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Pax Arctica? Not quite

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Pax Arctica? Not quite

The public discussion about the geopolitics and geo-economics of the Arctic is getting more and more polarized. On the one hand, there have been a number of recent books, with such grand titles as The Scramble for the Arctic, suggesting a no holds barred race to control the North and its resources. On the other hand, there have been a number of expert contributions to the debate – such as Michael Byers’ excellent Who Owns the Arctic? – that suggest a far less conflictual and far more cooperative Arctic. So, what is it to be – conflict or cooperation, war or peace? Does either side really convince?

The language of the ‘scramble for the Arctic’ is superficially appealing. It finds deep resonance in our popular culture because it appears to reconfirm rather romantic ideas of heroism at high latitudes, Arctic adventurers and the early 20th century ‘race for the Pole.’ Jack London still probably shapes our popular views of the Arctic at least as much as any amount of scientific reporting or sound political analysis. And the Arctic still seems to be a place for larger-than-life characters and experiences. There is certainly an element of truth to the assertion that, in a world of increasing resource scarcity, and under conditions of climate change, there is a global scramble underway to make sure that vital resources – from water, to productive agricultural land, to oil – are identified and controlled. More than this, of course, the ‘scramble for the Arctic’ conjures up an earlier period of territorial appropriation – to wit, the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the mid-19th century. But the analogy is misleading in three important ways.

First, the ‘scramble for Africa’ took place against the backdrop of Great Power competition in Europe; indeed, colonial expansion outside Europe was arguably a way of preventing competition from coming to a head within Europe. It is hard to see current questions of who owns what in the Arctic as a similar displacement of broader power struggles. The post-modern ‘idealist’ states of Denmark, Norway and Canada are not driven by the same imperial urges as their 19th century counterparts. Things are a little more complex with the US and particularly Russia, which are perhaps closest in their general strategic outlook to the ‘realist’ and ‘balance of power’ schools that dominated 19th century diplomacy. But neither is seeking Arctic dominance in quite the same way that Britain and France vied for dominance of Africa a century or more ago.

Second, whereas the ‘scramble for Africa’ was about who owned what land in Africa, sovereignty over the overwhelming majority of land in the Arctic is already quite clear. There are a few cases – such as Hans Island – where sovereignty is disputed, but these tend to be more opportunities for political chest-beating than anything else. The quiet work of diplomats on a broad range of other issues goes ahead despite them. There is one case – the Svalbard archipelago – where sovereignty itself is not in dispute – Svalbard is Norwegian – but where the rights of signatories to the 1920 treaty that awarded Norway sovereignty are a matter of potential political ruction. But the real questions of Arctic ownership are less about the land and more about the sea, and seabed.

Third, whereas the first phase of the ‘scramble for Africa’ was more or less a free-for- all, in which might was at least as important as right (indeed, the Berlin Conference more or less enshrined the principle of effective control as a key to ownership), there is a substantial legal framework that goes a long way toward determining who owns what parts of the Arctic seas and seabed (just as there is elsewhere in the world). That framework is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which all the Arctic states are party (bar the US, which nonetheless recognises UNCLOS as customary international law). The five coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US), meeting in Ilulissat, Greenland, in 2008, restated their commitment to UNCLOS and to “the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.” A meeting of the same group of countries –the A-5, as it were – later this month in Canada will no doubt reaffirm these points. There is no desire whatsoever to renegotiate UNCLOS; after all, it took decades of painful negotiation and ratification procedures to get us to where we are now.

So, the scramble analogy is misleading. What of the alternative? In a recent article for GB, Byers ventures to suggest we are moving towards a ‘Pax Arctica’ – citing, among other things, the Ilulissat declaration, and strengthening patterns of cooperation between the A-5. The whole thing is an “anti-climax” he argues.

It is a nice idea, and on one level it is true. The A-5 nations are increasingly working cooperatively. They have all agreed that international law will be their guide in resolving any disputes about ownership. There is not, as Byers says, any “appetite for conflict” between those states.

But this risks missing a broader point. It is surely right to say that there is no “appetite for conflict” among the A-5 as things now stand – but then there rarely is an “appetite for conflict” before one develops. Conflicts arise from clashes of interest, occasionally from accidents, often from errors of judgement, frequently from opportunities afforded by an asymmetry of power, as much as they do from any crazed “appetite” for them. There is clearly still scope for unilateral actions on the part of one or another Arctic nation that will test the resolve of other Arctic nations to defend their positions – most likely through diplomacy, backed up with a credible Arctic presence. Ungoverned spaces in the international system – that is to say areas over which the nominal owner cannot exert real control – are dangerous.

There is a further, and indeed crucial, point to make here. It us certainly the case that, if ownership were the only question at stake in the Arctic, we could agree that things are turning out quite well – though there are still plenty of disputes already on the table about who owns what, and UNCLOS will not and cannot solve all of them. However, the challenges to Arctic governance will not stop when the states finally come to agreement on such overlapping claims as may arise.

Ownership is just the beginning. Far from agreement on ownership being an “anti-climax” after which we can all settle down and chalk another one up for international law, the governance challenges going forward – both between states and within them – remain huge. And therein lies the risk of conflict: nothing that skillful diplomats and far-sighted politicians cannot manage, of course (and let us hope that they do), but an ongoing and increasing challenge, rather than a diminishing one.

How about this for starters? One reason the A-5 are so keen to assert that existing international law will do a perfectly good job in sorting out who owns the Arctic and who has the right to control and manage it is that the last thing they want is busy-bodies – such as the EU, and let alone China – muscling in on the Arctic action. Still, China may well be more forceful in promoting its legitimate Arctic interests in the future. These interests have much more to do with use than ownership, but they will have to be managed. Existing international law will only take us so far when the new hegemon in the global system is not the US.

Or consider a couple of plausible scenarios that could alter the geopolitics of the Arctic at a stroke: an independent Greenland, or a change of government in Russia, bringing a more aggressive regime into power. Finally, disputes within states about how Arctic development is managed will continue to rage – well after the ownership question is resolved (either completely or in part).

The ‘scramble for the Arctic’ idea deserves to be picked apart, but a ‘Pax Arctica’ does not quite work either. If only things were that simple, and if only law and ownership were the be-all and end-all of international relations (and national politics).

biolineCharles Emmerson is the author of The Future History of the Arctic, released in March from Public Affairs in the US and Canada, and from Random House in the UK and internationally.

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