Tag Archives: IR

Schrödinger’s American: A Self-Reflection of One Person’s Role in Iceland’s Nordic and Arctic Discourse

It is fair for one to ask, what does that quotation have to do with International Relations (IR) theory? For me, the quotation represents a push factor that has placed me into a metaphorical crossroads. By looking at this crossroads through an IR lens, I find myself in many long-standing and contemporary IR debates:  realism versus institutionalism, rationalism versus social constructivism, and the levels of analyses in which to apply these modes of thought. I will look at myself at three levels. The first layer will be the State in which I current reside (Iceland), which being a “small state,”[1] tends to be more institutionalist than the greater powers. Next, I will look at my role in academia both as a student and a research fellow working at the Stefánsson Arctic Institute, which is one institution in the “mosaic of cooperative arrangements emerging in the Arctic.”[2] Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I will analyze myself as an American abroad. Using the concept of “ontological security”[3] and Foucault’s definition of the individual, I will show that I am what I will coin “Schrödinger’s American.” My father may call himself one as well, yet living abroad (and questioning if I’ll return), I believe personally amplifies the moniker.  Section II will briefly define Schrödinger’s American and expound upon the words of my father to give context on how I define myself as an individual in this contribution. Section III will provide the definition of the layers of analysis chosen in order to dissect Schrödinger’s American, which will be divided into three subsections with each subsection analyzing the school of IR thought applicable to that layer within the Arctic.

Schrödinger’s American:  A Definition of the Self

Schrödinger’s American is what I define as the state of being American, in the realist sense of acting for individual benefit as an American subject, while at the same time actively participating in institutional arrangements in other sovereign States yet still begrudgingly being a part of the American cultural hegemon. My father’s words have stuck with me since our last email exchange; exchanges that have gone on for pages and years, ranging from topics as inane as college football to as serious as my career choices and his personal health. Yet despite the distance or time apart, there has always been a sense of levity, a knowing undertone of humor or even self-deprecation, when it comes to politics and the current affairs in the United States. COVID-19, and the United States’ response to it, has changed his tone. As a nephrologist who works at three different clinics and prisons in southwest Georgia, he puts himself at risk every day given his age (68) and health (diabetic). In a state that President Donald Trump criticized for opening too early,[4] my father has become disillusioned. He believes he is seeing the worst that the media, in its quest for viewership, and the populace of my town, by equating the inconvenience of social distancing measures with the current and historical oppression suffered by racial minorities, has to offer. I share his view and concern; I no longer feel the call of home as I once did.

My time in Iceland is too ephemeral to be called an expat, and my feeling towards home not callous enough to call myself a political exile. I exist somewhere in the interstitial fluid of being an American who cannot go home due to COVID-related and educational reasons yet may have to go home for personal and financial ones in the near future as I am an only child, regardless of whether I want to or not. Then I remember my father’s words actively telling me to stay away, and the loop of emotions (wanting to go home to make a difference and the guilt of not being there back to the happiness of being able to extract myself from all the vitriol and enjoy my sanctuary) begins all over again. I am at once American and not American; a player for which no IR theory can predict his actions.  Despite that gap in IR theory for the individual, I will attempt to do so in the following sections by breaking myself down layer by layer.

The Layers of Analysis

The levels of analysis question has been a constant debate throughout the development of IR thought and theory. David Singer “examine[d] the theoretical implications and consequences of two of the more widely employed levels of analysis:  the international system and the national sub-systems.”[5] His focus on the two levels has been further critiqued by scholars as new modes of thought were explored. From Waltz, “who stands squarely in the Realist tradition,”[6] gives us “three distinct categories or layers of analysis:  this individual, the state, and the international system.”[7] There are scholars who argue for even more layers of analysis. For example, Barry Zellen argues for the creation of a new taxonomy:

In today’s world, we have persistent, organic state-level entities (POSLEs) as well as ephemeral, and synthetic state-level entities (ESSLEs), some which are nation-states but others which are multi-ethnic states, the former widely perceived to be more enduring over time than the latter. We also have tribes, sects, and clans, some that reside within states, some between and across state boundaries (thereby creating fault lines for future inter- and intra-state conflicts), and those which have survived into the contemporary era are the POSSEs, so-named for their endurance. And now, with the proliferation ofnetworks and digital communications systems, we have neo-tribal entities which could, in time, evolveinto persistent and organic units of world politics, much like more traditional clans, sects and tribes. Indeed, organized crime networks and other illicit trade networks show many parallels with POSSEs, and could in time join their ranks.[8]

This new taxonomy redefines the traditional layers of analysis as used by Singer and Waltz in order to encompass layers not considered by them, such as tribes that are interwoven into the fabric of the United States and Canada and with whom they have a complicated history and various current levels of co-management schemes.

My choice of three layers is a hybrid of both the Waltzian and Zellen perspective. I choose to redefine the concept of the individual from Waltz, yet add it into the taxonomy of Zellen. Waltz’ definition of the individual is problematic given that his three layers are viewed through the “notion [as] the causes of war”[9] rather than curators of a Kantian peace.[10] I place this altered definition, one who is attempting to curate the Kantian peace, of the individual into “the Ethereal dimension [of Zellen] . . . [as] [i]t is one that exists in the mind and heart, such as the world’s religions.”[11]  While my perspective on the self is not religious in nature, it is more attached to the Foucault vision of the self and can be considered as to what exists currently in my heart and mind. Furthermore, the addition of my current role in academia shifts towards the mode of thought of Oran Young as an institutionalist rather than that of the realist Waltz when looking at the international system layer.

Layer One:  The State of Iceland

Iceland plays a unique role within the theory of international relations. It has found itself in a geographically advantageous region, an Arctic state between Europe and North America, yet does not have aspects of normal Westphalian state, such as a standing army. As “[a] small state with limited resources, [Iceland] cannot afford to just observe such first-order threats . . . Like any modern polity, it needs to be aware of all the different aspects of security – military, political, economic or functional – that are crucial for its survival. Since it can rarely find the answers on its own, and its limited internal market also makes its prosperity highly dependent on outside relations, it needs a conscious national strategy to find the external support (or ‘shelter’) and the openings required at the most reasonable price.”[12] Iceland acts both in an institutional capacity in some regards but cannot be denied that it has acted under the realist school of thought when it comes to certain issues, such as fisheries and maritime boundaries.[13]

For hard security issues, Iceland has been reliant on the United States and NATO strategic cover,[14] making it more reliant on institutions, yet with the current Icelandic government not wishing to have the United States back on its sovereign soil,[15] Iceland has rejected being a NATO “vassal” and sees itself as a thought leader for bridging East-West dialogue, especially with its Chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2019-2021 with it’s motto “Together towards a sustainable Arctic.”[16] By being Euro-sceptic, yet still being in the EEA and Schengen Zone, Iceland has walked the tight rope of being a Western ally, yet not committing fully enough to bother other regional and world powers such as the Russian Federation and China. The former is an important trade partner while the latter has been a large investor in new shipping infrastructure projects. For example, Iceland “advocates cooperation with BRICs and other Asian powers for diversifying Iceland’s trade relations, investment sources and economic base. Iceland has not only supported several nations’ wishes to become AC observers, but was one of the first OECD states to conclude a Free Trade Agreement with China, and recently gave one seabed exploration licence to a part Chinese consortium.”[17]

In further support of its institutionalist approach, “Iceland also participates with Norway, Russia and all EU members in the EU’s ‘Northern Dimension’ program, which offers funding for joint development projects and addresses the High North through the ‘Arctic window’ scheme.[18] As a founder-member of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, Iceland supports that organization’s efforts to stabilize relations and promote development across the land borders of Russia, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Significantly more active, however, is Iceland’s diplomacy within the Nordic Cooperation framework, comprising the Parliamentary Nordic Council and Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM), and its West Nordic sub-group.”[19]

Iceland is not only a pivot point for realism versus institutionalism, the creation of small state studies has led to a new discourse of which Iceland is a prominent member:

The changes in IR theory that came with the end of the ‘bipolar freeze’ (and, in some cases, the rise of nationalism) – in particular social constructivism with its focus on international norms, identity and ideas – may have eased the opening of the field of small state studies again in the 1990s. If not only relative power and/or international institutions matter, but also ideational factors, small states may gain new rooms of maneuver in their foreign policy. They may, for instance, be able to play the role of norm entrepreneurs influencing world politics they may not only engage in bargaining with the other (greater) powers, but also argue with them, pursue framing and discursive politics, and socially construct new, more favorable identities in their relationships.[20]

A summary of Iceland’s IR debates as a small state is covered in Table 1 below:[21]

My opinion is that Iceland falls under the social constructivist view even though it is more of a meta-theory than a theory in and of itself. Social constructivists “view cooperation as a result of social interaction and collective identity formation, not inter-state or intergovernmental bargaining. They do not accept the idea that the interests of states are fixed and independent of social structures. It is this basic assumption that makes room for the introduction of other mechanisms for understanding international cooperation.”[22] This can be seen in the changing concept of Iceland to the European Union; in 2013, the government in power wanted to join yet the current administration is Euro-sceptic.[23] Rather than the bargaining of governments, Iceland chooses not to enter into intergovernmental bargaining and has begun taking actions based on social structures. An example of acting through identity is its move to “Nordicness.” At present, “Iceland’s foreign policy is, to a greater extent, constructed by the Nordic environment, with its shared culture and institutions, than during the Cold War. Nordicness has never been more important to Iceland’s foreign policy in terms of increased security and defence cooperation between the Nordic states.”[24] This is due to “the end of the Cold War, the departure of the US military from Iceland, and the US government’s refusal to provide Iceland with a rescue package during the 2008 economic crash have transformed the impact of the Nordic environment on Iceland’s foreign policy. Accordingly, the culturally dense Nordic environment is having more impact on Iceland’s foreign policy and Iceland is moving higher on the continuum the degree of construction of the units by the environment in the security cultures model.”[25] By progressing towards a collective identity of Nordicness, we see Iceland slowly moving away from rationalist thought and the European Union towards other Scandinavian countries that balance foreign relations between both East and West, such as Norway and Finland.

Layer Two: My Role in Academia

The layers of analysis are not mutually exclusive of one another but rather may contradict or complement one another in an attempt to be complicit with or rebel against the actions of a larger entity. We see the complementary aspect of my work at the Stefánsson Arctic Institute and my role at the University of Akureyri contribute to the institutionalist route that Iceland seems to prefer. For example, my office borders the offices of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, one of the six working groups of the Arctic Council, the premier multilateral forum for Arctic discourse, and one in which Iceland views itself as a current thought leader given its possession of the Chairmanship.

Education has been a key institution through which Iceland has enhanced its Arctic viewpoint. “When identifying key actors within Iceland’s Arctic initiatives one cannot exclude academia. Iceland has had a strong presence in the EU’s and other international organisations’ scientific and educational networks. Akureyri University . . . runs an International Polar Law LLM and MA programmes, and regularly hosts international Arctic conferences.”[26] Part of my work at the Stefánsson Arctic Institute will be in its JustNorth program, which is based off an IR perspective of Mark Nuttall. Part of the program states “there has been a marked policy move towards promoting mining as a major industry, including with the Greenlandic parliament voting to repeal Greenland’s zero-tolerance policy on uranium mining. While resource development in Greenland represents a potential key source of income, the process of resource exploitation also raises the question of how to ensure that gains from resource development accrue to the people of Greenland.”[27] This research was inspired by Mark Nuttall and his own exploration of a realist versus institutionalist Greenland given the rising mining sector.[28] Thus through an Icelandic institution, I’ll be furthering the independence dialogue of a West Nordic sub-national entity of the Kingdom of Denmark. I’ll be continuing this Icelandic institution pursuit by teaching in the University of Iceland’s Arctic Studies’ Graduate Diploma program as a PhD Candidate in Political Science.

This institutionalist approach to realize goals that are generally thought of in the school of realism stands in for the complexities of Arctic governance “where social institutions rest on ideas, even when they have been around so long that it is difficult to ascertain the origins of the relevant ideas and trace the pathways through which they became influential. To my way of thinking, a research program that can profit from the insights of alternative schools of thought rather than becoming enmeshed in the sectarian battles among them has much to recommend it.”[29] The Stefánsson Institute is that type of body. Detached from sectarian, ideological disputes, it goes about its work unintentionally reinforcing Iceland’s institutionalist framework but with realist end goals of a possible independent Greenland, yet at the same time contributing to certain constructivist arguments by exploring what individuals want within Greenland and thus identifying social norms.

Layer Three:  The Individual

This layer has been somewhat defined in Section II of the contribution, yet needs meat added to the bone so to speak. As stated above I place myself in the ethereal dimension as laid out in Zellen where we look at what is in the heart and mind of subjects, yet those ideas seem to be conflicting with my current identity as American citizen. Zellen does not explicitly analyze the individual as Waltz does, yet placing the concept of the individual or subject into Zellen’s taxonomy makes logical sense. For Foucault, “subject is an entity which is capable of choosing how to act within the constraints of the given historical and cultural context. Foucault makes the distinction between the subject and the individual. The individual is transformed into the subject and the transformations take place as a result of outside events and actions undertaken by the individual; different forms of power relations makes individuals subjects. Foucault himself proposes in his essay The Subject and Power (1982) two meanings of the word ‘subject:’ subject to someone else by control and dependence; and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to.”[30]

Through my actions as an individual, I have been transformed into the two various definitions of the subject as defined by Foucault. First, I am a subject of Iceland based on my dependence of financial support and residence here and control by being subject to their laws, yet I am an American subject based on my own self-knowledge. These two seem reconcilable until we look at the “form of power.” The form of power for me being an Icelandic subject is the willingness to follow the laws and choosing to be here despite COVID-related issues; however, my being an American subject stems from the cultural hegemony of America and the lasting impact it has created. In a sense this goes back to the German realist Morgenthau in which there is a “constant struggle for power”[31] and “that there was no harmony of interest among nations, that national objectives would be governed, as they always had been, by the dictates of self-interest.”[32] America continues to have a form of power, one of culture, rather than what Morgenthau sees as hard power, over its subject. This cultural hegemony is hard to overcome and has become a label, or even a stigma, in many arenas. Iceland does not have this same cultural power; thus, my two concepts subject under Foucault, one willing and unwilling, are imbalanced powers with the unwilling power dynamic being stronger. This instills what I call the Schrödinger’s American; in one sense I am and will always be American even if I actively involve myself in institutions that may not work for the benefit of America.

Is there a solution for this dilemma? I take comfort in the fact that my father finds that American exceptionalism is dead, yet that has become a matter of politics, which is outside the scope of this paper. I do also take comfort that I may be caught up in Iceland’s nascent search for “ontological security.” Under this rubric “states also engage in ontological security-seeking. Like the state’s need for physical security, the need for ontological security is extrapolated from the individual level. Ontological security refers to the need to experience oneself as a whole, continuous person in time — as being rather than constantly changing — in order to realize a sense of agency.”[33] While I only may be one individual, I found Iceland in a time of national ascent both from an extant, international point of view as the Arctic has become ascendant in geopolitics by other countries and at the latent, national level, given that Iceland is actively promoting its role within that space through domestic strategies and the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. “Importantly, for theorists of ontological security individual identity is formed and sustained through relationships. Actors therefore achieve ontological security especially by routinizing their relations with significant others. Then, since continued agency requires the cognitive certainty these routines provide, actors get attached to these social relationships.”[34] My time in Iceland has not been long enough and have not developed the certainty of routines, although I do have them. By continuing these routines, I will achieve deeper social relationships and thus provide ontological security not only to myself in the form of human security/development but provide it to the State as well. In conclusion, it is hopefully only a matter of time before the crisis resolves itself.


In this piece I have analyzed myself within on three different layers:  the state, my work that contributes to the international system as well as the state, and the individual. At the state level, I find Iceland to be institutionalist rather than in the school of realism. Furthermore, Iceland, as a small state, has taken up the ideas of social constructivism by embracing its cultural identity of Nordicness in recent years after the United States withdrew from the base in Keflavik and did not provide financial support in 2008 during the financial crisis. In the second layer, I find myself contributing to institutionalist regimes, or as what Oran Young would call Regime Theory, yet going through these institutions may contribute to goals that some would define as realist; however, it is true that these schools are not mutually exclusive and may be used to complement one another. Finally, at the individual level, I find myself at an existential crossroads; torn between the power dynamics of an American hegemon and a small state with more limited capabilities which has made me subjects of two different state polities.

While this crisis is defined philosophically via Foucault, my crisis can be seen through the lens of international relations given that I am attempting to place myself within the ontological security paradigm of a state that is relatively new to the international scene. It is the powerful hegemon of the United States that continues to control my conscience and self-knowledge, yet my routines and social relationships will continue to develop in Iceland. As those social connections become more secure, my own ontological and human security will follow (both to myself and to the State), and I may be able to resolve my inner turmoil. I am a student of the Arctic, and I wish to continue to live in the Arctic. In doing so, I will have to overcome biases of culture that have been imprinted. It is a tough path to follow, but one I am excited to walk along.


[2] See generally Knudsen, Olav Fagelund, “Small States, Latent and Extant:  Towards a General Perspective,” Semantic Scholar, (2002), available at https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/%3E-Small-States-%2C-Latent-and-Extant-%3A-Towards-a-Knudsen/a2852b2275ecb4b4bf9bcd2befb29f47f390f9b3 (Last accessed May 22, 2020).

[2] Young, Oran, “Governing the Arctic:  From Cold War Theater to Mosaic of Cooperation,” Global Governance, Vol. 11, at pg. 9 (2005).

[3] See generally, Steele, Brent J., Ontological Security in International Relations:  Self-identity and the IR State, (Routledge:  New York and London) (2005).

[4] See Zeleny, Jeff, “Trump’s Angry Words to Georgia Governor Reverberate in State Capitals as Governors Move to Reopen States,” CNN Politics, (Apr. 27, 2020), available at https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/27/politics/trump-kemp-georgia-governors-reopen/index.html (Last accessed May 22, 2020).

[5] Singer, David J., “The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations,” World Politics, Vol. 14, No. 1, at pg. 78 (Oct. 1961).

[6] Mearshimer, John J., “A Tribute to Kenneth Waltz,” Zu Diesem Buch, at pg. 11 (no date given).

[7] Id.

[8] Zellen, Barry, “Tribe, State, and War Balancing the Subcomponents of World Order,” Culture and Conflict Review, Vol. 3, No. 3, at pg. 2 (Fall 2009).

[9] Mearshimer, John J., note 7 supra, at id.

[10] See generally, Oneal, John R., & Russett, Bruce, “The Kantian Peace:  The Pacific Benefits of Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, 1885-1992,” World Politics, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 1-37, (Oct. 1999), available at https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/world-politics/article/kantian-peace-the-pacific-benefits-of-democracy-interdependence-and-international-organizations-18851992/0BBD01FABBCAC18888792829960BEDD6 (Last accessed May 24, 2020).

[11] Zellen, note 9 supra, at id.

[12] Bailes, Alyson, et al., “Iceland:  Small but Central,” in Perceptions and Strategies of Arcticness in sub-Arctic Europe, at pg. 77, (Eds. Andris Sprüds and Toms Rostoks) (Latvian Institute of International Affairs:  Latvia), (Jan. 2013), available at https://www.kas.de/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=e861e1f4-bc1f-0c38-efdd-be81f6aeda16&groupId=252038 (Last accessed May 24, 2020).

[13] See generally, Fisheries Jurisdiction (United Kingdom v. Iceland), Merits, Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1974, p. 3., available at https://www.icj-cij.org/files/case-related/55/055-19740725-JUD-01-00-EN.pdf (Last accessed May 24, 2020).

[14] See id. at pg. 78.

[15] See Óskarsson, Ómar, “Left-Greens Reject NATO Project in Helguvík Harbor,” Iceland Monitor, (May 14, 2020), available at https://icelandmonitor.mbl.is/news/politics_and_society/2020/05/14/left_greens_reject_nato_project_in_helguvik_harbor/ (Last accessed May 24, 2020).

[16] The Arctic Council, “Icelandic Chairmanship,” The Arctic Council, available at https://arctic-council.org/en/about/chairmanship/ (Last accessed May 24, 2020) (emphasis added).

[17] Bailes, note 13 supra, at pg. 85.

[18] The term “Arctic window” is a term of art used within the EU Horizon scheme, and its definition and practicality are outside the scope of this paper.

[19] Id. at pg. 84.

[20] Neumann, Iver B., & Gstöhl, Sieglinde, “Lilliputians in Gulliver’s World?  Small States in International Relations,” Centre for Small State Studies, (Working Paper 1-2004), at pg. 12, (May 2004), available at http://ams.hi.is/wp-content/uploads/old/Lilliputians%20Endanlegt%202004.pdf (Last accessed May 24, 2020).

[21] See id. at pg. 13.

[22] Rieker, Pernille, “EU Security Policy:  Contrasting Rationalism and Social Constructivism,” Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, at pg. 6 (2004), available at https://nupi.brage.unit.no/nupi-xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/2394641/WP_nr659_04_Rieker.pdf?sequence=3 (Last accessed May 24, 2020).

[23] See Bailes, note 13 supra, at pp. 80-81.

[24] Thorhallsson, Baldur, “Nordicness as a Shelter:  The Case of Iceland,” Global Affairs, at pg. 11 (Sept. 24, 2018), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/23340460.2018.1522507 (Last accessed May 24, 2020).

[25] Id.

[26] Bailes, note 13 supra, at pg. 86.

[27] Personal communication with Joan Nymand Larsen, “Description of JustNorth Project,” electronic mail (Jan. 31, 2020) (on file with author) (citing Nuttall note 29 infra).

[28] See Nuttall, Mark, “Zero-Tolerance, Uranium and Greenland’s Mining Future,” Polar Journal, Vol. 3, pp. 368-83 (2013).

[29] Young, Oran, “Regime Theory Thirty Years On:  Taking Stock, Moving Forward, International Organization, at pg. 4 (Sept. 18, 2012).

[30] Campbell-Thomson, Olga, “Foucault, Technologies of the Self and National Identity,” Working Paper presented at the British Educational research Association Annual Conference, at pg. 3, (London, United Kingdom) (Sept. 6-8 2011), available at http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/204173.pdf (Last accessed May 24, 2020).

[31] Rosecrance, Richard, “The One World of Hans Morgenthau,” Social Research, Vol. 48, No. 4, at pg. 750 (Winter 1981).

[32] Id. at pg. 751.

[33] Mitzen, Jennifer, “Ontological Security in World Politics:  State Identity and the Security Dilemma,” European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 12, No. 3, at pg. 342 (2006), available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1354066106067346 (Last accessed May 24, 2020).

[34] Id.

The Greenlandic Question: An International Relations Analysis of a Post-Independence Inuit Nation

Ever since the re-founding[1] of Greenland in 1721 when Lutheran ministers were sent to convert the Greenlanders to Protestantism, Greenland has been under the Danish realm due to the legal concept of terra nullius.[2] Over the centuries, Greenlandic sovereignty has been an issue, but only very recently with respect to the Inuit, the indigenous people of Greenland. One of the most important cases regarding Greenland’s sovereignty, the Eastern Greenland case of 1933,[3] was a disagreement between Norway building a radio station on what the Danes considered to be their territory. The only reference to the Inuit was in dicta, considering them objects needing protection of a civilized state, giving their welfare to the Danish realm without considering their wishes.[4] Since that time, however, Greenland has gained steps toward independence from the Kingdom of Denmark via the U.N. Charter in 1945, which promotes self-government,[5] Home Rule in 1979, and finally self-government in 2009. The logical next step is independence, when Greenland is no longer reliant on the annual Danish block grant, and its economy stable and diversified. This would be the first time in which an indigenous-majority country would exist. This begs the question: what type of State would this nation be? Would it fall into its former colonial master’s ways of realism and adopt a Westphalian attitude or would it continue to function within the “social institutions or set of rules guiding the behavior of those engaged in identifiable social practices,”[6] such as the ICC, which plays such a large role in Inuit identity? Perhaps they could even create a yet unseen hybrid governance system.

This piece explores the realism versus institutionalism debate in a post-independent Greenland, and identifies the key arguments and inflection points that are determining which way Greenland is leaning. Not only will the author draw from current Greenlandic actions on the world stage, he will critique and contrast multiple IR authors who are viewing Greenlandic sovereignty through an incorrect lens. Section II will discuss Inuit sovereignty and institutionalism, while Section III will address realism and Greenland’s current Westphalian actions. The contribution will end with a succinct conclusion that Greenland will more than likely end up as a Westphalian state, which portends particular legal complications and a vocal minority who wish to continue to identity as Inuit.

Institutionalism and the Uniqueness of Inuit Sovereignty

Defining Inuit Institutionalism

Arguably, Greenland currently acts as an Institutionalist sub-national entity. In general, “Institutionalists share many of Realism’s assumptions about the international system— that it is anarchic, that States are self-interested, rational actors seeking to survive while increasing their material conditions, and that uncertainty pervades relations between countries. However, Institutionalism relies on microeconomic theory and game theory to reach a radically different conclusion—that co-operation between nations is possible.”[7] Greenland enacts this cooperation through various fora such as the Arctic Council by having one-third of decision-making power for the Kingdom of Denmark’s delegation along with Denmark itself and the Faroese, having their flag displayed, and even taking the lead in the Sustainable Development Working Group.[8] Most Greenlanders have representation via the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a Permanent Participant of the Arctic Council, and Greenland’s branch of the ICC has signed “A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic,” which states:

Inuit are a people. Though Inuit live across a far-reaching circumpolar region, we are united as a single people. Our sense of unity is fostered and celebrated by the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), which represents the Inuit of Denmark/Greenland, Canada, USA and Russia. As a people, we enjoy the rights of all peoples. These include the rights recognized in and by various international instruments and institutions, such as the Charter of the United Nations; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action; the Human Rights Council; the Arctic Council; and the Organization of American States.[9]

Yet, Slaughter’s definition of Institutionalism is lacking given that it is in regards to nation-states rather than pan-regional organizations, such as the ICC, and refers the reader back to a sense of nationalism, which the Inuit attempt to transcend via “cultural integrity.”[10] Shadian brings the definition of Institutionalism to the Arctic by defining a new type of indigenous institutionalism: “Inuit institutional sovereignty . . . is brought to fruition through local, regional and international institutions and economic ventures (i.e. trade agreements among Greenlandic, Canadian and Alaskan Inuit). In all, the myth and structure combined comprise the Inuit polity — a post-Westphalian contemporary representation of political organization — and, equally so, it is polities which engage in politics. Sovereignty as a concept, therefore, does not diminish nor does the state disappear. Instead, sovereignty exists as the process by which being political is possible.”[11]

We also see this neo-institutionalism within the Arctic but outside the context of Greenland. The Inuit of Canada have helped buoy the sovereignty of the State within the Arctic. Article 15 of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement which deals with marine areas adds: “Canada’s sovereignty over the waters of the Arctic Archipelago is supported by Inuit use and occupancy. Inuit have negotiated four comprehensive land claims agreements covering northern Quebec (1975), the Beaufort Sea region (1984), Nunavut (1993) and northern Labrador (2004). All support Canada’s Arctic sovereignty generally, but only the NCLA explicitly addresses Arctic sovereignty.”[12] From this example, we see the success of cooperation and the possibility of an institutional Greenland, yet it would seem to only thrive were it to be bolstering a sovereign state, such as Denmark. Many understand and appreciate the legality of such a cooperation scheme between the State and indigenous people;[13] yet is this alternative a beneficial option when independence is on the table?

Some Greenlanders do believe operating within this framework would be beneficial. Sara Olsvig, former leader of the Greenlandic political party Inuit Ataqatigitt, argues that the while the Self-Government Act[14] implements many of the principles of the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it does not comply with one hundred percent of its tenets.[15] “Olsvig expresses frustration that now they are finally in a position to be able implement [all] of them because of self-government, [yet] they do not do so but instead claim they no longer apply.”[16] Therefore, some Greenlanders in the political elite still wish to follow the neo-institutionalist regime despite the self-government’s claims. The argument of the self-government is that it is the democratic representation of all Greenlanders, their consent through an election is the consent of all, indigenous and non-indigenous.[17] As Johnstone explains, “this is a pretty thin form of consent. In fact, it is a very western representative democracy kind of consent.”[18]  While we see the ICC as a thought leader and bridge builder for the Inuit and perhaps one of the best examples of Oran Young’s neo-institutionalism at work in the Arctic, it is not without its fault within the contemporary landscape.

Limitations of Inuit Sovereignty for Greenland via Institutionalism

The limitations to the neo-institutionalism regime of Oran Young within the Arctic occurs as it falls into the trap known as the “pragmatic approach, focusing on questions of . . . what is likely to occur.[19] Rather than the pragmatic or prescriptive approach, championed by Icelandic scholar Guðmundur Alfredsson, where questions of what should occur predominate,[20] the functional approach, “which seeks to analyze what does occur (in governance) and to understand the processes of decision-making”[21] is the most useful for a future Greenland IR analysis. Thierry Rodon is an example of such a political scientist in this camp.[22] These functionalists have created an analytical framework to assess success in international governance:

(1) effectiveness defined as mitigation or removal of specific problems; (2) political participation, highlighting changes in participation and influence in decision making on Arctic affairs; and (3) region building understood as contributions by Arctic institutions to denser functional or discursive connectedness among the inhabitants of the region.[23]

In the next section on realism, reflect on the following question: does a new consciousness, as desired by the ICC,[24] trump the establishment of a new country trying to navigate its nascent geopolitical reality? In reviewing the three goals of the functionalists, the next section will outline Greenland’s successes in those areas and show Greenland has been trending toward the realist model rather than the neo-institutionalist model.

III. Realist Actions and Trends Within Greenland

Realism Defined and Actions Taken

Slaughter defines Realism as the following:

States are sovereign and thus autonomous of each other; no inherent structure or society can emerge or even exist to order relations between them. They are bound only by forcible → coercion or their own → consent. In such an anarchic system, State power is the key—indeed, the only—variable of interest, because only through power can States defend themselves and hope to survive. Realism can understand power in a variety of ways—eg militarily, economically, diplomatically—but ultimately emphasizes the distribution of coercive material capacity as the determinant of international politics.[25]

Put more simply, States can only rely on themselves for survival and are skeptical of international institutions. Greenland is already looking toward the future and scholars have already begun exploring Greenland’s future. The regime of 2010 was already looking ahead towards independence and already was adopting realist attitudes:

[P]redominately Inuit leadership in Greenland has fixed its gaze on a further, though still distant goal [of] full independence. This attitude was often repeated in interviews I conducted with Greenlandic government officials and other Greenlandic political actors in the summer of 2010. Interestingly, in embracing this position the political role of the ICC is also seen as significantly diminished . . . for instance, the ICC’s significance for Greenland is essentially that of being an international advocacy group responsible for Inuit cultural preservation. Yet, it is the Greenlandic government, according to this official, that must strive to achieve greater sovereignty for the Inuit of Greenland through the establishment of an independent Greenlandic nation-state.[26]

When looking at the three goals of functionalism from the previous section, the Realist model is dominating. In the first problem of mitigating or solving an issue, an example can be seen in Greenland’s Home Rule Act of 1979. Working through the EEC, an international/institutionalist organization, Greenland (due to Denmark) was subject to the Common Fisheries Policy, which highly damaged their main source of income. Seeing their way of life threatened, the Greenlanders looked to the Faroe Islands, which already had Home Rule and did not accede to the EEC.[27] Upon receiving Home Rule in 1979, Greenland voted in 1982 to leave the EEC and created in 1985 a “bespoke treaty that retained access of the European fleet to certain fisheries in exchange for tariff-free access to the European market for Greenland-caught first and EEC financial support.”[28] Therefore goal one of the functionalists was supported through Greenland’s own actions rather than an international regime. While it may be argued the 1985 treaty showed Greenland’s acceptance of international institutions, they only entered it for their own survival and profit; a more realist objective.

In the second issue, political participation, highlighting changes in participation and influence in decision making on Arctic affairs, we again see Greenland adopting a realist attitude. It has been noted that moves are being made and sovereignty games are already being played in order “to adjust the boundary for what Greenland may do internationally by altering the level of representation, hence contributing to the process towards fulfilling the ideal national self-image of transforming the postcolonial hierarchy into one of sovereign equality.”[29] While sovereignty games are merely heuristic devices, they provide insight into the future actions of the specific player. Especially within the foreign policy realm, Greenland can act both within the school of realism and institutionalism in order to obtain the goals of realism, particularly within the Arctic Council:

In addition to the Danish Realm’s delegation, Greenland has two other channels for representation in the Arctic Council. The first is via the permanent participation of the ICC which pleads for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and takes a more critical stance on hydrocarbon exploitation and the state-centered sovereignty perspective. The other is via the West Nordic Council which was welcomed as an observer at the Fairbanks Ministerial meeting in 2017. In this parliamentary cooperation, Greenland and the Faroe Islands act on an equal footing with the sovereign state of Iceland, sharing the same past as a former Danish colony and often mentioned as a role model for future Greenlandic state formation. The extra channels of representation expand the number of possible moves in the game as Greenland representatives may both put forward their opinions as a member state, a permanent participant and an observer, hence gaining more influence in the Arctic Council and enhancing Greenland’s foreign policy sovereignty on the Arctic governance stage.[30]

In the third issue, region building understood as contributions by Arctic institutions to denser functional or discursive connectedness among the inhabitants of the region, one must understand that participation is for power and that such entrance into international institutions would be for one’s own nation state rather than progression of the cultural integrity of the Inuit in the Arctic, although Greenland is not so callous to believe those ideals to be mutually exclusive. Again, self-interest rules the day “as the Greenlandic government’s approach to the issue of sovereignty is ultimately grounded on an acceptance, even an unquestioned assumption, of the validity of a Westphalian political ontology. This is not to say that the Greenlandic authorities do not recognize how the ICC’s tactics of a circumpolar Inuit strategy have helped the Inuit in their respective areas promote greater autonomy, yet the idea and the subsequent practice of sovereignty persists as an ideal, and it does so via the scalar construct of the nation-state.”[31] In this sense, it would only make sense that Greenland join the EEC, Arctic Council, and others as an individual state rather than as a stronger voice for the ICC or the Inuit in general. If synergies are to be found, they will be used but rather as leverage than out of a sense of Inuit heritage.[32]

For example, Greenland’s entrance into the natural resource extraction regime to see “the desire for full sovereignty on the part of the Greenlanders . . . as grounded on a realist inspired belief that full sovereignty means possessing complete command over the laws and rules that are instituted.”[33] For example, in 2013, the Parliament of Greenland voted and overturned the zero-tolerance policy on mining and radioactive materials by a single vote, therefore welcoming multinational conglomerates to stake out mines despite strong protests not only within Greenland but with Denmark as Denmark gave mineral rights to Greenland but viewed uranium as a security issue (over which Denmark has control).[34] Therefore, within all three of the functional governance targets, Greenland best uses the Realist perspective while bringing in its Institutional capacity as needed to further its goals. Greenland has positioned itself wisely as a strong Arctic player with the IR capacity to negotiate beneficial treaties and alignments were it to become independent.

Legal Pitfalls of Adopting the Westphalian Attitude

The major question in this area becomes one, again, of sovereignty. While there is no set definition of indigenous peoples, the presence of ILO 169 and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples agree that one key concept is they “consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories . . .”[35] Would this mean that Greenlanders lose their indigeneity based on concepts of international law? One scholar believes so as “[i]ncreasingly in international affairs, the Greenland Self-Government is rejecting the indigenous label altogether at least in cases where the extent the Greenland Self-Government represents itself (rather than being represented by the Kingdom of Denmark), preferring, for example, to the use the ‘traditional knowledge’ rather than ‘indigenous knowledge.’”[36] Such actions may not speak for all Greenlanders but were this to continue to be the government position, along with Inuit being the predominant demographic, Greenland risks losing its indigenous status under certain interpretations of International Law treaties.

Not only would this hurt self-identifying indigenous peoples within Greenland, it arguably creates new legal obligations for Nuuk or what I will refer to as Western Greenland. There are arguably two other minorities within Greenland that are recognized by the ICC:  North Greenlanders and East Greenlanders.[37] They were colonized much later, as North Greenland was discovered by the Peary expeditions, and the United States recognized Danish sovereignty over them in 1916.[38] Eastern Greenland was known by other Inuit but were not visited until 1883 by Gustav Holm and their Inuit guides from southern Greenland.[39] At the very least, they are linguistic minorities (Tunumiit Oraasiat in the East with 3000 speakers and Inuktun in the North with 1000 speakers).

It has been asked why these are dialects rather than languages when they are incomprehensible to one another, unlike “so-called ‘Scandinavian.’”[40] Furthermore, the cultures and traditions of hunting and clothing differ.[41] This question has yet to be addressed by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, The UN Human Rights Committee, nor the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, yet neither Denmark nor Greenland acknowledge these groups’ legal, distinctive indigeneity despite signing the ILO 169 Convention.[42] If these groups are indigenous peoples within Greenland, the self-government must guarantee for them the rights that the West Greenlanders used to demand against the Kingdom of Demark . . . an insistence on the unity of the Greenlandic people risk the very assimilationist practices that have scarred Inuit . . . for generations.”[43]

  1. Conclusion

While such concrete analyses of IR framework futures prove useful, they are rarely fully accurate. Perhaps the best explanation of Greenland’s development will be one described by Rógvi, who receives criminally little attention in Arctic academic literature, whose analysis of Faroese governance shows in a similar fashion the coherence of governance processes and the logic of its development through time as Greenland.[44] The better functioning aspects of Faroese governance such as fish-farming, employment services, taxation and pelagic fisheries are seen as the results of trial and error, of evolved law and structures and vigorous debate, and not the results of planning or legal transplants.[45] Greenland will probably follow a similar trial and error method in achieving greater autonomy, even post-independence as it finds its footing in the international landscape.

However, it is this author’s belief that Greenland’s autonomy will be in line with Westphalian state actors rather than in accordance of an institutional supra-national Inuit identity. However, there are critics of this idea. Despite the evidence presented above, “the Greenlandic government must be recognized as pursuing a nationalism, or Greenlandization, that is distinct, although not necessarily exclusionary of, a broader suprastate Inuit nationalism.”[46] Nuttal’s viewpoint in 1994 strikes the author as unduly idealistic and detached from the current political developments given its age, yet it opens up the door for a creative hybridization that is worthy of future exploration. While perhaps Realism is best for most Greenlanders, it may be a loss for the Inuit as a people, with the possibility that Nuuk becomes the new Copenhagen for those outlying areas of Greenland. However, this agrees with Gerhardt, who stated “the ICC’s struggle over the years for self-determination is very much a struggle against the hierarchical power structure that has been imposed on them. Yet, this author contends that the political path taken by the Greenlandic indigenous people is not something that we, as outsiders, can or should judge.”[47] As said by The Who, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”[48] One can only hope Greenlanders would not shackle themselves with something similar to the chains of their past colonizing oppressors as an independent nation by having Nuuk engage in neo-Copenhagenesque actions.


[1] Norsemen from Iceland arrived in waves between the 10th and 15th centuries, yet those settlements were found abandoned in 1721 by the missionary Hans Egede.

[2] See Johnstone, Rachael Lorna, “The Impact of International Law on Natural Resource Governance in Greenland,” Polar Record (May 30, 2019).

[3] Eastern Greenland Case (Denmark v. Norway). (1933). Permanent Court of International Justice. PCIJ Series A/B, No. 53, 1933.

[4] Id.

[5] Charter of the United Nations. (1945). Adopted 26 June 1945, entered into force 24 October 1945. United Nations Treaty Series 1, XVI.

[6] Young, Oran, International Governance: Protecting the Environment In a Stateless Society. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. (1994).

[7] Slaughter, Anne-Marie, “International Relations, Principal Theories,” at pg. 2, published in: Wolfrum, R. (Ed.) Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[8] See Jacobsen, Marc, “Greenland’s Arctic Advantage: Articulations, Acts and Appearances of Sovereignty Games,” SAGE Journal, (Oct. 23, 2019), at pg. 10.

[9] “A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic,” The Inuit Circumpolar Council, at §1.3 (April 2009) available at https://www.itk.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Declaration_12x18_Vice-Chairs_Signed.pdf (last viewed April 14, 2020) (emphasis in original).

[10] Shadian, Jessica, “From States to Polities: Reconceptualizing Sovereignty Through Inuit Governance,” European Journal of International Relations, at pg. 12, (Sept. 2010).

[11] Id. at pg. 18.

[12] Fenge, Terry, “Inuit and Nunavut Claim: Supporting Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty,” Policy Options, at pg. 86, (2007-08).

[13] See Etok, Charles, “Science and the Indigenous Arctic – Legal basis for Inuit Sovereignty in the Circumpolar Region,” Center For World Indigenous Studies Publication Catalogue, (1993), available at http://www.nzdl.org/cgi-bin/library.cgi?e=d-00000-00—off-0ipc–00-0—-0-10-0—0—0direct-10—4——-0-1l–11-en-50—20-about—00-0-1-00-0-0-11-1-0utfZz-8-00&cl=CL1.11&d=HASH9f65bfef129d64203dcf42&x=1 (last checked April 14, 2020).

[14] The contribution is to reflect only on the actions and desires of the ruling class (Self-Government and Parliament) within Greenland when they enact certain anti-Inuit policies for Greenland’s benefit. This contribution by no means independence will change all Greenlandic individuals’ views of their heritage and prevent the millennia of cooperation and friendship they share with those from Chukotka, Alaska, and Canada.

[15] See Johnstone, note 2 supra, at pg. 6.

[16] Id.

[17] See id.

[18] Id.

[19] Pelaudeix, Cécile, “What is ‘Arctic Governance’? A Critical Assessment of the Diverse Meanings of ‘Arctic Governance’” The Yearbook of Polar Law VI, at pg. 412 (2015) (emphasis in original).

[20] See id. at pg. 415.

[21] Id. at pg. 418 (emphasis in original).

[22] See id.

[23] Id. at pg. 419.

[24] Stenbaek, M., “Arctic Policy — Blueprint for an Inuit Homeland,” Etudes/Inuit/Studies 9(2), pg. 9 (1985).

[25] Slaughter, note 7 supra, at pg. 1.

[26] Gerhardt, Hannes, “The Inuit and Sovereignty: The Case of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and Greenland,” Tidsskriftet Politik, pg. 10, (April 2011).

[27] See Johnstone, note 2 supra, at pg. 4.

[28] Id.

[29] Jacobsen, note 8 supra, at pg. 4.

[30] Id. at pg. 10 (internal citations omitted).

[31] Gerhardt, note 26 supra, at pg. 10.

[32] See note 14 supra.

[33] Id.

[34] See Vestergaard, C., & Thomasen, G., “Governing Uranium in the Danish Realm,” Report (2006). Danish Institute for International Studies, available at https://www.diis.dk/en/research/governing-uranium-in-the-realm (last viewed April 14, 2020).

[35] Martinez, Cobo J., “Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations,” Report, New York:  United Nations. U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7 Add. 4 at. para. 379 (1987).

[36] Johnstone, note 2 supra, at pg. 6.

[37] See ICC Declaration, note 9 supra.

[38] See Nonbo, Andersen A., “Restorative Justice and the Greenlandic Reconciliation Process,” Yearbook of Polar Law (2019).

[39] See Thalbitzer, W., Andrup,G.C., & Holm, G.F., The Ammassalik Eskimo: Contributions to the Ethnology of the East Greenland Natives, vol. 1-2 (Meddelelser om Grønland). (Bianco Luna:  Copenhagen) (English Translation) (1914).

[40] See Johnstone, note 2 supra, at pg. 6 (citing personal communication with Tukumminnguaq Nykjær Olsen).

[41] See id. at pp. 6-7.

[x42] See Ngiviu, T., “The Inughuit of Northwest Greenland: An Unacknowledged Indigenous People,” Yearbook of Polar Law, Vol. 6, pp. 142-161, available at doi:  10.1163/18768814_006 (last viewed April 14, 2020).

[43] Johnstone, note 2 supra, at pg. 7.

[44] Kári á Rógvi, “Faroese Governance,” in Polar Law Textbook II, (Ed. Natalia Loukacheva), pp. 215–240, (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers) (2013), available at http://norden.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:701016/FULLTEXT01.pdf (last viewed April 14, 2020).

[45] See id.

[46] Nuttall, M., “Greenland: Emergence of an Inuit Homeland,” published in Polar Peoples: Self-determination and Development, (Minority Rights Group, London), pg. 24, (1994).

[47] Gerhardt, note 26 supra, at pg. 12.

[48] The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Who’s Next, Track and Decca Records (Released 25 June 1971).