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

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

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

Roots of Greenlandic Autonomy: The Circumpolar Inuit Rights Movement

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

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

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

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

Climate Consequences: Energizing the Inuit Rights Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining Canada and its Exemplary Constitutional Embrace of Indigenous Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exchanging Colonial Sovereigns: An Alternative to Independence

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

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

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

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

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

Dual-Secession Models: Strength through Confederation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] For instance, see Andrew E. Kramer, “In the Russian Arctic, the First Stirrings of a Very Cold War,” New York Times, May 22, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/22/world/russia-us-arctic-military.html.

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 European Constitution: sovereignty, legitimacy and constituent power


“Nowhere is the new series of questions of sovereignty more urgently, vigorously and significantly joint than in the context of the European Union and its relationship with its constituent states”

— Neil Walker, Sovereignty in Transition, vi.


The Constitutional failure of the EU

Since the Constitutional Treaty of the EU failed in 2004 due to its rejection by the French and Dutch electorates, the EU has been thrown into a legitimation crisis. From a purely legal perspective, the rejection of the European Constitution is not necessarily a problem. In legal terms, it is possible to distinguish a democratically sanctioned constitution from legal “constitutionalism,” which, following Michelle Everson and Julia Eisner, can be defined as “a legal process of extrapolation of the values and institutions, which will determine the course of our joint European life [that] proceeds apace, untroubled by all failed political efforts to establish a European polity” (Everson and Eisner 2007:2-3). Although the lack of democratic support for the European Constitution manifested in the negative popular referenda in France and the Netherlands might not be a problem from the perspective of European lawyers and European legal constitutionalism, it does, however, constitute a political problem.


The tension between legal constitutionalism and the lack of a democratically sanctioned constitutional document makes one of the most fundamental political problems of the EU more pressing: the problem of sovereignty. The problem of sovereignty in the EU consists in a fundamental unclearness of where sovereignty resides within the union (regardless of whether sovereignty is understood in the Bodinian tradition as absolute power to command or in the Kelsenian tradition as competence of competencies). One the one hand, the fact that the founding documents of the EU remain only treaties signals that the EU is merely an international agreement among sovereign states. One the other hand, the supremacy of EU laws to national laws as stated by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) signals that the EU enjoys some degree of supranational or quasi-federal sovereignty.


This antinomy is most clearly manifested in the Final Act of the Lisbon Treaty which, though it recognizes the EU as a treaty organization, still declares the primacy of EU laws: ”The Conference recalls that, in accordance with well settled case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Treaties and the law adopted by the Union on the basis of the Treaties have primacy over the law of Member States, under the conditions laid down by the said case law.”[1] In this way, although the Community law of the EU is merely an international agreement, it still overrides national laws in case of a dispute.


The question is how we can understand the political significance of the antinomy, which is engraved in both the constitutional failure of the EU and the legal response thereto in the Lisbon Treaty: how can we understand the antinomy between legal constitutionalism and political or democratic constitutionalism? How can we understand the curious phenomenon of sovereignty in the EU? In what way are the questions of democratic legitimacy, sovereignty and constitutionalism related to one another? What does the lack of democratic legitimacy, expressed in the rejection of the European Constitution, mean for sovereignty in the relationship between EU law and national law? How can we understand the political crisis of the constitutional failure of the EU?


Constitutionalism and political legitimacy

In this essay I will take the first steps towards the development of an analytical model which will make it possible for me to answer these questions. The actual empirical juridico-political analysis of the EU and its constitutional failure lies, however, well outside the scope of this paper. The analytical model developed in this paper is grounded in the concept of constituent power: a concept that in all of its forms approaches the question of constitutions from the perspective of the origins of the founding text and the authority on which it is based.


In contrast to the legal constitutionalism discussed by Everson and Eisner, within the framework of constituent power constitutionalism is understood as a political act of one or more constituencies, rather than as the legal procedures of constitutional lawyers. The point of departure in a constituent power analysis is that law and politics are closely wed with regard to constitutions, since the constitution as a legal text is understood as a product of a political action. In other words, a constituent power analysis of constitutional politics would strongly position itself against a Kelsenian analysis, which would identify legality and legitimacy. Within the framework of constituent power, legitimacy has its source in politics, and according to many of the most prominent thinkers of the constituent power, in democracy. In this way, the framework of constituent power allows for an analysis of the constitutional failure of the EU as a democratic legitimation crisis.


While legality and legitimacy, law and politics, cannot be denied as core elements of the framework of constituent power, the relationship between constituent power and sovereignty is more ambiguous. In this essay I will look at two democratic ideal types of the constituent power that differ drastically with respect to the question of sovereignty. The two models I will look at are based on the French and the American Revolutions and they correspond to two distinct political forms: the federation and the nation-state. As we shall see, whereas the French model of the constituent power is understood as sovereign, the American model of the constituent power is understood as a (temporary) suspension of sovereignty.


Though it is likely that neither of these ideal types apply to the constitutional process of the EU, it is my working hypothesis that these two models will be helpful, since the EU could be conceptualized as a hybrid, somewhere on the spectrum between the nation-state and the federation. In this way, the development of ideal types will provide me with a spectrum or a framework in which we can conceptualize and ask as to the fundamental problems regarding the relationship between constitutional politics, sovereignty and democratic legitimacy with regard to the constitutional failure of the EU.


The two models of the constituent power discussed in this essay can be extracted from the writings of the two most important 20th century theorists of the constituent power: Hannah Arendt and Carl Schmitt. Three significant reasons can be given for a comparison of specifically Arendt and Schmitt in relation to the construction of ideal types of constituent power in the context of an analysis of the relationship between constitutional politics, sovereignty and democratic legitimacy. Firstly, Arendt and Schmitt are both democratic thinkers of the constituent power (though in very different ways), which will allow me to perform an analysis of EU constitutionalism from the perspective of democratic legitimacy. Secondly, Schmitt and Arendt fundamentally disagree upon the relationship between democratic legitimacy and the question of sovereignty, which will allow me to question the relationship between sovereignty and constitutional politics. Thirdly, both Schmitt and Arendt are “groundless” thinkers of the constituent power in that neither of them accepts transcendental foundations as grounds for political legitimacy in general and constitutional legitimacy in particular, which allows for a modern and non-metaphysical perspective on constitutional politics more appropriate for a secular institutional framework like the EU.   

The concept of constituent power is, in the theories of both Schmitt and Arendt, a not unproblematic and maybe not fully resolved response to the problems endemic to the origin and political legitimacy (or authority) of constitutional orders. The problem inherent to constitutions is that, in contrast to ordinary law, a constitution is caught in a vicious circle with respect to its origins and its authority:


Those who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they have set out to achieve. The vicious circle in legislation is present not in ordinary lawmaking, but in laying down the fundamental law, the law of the land or the constitution which, from then on, is supposed to incarnate the ‘higher law’ from which all laws ultimately derive their authority (Arendt 2006:175-6).


The problem is twofold: (1) if the source of legitimacy for ordinary law is the constitution, what is the source of legitimacy of the constitution? (2) If the “founding fathers” of a constitution themselves are unconstitutional, since no law exists to sanction their actions, from where do they derive their authority? The answer given to both of these problems in Arendt’s theory as well as in Schmitt’s is the constituent power of the people.


Though both Arendt and Schmitt seek to give a “democratic” or “popular” answer to the dual problem of constitutional beginnings, they strongly disagree on what that entails. This disagreement, I believe, is tied up with the relationship between constituent power, sovereignty and political form. Following Schmitt and the French model, the source of legitimacy for the constitution and the source of authority of the constitutional actors is the popular sovereignty of the constituent power. What is important to note here is that the constituent power also could be an expression of monarchical sovereignty, i.e., the will of the king, which, following Schmitt, would not qualitatively change the constituent power. Popular sovereignty is for Schmitt nothing but the people’s appropriation of monarchical sovereignty. Arendt agrees with this diagnosis, but contrary to Schmitt she does not endorse this notion of popular sovereignty. For this reason Arendt attempts to formulate a theory of the constituent power that goes beyond popular sovereignty: a non-sovereign notion of the power of the people which she finds manifest in the American Revolution.


On the basis of this disagreement Schmitt and Arendt come to favour two different political forms respectively: the nation-state (exemplified by France) and the federation (exemplified by the US). Interestingly enough, Schmitt and Arendt agree (at least partly) that the political form of the nation-state is the strongest manifestation of sovereignty, and that the political form of the federation (at least temporarily) transgresses sovereignty. Further, the main reason that Schmitt favours the nation-state and Arendt favours the federation is exactly this relationship between political form and sovereignty. Where Arendt argues that the nation-state “is built on quick-sand” and doomed to collapse because it is founded on the unchecked and fluctuating sovereign will of the nation, whereas the federation succeeds in checking power without destroying it, Schmitt argues that the federation is merely a transitory form exactly because the question of where sovereignty is vested is left open. For this reason the federation is destined either to devolve back into a nation-state or to be consolidated into a federal-state like the US we know today.


Two models of constituent power

The French model of the constituent power deserves its name because in the theories of both Arendt and Schmitt it is mainly based on the French Revolution and the writings of Emmanuel Sieyès, who, in What is the Third Estate?, famously made the distinction between constituent power (pouvoir constituent) and constituted power (pouvoir constitué). The constituent power (embodied by the French nation and represented by the Third Estate) is Sieyès’ solution to the dual problem of the unconstitutionality of new constitutional beginnings. The constituent power, Sieyès famously argues, is the source of all constituted power, and for this reason, the will of the nation has the legitimate power to overtrump all constituted power. Thus, according to Sieyes, the will of the nation is always law: “The nation exists prior to everything; it is the origin of everything. Its will is always legal. It is the law itself. Prior to the nation and above the nation there is only natural law” (Sieyès 2006:136).


It is on the basis of Sieyès’ understanding of the national will as the origin and authority of the constitution that Schmitt develops his theory of the constituent power: “The [constituent power],[2]” Schmitt writes, “is the political will, whose power or authority is capable of making the concrete, comprehensive decision over the type and form of its own political existence” (Schmitt 2008:125). This dense sentence contains almost the entirety of Schmitt’s theory of the constituent power. It requires some unpacking, however, to be comprehensible.


The understanding of the constituent power as a will makes Schmitt’s theory a clear manifestation of the legal voluntarist or decisionist tradition, which, in contrast to natural law and positive law, founds the authority of the law on neither nature, reason nor a basic norm, but rather on the will of the sovereign (people). In this way, Schmitt does not distinguish between power and authority: if the people have the power to authorize themselves to act as the constituent power, then their decision will be legitimate. The origin of the constitution is thus not a basic norm but a command of the sovereign people: “in contrast to mere norms, the word ‘will’ denotes an actually existing power as the origin of a command. The will is existentially present; its power or authority lies in its being” (Schmitt 2008:64). In this way, Schmitt argues, “The Weimar Constitution is valid because the German people gave itself a constitution” (Schmitt 2008:65).


It is important to note here that the will is of a political nature because it shows that Schmitt’s conception of the political lies at the heart of his theory of the constituent power: “The theory of the people’s [constituent power] presupposes the conscious willing of political existence, therefore, a nation” (Schmitt 2008:127). The political unity of the people, which for Schmitt is another word for the state (Schmitt 2008:59 and Schmitt 2007:19-20), is therefore the condition for the existence of (and not the product of!) the constituent power (Schmitt 2008:75). The precondition for the existence of the constituent power is thus the friend and enemy distinction that is the defining character of the political unity of the people (Schmitt 2007:29-30). The existential distinction between friends and enemies is thus the foundation for the unitary political will which is the constituent power.


On Schmitt’s view, the decision of the constituent power does not pertain to the constitution of a people or the constitution of a state (“the social contract”), but to the constitution of “the type and form” of the pre-existing political unity of the people.  The decision of the constituent power is the decision upon a specific political form, e.g., democracy, monarchy, aristocracy and so on: “Fundamentally new forms can be introduced without the state ceasing to exist, more specifically, without the political unity of the people ending” (Schmitt 2008:75-76). In this way the constituent power decides on the concrete manner of existence that characterizes the political unity (Schmitt 2008:59).  The validity of the social contract, Schmitt argues, is its mere existence and thereby “its right to self-preservation” (Schmitt 2008:76).


It is important to note that Schmitt distinguishes between constitution and constitutional laws. The constitution is not the sum of the constitutional laws (Schmitt 2008:75). The constitution consists in the fundamental political decision on the political form of the state. In this way, the fundamental decision of democracy is encapsulated in the preamble to the Weimar Constitution: “the German people provided itself with a constitution” and “State authority derives from the people” and “The German Reich is a republic” (Schmitt 2008:77-78). These clauses are “more” than norms, statutes or constitutional laws: “They are, specifically, the concrete political decision providing the German people’s form of political existence and thus constitute the fundamental prerequisite for all subsequent norms, even those involving constitutional laws” (Ibid.).


This concrete political decision, which determines the type and form of the political existence of the people, is made as a one-sided decision of the sovereign will of the people. This decision is not made through representation (as in the case of Sieyès: the third estate as the extraordinary representatives of the nation) or under any other legal or institutional constraints (Schmitt 2008:128). The will of the constituent power is always in the state of nature and the people’s political self-determination is therefore made in a direct an unmediated manner (Schmitt 2008:131). The people can therefore say “yes or no” to the fundamental question of their political existence: “Monarchy or republic? Constitutional monarchy or the dictatorship of councils?” (Schmitt 2008:83). This decision is not necessarily reached through a referendum (a constituted form) but through the direct expression of consent or disapproval of the physically assembled people, i.e., through acclamation (Ibid.).


The constituent power therefore never deliberates or seeks compromises: it always has to be a fundamental negation or affirmation. If not, the constitution will be a dubious decision that never could provide stability and political legitimacy: “Inside every political unity there can be only one bearer of the [constituent power]” (Schmitt 2008:105). The acclamation of the sovereign people is the very core of Schmitt’s understanding of democratic legitimacy (Schmitt 2008:136).


Whereas the French model of the constituent power according to Schmitt embodies a strong, stable, and realistic political foundation because of its clear and uncompromised manifestation of popular sovereignty, Arendt sees the French model as “built on quicksand” (Arendt 2006:154). The interesting aspect of this disagreement is that the virtue of the French model according to Schmitt (sovereignty) is the French Revolution’s most serious vice according to Arendt.[3] According to Arendt, the French model of the constituent power is nothing but a bad disguise of tyranny.


A tripartite critique of the French model of the constituent power, corresponding to a triple manifestation of sovereignty pertaining to the French model, can be extracted from Arendt’s writings on constituent power. Firstly, the French model is sovereign with regard to the subject of the constituent power (the singular will of the nation). The notion of the sovereign will of the nation as the subject of the constituent power and the source of authority of the law, Arendt argues, is dangerous and unstable because a will, if anything but a legal fiction, will be ever changing (Ibid.). A sovereign will, therefore, can never provide any form of endurance or stability in a political realm: public opinion blows with the wind. Whereas France as one of the oldest nations has persisted, French constitutional stability has been very low: since 1791 France has had seventeen constitutions. 


Secondly, the French model is sovereign with regard to the constitutional act (decision or command). The idea of the constitutional act as a one-sided decision or command of the people as a unitary actor reduces constitutional politics to an anti-political manifestation of despotism or tyranny. The idea that a command is the source of authority of the law makes it impossible to distinguish between authority, power, and violence (Arendt 2006:173). In this way, according to Arendt, the legitimacy which Schmitt imagines can be nothing but a manifestation of the fluctuating balance of who controls the monopoly of violence. Historically speaking this means that legitimacy is nothing but a manifestation of the power of the decision-maker(s): the Pope, the Prince or the People.


Thirdly, the French model is sovereign with regard to the source of legitimacy (the fusion of power and authority). On the basis of Arendt’s writings, one must conclude that each of these sovereign aspects makes the political success of the French model of the constituent power dubious. The lack of distinction between power and authority is tyrannical because it simultaneously makes law powerful and power legitimate no matter its form and content (Arendt 2006:147). In this way, the command of the constituent power (no matter whose) always constitutes a legitimate foundation for the law (no matter its content) independently of how it is expressed (no matter how) as long as it is a unitary action, that is, as long as it is sovereign. Following Arendt, there is in this case no qualitative distinction between the power of one and the power of the many: it is only a question of who yields political power, the question of who decides.


The American Revolution can, according to Arendt, provide us with a more promising model for the constituent power. Whereas the French model is a manifestation of sovereignty and presupposes the political unity of the nation-state, the American model is post-sovereign and is manifested in the political form of federations. Arendt distinguishes the American model from the triple structure of sovereignty pertaining to the French model: the subject of the constituent power, the constitutional act and the source of constitutional legitimacy. The American model is understood by Arendt not as a sovereign command of the unitary will of the people, but rather as a contract or a mutual agreement amongst a plurality of human actors aiming towards the constitution of public freedom.  While the French model has its origins in political theology and the political philosophy of Sieyès, the American model has its intellectual origins in the Roman republican tradition and the political philosophy of Montesquieu.


According to Arendt, the subject of the constituent power in the American model is post-sovereign because, in contrast to the French model, it is not manifested in the unitary will of the people as a single agent but, instead, in the plural power of the people. Following Arendt, the very condition of politics is plurality: a plurality that will disappear the moment the “manyness” of the people is reduced to a unitary will. This plurality was manifested in the American Revolution in the institutional plurality of town halls and of states (Arendt 2006:172-173). Whereas the subject of the constituent power in the French model is manifested in the unitary will of the people, the subjects of the constituent power in the American model are the people(s) as organized multitude(s).


Therefore, the subjects of the constituent power in the American model do not act in ‘the state of nature’, but rather in a public sphere that institutionally incorporates some amount of division of powers (which, following Arendt, entails multiple sources of power and not merely the separation of power into the three branches of government) (Arendt 2006:142-3). Following Montesquieu, Arendt argues, the public sphere is conditioned on the existence of checks and balances, which cannot be secured through law, but only through the existence of multiple power sources. A genuine division of power is not possible within the nation-state because the state, in Weberian terms, enjoys the monopoly of violence. The American model is therefore manifested in the political form of the federation.


Since the subject of the constituent power in the American model is plural, the constitutional act is not a command but a mutual agreement, a compromise or a contract. The constitutional act can therefore not be understood as mere acclamation: it requires some amount of public deliberation and common action, that is, of Arendtian politics. The constitutional act, Arendt argues, consists in common deliberations and mutual pledges (Arendt 2006:206). The constitutional act is thus a manifestation of Arendtian politics as the praxis of political freedom.


The source of constitutional authority in the American model, Arendt argues, does not rest upon a fusion of power and authority as in the French model. It is, however, an open question whether Arendt succeeds in separating power and authority. The superiority of the American model to the French model, Arendt argues, consists in the authority being derived not from the power of the people, but rather from the performance of constituent power encapsulated in the constitution as a written document (Arendt 2006:196). Constitutional politics does according to Arendt carry an immanent principle which can provide a non-sovereign foundation for the constitution: “The way the beginner starts whatever he intends to do,” Arendt writes, “lays down the law of action for those who have joined him in order to partake in the enterprise and to bring about its accomplishment. As such, the principle inspires the deeds that are to follow and remains apparent as long as the action lasts” (Arendt 2006:205). This principle is that of political freedom manifested and secured through common deliberations and mutual promises (Ibid.).


These characteristics are in general in Arendt’s writings characteristics of politics as the praxis of political power or freedom. For this reason it is debatable whether Arendt ultimately succeeds in deriving power and authority from different origins. The important point is, however, that, contrary to Schmitt, Arendt argues that the authority of constitutional politics—if it is to be an adequate and successful source of political legitimacy—relates not merely to a who (the subject of the constituent power), but also to a how (the act of constitutional politics) and a what (the content of the constitution).


The last substantive criterion (the what) does not refer to a principle of natural law but to a principle of amendment rules. In other words, Arendt argues, if constitutional politics is to be successful, the constitution as a constituted form has to keep the constituent power alive. The true source of authority of the constitution, following Arendt, is thus not the constitution as a written document, but the permanent immanence of the constituent power, which persists in the possibility of amendments. In this way, Arendt strives to overcome the rigid distinction of the French model between constituted power and constituent power. In the American model the constituent power comes to be extended into the constituted power as constitutional amendment rules and in this way the source of authority is not left as a dormant force in the state of nature. The permanence of the political realm and the constituent power, instead of being opposites as in the French model, become wed to one another in the principle: “preservation through augmentation” (Arendt 2006:194).


Whereas Arendt understands in this way the American model as the most successful form of constituent power because it overcomes sovereignty, Schmitt, in obvious contrast thereto, understands the federal form of constituent power as nothing but a transitory form exactly because the question of sovereignty is left open.  The federation is, following Schmitt, a peculiar political form, because it lies in the middle of the spectrum between a confederation, i.e., an international treaty that does not deprive its members of their sovereignty, and a federal state (Schmitt 2008:383-5).


The federation is the political form describing a union of states, which have a constitution but not a state. According to Schmitt, the constituent power of the federal form is clearly distinct from the French model of constituent power because it is a contract between the member-states of the federation. This contract changes the member-states’ constitutions without abolishing their national sovereignty (Schmitt 2008:384). Historically, this political form could be applied to e.g. the German Federation of 1815-1871, the United States of 1787-1865 and possibly also to the present day EU.


The aim of the federation is, according to Schmitt, self-preservation. This entails that all federations unconditionally guarantee the political existence of each of the members of the federation, even if this is not stated explicitly (Schmitt 2008: 386). Internally, self-preservation signifies a necessary pacification. Internal peace is essential within the federation; a war between two member-states would signal the end of the federation (Schmitt 2008:386-7). Furthermore, in the name of the common interest in self-preservation and security, the federation has the right of supervision and, if necessary, intervention with regard to maintenance, preservation and security (Ibid.) Externally, the federation protects all the member-states against foreign invasion: “Every federation can wage war as such and has a jus belli. There is no federation without the possibility of a federation war” (Schmitt 2008:387). This does not mean however that the individual members of the federation are totally deprived of their jus belli; “it follows from the nature of the political existence of the individual members that a right to self-help and to war is only being given up insofar as it is conditioned by membership in the federation” (Schmitt 2008:388).


The inevitable political failure of the American model is inscribed in a fundamental antinomy regarding sovereignty, which pertains to the political form of a federation of democratic states. This antinomy persists between the political existence of the federation and the political existence of the member-states, which have to coexist under a federal constitution (Schmitt 2008:388). The federation is conditioned on this coexistence: neither the member-states nor the federation are to be subordinated to the other part: “the federation exists only in this existential connection and in this balance” (Ibid.). The essence of the federation resides in this “dualism of political existence.” If the existential balance of this dualism is not kept intact, the federation will dissolve either into individual sovereign states or into one federal sovereign state (Schmitt 2008: 389).


The problem of this dual existence is practically best illustrated by the problem of secession. On the one hand, the federation is founded as a permanent order that entails a continual renunciation of the right to secession. On the other hand, the federation is a contract of independent politically existing states that must have the continual right to decide upon the status of this contract themselves, also with respect to the annullability of this contract, i.e., the right to secession (Schmitt 2008:392). In this way, the federation is existentially conditioned both on the member-states’ continual right to secession and the renunciation of this right.


The fundamental problem of the federation can be stated as follows: if an existential conflict arises between the federation and the member-states, who decides? The problem is that the federation is predicated on the existential balance between the two parties’ equal right, and if a decision is made, the federation will dissolve because either national or federal sovereignty is declared supreme. For this reason, the existence of the federation is conditional on a perpetual openness of the question of sovereignty, that is, the existence of the federation is predicated on an existential exclusion of internal conflict in the federation (Schmitt 2008:395). It is important to note here that existential balance between two political entities, according to Schmitt, does not entail a “division of sovereignty”: the question of who decides is merely left open.   


The only possible resolution to this antinomy, according to Schmitt, lies in an existential and substantial homogeneity among all members of the federation, which will ensure that the antinomy is resolved by making certain that internal conflict is existentially excluded (in this way, the closure of the question of sovereignty is precluded) (Schmitt 2008:395). This substantial homogeneity is primarily derived from national similarity of the member-states’ populations (independently of what it is manifested in: language, history, religion, culture etc.) (Schmitt 2008:392).


This criterion of homogeneity pertains, according to Schmitt, not merely to the federation as a political form but to democracy in general. In a national democracy, like the French, the presupposition of democracy is a substantial equality of a people, meaning a national homogeneity: “democratic equality is essentially similarity, in particular similarity among the people” (Schmitt 2008:261, 263).


Democracy is defined by Schmitt—both as a state form, a governmental form and a legislative form—as the identity of ruler and ruled (Schmitt 2008:264). Identity as the key term of democracy has at least three meanings for Schmitt: (a) the identity of a homogenous people (national identity), (b) the identity of politically unified people (political identity) and (c) the self-identity of a physically present people as in contrast to representation (presence identity). Democracy rests in this identity because if the identity is strong enough there will be no difference between the opinion of one and the opinion of another: there will be one sovereign will of the people. It is this will that has the power or authority to constitute a state as a democracy: the homogenous sovereign will of the national people is the subject of the constituent power.


Since both democracies and federations rest on substantial homogeneity, it is necessary that the national homogeneity converges with the federal homogeneity in a federation of democratic states (Schmitt 2008:404). For this reason, Schmitt argues “it is part of the natural development of democracy that the homogenous unity of the people extends beyond the political boundaries of member states and eliminates the transitional condition of the coexistence of the federation and the politically independent member states, and replaces it with a complete unity” (Schmitt 2008:404).


In this way, the principle of homogeneity that led to the resolution of the antinomies of the federation—the antinomies which again, if not resolved, would lead to the dissolution of the federation because of the closure of the question of sovereignty—has, in the case of democratically constituted states, a path dependency, which stirs the federation directly toward its transition into a federal state. On the other hand, if the homogeneity is not strong enough, the antinomies of the federation will lead to a collapse of the federation into sovereign states.


For this reason, the legitimacy of a federation, in Weberian terms (the sociological criteria leading the population to accept the political system), will lead (a) to the transition of the federation into a federal state if they are fulfilled and (b) to the dissolution of the federation into nation-states if they are not fulfilled. The non-statist form of the federation is therefore, according to Schmitt’s theory, merely a transition from one form of statehood to another form of statehood.


The inevitable result is the end of the federation: either the federation is dissolved into individual states or the individual states give up their independent existence to the federal state (Schmitt 2008:389). The American model and the dual structure of sovereignty which pertains to the federation is therefore, Schmitt argues in contrast to Arendt, not very likely to be a political success because it more often than not will merely be a political transition to statehood.


Constitutional success and failure

On the basis of the above discussion of the French and the American models of the constituent power, the following table can be constructed which would apply to both Arendt’s and Schmitt’s writings on the French and the American models of constituent power:


  Political form Sovereign Constitutional act Constitutional subject
The French Model of the constituent power The nation-state Sovereign Decision or command The people as singular
The American Model of the constituent power The federation Post-sovereign or undecided Contract or agreement The people(s) as plural


            Table 1: The French and the American Model of the constituent power


What is interesting about these models, apart from the fact that Schmitt and Arendt have a similar understanding of the relationship between constitutional politics, political form and sovereignty, is their completely opposite judgement of the two models on the basis of the same parameter: political success and stability.  According to Arendt, the French model is doomed to fail because of its foundation in the political theology of a sovereign national will: “it is as though the nation-state, so much older than the revolutions, had defeated the revolution in Europe even before it had made its appearance” (Arendt 2006:14). On the other hand, according to Schmitt, the American model is merely a transitory model predicated on the lack of existential conflicts among the member states. This political possibility rarely has a long endurance because, in concrete political terms, it is preconditioned on an existential homogeneity between all the member-states; an existential homogeneity that, moreover, cannot be so strong that the federation will transition into a federal state.


How can we make sense of this diametrically opposed judgement of the political success and stability of the two models of the constituent power? One possible answer can be given on the basis of the difference between Arendt’s and Schmitt’s understandings of what political success and stability consists in. This question is only raised indirectly by the two authors. It seems however that where Schmitt fundamentally is most concerned with political success and stability with regard to security, Arendt is primarily concerned with political stability understood as the stability of the institutional framework of the public sphere as space of political freedom.


At the heart of the disagreement on the political success of the two constitutional models lies one of the oldest discussions of political theory: what is the end of a political union? Why should a group of people constitute themselves as a political community? In relation to the discussion of the constituent power, this question could be rephrased as: what is the ultimate meaning of constitutional politics? The answers given by Arendt and Schmitt respectively are freedom and security.


What is interesting in the comparison of Schmitt and Arendt is that they both conceive of the constitutional act as tautological: following Schmitt and the French model of the constituent power, the constitutional act of the sovereign will of the people aims at securing its own sovereignty. The constitution is the self-preservation of the power pertaining to the subject of the constituent power: the sovereign people constitute themselves as sovereign. The ultimate source of legitimacy for this action is therefore also the ultimate aim of the action: self-preservation. In this way, Schmitt operates with four existential values, which he borrows from Spinoza: existence (the friend and enemy distinction), integrity (the unification of the people in a nation), security (the self-preservation of the nation), and constitution (the decision of the question of sovereignty) (Schmitt 2008:76).


In this way, the sovereign political unity of the people manifested in the nation-state exists in order to preserve itself. This is Schmitt’s understanding of a groundless foundation for political legitimacy. Political success and stability consists in the absence of internal strife and the persistence of the state. Constitutional and institutional continuity is therefore not necessarily a parameter of political success and stability: following Schmitt’s theory, it does not seem to be problematic that France has had seventeen constitutions in a little more than two hundred years. As long as the decisions of sovereignty are strong and clear, Schmitt does not seem to argue either for or against their constant reappearance. What matters in politics is the will to self-preservation: “If a people no longer possesses the energy or the will to maintain itself in the sphere of politics, the latter will not thereby vanish from the world. Only a weak people will disappear” (Schmitt 2007:53).


Following Arendt and the American model of the constituent power, the people as an organized multitude exercise political freedom in order to constitute a public sphere for political freedom. Constitutional politics is the exercise of public freedom in order to institutionalize public freedom. In contrast to Schmitt, not security but public freedom is the defining characteristic of politics on Arendt’s view. Whereas Schmittian politics is defined on the basis of the external relations of the political community (the friend and enemy distinction), the Arendtian notion of politics is defined on the basis of the relations internal to the political community. Whereas the Schmittian notion of politics is predicated on the existence of a state, the Arendtian notion of politics is predicated on the existence of a public sphere. Political success and stability in the Arentian theory can therefore not be measured on the basis of the persistence of a nation-state, but only on the institutional persistence of a public sphere of political freedom.



In light of the American and the French models of constituent power, the pivotal question which ought to be raised in relation to the constitutional failure of the EU and the ensuing legitimation crisis seems to be whether the successful establishment of democratic constitutional legitimacy is conditioned on the existence of a federal state. From the perspective of Arendt’s and Schmitt’s writings on the constituent power, two opposing answers are given based on two rivaling notions of the ultimate meaning of constitutional politics: freedom and security.


Following Arendt, the nation-state as a political form seems to preclude the possibility of the establishment of a public sphere because of the state’s monopoly of violence. Political freedom is for Arendt conditioned on checks and balances institutionally established by a genuine division of power between several political entities. The establishment of constitutional legitimacy as political freedom is therefore not preconditioned on the existence of a federal state, quite the contrary. A similar hopeful argument for a “transnational” constituent power in Europe has recently been made by Habermas.[4] The hope is that the division of sovereignty between the member-states and the federal level will create a fertile ground for democracy.


Following Schmitt, the establishment of constitutional legitimacy in a non-statist federation is doomed to fail for the simple reason that if legitimacy is created in a federation, the political union will become so close that the outcome will be the constitutionalization of a federal state. If, on the other hand, legitimacy is not successful, the federation will collapse into nation-states again. Hence, the non-statist federation is only a transitional moment between different forms of democratic statehood. The establishment of constitutional legitimacy is in this light understood on the basis of whether the internal difference between federation members is smaller than the perception of a political exterior. Ultimately, this means whether the feeling of friendship internal to Europe is stronger than hostility between states in Europe: are we more or as much Europeans as we are Danish, French, English, Dutch etc.?


The fundamental question regarding federalism and democracy in the case of the EU seems to be: is it possible to bind the European peoples together by something other than national homogeneity (something which in the case of the EU is not given and seems hard to construct with all the cultural and linguistic differences between the countries)? The motto of the EU—“united in diversity”—seems in light of this discussion to be one of the core problems of the union: what can unite the peoples and states of Europe in their diversity? What can create a strong foundation for democratic legitimacy in the EU? 


The constitutionalization of the EU can be understood as an attempt to create a stronger foundation for legitimacy in Weberian terms: mutual promises and pledges as a manifestation of Arendtian politics is a possible way of creating political legitimacy from the bottom up. The outcome seems however to have been in complete opposition to this intension. The rejection of the TCE by two of the original founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community, France and the Netherlands, has caused a legitimation crisis for the EU.


The question is what this crisis signals? Does the legitimation crisis of the EU signal an imminent “Schmittian” closure of the question of sovereignty which will require either a transition of the EU into a federal state or a rollback of the EU into the original nation-states? Does Europe stand at the crossroad of an ultimatum between the United States of Europe and the end of the European project? If the latter, the question is, what is to be done? Is Europe so internally divided that it cannot make up for its current democratic legitimation deficit? Or is it possible to create the necessary conditions (whatever they are) for a federation of democratic states in Europe?


These questions are of course empirical and can therefore not be established by mere speculations. What can be established theoretically is however that the EU can function as an interesting test-case for the relationship between democracy and the state-form. The EU appears along these lines as an experiment on whether democracy is possible in political communities beyond the state and moreover under which conditions it is possible for heterogeneous peoples to unite in their diversity.


In light of the present rise of nationalism within the EU—most significantly in France, Hungary, and the Netherlands—constitutionalism seems to have failed in the EU both in the Arendtian and the Schmittian sense. The common public sphere of all European countries with a vision of a future for Europe seems to be shrinking. The democratic body of the EU, the European Parliament, appears, for example, to become increasingly dominated by nationalist parties.[5] If this trend continues, this indeed suggests a grim future for the European project. The constitutional failure seems to suggest that democracy and constitutional politics have parted ways in the EU. If that is the case, the constitutional crisis is a serious problem for the future of democracy in the EU.



Arendt, Hannah: On Revolution. London: Penguin Books. 2006.


Everson, Michelle and Julia Eisner: The Making of a European Constitution—Judges and Law Beyond Constitutive Power. Abingdon: Routledge. 2007.


Habermas, Jürgen: The Crisis of the European Union—A Response. Malden and Cambridge: Polity Press. 2012.


Sieyès, Emmanuel: What is the Third Estate? in Political Writings. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company. 2003.


Schmitt, Carl: The Concept of the Political. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 2007.


Schmitt, Carl: Constitutional Theory. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2008.


Walker, Neil: Preface in Sovereignty in Transition, ed. Neil Walker. Portland: Hart Publishing. 2003.  


Weiler, Joseph: The Constitution of Europe: Do the New Clothes have an Emperor? and other essays on European Integration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1999.


The Treaty of Lisbon. 2007: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/JOHtml.do?uri=OJ:C:2007:306:SOM:EN:HTML

[1] See Lisbon Treaty, Final Act, 17. Declaration concerning primacy: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:C:2007:306:0231:0271:EN:PDF p. 306/256

[2] The translator has chosen to translate “verfassungsgebende Gewalt” with constitution-making power instead of constituent power. The two words can be used interchangeably but for simplicity’s sake I consistently refer to the term as constituent power.

[3] Arendt’s critique of the French Revolution is manifold. Two of the main reasons for the failure of the French Revolution given by Arendt are the predicament of poverty in France and the break with the absolute monarchy which came to legitimize the French terror to such an extent that crime and virtue no longer could be distinguished: any crime in the name of the people would be legitimate (Arendt 2006:54-58, 82, 148, 173). Arendt’s critique of the French Revolution does however transcend these two historical specific conditions of the late 18th century in France. If the French model is understood as an ideal type (equivalent to Schmitt’s conception of the constituent power), a general critique can be extracted from Arendt’s discussion: The critique of the sovereign model of the constituent power.

[4] Jürgen Habermas: The Crisis of the European Union—A Response. Malden and Cambridge: Polity Press. 2012.

[5] In a number of countries, recent opinion polls suggest that right-wing nationalist parties will become the biggest parties in the upcoming 2014 election. See for example France: http://www.parismatch.com/Actu/Politique/Sondage-elections-europeennes-en-temps-reel-Eurolling-Ifop/intention, the UK: http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/rabu8qa9d0/YG-Archive-Pol-Sunday-Times-results-140502.pdf, and the Netherlands (in Dutch): http://www.tns-nipo.com/nieuws/persberichten/d66-leidt-landelijk,-pvv-in-europa/ [accessed May 4, 2014].