The Thawing Arctic Beyond Flags

In a video still image a Russian flag is planted by the Mir-1 mini submarine on the seafloor under the Arctic ice sheet in August 2007. Several northern countries, including Denmark, Canada, United States, Norway, and Russia have competing claims over which country has rights to the mineral and carbon resources under the ocean floor. (Photo: Association of Russian Polar Explorers)

The Thawing Arctic Beyond Flags

Something remarkable happened in the Arctic ten years ago. On August 2 2007, two small submarines planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole. First met with ridicule and scorn, the image of the flag and the accompanying story quickly became a symbol of a new geopolitical race for the Arctic in the years that followed. The New York Times reported that "[t]he dive was a symbolic move to enhance the government's disputed claim to nearly half of the floor of the Arctic Ocean and potential oil or other resources there." Political tone was sharpened when Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter MacKay pitched into the debate: "This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say: 'We're claiming this territory.'" The Wall Street Journal placed the act into a historical geopolitical narrative: "It is as if we were reliving the days of Sputnik." The fact that jurisdiction over Arctic off-shore resources is determined by UN Convention of the Law of the Sea and decisions are made by the Commission on the limits of the continental shelf were amongst the multiple issues that were taken up.

Another remarkable event made the headlines in September the same year. The Arctic Sea ice reached an unexpected record low minimum extent that took both scientists and the world of politics by surprise. The combination of events set off a wave of discourse about how the Arctic was entering a new era and a prelude to a geopolitical game in a world of rapid climate change.

Contrary to the international news coverage, the Russian press first described the expedition to the sea floor as a scientific venture that highlighted the nation's outstanding technological and scientific capacity in the Arctic. What followed was a change in tone and emphasis on Russia's geopolitical stakes, particularly in reaction to the Canadian proclamation.

Ten years in retrospect of the 2007 events, changes of the natural environment have indeed been rapid. The most recent scientific report describes point blank that the Arctic Ocean could be largely free of sea ice in summer only two decades from now. The Barents Sea may be ice-free year round by mid-century. In terms of shipping access and ecosystems dynamics, this could indeed be called a state change, with implications for both commercial and military activities.

In contrast to predictions ten years ago, the direction of political change has been towards consolidating the earlier "good" relationships amongst the Arctic nations rather than increased political tension in the region. All actors with serious interests in the Arctic have committed to long-established rules under the Law of the Sea and the Arctic Council has consolidated its role as the primary arena for political negotiations concerning the Arctic. The Arctic Council appears to also have survived the handover of US presidency and the accompanying shift in US climate policy. It is remarkable, however, that the US during the negotiations for the recent Fairbanks Ministerial Declarations attempted to delete references to the Paris climate agreement and new scientific results about the impacts of climate change. The US administration's efforts did not succeed and the final text emphasizes that addressing climate change is a common priority.

While new entrants far from the Arctic, such as China and India, have made their interests clear and took their place amongst the growing number of observers within the Arctic Council, the eight member states together with the Council's Permanent Participants representing the region's indigenous peoples have consolidated their privileged positions in defining the region. There are other factors that shape the present and future of the Arctic region. A sharp drop in global market prices for oil and minerals has dampened the immediate commercial interests in exploiting the region's resources.

So, how do things look for the Arctic today? It seems that after ten years, Arctic politics has moved from rhetoric about national flags and resources to the realities of living and working in the north in the face of a rapidly changing climate. Another conclusion is that developments in circumpolar international cooperation are likely to remain reactive to climate change rather than the Arctic countries as a group taking steps towards a post-petroleum future, at least as long as nations and local economies are heavily dependent on income from oil and gas. While regional international cooperation can bridge geopolitical tensions, its role appears to be limited regarding domains where core economic interests are at stake.

Widening the perspective, there is no sign that global interest in the region is waning. New countries keep seeking observer status in the Arctic Council. The interest in polar affairs do not necessarily only relate to the Arctic as such, but are better described as national positioning in relation to global geopolitical shifts that are likely to affect both the Arctic and the rest of the world.

The Arctic remains a vivid showcase of current global geopolitical transformations in the wake of climate change. However, in contrast to the media stories that linked a titanium flag finding its way into the seabed of the North Pole to the Cold War era space race, most commonly represented by Sputnik, the image in focus this time is planet Earth and a space defined by the intertwined dynamics of geopolitics and climate politics.

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