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

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

The editors provide the opening introductory chapter which explains the projects. This is followed by the sixteen pithy chapters from seventeen contributors (including one by Dodds). The succinctness of the chapters makes the reading light and comes as a welcome relief to one more accustomed to lengthy legal analyses. Even the complexities of the more technical aspects of the law of the sea are explained clearly and simply.

Opening Part I, Donald Rothwell’s chapter on the law of the sea might offer nothing new to lawyers, but it is a very clear and useful exposition which is essential for political scientists who are often misled by language of claims and sovereignty. He is followed by Harald Brekke who explains the regime of outer continental shelf delineation and delimitation, simplifying the notorious article 76 into layman’s terms. Alan Hemmings gives a unique critical reading of the Antarctic Treaty System which stands out against the flurry of historical and descriptive accounts that dominate this area. He critiques the uncompromisingly hierarchical regime and the marginalisation of the United Nations. Erik Molenaar follows with an assessment of tools to strengthen Arctic Ocean governance and laments the conflation of early (and misguided) proposals for a “transplant” of the Antarctic Treaty to the Arctic with questions about whether any lessons can be learned from governance of the Southern Ocean and applied to the North or whether any pan-Arctic Treaty can be discussed.

Andrew Foxall begins Part II, outlining Russian Arctic Strategies and how the Arctic is defined by resource development on which Russia’s economy depends and hence is the key to Russia’s international influence. He also points to military posturing between the Arctic and NATO States and the slow but nefarious impetus towards increasing militarisation (although the hard security talks are more likely aimed at domestic audiences). Phil Steinberg continues with a discussion of US Arctic policy and how it pivots around a discourse of resource opportunities. There remains, however, a concern that too much cooperation in the Arctic can set dangerous precedents for American hegemony elsewhere: freedom of navigation and strong international organisations. One could also add compulsory judicial dispute settlement which is reflected in American objections to accession to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Steinberg also highlights the federal monopoly on Arctic policy and the apparent neglect of the Alaskan voices (at least according to Alaskans!). Berit Kristoffersen examines the Norwegian High North and here once more we see resource development as the driving force: in this case, offshore oil and gas. Norway tries to position itself as a leader in environmentally sustainable hydrocarbon development and presents itself as dragging (reluctant) others behind it. There is no getting around the fact that extracting and burning hydrocarbons can never be environmentally sound but Norway tries to claim that its hydrocarbons are less polluting than alternatives. Given the book’s subtitle “legal regimes”, it would have been beneficial to consider the Finnmark Act and to examine how Norway also leads the way in Saami self-governance. The Saami are as much a part of the Norwegian North as the oil rigs. Sverker Sörlin considers Sweden as “the reluctant Arctic citizen”: it is indeed, the Arctic State that most people forget even as Sweden sometimes seems to forget the Arctic. Sörlin argues that Sweden’s contemplation of the Arctic as a “region” is attributable in the main to one man: Hans Ahlmann (who happened to be from Stockholm). The account of China-Canadian relations by Chih Yuan Woon is a refreshing evaluation of two leading media outlets’ coverage of Arctic affairs: the Canadian Globe and Mail and the Chinese Xin Hua News Agency and how they respectively construct China’s Arctic pursuits. The Canadian paper presents China as a threat to stability in the North, as expansionist, militarised, and resource-hungry. By contrast, the State-controlled Xin Hua News Agency emphasises China’s (benign) interests in science, climate change and responsible development. The Chinese reports indicate that the Arctic is of no more interest for Chinese development than any other. The author is critical of the Canadian coverage but could have gone further by pointing out glaring errors in the short extracts he quotes (and undoubtedly there are more in articles he does not quote).[1] Duncan Deplege presents the United Kingdom’s Arctic interests: science, energy and defence. Arctic scientific research is closely tied structurally to Antarctic research owing to the institutional and funding arrangements. The UK promotes its oil and gas firms first of all and justifies this close collusion with big business amidst the rhetoric of security of energy supply. The UK defence agenda is rarely facing northwards though a (secret) Ministry of Defence Arctic Strategy exists. The following two chapters provide perspectives on domestic sovereignty discourses regarding the Antarctic and how these are shaped. Matt Benwell examines Argentinian manifestations of sovereignty over Las Malvinas and the claimed Argentinian Antarctic sector through science, education, map-building and even the inclusion of these territories in the weather reports. (This struck the current reviewer who, in Greenland at the time of reading this, noticed that the Copenhagen based channels gave weather forecasts for most of Western Europe – but neither Greenland nor the Faroe Islands!). Klaus Dodds then examines Australian expressions of sovereignty vis á vis the claimed Australian Antarctic sector, even framing it as a national security issue.

Part III begins with Lassi Heininen’s history of the formation of the Arctic as a geopolitical space: from the Cold War (hard security); through the 1990s (awakening of interest in the human factor, especially indigenous peoples’ rights and interests; and greater interest in cooperation and environmental protection) and the 21st Century (twin, complementary discourses of regional stability and resource opportunities). Heininen sees an increasingly globalised Arctic: but the Arctic 8, and especially the Arctic 5, respond by emphasising their sovereignty and sovereign rights. Jeppe Strandsbjerg then considers Greenland – from a very Danish perspective. He provides a somewhat airbrushed account of the colonial history of Denmark in Greenland but assumes – following the official position of the Kingdom of Denmark – that the Greenlanders are an indigenous people with (only) rights qua indigenous people and does not address the fundamental question as to their status as a colonial people (with stronger rights of independence and resource governance). He might also examine the situation of the North Greenlanders (Inughuit or Thule people) and East Greenlanders. While Copenhagen views Greenlanders as all being one indigenous people, most Greenlanders recognise that these two linguistic and cultural minorities must be considered and their rights protected separately: indeed, in an independent Greenland, the Inughuit and East Greenlanders may even be recognised as indigenous peoples within the post-colonial State. Had Strandsbjerg taken a more complex approach to the Greenlanders’ status or perhaps even co-developed this chapter with a Greenlandic scholar, he might have had fewer difficulties in viewing their process from colonial people to independent State, in which the question of indigeneity is of limited relevance. Mark Nuttall examines “pipeline politics” in Northern Canada in light of the Harper administration’s emphasis on energy security. He demonstrates how indigenous and local knowledge, while formally integrated into the planning processes, is in fact, marginalised and even misrepresented by proponents of the pipeline developments. The environmental impact assessment process is dominated by technical data and the historical context, in which indigenous and traditional knowledge can only be understood, is excluded. Further, cumulative impacts are not integrated. The EIA process has become a triumph of form over substance. Nuttall also points out that while the process does not serve the interests of indigenous communities, it is even more exclusive of local non-indigenous perspectives that oppose developments. Nuttall’s chapter is the one that most clearly reflects the book’s subtitle: integrating as it does knowledges, resources and legal regimes. In the final chapter, Hannah Strauss (the book’s second and final female contributor!) and Nuccio Mazzullo, present a critical account of Saami reindeer herding in Finnish Lapland. The Saami herder is the face of Northern Lapland and conceals the gradual squeezing out of fishing Saami by settler populations. Saami herders negotiate an identity that bridges historic practices, commercial interests and public imaginations. Their culture (as all cultures) is not static but responds to political, economic and environmental changes. Saami herders look to diversify by branching into tourism; but they also seek opportunities in forestry. Saami communities have an ambivalent relationship with environmental NGOs which only trumpet those traditions and practices that fit with the NGOs’ agenda. NGOs may even threaten traditional activities that they view as incompatible with environmental conservation.

The pace of Arctic developments (less so Antarctic) means that some aspects already seem dated: for example, the International Court of Justice has ruled in Whaling in the Antarctic (in favour of Australia but without addressing any of the questions regarding Antarctic sovereignty or even environmental law); observers at the Arctic Council can no longer be called “permanent” observers; the Arctic Eight have added the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic 2013 to the 2011 Search and Rescue agreement: and the Kingdom of Denmark has now made its submission to the Commission for the Limits of the Outer Continental Shelf in respect of Greenland’s Northern flank. On this latter point, it never hurts to emphasise that the reason these applications are all coming in at a similar time is nothing to do with a “rush” for resources but is in fact in response to the time-limits set by the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Each chapter of the book is self-standing, which can be seen as a merit as they are each easily digestible chunks for easy integration into other research projects or university courses. On the other hand, lacking a final concluding chapter or even an attempt to draw the various perspectives together in the introduction, the reader is left without any overall sense of what a “critical polar geopolitics” is or what features of Arctic and Antarctic geopolitics are of most significance. In this respect, it comes across more like a volume of an academic journal rather than an edited collection. Having read each carefully, the issue that stands out by virtue of repetition is resource development. However, without a concluding chapter, it is not possible to determine if this is indeed the key dynamic of the contemporary Arctic; is emphasised in this collection because authors were asked to examine “knowledges, resources and legal regimes” (and of these three, “resources” is the easiest to get a handle on for the political science contributors); or is just a coincidence because of the contributors’ research interests.

[1] Eg, the Globe and Mail describes the Chinese billionaire as having “snapped up” land in Iceland: in fact, he did not get the requisite permission from the government and never took possession or ownership (171). It also stated that China applied for “membership” of the Arctic Council which of course is quite erroneous as it sought observership and could never become a member (171).

About Rachael Lorna Johnstone

Rachael Lorna Johnstone is professor of law at the University of Akureyri and at Ilisimatusarfik (the University of Greenland). Professor Johnstone specialises in Polar law: the governance of the Arctic and the Antarctic under international and domestic law. She has published widely on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, international human rights law, governance of extractive industries in the Arctic, international environmental law, state responsibility and due diligence, and Arctic strategies. Her books include the Routledge Handbook of Polar Law (Routledge 2023) with Yoshifumi Tanaka and Vibe Ulfbeck; Regulation of Extractive Industries: Community Engagement in the Arctic (Routledge 2020) with Anne Merrild Hansen; Arctic Governance in a Changing World (Rowman and Littlefield 2019) with Mary Durfee; Offshore Oil and Gas Development in the Arctic under International Law: Risk and Responsibility (Brill 2015); and Mannréttindi í þrengingum (University of Akureyri & Iceland Human Rights Centre, 2011) with Aðalheiður Ámundadóttir. Professor Johnstone is an active member of the International Law Association and two thematic networks of the University of the Arctic: on Arctic Law and on Sustainable Resources and Social Responsibility. She is a member of the board of the Icelandic Human Rights Center. She is also a member of the Arctic Circle Mission Council on Greenland in the Arctic and serves on the advisory board of the Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She is the deputy member for Iceland on the Social and Human Working Group of the International Arctic Science Committee. Professor Johnstone holds a doctorate in juridical science from the University of Toronto (2004), an M.A. in Polar Law from the University of Akureyri (2014), an LL.M. (magna cum laude) in Legal Theory from the European Academy of Legal Theory (2000) and an LL.B. (Hons) from the University of Glasgow (1999).