Tag Archives: Realism

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.

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).