Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The Arctic Race that Wasn't

Hyperbole, Imaginaries, and the North Pole

As the Arctic melts, various ideas about the region are being carried along in the runoff. Depending on whom you ask, the Arctic is either a swath of frozen emptiness; one of the last remaining bastions of untouched nature, which needs to be protected; a resource frontier, for which great powers must scramble; or another strategic theater in the showdown between Russia and the West. In varying degrees, the Arctic is all of the above. But as global warming opens the area up for business, the “scramble” narrative seems to have eclipsed all the others—to the region’s detriment.

Perhaps more so than any other geographic area, how the Arctic is conceptualized has tremendous influence on regional policies and relations. The power of Arctic narratives—“imaginaries,” as the authors of Contesting the Arctic: Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North put it—is perhaps best exemplified by the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, which declares that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would govern the Arctic Ocean, as it does all other oceans and as it had done in the Arctic for years. As the authors put it: “Presumably, the only reason to produce a declaration asserting that the Arctic is ‘normal’ would be if someone else were suggesting otherwise.”

OPEN SEASON ON THE ARCTIC?

On August 2, 2007, the Russian polar explorer Artur Chilingarov used a mini-submarine to plant an approximately three-foot-high titanium Russian flag on the Arctic sea floor commensurate with the location of the North Pole. His action elicited a heated response from Peter MacKay, then the Canadian foreign minister, who stated, “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’” But MacKay also noted that this was “just a show by Russia” with no real territorial implications, a position taken by every other Arctic state as well.

The Arctic flag planting was legal—the same as the United States placing its terrae nullius (no man’s lands) that were theirs for the taking. It likely didn’t help that Chilingarov planted the flag on the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that sits at the center of the competing territorial claims of Russia, Canada, and Denmark. Russian politicians and media outlets, looking to drum up nationalism and support, represented the events as Russia taking the lead in an international race to claim the Arctic. This view spurred international reactions and eventually took hold of the majority of discussions concerning the Arctic.  

Read the full article on ForeignAffairs.com