Finding the global Arctic

Analysis | The term ‘global Arctic’ means different things to different academics, and that has implications for how we understand the region

Where’s the Arctic?

Jessica Shadian

In a recent op-ed, Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, challenged us to think about what we mean when we talk about a ‘global Arctic’. We should take heed before adopting popular terminology without thinking of consequences of its usage. What power dynamics are we creating? How do certain terms enable particular discussions? How do they inhibit the emergence of other narratives?

According to Mr Dodds: “The term ‘global Arctic’ deserves more critical attention … How is the term to be understood? What kind of intellectual labour does it perform and what are the consequences of its usage?”

I want to thank Mr Dodds for initiating what I hope can turn into a very fruitful conversation about what this idea imparts on our thinking about political space and the Arctic; and it can serve as a tribute to the recent passing of geographer Doreen Massey, whom Mr Dodds references in his op-ed. In an effort to take this conversation in that direction, I offer here my own understanding and usage of the concept as a scholar of international relations (IR). I want, however, to begin with some insights into the origins of the notion of a ‘global Arctic’.

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I first heard “the two words put together in the same sentence” in a conference presentation by Lassi Heininen, a Finnish IR scholar who is also known for helping to carry the Olympic flame to the North Pole in 2013. Mr Heininen has since used this concept in his own publications. When I have used this term in my own writings I have given credit to him, coming short of stating that he coined the term. If he did not coin it then he is certainly the one who popularised it.

As a constructivist, I have found the term ‘global Arctic’ to have a substantial amount of analytical leverage. I see the concept as an analytical tool that one can use to help make sense of the interdependent political/economic/social/legal processes taking place in and about the Arctic, at a number of scales.

At the same time, I believe that it is important to point out that there is a critical difference between the quest to understand (intellectual inquiry, or ‘what is going on here?’) and normative-driven research (which contributes value, or ‘how do we make the world a better place?’).

Searching for understanding is quite a different task than using the discovered information to make judgments about something as being bad or good. I do not use constructivism to make normative inquiries and, in that sense, I do not impose the idea of the ‘global Arctic’ to support a normative position about the Arctic (for example, making an argument that China’s interest in starting a mine in Greenland or building a port in Iceland is good or bad).

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Rather, I use the term to help understand political, legal and economic developments. These questions require seeing political space as encompassing the local, national, transnational and international – not only the intersection of the Arctic and global, however the global may be defined or understood – instead of analysing each one separately.

In this sense, the term ‘global Arctic’ helps us to understand how the Arctic Council is both a net exporter and a regional importer of ideas and practices (coming and going to and from a large number of political practices that operate above, below and across state and regional borders).

For instance, if we want to understand how a transnational Arctic indigenous organisation can be part of the UN and have a seat at the negotiating table of the most recognised and only circumpolar Arctic political regime, then we need a political space that defies conventional divisions (based on the belief that international politics is only for states).

As another example, we can ask what we are witnessing when a collaboration in revenue-sharing and how best to proceed with Arctic offshore oil production forms between Arctic Inupiat Offshore, LLC (a conglomerate of an Inupiat regional corporation and six indigenous Iñupiat North Slope village corporations) and Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc?

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Such partnerships are often not understood or unsettling to environmental groups that argue that they are helping to “save the Arctic” and “preserve indigenous lifestyles”. When it comes to these questions, we need an analytical means to engage with them in a way that is not restricted by static assumptions of political scale.

Only by tackling the above questions is it possible to make policy recommendations or other political or ethical judgments about what has been analysed. However, by thinking that the ‘global Arctic’ is a thing and has its own mandate, one risks making the same mistake that many have made regarding the term ‘globalisation’.

Academics, policy-makers, businesses, interest groups etc often confuse the term globalisation to mean a thing that does something. “Globalisation did this or caused that …” or “Because of globalisation this is happening …”. Rather than seeing globalisation as an object used to provide a causal explanation, globalisation becomes a useful concept if understood as a process or processes and studying those processes becomes the point of inquiry.

All of this is one way to say that when I use the term ‘global Arctic’, I am not trying to impose a vision or construct of what I view as the ‘global Arctic’ or to make causal explanations. I do not have an intellectual agenda. Likewise, and contrary to Mr Dodds’ argument, I do not see the ‘global Arctic’ as a concept which “gloss[es] over … ​struggles for recognition within the Arctic region”.

Rather, I have found it to be a useful tool to make it easier to understand those exact ‘struggles’ – the relations between agency and structure and thus the relations between ideas and politics. This includes how ideas and institutions, such as empire, the making of the Westphalian political system, colonisation, the dynamics of modern international law, indigenous land claims and other forms of indigenous autonomy, the Arctic as terra nullius, the mandate of the Arctic Council, the position of permanent participants on the council, indigenous peoples as ‘stewards’ of the earth, the UK as a near Arctic state, cultural sovereignty, ‘rights holders’, food security, indigenous self-determination (the list goes on) have come into being; as well as how they are local, regional, intergovernmental, global and historical processes all at the same time; and, moreover, how they are constitutive of one another.

In effect, the idea of a ‘global Arctic’ provides IR scholars, such as myself, with a means to reconceptualise political space and to move away from outdated ideas about global politics being something, by, and for states. By making analytical use of the concept, I am thus able to articulate the interdependent relations between political scales and the processes that have historically unfolded – and continue to unfold – in and concerning the Arctic.

If I too can borrow from Doreen Massey and end with her words on the relations between internal regional understandings of self and global political change: “This is a notion of place where specificity (local uniqueness, a sense of place) derives not from some mythical internal roots nor from a history of isolation – now to be disrupted by globalisation – but precisely from the absolute particularity of the mixture of influences found together there.”

The author is a Senior Fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, University of Toronto and holds the Nanesen Professorship at the University of Akureyri.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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