural resources. As it has been highlighted, Singapore heavily relies on maritime industries. As the Arctic routes represent a strong alternative (despite being still under development and facing great challenges), they constitute a direct threat to the traditional maritime routes passing via Singapore[41]. In this sense, there won’t be a total shift of traffic from these Southern routes to the Arctic ones, as East Asia is still connected to other Southern regions that will continue passing through Malacca Strait: the Persian Gulf and the oil fields; India; Africa; Eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea; etc. In addition, not all companies might be willing to upgrade their fleet, which is very expensive (upgrade to or acquisition of Ice-Class vessels, compliance with the Polar Code, subscribing to particular insurances for Polar waters, paying the Russian fee for the Northern Sea Route, etc.), and may decide to continue sailing the controlled and mastered Southern routes. But Singapore has a long-term economic policy in which it tries to forecast all trends and diversify its assets[42]. In this approach, Singapore follows the move towards the Arctic, where high level investments are required and where opportunities and empty seats are still available. Russia is in need of foreign investments for its mega projects on natural resources (e.g., Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2 have French, Chinese and Japanese investments[43]) and for developing infrastructures such as bunkering, harbors, shipyards and trade centers, features in which Singapore is specialized. We may notice the presence of the largest Asian maritime stakeholders like China, Japan and South Korea in such projects (e.g., South Korean Samsung Heavy Industries signed a partnership with Zvezda Shipyard in Bolshoy Kamen, Eastern Russia to develop Arctic shipbuilding[44]), having developed an official Arctic policy[45]. But Singapore has, probably in its flexible and “Friendly to All” policy, not issued an official policy yet, but has developed structured and recognized by the Arctic Council strong diplomatic ties.

However, it is participating actively within the Arctic Council’s Working Groups, as this is the main entrance door for Observers to Arctic Affairs[46]. It demonstrates that Singapore is seeking to strengthen its actions in the Arctic as a future trade place for natural resources (according to a US Geological Survey report, large reserves of oil, gas and minerals are untapped in the Arctic[47) and as a future maritime transit passage. Singapore has developed, in its attempts to reach sustainability and prosperity, education and essential diplomatic, maritime and financial positions that have been the key to be part of large international ventures. The approach to the Arctic is no different. In this sense, Singapore may bring via the Arctic Council’s Working Groups its knowledge power (experience, expertise and education) as a diplomatic way, and its financial and industrial expertise through the private sector for economic ventures. The lack of information regarding Singapore’s moves in the Arctic might be attributed to the geopolitical challenges linked to the region, where its two main partners are in an open front: China and the US (e.g., the construction of airports in Greenland[48]). We might then raise awareness on the Singaporean diplomatic policy: will the Friendly to All survive to the Arctic tensions? Will Singapore be able to keep its neutrality if its steps in Arctic diplomacy and industry? As many Asian countries, governments may issue interventionist policies for their private sector (e.g., the South Korean government urged the merger between Samsung and Daewoo Heavy Industries shipyards[49][50]) to maintain international competitiveness. Singapore is much of the same. Moreover, as a supporter of the regime theory with a dominant – party syndrome, it is known to be highly interventionist[51].

Furthermore, Arctic challenges stress Singapore’s adaptability skills. Its natural economic, political and geopolitical environments are strongly linked to its Asian geography. As a region dominated by sovereign states (which apply a strict Westphalian conception of state and a hard realist approach in the Arctic[52]), the Arctic will oblige Singapore to walk on a thin line between the two facing blocs if it is willing to cooperate on Arctic affairs: East and West. As a regional economic power in Asia, Singapore might be pushed by its neighbor China to take its side, but the US might be willing to see Singapore as an ally or, at least, to continue being neutral economic and diplomatically. However, Singapore may find diplomatic ties in more neutral Arctic States such as Norway or Finland, States that have been through the Cold War and survived to the East-West tensions adopting specific diplomatic approaches such as the Nordic Peace for Norway[53].


Singapore has crafted, applied and enhanced a successful economic, political and social model over the decades to reach the top of the ranking in terms of economy, international influence and wellbeing. Despite the nuances between its national interventionist and regime theorist policy, and its ultra-liberalist international approach, Singapore faces the greater challenge of reinventing itself. Furthermore, a progressive shift of the maritime sector to the Arctic might engage a third stroke in the Singaporean Engine. However, this economic shift is implying a geopolitical shift in its international relations and to adapt to Arctic diplomacy and the emerging opportunities. In this sense, Singapore will play in the same arena as its two major partners: the economic China and the military US. Nonetheless, the past ghosts of the Cold War are reappearing: nuclear accident in the Russian Arctic in 2019[54], China – US confrontation in Greenland[55], progressive military build-up in Russia[56], aggressive Chinese Arctic policy[57], tensions around Svalbard between Russia and Norway[58], to name but a few. In this sense, some of these Arctic challenges and issues may highly benefit from the Singaporean diplomatic and pragmatic approach, giving to Singapore a chance to promote itself as a problem solver. However, Singapore has to find its narrow line to steer gently across the geopolitically stormy Arctic, avoiding losing its neutrality, promoting cooperation and taking the most out of the new markets and economic opportunities. To do so, Singapore may apply to Arctic affairs its savoir-faire and promote its own philosophy through its neutral economic and diplomatic approach, avoiding falling into taking part in geopolitical issues that might have repercussions back in Asia. As a successful path forward in a conflictive region, Singapore represents a lighthouse that may be used in order to navigate the harsh Arctic affairs conditions: avoiding escalation, advancing stability, and ultimately promoting new ways for all States to follow a peaceful cooperation with mutual benefits and respect in the Arctic.


[1] Archie W Simpson, ‘Revisiting the United Nations and the Micro-State Problem’ International Relations 8.

[2] ‘Lee Kuan Yew | Biography, Education, Achievements, & Facts’ (Encyclopedia Britannica) <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lee-Kuan-Yew> accessed 14 May 2020.

[3] ‘Battle of Singapore | Infopedia’ <https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2013-07-19_113523.html> accessed 14 May 2020.

[4] ‘Full Speech: Vivian Balakrishnan Highlights Principles Underpinning Singapore’s Diplomacy’ (CNA) <https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/full-speech-vivian-balakrishnan-highlights-principles-9038582> accessed 14 May 2020.

[5] OECD, Southeast Asian Economic Outlook 2013: With Perspectives on China and India (OECD 2013) 191 <https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/development/southeast-asian-economic-outlook-2013_saeo-2013-en> accessed 14 May 2020.

[6] ‘Full Speech: Vivian Balakrishnan Highlights Principles Underpinning Singapore’s Diplomacy’ (n 4).

[7] ‘Comparing and Contrasting Classical Realism and Neorealism’ <https://www.e-ir.info/2009/07/23/comparing-and-contrasting-classical-realism-and-neo-realism/> accessed 26 May 2021.


[9] ‘Full Speech: Vivian Balakrishnan Highlights Principles Underpinning Singapore’s Diplomacy’ (n 4).

[10] The regional chaos generated by different political movements opposed and in war with both the Malaysian and Indonesian central governments (such as the Second Malayan Emergency 1968 – 1989, the invasion and occupation of East Timor by Indonesia 1975 – 1999 and the still ongoing Papua Conflict which opposes Indonesia to the Free Papua Movement since 1962) deviated these countries’ attention from Singapore’s independence and development.

[11] International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, The Global State of Democracy 2019: Addressing the Ills, Reviving the Promise (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2019) 167 <https://www.idea.int/publications/catalogue/global-state-of-democracy-2019> accessed 14 May 2020.

[12] ‘Singapore : An Alternative Way to Curtail Press Freedom | Reporters without Borders’ (RSF) <https://rsf.org/en/singapore> accessed 14 May 2020.

[13] ‘Full Speech: Vivian Balakrishnan Highlights Principles Underpinning Singapore’s Diplomacy’ (n 4).

[14] ibid.

[15] Jon ST Quah, ‘Why Singapore Works: Five Secrets of Singapore’s Success’ (2018) 21 Public Administration and Policy 5, 15 <https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/PAP-06-2018-002/full/html> accessed 30 September 2020.

[16] ‘ASEAN’ <http://www.mfa.gov.sg/SINGAPORES-FOREIGN-POLICY/International-Organisations/ASEAN> accessed 26 May 2021.

[17] ‘WTO | Singapore – Member Information’ <https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/countries_e/singapore_e.htm> accessed 26 May 2021.

[18] Quah (n 15) 6.

[19] ‘Transforming Landscapes, Improving Lives: 50 Years of Economic Development’ <https://www.roots.gov.sg/stories-landing/stories/transforming-landscapes-improving-lives-50-years-of-economic-development/story> accessed 26 May 2021.

[20] ‘MINDEF Singapore’ <https://www.mindef.gov.sg/web/portal/mindef/defence-matters/defence-topic/defence-topic-detail/defence-policy-and-diplomacy> accessed 14 May 2020.

[21] ‘Singapore Economy’ (Base) <http://www.singstat.gov.sg/modules/infographics/economy> accessed 14 May 2020.

[22] ‘Full Speech: Vivian Balakrishnan Highlights Principles Underpinning Singapore’s Diplomacy’ (n 4).

[23] ‘The Indonesian Confrontation 1962 to 1966 – Anzac Portal’ <https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/indonesian-confrontation-1962-1966> accessed 26 May 2021.

[24] ‘Democratic Peace | Political Science | Britannica’ <https://www.britannica.com/topic/democratic-peace> accessed 26 May 2021.

[25] Klaus Schwab, ‘The Global Competitiveness Report 2019’ (World Economic Forum 2019) 506–509 <http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_TheGlobalCompetitivenessReport2019.pdf>.

[26] rosamir, ‘SINGAPORE 2020 GENERAL ELECTION: The Results’ (The Straits Times, 11 July 2020) <https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/2020-general-election-the-results> accessed 26 May 2021.

[27] Graham Allison, ‘Lee Kuan Yew’s Troubling Legacy for Americans’ (The Atlantic, 30 March 2015) <https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/03/lee-kuan-yew-conundrum-democracy-singapore/388955/> accessed 26 May 2021.

[28] ‘Full Speech: Vivian Balakrishnan Highlights Principles Underpinning Singapore’s Diplomacy’ (n 4).

[29] ibid.

[30] Prashanth Parameswaran, ‘Army Exercise Puts US-Singapore Defense Ties into Focus’ <https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/army-exercise-puts-us-singapore-defense-ties-into-focus/> accessed 15 May 2020.

[31] Xiaobo Qu and Qiang Meng, ‘The Economic Importance of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore: An Extreme-Scenario Analysis’ (2012) 48 Transportation Research Part E: Logistics and Transportation Review 258 <https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1366554511001104> accessed 26 May 2021.

[32] ‘Why Is Singapore Port so Successful? A Look at World’s Top Shipping Centre’ (Ship Technology, 24 October 2019) <https://www.ship-technology.com/features/why-is-singapore-port-so-successful/> accessed 14 May 2020.

[33] ‘The Establishment of Maritime Singapore Ecosystem’ (Maritime Singapore) <http://www.maritimesingapore.sg/about-maritime-singapore/> accessed 14 May 2020.

[34] ‘Singapore Tax Rates, Tax System, Tax Incentives – 2020 Guide’ (CorporateServices.com) <https://www.corporateservices.com/singapore/singapore-tax-system/> accessed 14 May 2020.

[35] ‘Singapore, “Switzerland of the East”’ The New York Times (21 January 1973) <https://www.nytimes.com/1973/01/21/archives/singapore-switzerland-of-the-east.html> accessed 14 May 2020.

[36] Schwab (n 25).

[37] ‘MOF | Singapore Budget 2020 | Government Spending On Education And Healthcare’ <https://www.singaporebudget.gov.sg/budget_2020/about-budget/budget-features/govt-spending-on-education-and-healthcare> accessed 14 May 2020.

[38] ‘11. Dostoevsky.Pdf’ <https://www2.hawaii.edu/~freeman/courses/phil100/11.%20Dostoevsky.pdf> accessed 14 May 2020.

[39] ‘Full Speech: Vivian Balakrishnan Highlights Principles Underpinning Singapore’s Diplomacy’ (n 4).

[40] ‘Shipping on Northern Sea Route up 40% | The Independent Barents Observer’ <https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic-industry-and-energy/2019/10/shipping-northern-sea-route-40> accessed 5 April 2020.

[41] NSF Abdul Rahman, AH Saharuddin and R Rasdi, ‘Effect of the Northern Sea Route Opening to the Shipping Activities at Malacca Straits’ (2014) 1 International Journal of e-Navigation and Maritime Economy 85 <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405535214000096> accessed 14 September 2019.

[42] ‘Singapore Economy’ (n 21).

[43] Published at: Apr 16 2020-09:17 / Updated at: Apr 16 2020-09:17 From Malte Humpert, ‘Construction of Novatek’s Arctic LNG 2 Project Ahead of Schedule’ <https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/construction-novateks-arctic-lng-2-project-ahead-schedule> accessed 14 May 2020.

[44] MarketScreener, ‘Samsung Heavy Industries : Zvezda Shipbuilding Complex and Samsung Heavy Industries Sign Contract for Arctic LNG 2 Project Gas Carriers Design | MarketScreener’ <https://www.marketscreener.com/SAMSUNG-HEAVY-INDUSTRIES-6491583/news/Samsung-Heavy-Industries-Zvezda-Shipbuilding-Complex-and-Samsung-Heavy-Industries-Sign-Contract-fo-29163839/> accessed 31 March 2020.

[45] ‘Arctic Relevant Policies – Icelandic Arctic Cooperation Network’ <https://arcticiceland.is/en/the-arctic/arctic-relevant-policies#japan> accessed 14 May 2020.

[46] ‘Observers’ (Arctic Council) <https://arctic-council.org/en/about/observers/> accessed 14 May 2020.

[47] USGS, ‘Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle’ <https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2008/3049/fs2008-3049.pdf>.

[48] Published at: Dec 05 2019-08:20 / Updated at: Jan 20 2020-23:55 From Malte Humpert, ‘Greenland’s Kangerlussuaq Airport to Close For Major Commercial Traffic in 2024 Due to Climate Change’ <https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/greenlands-kangerlussuaq-airport-close-major-commercial-traffic-2024-due-climate-change> accessed 6 May 2020.

[49] Richard Luedde-Neurath, ‘State Intervention and Export-Oriented Development in South Korea’ in Gordon White (ed), Developmental States in East Asia (Palgrave Macmillan UK 1988) <http://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-1-349-19195-6_3> accessed 14 May 2020.

[50] ‘South Korea to Combine World’s Two Biggest Shipbuilders in $2 Billion Deal’ Reuters (31 January 2019) <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-daewoo-s-m-m-a-hyundaiheavyinds-idUSKCN1PO17K> accessed 14 May 2020.

[51] William KM Lee, ‘Economic Growth, Government Intervention, and Ideology in Singapore’ (1996) 12 New Global Development 27 <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17486839608412592> accessed 14 May 2020.

[52] ‘American Flags in the Barents Sea Is “the New Normal,” Says Defence Analyst’ (The Independent Barents Observer) <https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2020/05/american-flags-new-normal-barents-sea-says-defence-analyst> accessed 14 May 2020.

[53] Gunnar Rekvig, ‘The Legacy of the Nordic Peace and Cold War Trust-Building in the North Atlantic’ (Háskólinn á Akureyri) <https://www.unak.is/is/samfelagid/vidburdir/gunnar-rekvig-a-felagsvisindatorgi> accessed 14 May 2020.

[54] ‘Russia Says New Weapon Blew Up in Nuclear Accident Last Week’ Bloomberg.com (12 August 2019) <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-12/russian-says-small-nuclear-reactor-blew-up-in-deadly-accident> accessed 14 May 2020.

[55] ‘How the Pentagon Countered China’s Designs on Greenland – WSJ’ <https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-pentagon-countered-chinas-designs-on-greenland-11549812296> accessed 13 April 2020.

[56] Barbara Padrtova, ‘Russian Military Build-up in the Arctic: Strategic Shift in the Balance of Power or Bellicose Rhetoric Only?’ <https://arcticyearbook.com/arctic-yearbook/2014/2014-scholarly-papers/91-russian-military-build-up-in-the-arctic-strategic-shift-in-the-balance-of-power-of-bellicose-rhetoric-only> accessed 14 May 2020.

[57] ‘The Increasing Security Focus in China’s Arctic Policy’ (The Arctic Institute, 16 July 2019) <https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/increasing-security-focus-china-arctic-policy/> accessed 14 May 2020.

[58] ‘Moscow Sends Signal It Might Raise Stakes in Svalbard Waters | The Independent Barents Observer’ <https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2020/04/moscow-sends-signal-it-might-raise-stakes-svalbard-waters> accessed 14 May 2020.

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, http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/china.html.

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), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/306527696_The_South_China_Sea_A_Geopolitical_Analysis.

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, https://twitter.com/sonoftaiwan/status/1138028385714630656/photo/1

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, Seradata.com, August 9, 2016, https://www.seradata.com/new-satellite-imagery-shows-chinese-unsinkable-aircraft-carriers-built-on-spratly-island-reefs/

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, DrishtiIAS.com, https://www.drishtiias.com/important-institutions/drishti-specials-important-institutions-international-institution/arctic-council.

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, https://limacharlienews.com/russia/russia-arctic-military-bases/

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: https://geographicalimaginations.com/2012/12/18/project-z/

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, https://www.nationalguard.mil/Resources/Image-Gallery/Historical-Paintings/Heritage-Series/Guardians/; Right: Alaska Territorial Guard map by Jay Griffin, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alaska_Territorial_Guard_map.jpg. 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, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/08/world/what-in-the-world/canada-denmark-hans-island-whisky-schnapps.html

[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, https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-pentagon-countered-chinas-designs-on-greenland-11549812296.

[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,” https://uchri.org/foundry/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), https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2012/april/asymmetric-warfare-american-style; 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, https://nationaIinterest.org/print/feature/why-islands-still-matter-asia-15121.

[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, https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-unsinkable-aircraft-carriers-1438880237; Brad Lendon and Michelle Lim, “Japanese Island Could Become an Unsinkable US Aircraft Carrier,” CNN, December 6, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/06/asia/japan-us-military-base-island-intl-hnk/index.html; Fighter Jets World, “Here Are The Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers Of The World,” June 28, 2020, https://fighterjetsworld.com/weekly-article/here-are-the-unsinkable-aircraft-carriers-of-the-world/22478/.

[12] For an introduction to EABO, see Marine Corps Association & Foundation, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) Handbook 1.1, June 1, 2018, https://mca-marines.org/wp-content/uploads/Expeditionary-Advanced-Base-Operations-EABO-handbook-1.1.pdf. For a discussion of EABO, see Robbin Laird, “Reshaping Perimeter Defense: A New Pacific Island Strategy,” Defense.info, August 12, 2019, https://defense.info/re-thinking-strategy/2019/08/reshaping-perimeter-defense-a-new-pacific-island-strategy/ 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,” https://www.cpf.navy.mil/leaders/harry-harris/speeches/2015/03/ASPI-Australia.pdf. For an example of media coverage of this, see BBC News, “China Building ‘Great Wall of Sand’ in South China Sea,” April 1, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32126840. 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, https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/08/08/countering-chinese-string-of-pearls-indias-double-fish-hook-strategy/.

[14] Gary K. Busch, “Russia’s New Arctic Military Bases,” Lima Charlies News, https://limacharlienews.com/russia/russia-arctic-military-bases/.

[15] The White House, “Memorandum on Safeguarding U.S. National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions,” June 9, 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/memorandum-safeguarding-u-s-national-interests-arctic-antarctic-regions/

[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, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-donald-trump-is-thinking-of-buying-greenland-thats-not-necessarily-a/.

[17] For more details of the PSC program, see the USCG Polar Security Cutter program information page, https://www.dcms.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Acquisitions-CG-9/Programs/Surface-Programs/Polar-Icebreaker/.

[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, https://www.alaskapublic.org/2019/03/21/china-russia-find-common-cause-in-arctic/

[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, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-10834006; 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, https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/geopolitical-consequences-of-melting-arctic-ice-russia-canada-us-northern-sea-route-shipping-natural-a8229306.html. 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, https://www.un.org/Depts/los/LEGISLATIONANDTREATIES/PDFFILES/TREATIES/USA-RUS1990MB.PDF. 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), https://jamestown.org/program/moscow-may-soon-end-provisional-enforcement-of-1990-bering-strait-accord-with-us/.

[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, https://www.alaskapublic.org/2018/06/06/us-russia-agree-on-shipping-standards-for-bering-strait/; 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, https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/pdf/IMO/NCSR_5_3_7.pdf. – 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, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-10834006; 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, https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/geopolitical-consequences-of-melting-arctic-ice-russia-canada-us-northern-sea-route-shipping-natural-a8229306.html. 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, https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/coast-guard-cooperation-with-russia-in-the-arctic/.

[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, http://www.isuma.tv/isuma-productions/exile-0) and his 2018 documentary, Or his 2018 documentary, “Kivitoo: What They Thought of Us” (Igloolik: Igloolik Isuma Productions, 2018, http://www.isuma.tv/hwma/kivitoo/ep4kivitoo1) 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,” Defense.gov, September 4, 2019, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/1952023/military-must-be-ready-to-confront-hybrid-threats-intelligence-official-says/; and Alex Deep, “Hybrid War: Old Concept, New Techniques,” Small Wars Journal, March 2, 2015, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/hybrid-war-old-concept-new-techniques. On the “Near Abroad,” see William Safire, “ON LANGUAGE; The Near Abroad,” New York Times Magazine, May 22, 1994, https://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/22/magazine/on-language-the-near-abroad.html.

[32] Daniel S. Hamilton, “Checkbook Diplomacy,” The Diplomatist (2016), as reposted by the Center for Transatlantic Relations, https://archive.transatlanticrelations.org/publication/checkbook-diplomacy-daniel-s-hamilton/.

[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, https://globalriskinsights.com/2019/05/china-debt-diplomacy/. 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, https://overthecircle.com/2019/05/07/the-us-throws-down-the-gauntlet-at-the-arctic-councils-finland-meeting/. The full text of Pompeo’s May 6, 2019 Rovaniemi speech, “Looking North: Sharpening America’s Arctic Focus,” can be found at https://www.state.gov/looking-north-sharpening-americas-arctic-focus/.

[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, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/civil-society-and-media/2019/11/russia-makes-ready-arctic-council-chairmanship-removing-critical.

[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, https://dnnlgwick.blob.core.windows.net/portals/0/NWCDepartments/Russia%20Maritime%20Studies%20Institute/ArcticPolicyFoundations2035_English_FINAL_21July2020.pdf?sr=b&si=DNNFileManagerPolicy&sig=DSkBpDNhHsgjOAvPILTRoxIfV%2FO02gR81NJSokwx2EM%3D

Understanding the Role of Arctic States, Non-Arctic States and Indigenous Peoples in Arctic Affairs Through the Lens of International Relations Theories

The Arctic has progressively entered the world of international relations since the first creation of the Russian American Company and the Hudson Bay Company up to the opening of the Northern Sea Route and increasing access to untapped resources. The individual in the Arctic could see, from the early stages of colonialism[1] up to nowadays’ industrialization, a shift in international relations: from a realist war for resources to a war for geopolitical security, and now for securing and exploiting resources. This last step is due to the current world economic trend (led by a capitalistic approach of an ever-growing economy) based on an exponential increase of technologies and population[2]. However, the individual has followed States’ philosophies and diplomatic approaches as the key word was security, sovereignty-related based on the Westphalian conception of States. Therefore, in order to understand the evolution and structure of the Arctic, a first analysis of the region may start with the application of International Relations’ Theories in order to understand the political shift and the consequences on all stakeholders.

The Arctic

In order to understand how international relations work in the Arctic, and hence security, a short analysis of the Arctic is required, applying the method of the 5Ws + 1H (What, Where, When, Who, Why and How), giving the following definition from the National Geographic Society:

“The Arctic is the Northernmost region of the Globe. […] the area within the Arctic Circle, a line of latitude about 66.5° North of the Equator. Within this circle are the Arctic ocean basin and the northern parts of Scandinavia, Russia, Canada, Greenland, and the U.S. state of Alaska. […] The Arctic is almost entirely covered by water, much of it frozen. […] River mouths, calving glaciers, and constantly moving ocean currents contribute to a vibrant marine ecosystem in the Arctic. […] Indigenous […] People established communities and cultures in the Arctic thousands of years ago. […] Rights to land and natural resources are an important part of contemporary culture and survival of indigenous peoples in the Arctic, […] tremendous challenges, often the result of colonization and exploitation of land and energy resources. […] Engineers and geographers estimate that oil and gas deposits in the Arctic make up 13% of the worlds undiscovered petroleum resources, and 30% of undiscovered natural gas resources. The Arctic is also rich in minerals.” [3]

This definition answers partly to the following questions: “What is the Arctic?”; “Where is the Arctic?”; “What is the History of the Arctic? (When); “What is the structure of the Arctic? (How)”; “Why is the Arctic so important?”; and most importantly “Who is living in the Arctic?”. Regarding the questions “What is the History of the Arctic? (When)” and “What is the structure of the Arctic? (How)”, an example of past race for the control over Arctic resources and land may be highlighted by the Russian – American Company and the Hudson Bay Company, helping in shaping future state borders. In addition, the Cold War era with the military control of the Arctic is another answer to the “When” question. Regarding the “How” question, since Gorbatchev’s speech in 1987[4] and the following creation of the Arctic Council in 1996, the Arctic has gained a regional political structure, an international forum where the Arctic States and the Permanent Participants may discuss Arctic Affairs and eventually issue non-legally and legally binding regulations (e.g., the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan and the MOSPA Agreement[5]).

The Approach

The Arctic is often referred to as a multifaceted region (i.e., No single definition of the Arctic)[6], therefore broadening the approach to the analysis of International Relations Theories applied to the Arctic may result in a more concrete study of the parameters that conform and shape the Arctic relations. As there is no single Arctic, going deeper in a single International Relations Theory would mean to leave aside many crucial parameters that characterize the Arctic. In this sense, through the application of International Relations Theories, a map of the organization of the Arctic might be drawn. The theories considered will be: Realism, Liberalism and English School. The Indigenous Level of Analysis[7] will be considered as cross-cutting due to the transboundary nature of the Indigenous Peoples’ organizations.


In this section, the realist approach will be applied to understand the relations between Arctic and non-arctic States and to obtain a hard security overview, in which the Westphalian concept of State, sovereignty and Indigenous Peoples’ claims will be considered. Only the differences between Russia and the United States (as the two opposed States during the Cold War), the state of China in the Arctic, and the Indigenous Peoples will be studied.

Russia vs. United States: In this clash of visions and regimes, the US and Russia oppose their claims over the Arctic, laying down their political approach to Realism. As stated before, the Arctic contains a large amount of offshore oil and gas. After the Cold War and the militarization of the Arctic, the post-Cold War era is characterized by the adoption of international legally binding conventions and agreements. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is one of them, being used by Arctic States in order to assert claims over continental shelves and extensions, as highlighted by Russia[8]. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and hence the end of the Cold War, there has been an exacerbation of the Westphalian concept of State from the economic perspective with the assertion of sovereign rights to advocate for resources in the Arctic [9]. In the case of Russia, there has been a military de-escalation after 1991 due to the economic chaos, therefore a lack of income, of the recently created Russian Federation[10]. But after its recovery, Russia shifted towards a scientific development to assert claims according the UNCLOS via the CLCS[11]. Moreover, the progressive melt down of the Arctic and a greater policy of sovereignty assertion, highlighted by the above-mentioned CLCS submission and because of its shrinking economy, are giving place to a military build-up[12]. In this sense, Russia develops and secures its own supply lines, trade routes, industrial and natural resources assets in the Arctic. In the case of the United States, the approach has been keeping an eye over the Arctic but not engaging in further expenses on militarization[13], resulting in a loss of military presence in the Arctic due to the end of the nuclear threat during the Cold War. In this sense, the US has followed the scientific movement to assert claims in the Arctic (despite not being part of UNCLOS, the US still gathers information that might be useful to formulate future claims in the Arctic Ocean[14], lowering its realist approach to transform it into a more liberal focused system with the extraction of oil and gas in Alaska[15]. However, according to the recent events, such as the announcement of the intentions to buy Greenland or the creation of the Polar Security Cutter program[16], the US has shown a shift towards a harder realist approach in dealing with Arctic affairs as Russia, allied with China, seems to represent a direct threat to its territorial sovereignty and sphere of geopolitical influence through Russia’s intentions of militarization[17] and the passive-aggressive behavior from China that considers itself as a near-Arctic State.

China and the Arctic: In its Arctic Policy, China declares itself as a near Arctic State, asserting through the wording its claims over the Arctic. According to the Policy and its international acts (e.g., participating in Arctic mining projects such as Arctic LNG 2 and Yamal LNG), China shows a clear realist approach in which it intends to gain political control, alongside Russia which has over 40% of the Arctic coast, over the Arctic and thus expanding a direct threat to the US in response to the American First and Second Island Chains in the Pacific[18]. Furthermore, China tried to increase Chinese-built infrastructures in Greenland, but the intervention of NATO blocked that investment at the last minute, showing the tensions between the NATO bloc and China for a strategic control of the Arctic[19]. As China launched the Polar Silk Road[20], theoretically, every logistical infrastructure would have the capacity to be used militarily due to the the involvement by the Chinese government as most of the Chinese companies participating in these projects are state controlled (e.g., Shandong Gold Mining Co. Ltd. and the bid to purchase the gold mine of Hope Bay, Canada[21]). These facts are confirmed by the increase in Chinese military assets and the already military use made by China of its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure (e.g., the use of the Djibouti Port facilities as a naval base[22]).

Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic: Being the first peoples present in the Arctic, they fight against past colonialism, State bureaucracy, structuralism and the Westphalian concept of State applied in the Region. In this sense, Indigenous Peoples have gained in recognition of their rights through diverse mechanisms such as the land claims acts (e.g., Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act and Indigenous land claims in Canada) or the progressive approval and implementation of UN Conventions (e.g., UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). From the recognition of their lands and cultures, Indigenous Peoples have adapted to the Westphalian concept of State through diverse political forms: one would be the creation of a borough like the North Slope Borough, another would be Greenland through the adoption of Home Rule Act and subsequent Self-Government Act that ensure the progressive gain in autonomy of the lands concerned, and a last example would be the reunification of tribes and peoples under International bodies in order to produce an international and tangible voice against States’ interests in international fora[23], some of them going further and building an alliance with States to secure their position (e.g. Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russian and the Saami Council[24]). These political adaptations are meant to build resilience against the Westphalian concept of State (Hard borders, centralized State with a full sovereignty over the territory within these borders). In this sense, these political and organizational structures allow the Indigenous Peoples to adapt themselves to both National and International structures and preserve then their rights while enhancing their recognition on both levels. It is a realist approach in the sense Indigenous Peoples fight to survive in a hostile environment where their interests are often a threat for sovereign States and private companies’ interests. It is not hard security such as military, but a security where the use of a constructive and peaceful dialogue is promoted, using international fora and diplomacy as a way to gain influence and public recognition. A clear example is the Permanent Participant status of Indigenous Peoples within the Arctic Council.


In this section, the liberal approach will be applied in order to understand the shift from hard security during the Cold War to the development of economic interests in the Arctic.

Russia and the Northern Sea Route (NSR): After the sanctions issued by the European Union in 2014[25], the Russian economy has been shrinking[26]. In this sense, and for almost a century, Russia has been trying to develop the Northern Sea Route in order to exploit its Arctic natural resources that are locked by the lack of infrastructure to export them outside the Arctic[27]. Furthermore, Russia has to exploit these resources in order to satisfy its industrial needs and continue developing its economy and assert its claims over the Arctic, operating a shift from realism to liberalism. This change is certainly the fruit of adaptation to world economics, but as well it has been induced by international sanctions from the US and Europe[28] that have precipitated the entry of Asian countries in the Arctic through mining projects in Russia such as Arctic LNG 2[29]. So, in a way, it is more about adaptation rather than State Philosophy.

Asian States (China, Japan, South Korea): Being part of the development of the NSR, the new Arctic marine technology and mining resources projects is the opportunity to integrate the development process of new trade routes [30], new resources and forecast the progressive shift from the traditional maritime routes to the Arctic. As the Asian countries above-mentioned are highly influential States linked to maritime industries, the control over new opportunities is clearly a liberal approach in order to keep their seat at the table in international fora as well as asserting their position in emerging Arctic markets. China, as mentioned in the realist approach, might be considered in a different way due to its economic position and military nature. However, the other Asian States are involved in a pure liberal approach, promoting economic interests with the help of the State that issues regulations and frameworks for its national private and public companies to take advantage over foreign companies through a fiscal, social and economic adaptability[31].

US, Canada, Norway, Greenland (Kingdom of Denmark) and Iceland: All these States have interests in the NSR and/or the Northwest Passage (NWP), as well as in developing their Arctic resources. In this sense, the approach differs from Russia where the NSR is controlled by the government and is only crossing one country: Russia. In the case of the Northwest Passage, Canada is involved for the archipelagic part but still have to go through the Bering Strait (Half controlled by Russia and half by the United States), where both Coast Guards may enforce controls as the strait is within territorial waters and located in the Polar Code area, meaning the Article 234 from UNCLOS[32] might be applied. Furthermore, Canada is fighting internationally to protect the Northwest Passage and consider it as internal waters in order to seek environmental preservation and pretend to the right of charging passage fees. In this sense, Canada and the United States are developing their resources and shifted, at the end of the Cold War, from a realist approach to Arctic affairs to a liberal approach with major developments in extraction of mining resources[33]. Iceland and Greenland may face their strategic location to both the North Atlantic entrance to the Arctic and the central Arctic with a more realist approach. In this sense, Iceland relies on NATO’s forces for a hard security apparatus while Greenland has a mix between Denmark and NATO’s security forces. Nonetheless, both countries are oriented towards a liberal philosophy as Iceland is willing to continue developing fisheries and maritime traffic, and Greenland is willing to develop sustainable industrial activities and infrastructures for a better communication with global trade routes. However, Iceland is progressively back as a key player in NATO’s strategy[34] and Greenland is increasingly developing a major role in securing the United States and NATO allies’ influence and control over the Arctic, being still under influence of the approach to build commercial infrastructure which would be used as military (e.g., like China and the Belt and Road Initiative[35]).

Indigenous Peoples: Indigenous Peoples may find in the technological build-up of the Arctic and the invasion of infrastructures and industries both a threat and possibility. This development may suppose a direct threat to their traditional culture and way of living, possibly destroying their ancestral lands and natural resources. However, they have to embrace economic progress to ensure food and health security, social and professional security through the creation of income from their resources to generate a stable political structure to be autonomous (e.g., Greenland and its first Home Rule Act of 1979 replaced by the Act on Self-Government of 2009). In this sense, Indigenous Peoples have to apply (Some already do, like the North Slope Borough with their political and regulatory framework) the liberal approach in order to continue achieving sustainability, build resilience and continue their march towards autonomy. As long as achieving a full-scale political, military and economic structure for a whole State might be not viable yet (e.g., Greenland and the fact Denmark controls foreign policy, currency and security), the best option to create security and face a State with equal arms would be the application of the liberal approach to generate income and thus protecting their way of living. Despite their ancestral culture and traditional way of living, Indigenous Peoples may have to adapt to, at least a national framework to ensure a required political security to protect their rights against both national and international interests. In this way, Indigenous Peoples may want to use liberalism as a primary mean to achieve security and thus achieving a soft form of realism.

As a cross cutting approach, the English School plays the role of reminder of the past. The Cold War being quite recent, all Arctic States, particularly Russia and the United States, may not want to come back to a state of constant military security threat that would impede the development of Arctic economies. In this sense, the Arctic Council is the best example in terms of English School application, being built on a solid and common interest to all Arctic States: environmental protection[36]. Therefore, it provided a common ground to overcome the differences generated during the Cold War (Realism) to achieve cooperation in order to control the future of the region (Realism) and to lead the Arctic development and economic efforts (Liberalism), all based on the analysis of the past, of cultures and societies, of the differences and resemblance[37].


The individual in the Arctic has been observing and experiencing a shift in international relations, from experiencing hard security threats (e.g., the Cold War) to a liberal approach that has driven the rapid build-up of mining and transportation facilities in the Arctic (e.g., Greenland and the construction of three new airports[38]). Therefore, there is an economic development underway, bringing social and economic security, which might be still missing in strength in most of the remote communities[39]. However, despite the recent military escalation between the US and Russia in the Arctic, Liberalism is definitely on the rise and supported by all States as economic ventures are increasing in number and strength across the region, with examples such as the Royal Arctic Line – Eimskip cooperation agreement, the multistakeholder LNG projects in Russia, to name but a few. This shift has been driven by the implementation of the English School that exposed the economic losses and the waste of capacities from both blocs (Eastern and Western), being translated into a state of permanent threat that channeled efforts and finances towards hard military security. In this sense, Indigenous Peoples across the Arctic experienced different political approaches that led to different security issues. In some parts of the Arctic, specific legal mechanisms have been signed, promoting the recognition of Indigenous rights and creating a certain autonomy (e.g., Greenland and its first Home Rule Act in 1979, or Alaska and the ANCSA in 1971). In other parts, Indigenous communities were sacrificed for the sake of the Nation (e.g., Russia and the construction of infrastructures on Indigenous lands[40]). However, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the decrease in military expenses from both sides (One driven by a collapsed economy like Russia and another by the military financial release) and therefore decreasing the militarization of the Arctic created a void that was filled up by both public and private companies that were looking for new opportunities. Suddenly, Arctic communities would see the opportunity of an opening to the World as the geopolitical tensions would decline. Indigenous Peoples then could enjoy an economic breath and an international recognition as the land they occupy would not be longer subject to tensions, bringing the space and opportunity to start building an international voice that would be recognized by the UN (e.g., the ILO Convention 169 in 1989 and the UNDRIP in 2007 and then by several States in both the Arctic and the World). Nonetheless, in order to secure this voice and claims, the Indigenous Peoples made the opposite shift, using Liberalism and English School as two powerful tools to achieve Realism and thus create security for their rights, culture and lands. In this sense, Indigenous Peoples understood the current and increasing shift from state to intergovernmental organization-driven interests, in which states slowly gather in groups from the same geographical region and/or sphere of influence to pursue common international economic, political, security and/or military goals (e.g., NATO, the EU and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). After all, unity makes strength, and Indigenous Peoples have a great track record of applying such philosophy to survive in the Arctic.


[1] Janice GAE Switlo, ‘Modern Day Colonialism – Canada’s Continuing Attempts to Conquer Aboriginal Peoples’ International Journal on Minority and Group Rights Vol. 9, No. 2 (2002), pp. 103-141.

[2] Juan Martínez-Barea, El Mundo Que Viene.

[3] National Geographic Society, ‘Arctic’ (National Geographic Society, 6 October 2016) <http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/arctic/> accessed 13 April 2020.

[4] KRISTIAN ÅTLAND, ‘Mikhail Gorbachev, the Murmansk Initiative, and the Desecuritization of Interstate Relations in the Arctic’ Cooperation and Conflict Vol. 43, No. 3 (September 2008), pp. 289-311.

[5] Arctic Council Secretariat (ACS), ‘Status of Ratification: Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. Information Document Submitted by the Arctic Council Secretariat.’ (Arctic Council Secretariat 2014) Working Paper <https://oaarchive.arctic-council.org/handle/11374/1350> accessed 17 October 2019.

[6] Annika E Nilsson and Miyase Christensen, Arctic Geopolitics, Media and Power (2019) 2 <https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9780429199646> accessed 13 April 2020.

[7] Barry Scott Zellen (ed), The Fast-Changing Arctic: Rethinking Arctic Security for a Warmer World (University of Calgary Press 2013) <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctv6gqr43> accessed 13 April 2020.

[8] ‘Continental Shelf – Submission to the Commission by Norway’ <https://www.un.org/Depts/los/clcs_new/submissions_files/submission_nor.htm> accessed 20 March 2021.

[9] ‘Continental Shelf – Submission to the Commission by the Russian Federation’ <https://www.un.org/Depts/los/clcs_new/submissions_files/submission_rus_rev1.htm> accessed 13 April 2020.

[10] ‘Russia – Post-Soviet Russia | Britannica’ <https://www.britannica.com/place/Russia/Post-Soviet-Russia> accessed 13 April 2020.

[11] ‘Continental Shelf – Submission to the Commission by the Russian Federation’ (n 9).

[12] Lassi Heininen, Alexander Sergunin and Gleb Yarovoy, RUSSIAN STRATEGIES IN THE ARCTIC: AVOIDING A NEW COLD WAR, p 5 <https://www.uarctic.org/media/857300/arctic_eng.pdf>.

[13] ‘Ref-181-Americas-Role-in-the-Arctic.Pdf’ 5 <https://www.americansecurityproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Ref-181-Americas-Role-in-the-Arctic.pdf> accessed 13 April 2020.

[14] ibid 2.

[15] ‘Alaska North Slope Crude Oil Production (Thousand Barrels per Day)’ <https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MANFPAK2&f=M> accessed 13 April 2020.

[16] ‘Polar Security Cutter’ <https://www.dcms.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Acquisitions-CG-9/Programs/Surface-Programs/Polar-Icebreaker/> accessed 13 April 2020.

[17] ‘China, Russia and Security Strategies in the Arctic’ <https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/china-russia-and-security-strategies-arctic> accessed 13 April 2020.

[18] ‘China’s Reach Has Grown; So Should the Island Chains’ (Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 22 October 2018) <https://amti.csis.org/chinas-reach-grown-island-chains/> accessed 13 April 2020.

[19] ‘How the Pentagon Countered China’s Designs on Greenland – WSJ’ <https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-pentagon-countered-chinas-designs-on-greenland-11549812296> accessed 13 April 2020.

[20] ‘China Launches the Polar Silk Road’ <https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-launches-polar-silk-road> accessed 13 April 2020.

[21] ‘SHANDONG GOLD MINING CO., LTD. : Shareholders Board Members Managers and Company Profile | CNE000001FR7 | MarketScreener’ <https://www.marketscreener.com/quote/stock/SHANDONG-GOLD-MINING-CO–6497385/company/> accessed 26 May 2021.

[22] Lauren Ploch Blanchard and Sarah R Collins, ‘China’s Engagement in Djibouti’ 2, para 1.


[24] ‘The Saami Council’ (Sámiráđđi) <https://www.saamicouncil.net/en/the-saami-council> accessed 13 April 2020.

[25] ‘EU Restrictive Measures in Response to the Crisis in Ukraine’ <http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/sanctions/ukraine-crisis/> accessed 13 April 2020.

[26] Martin Russell, Europäisches Parlament, and Generaldirektion Wissenschaftlicher Dienst, Seven Economic Challenges for Russia Breaking out of Stagnation?: In-Depth Analysis (2018) <https://doi.org/10.2861/227260> accessed 13 April 2020.

[27] ‘Moscow Adopts 15-Year Grand Plan for Northern Sea Route – The Moscow Times’ <https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/01/02/moscow-adopts-15-year-grand-plan-for-northern-sea-route-a68798> accessed 14 April 2020.

[28] ‘Dreyer et Popescu – 2014 – Do Sanctions Against Russia Work.Pdf’ 1 <https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/186485/Brief_35_Russia_sanctions.pdf> accessed 26 May 2021.

[29] ‘Press Center : Press Releases and Events | NOVATEK Closes Arctic LNG 2 Transaction’ <https://www.novatek.ru/en/press/releases/index.php?id_4=3317> accessed 12 March 2021.

[30] Svein Gjelle and Norges geologiske undersøkelse, Landet Ved Polarsirkelen: Geologi Og Landskapsformer (Norges geologiske undersøkelse 1995) 68.

[31] ‘South Korea to Combine World’s Two Biggest Shipbuilders in $2 Billion Deal’ Reuters (31 January 2019) <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-daewoo-s-m-m-a-hyundaiheavyinds-idUSKCN1PO17K> accessed 14 April 2020.

[32] ‘Unclos_e.Pdf’ 113 <https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf> accessed 8 April 2020.

[33] Øyvind Østerud and Geir Hønneland, ‘Geopolitics and International Governance in the Arctic’ Arctic Review on Law and Politics, vol. 5, 2/2014 pp. 156–176 159.

[34] ‘Iceland’s Role in Transatlantic Security Growing | NATO PA’ (Iceland’s Role in Transatlantic Security Growing | NATO PA) <http://www.nato-pa.int/news/icelands-role-transatlantic-security-growing> accessed 14 April 2020.

[35] ‘China Is Weaponizing the Belt and Road. What Can the US Do About It? – The Diplomat’ <https://thediplomat.com/2020/10/china-is-weaponizing-the-belt-and-road-what-can-the-us-do-about-it/> accessed 26 May 2021.

[36] Arctic Council, Arctic Council Anniversary Documentary: 25 Years of Peace and Cooperation (2021) <https://vimeo.com/549367004> accessed 26 May 2021.

[37] ibid.

[38] ‘How the Pentagon Countered China’s Designs on Greenland – WSJ’ (n 19).

[39] ‘Iqaluit’s Population Turns to Amazon to Save Money, Government Program “Not Working” – National | Globalnews.Ca’ <https://globalnews.ca/news/3587158/iqaluits-population-turns-to-amazon-prime/> accessed 14 April 2020.

[40] ‘Russia: Legislative Change to Demolish Indigenous Land Rights – IWGIA – International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs’ <https://www.iwgia.org/en/russia/2010-russia-legislative-change-to-demolish-indigenous-l.> accessed 14 April 2020.

Frédéric Lassere, Anne Choquet, and Camille Escudé-Joffres, Géopolitique des Pôles. Vers une appropriation des espaces polaires ? (Paris: Le Cavalier Bleu, 2021)

The book “Géopolitique des Pôles.” subtitled “Vers une appropriation des espaces polaires?” (“Polar geopolitics. Towards an appropriation of polar spaces?”, author’s translation) written by Frédéric Lasserre, Anne Choquet and Camille Escudé-Joffres is a general public book describing geopolitical polar dynamics, responding notably to the “Arctic Scramble” narratives and similar discourses of a war on resources at the poles. The book states very clearly and from the beginning that the authors consider the risk of conflict to be over-exaggerated, and even unrealistic. Drawing on the academic background of the authors, the book presents a geographical, political and legal overview of both the Arctic and Antarctic regimes of governance in layman’s language.

The book has a very clear focus, a very clear goal: to demonstrate that there is no “cold rush” or “Polar scramble” in either the Arctic or Antarctica. Five chapters support this demonstration: first, an outlining of what makes polar regions attractive to stakeholders today, covering climate change, scientific interests, existing and potential resources as well as common (Southern) polar imaginaries. A second chapter on the political and legal reality of polar space appropriation covers in a very pedagogical manner the basics of the Law of the Sea, the Antarctica land claims and the processes relevant to Arctic maritime territorial claims. Follows a chapter focused on regional governance regimes, covering the Antarctic Treaty System from a practical approach, Arctic governance through the Arctic Council, environmental protection in Antarctica and environmental protection in the Arctic. Then comes a chapter on the regulation of key activities, which has a section reminding the legal and practical frameworks discussed previously applied to mining and fishing, and then a section on maritime traffic, a section on tourism. The last chapter focuses on the potential sources of tension in the Arctic, starting with a section on existing tensions in the Arctic, insisting on their low intensity, nonetheless, followed by a section on dispute solving mechanisms in Antarctica, and lastly a section covering Asian Polar interests. Lastly, a final chapter wraps up the original question with the optimistic conclusion that the climatic and environmental challenges burdening the Polar regions call for cooperation rather than for conflict.

The authors present an optimist view of the state of Arctic cooperation today. Because of the clear focus it is easy to follow, and every subsection relates clearly to the main point made. However, that comes to the price of sometimes being repetitive, including in the chapter structure itself with some frequent overlap. Besides, it mainly presents State-focused issues that are also relevant to non-Arctic stakeholders, glossing over or simplifying certain issues, which can be seen in the overly optimistic portrait of Indigenous inclusion in the Arctic governance regime that is presented, for example. However, keeping in mind that the book is not an encyclopedic endeavour but intended for the general French-speaking audiences, this is a coherent editorial choice and prevents it from becoming too information-heavy.

Moreover, the text is very pedagogic and shows the benefits brought by the interdisciplinary background of the authors: every legal mechanism mentioned is carefully detailed in an accessible language, completed later by an overview of the practices. Another consistent theme is the worry about climate change and its consequences, which is weaved through the entire book beyond the original subsection dedicated to it. It also contains a relative abundance of maps and tables which ease comprehension.

The vast majority of the book is focused on governance mechanisms, both legal and customary, and thanks to the clear focus the topic is explored in depth, especially on the Arctic side, which is much more developed. Despite covering both Polar ends, the book underlines on several occasions the fundamental difference between the two that is the Arctic organic, permanent population of 4 million people. However, the “Arctic” itself is never explicitly defined: due to the attention given to maritime claims since we are mostly talking about the political Arctic, one would expect the authors to follow the political definition of the Arctic Council. However, one notices some surprising omissions, such as the absence of mention of Iceland in the section dedicated to tourism for example – while it is mentioned in fishing related sections, or the absence of any map giving one or several definitions of the geographical Arctic. This seems to indicate a somewhat confusing understanding of the Arctic: some clarification would have been welcome.

As it is not a scientific publication but a mainstream audience work, there is no reference in the text, but there are two bibliographies at the end. The first one, the list of references for the text itself is a bit short, and the large share of French speaking references is surprising, but it is recent and up to date. The second one, a bit longer, is a selected bibliographies of work from the authors, which presents no overlap with the first one while providing other sources relevant to the topic as well.

To conclude, this book gets its point across in a simple but effective manner, through very clear even though somewhat repetitive demonstrations. As a text directed towards French mainstream audiences, it definitely achieves its goal by providing pedagogical explanations on a wide array of topics that often arise in the general media. It is a valuable introduction to polar geopolitics, that could potentially be used as a starting point for higher education students as well.

Richard C. Powell & Klaus Dodds, Polar Geopolitics: Knowledges, Resources and Legal Regimes (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2014)

This edited collection brings together 18 scholars from different disciplines to discuss their latest insights into the Arctic and Antarctic regions. While the Antarctic has always been a distinct conceptual space in the World owing to its isolation from inhabited territories, the formation of the Arctic qua region has developed rapidly in the 21st Century. The editors, Richard Powell and Klaus Dodds, have asked the contributors to develop “critical polar geopolitics”, focusing on knowledges, resources and legal regimes. However, the book does not clearly follow these three priority areas but is in fact structured according to three parts: Global and Regional Frameworks; National Visions; and Indigenous and Northern Geopolitics.

Continue reading Richard C. Powell & Klaus Dodds, Polar Geopolitics: Knowledges, Resources and Legal Regimes (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2014)