The Nordic States and Polar Geopolitics

In the Arctic, global climate change, resource use, and the impacts of globalization are significant domestic and foreign policy issues for the Nordic states. From these issues arise challenges – as well as opportunities – that have a circumpolar Arctic-wide, a Nordic, and indeed a European dimension, and require significant cooperation in science, technology and policy.

As key actors in the geopolitics and science of the Arctic, Norway, Sweden, and Finland also have active Antarctic science programmes as well as political interests in the continent. Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia have already begun to construct a framework for operational cross-border cooperation.

However, one of the ironies of global interdependence is the emergence of a world increasingly characterized by dispute and disagreement. In the polar regions the issues of climate change, sovereignty and strategic positioning by both states and multinationals in respect of access to oil, gas, and mineral resources, raises the question of whether international cooperation can be sustained, while at the same time recognizing and protecting the political interests of all states concerned.

Over the last twenty years the Arctic has experienced something of a transition from the old geopolitical order to a new one. The most urgent challenges are no longer confined to military issues but to addressing environmental problems and promoting viable economic development as well as the effective management and use of natural resources.

Norway's initiative on trans-border cooperation, the creation of the Barents Euro-Arctic Region, illustrates how Nordic leadership has already set the pace for further cooperation in these polar regions. The alignment of national and regional goals was a pragmatic step towards the promotion of stability and the establishment of a link between the Barents Region and the broader European process of restructuring. Similarly, Finland and Sweden share a concept of 'comprehensive security' promoting the notion that security in today's world comprises economic, ecological, and human rights strands.

Region-building policies

The notion that cooperation and integration contribute to security and stability, influences the Arctic-rim states in their focus on region-building. Given the similar history, political and security interests, culture, social systems and values, region-building in the Nordic context makes cooperation at various levels a politically viable, but also necessary step. The 'Northern Dimension' promoted by Finland exemplifies Nordic understanding of how the geopolitical realities affecting individual states require alliances built on a regional identity rather than a global/ international one.

Antarctica, by virtue of its history and geographic isolation is not influenced by a similar political outlook from states in the southern hemisphere which could promote regional integration, or indeed lead to the development of a 'Southern Dimension' similar to the approach developed in the Nordic Arctic. Political and scientific interests in Antarctica have historically been extended remotely by countries in the northern – not the southern – hemisphere.

The display of 'power' in Antarctica is increasingly defined by a country's scientific and technological capabilities. Antarctic science not only supports political ends, like permanent occupation, but is increasingly being used as a 'knowledge tool' for the protection of the polar environment.

Flag-planting as a declaration of ownership in the last century has been replaced by the practice of high-calibre science as a declaration that, should there be a challenge to territorial rights in Antarctica, possessing knowledge about the region provides justification of ownership.

Continued leadership?

The leadership shown by the Nordic states, and the Nordic values of openness and strict environmental protection regulations, gives them a certain authority in advocating the responsible use of the Antarctica for science. The growing number of countries involved in scientific activities has led to calls for international cooperation in Antarctica to continue to take common perspectives into account.

The Nordic states - Norway, Sweden and Finland - have taken advantage of their comparable social, economic and technological capabilities for joint research programmes in Antarctica. Significantly, Norway (the only Nordic state with territorial claims in the Antarctic) sees the continuation of such cooperation as being important for the continuity of its Antarctic research and political interests.

The contrast in the political and strategic positioning between the Arctic and Antarctica is best reflected in two separate events in the late 1980s – Gorbachev's Murmansk speech in October 1987, and the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) respectively.

Gorbachev's declaration "Let the North of the globe, the Arctic, become a zone of peace" lifted the circumpolar 'ice curtain' and provided a significant impetus to regional cooperation among the eight Arctic states. This 'regionalization' was advocated as benefiting them, economi-cally, socially and politically. This was not the case however in Antarctica, where 'inter-nationalization' rather than 'region-alization' was promoted. Benefits would result from advancing science and protecting the environment rather than offering economic benefits to the Treaty nations.

Divergent mineral-policies

Although an attempt was made to plan for managing the exploration and exploitation of potential minerals resources, albeit not in the immediate future, this was quashed on the grounds that resource activities would harm the Antarctic environment and have global consequences. In contrast, it is interesting that Arctic-rim countries concerned about Antarctica are not yet barred from exploring for minerals/oil and gas in the fragile North!

Discussion on the need for an international regime to regulate mineral activities in the late 1980s reflected the many competing interests represented by the membership of the Antarctic Treaty system. The outcome of negotiations on the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (from 1980 to 1988) revealed the absence of a unified regional outlook from the Treaty parties.

The Convention was not ratified and failure to reach consensus on how to deal with the minerals issue exposed the limitations of the Antarctic Treaty. It should be noted however that throughout the process Norway maintained its position as mediator between the competing states.

2009 Claims-deadline

Current territorial rivalries place a strain on relations between countries with con-flicting territorial claims in the Arctic and the Antarctic. The looming deadline of 2009 for countries to establish the outer limits of their continental shelves, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), has caused an international flurry of activity by many states in their bids to expand state sovereignty across the ocean floor beyond the traditional 200-mile limit.

Russia's flag-planting on the deep seabed of the North Pole during the summer of 2007 provoked an international outcry, galvani-zing other Arctic nations into action. Denmark is to submit its own claim and Canada has announced plans for an expanded military presence in the far north in a bid to assert its sovereignty over the contested Arctic region.

The Antarctic territorial claim issue is also beginning to take on new meaning in the context of the CLCS. Australia's attempt to delimit an extended continental shelf zone to include the Australian Antarctic Territory has set a precedent for other Antarctic claimant states, including the UK, whose intentions have alarmed Argentina and Chile. Norway has not yet made a submission, citing the 'extremely complicated and resource-intensive' process of data collection.


International agreements based on the spirit of mutual cooperation are seemingly under threat. Drawing on their histories of cooperation in science and politics in the Arctic and Antarctic, as leaders in innovation, and, as in the case of Norway's role as mediator and moderator in previous Antarctic negotiations, the Nordic states appear well-placed to lead the way in forging new and robust frameworks for regional cooperation in both Polar Regions.

In 2009 and 2011 two anniversaries will be marked that have significant relevance for the Arctic and the Antarctic; and for the states with geopolitical and scientific
interests in both regions. In 2009 it will be fifty years since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, and twenty years since the beginning of the Rovaniemi Process.

2011 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty coming into force, and twenty years since the Arctic Environ-mental Protection Strategy (AEPS) was adopted by the eight Arctic states as a direct outcome of negotiations in Finland two years before. Furthermore, 2011 marks twenty years since the adoption of the Environmental Protocol for the Antarctic by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties.

There will be cause for celebration and evaluation and, as these anniversaries coincide with the end of the fourth International Polar Year (IPY) and its subsequent follow-up activities, there will, in addition, be inevitable calls for an Arctic treaty to be drawn up to act as a legacy for IPY4 in a similar fashion to that formulated for Antarctica.

Yet caution and pessimism remain as we ponder the brittleness of international agreements based on the spirit of mutual cooperation, and of the realization that forging new international regula-tory agreements for the polar regions may be unlikely, at least in the near future.

Arctic Council cracks?

Cracks may appear in the Arctic Council, as adversarial approaches to Arctic issues become more common - states are already involved in sovereignty and boundary disputes, while indigenous peoples may become more litigious in their struggle for the international recognition of their political, cultural and human rights.

In May 2008 a meeting in Ilulissat, Greenland between the five Arctic coastal states' foreign ministers (Norway, Iceland, Russia, Denmark/Greenland, and the US) at the invitation of Denmark, sparked criticism. The meeting was held to discuss sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic and to consider joint strategies for the management of the Arctic Ocean.

Critics saw the meeting as not only marginalizing the relevance of the Arctic Council, and excluding indigenous peoples' organizations, but also as duplicating fora which already carry out effective discussions about the Arctic. Similarly, does this permutation of Arctic 'coastal' states put a spanner in the works of Nordic cooperation?

As research points increasingly to the importance of understanding both polar regions for climatic processes, the working, functioning and interrelationships between ecosystems, and global change, the scientific argument for why countries should engage in scientific research in Antarctica is unequivocal. But why would they wish to do so politically?

And as the Arctic and Antarctic each continue to emerge as critically important international regions, what future leadership roles do the Nordic countries have in setting new political and scientific agendas, particularly in light of their geopolitical interests in the Arctic and their technological edge over other key players in the polar regions?

By: Anita Dey Nuttall Canadian Circumpolar Institute, University of Alberta, Canada and

Mark Nuttall Department of Anthropology, University of Alberta, Canada/Thule Institute, University of Oulu, Finland

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