In This Review

Contesting the Arctic: Rethinking Politics in the Circumpolar North
Contesting the Arctic: Rethinking Politics in the Circumpolar North
By Phil Steinberg, Jeremy Tasch, Hannes Gerhardt, and Adam Keul
I. B. Tauris, 2015, 224 pp.

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.”


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 flag on the moon—symbolizing accomplishment, not acquisition, in the eyes of Russian officials. But for some, it harkened to the days of European conquest of lands they considered 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.  

Feeling cornered by a viral and possibly destabilizing conception of the High North, the five Arctic littoral states felt the need to address Chilingarov’s exploits and the reactions to it. Thus, the Ilulissat Declaration and its reassertion of regional cooperation and international law came about. Despite the declaration, however, the idea that it is somehow open season on claiming the Arctic persists. Assessments of vast untapped Arctic resource reserves—fossil fuels, fisheries, and minerals—and the imaginary of the region as a resource frontier have only bolstered this interpretation. A prime example of such a view comes from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who stated: “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic: Either we use it or we lose it.”

A man looks at a giant inukshuk as the moon rises above it in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut August 21, 2013. The inukshuk is a stone landmark or cairn used by the Inuit people in the arctic.
Chris Wattie / Reuters
As Contesting the Arctic demonstrates, however, imagery of an “Arctic race” is overblown for three main reasons. First, all terrestrial territory in the Arctic resides firmly within state borders. The only dispute over dry land exists between Denmark and Canada over Hans Island, and this is highly unlikely to escalate. Second, conflicting claims to undersea territory—continental shelves, for example—are being resolved amicably. Per the UNCLOS, the Arctic littoral states have agreed to submit such claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) and abide by its findings. Disputes will therefore be resolved through the gathering of scientific data and a neutral arbiter, not a race or conflict. Third, all accessible natural resources currently reside within state jurisdiction. Although the outer reaches of these jurisdictional boundaries are still being hashed out with regard to continental shelf extents, no one is rushing to grab resources before others. States are simply developing or seeking to develop areas clearly within their jurisdiction. It should be noted that a race may occur in the near future with regard to fisheries in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean, but the Arctic littoral states are already taking steps to prevent this, including a recent agreement to ban commercial fishing in international Arctic waters.

In reality, the imaginary of a race began with and was propagated because of exaggerations for political effect, media sensationalism, and fundamental misunderstandings of Arctic sovereignty, jurisdiction, and international legal regimes.

To be sure, states have limited windows within which to submit continental shelf claims to the UNCLCS, and they feel varying pressures to promote northern resource exploration to keep up with domestic demand or maintain government revenues. Energy companies, too, must act within the time frames of their exploration and extraction licenses. But in terms of claiming territory in the Arctic, the notion of a “first come, first served” situation is a fallacy.


Instead of Arctic competition, Contesting the Arctic focuses on key issues that actually define politics at the top of the world: resource exploration, indigenous governance and livelihoods, environmental preservation, and national security. In particular, it examines how environmental preservation can be balanced with resource acquisition and regional development. The authors of Contesting the Arctic note the prevalence of the conception of the region as a vulnerable ecosystem that must be protected from human encroachment. Very few, however, hold this view in its absolute form: that the Arctic must be closed off to human activity. But the milder version—the conception of the High North as a pristine, untouched, and vulnerable space—does garner widespread support, both locally and internationally, and there are many who fight development projects in the region.

The idea that the Arctic is completely pristine and untouched, however, is not entirely accurate. To be sure, the Arctic has historically remained relatively isolated, and its ecosystems have been shown to be highly susceptible to climate change. Yet humans have inhabited the Arctic for millennia, and the region has experienced varying levels of commercial and industrial activity, whether this is fishing, trapping, mining, logging, or a number of other pursuits. What’s more, roughly four million people call the High North home, and their welfare must be taken into account when addressing issues of conservation and development. As it stands, the only viable large-scale means of revenue creation and improvement for many Arctic communities is resource extraction. And many locals and natives have tended to reject maximalist conservationist arguments because they overlook considerations for human well-being and opportunity.

How the High North is viewed will ultimately determine its fate.
Ultimately, while industry certainly has a clear focus on risk and profit when approaching the Arctic that must be balanced against, locals have more nuanced interests in both preserving the region in which they live and utilizing their natural endowments for the betterment of their communities. Regional environmental protection must therefore be conducted with a healthy respect for the needs, rights, and desires of northern peoples. The view that governments and others must race to the Arctic and speedily implement northern plans is likely to compromise such considerations, in terms of both protecting a living space and addressing local development needs. 

Contesting the Arctic also looks to questions of national and international security (albeit without the depth and post–Cold War perspective that would make their analysis more comprehensive). During the Cold War, the Arctic’s frozen expanse mirrored the ideological permafrost between the communist and Western blocs. It also presented a potential avenue of attack, and it was therefore a key strategic realm, particularly for submarine, long-range bomber, ballistic missile, and missile defense operations. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell, however, the military importance of the Arctic declined sharply.

But an acute chill has once again set in. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent support for anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine have invited Western sanctions. Those sanctions have totaled the Russian economy, and Moscow has, in turn, increased its regional and international assertiveness and placed a renewed emphasis on military readiness.

As a geographic arena in which Russia and the West meet, the Arctic has not been spared. Russian President Vladimir Putin has started a considerable expansion of the Russian military’s northern capabilities by reopening Soviet-era bases, constructing new bases, moving troops northward, and establishing Arctic-specific force components. All within Russian borders, but provocative nonetheless. 

Russia’s actions have caused concern across the circumpolar North, but Norway has been the most reactive. It has started to reorient its defense posture northward, given the green light to Arctic-directed defense procurements, and conducted the first large-scale military exercises in its northernmost province bordering Russia since the end of the Cold War. Norway has also pushed for greater NATO involvement in the Arctic and spearheaded additional exercises involving NATO members, Sweden, and Finland. Russia, in turn, responded to these trainings by putting all of its northern forces on full combat alert.

Workers walk towards a helicopter after delivering supplies to a remote warming station near the 2011 Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in this March 18, 2011 picture.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters
The responses of other Arctic states have been more tempered. They have expressed displeasure with Russia’s continued provocations, but they maintain that they do not see Russia as a threat in the High North. Nevertheless, all of the Arctic states have recently updated their Arctic defense policies and continue to remain vigilant in this regard in the face of both Russia’s actions and the need to secure a region that continues to become ever more accessible as a result of climate change.

What’s clear is that Russia’s northern military movements have further fueled the view that there exists a race to control the Arctic, but this race currently has only two runners: Russia and Norway. Furthermore, but for periodic Russian airspace encroachments, they are acting within their borders and not using military force to buttress expanded territorial claims. Once again, the Arctic race narrative is thus far more bark than bite.


Even in the face of territorial disputes, Arctic littoral states are less busy forcefully establishing claims than helping one another carry out surveying missions and other collaborative tasks. In fact, there have been almost no instances of the former, while the latter continues to be the normal course of Arctic interaction.

When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell, however, the military importance of the Arctic declined sharply.
Nevertheless, with no indications that relations between Russia and the West will warm anytime soon and the region becoming ever more accessible, the impulse to view the Arctic through the lens of competition will likely grow. In the face of this, maintaining the extensive international cooperation present in the region and supporting open dialogues and information sharing across all manner of Arctic activities—particularly military movements and purposes—are critical.

At a time when the Arctic is increasingly working its way into mainstream discussions of international relations and policy, it is important to recognize that, as the authors put it, “preconceptions of what the Arctic is, and what it can be, matter profoundly.” How the High North is viewed will ultimately determine its fate.

To this effect, Contesting the Arctic is one of the most significant recent works of Arctic scholarship, and this review does not do justice to the breadth of Arctic issues with which it grapples. By presenting and assessing how hundreds of individuals involved in Arctic policy formulation perceive the region, the book gives readers unparalleled insight into its current state and future. While certain portions of the book could have been fleshed out and a section on the modern strategic portrayal of the Arctic should have been included, the work is a must-read for those interested in the High North and international affairs generally. 

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  • ANDREAS KUERSTEN is a law clerk with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) and a Fellow at the Arctic Summer College. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not represent those of CAAF or the U.S. government.
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