Comment: Arctic Order in World Order

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen

The Arctic has for centuries reflected numerous realms in the international system, including politics, economics, security policy, and technology. The Arctic today mirrors the current world order, and the Arctic of the future will reflect the evolution of that world order.

The study of international relations is a branch of political science which centres on the interaction between states and businesses, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), armed groups, individuals, and so on, across borders. International relations research is analytical. Political scientists have no more sympathy for power and violence than cancer researchers have for cancer. International relations approaches possess a rich theoretical and conceptual vocabulary which is useful for understanding the Arctic.

‘International order’ may sound benign to people and to their rights, yet order is merely a structure between states and other actors, with consequences down to the family and individual, and order reflects the power relationship between superpowers and great powers.

Life-and-death competition of the Cold War

The Cold War reflected a bipolar international order with two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union. They had incompatible political and socioeconomic systems, which led to a life-and-death competition, but never waged direct war because of nuclear mutual deterrence. Within this rivalry, both superpowers focused on power and security and not values, whereby the United States also supported dictatorships. Each superpower organised its array of allies, clients and puppet regimes, with the US in NATO, the OECD, and associated regimes, and the USSR within the Warsaw Pact, Comecon, and others. A key researcher [paywall] on this question is Professor John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago.

The world order defined by the Cold War was closely reflected in the Arctic, with both the Iron Curtain in Europe and the ‘Ice Curtain’ in the Bering Strait with strategic nuclear weapons and warning systems. There was virtually no circumpolar cooperation between the Soviet Arctic on one side and the Nordic and North American Arctic on the other.

The USSR lost the socioeconomic competition with the United States, and thus the Cold War. The US became the only superpower in a unipolar world order and could, without the existential competition, pursue its own values ​​and interests unlimited, which went well in Europe and poorly in the Middle East.

The Arctic closely reflected this new world order. Finland took the initiative with the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy [pdf] between 1989-1991, and Norway with the Barents Cooperation initiative from 1993. Canada continued the Finnish initiative as the Arctic Council which was founded in 1996.


Professor Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen in Moscow [Photo by Michael Morreau]
The Arctic reflecting the world order

It is important that we understand today that a circumpolar Arctic Council, including Russia, which is focusing on environmental protection, Indigenous peoples’ rights and sustainable development, closely reflected this post-Cold War world order. It was not a natural state for the Arctic, however desirable. As the world order changes, so does the Arctic.

We now see an emerging pivotal life-and-death competition between the new superpowers, the US and China. They will each establish their own orders of allies, clients and puppet regimes, in which the United States may again sacrifice democracy and human rights. This new Sino-American world order will inevitably shape the Arctic.

Russia’s position in the US-Chinese global competition is crucial for the Arctic. Moscow had overcome the deep societal crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s, with higher oil prices and the reign of President Vladimir Putin. Russia is far from the Soviet superpower, and is a smaller economic and technological power than the US and China, but Russia has an enormous territory and a large nuclear arsenal.

Today, Russia and China cooperate in many areas, but they also distrust each other over, among other things, their common border of more than 4,200km in the Far East and Central Asia. Russia is perhaps a more natural member of the American order than the Chinese order. Moscow is deeply concerned about becoming dependent on China, but the post-2014 Ukraine crisis has driven Russia into the arms of Beijing.

Two likely future Arctic orders under Sino-American bipolarity

There are two likely scenarios for the future Arctic under the Sino-American world order. Either the Arctic will be divided, with the Nordic and North American Arctic within the US order and the Russian Arctic in the Chinese order, resulting in weakened circumpolar cooperation in the Arctic Council. We already see the US working hard to keep China out of Greenland and the rest of the Nordic-Arctic region, Sino-Russian cooperation on energy and shipping, and US-Russian diplomatic conflict.

[Photo by Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen]
The alternative Arctic order is a circumpolar Arctic, in which Russia has become part of the American order. This order will require the US to divide Russia and China, as President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger separated China from the Soviet orbit after 1972. This will require the West to refrain from interfering in domestic Russian affairs on the environment, and human rights in general, and specifically within the Russian Arctic. China and Russia are fully aware of this logic. Russia favors a multipolar order, but the bipolar logic imposes itself from the relative economic and technological might of the United States and China vis-à-vis other states.

In both scenarios, the Arctic will be very different from the circumpolar Arctic of the Arctic Council we have been used to since the 1990s. Circumpolar cooperation can probably be maintained especially in the fields of law of the sea, natural science research and resource exploitation. Arms control dialogue on strategic stability, nuclear weapons reduction and missile defence will be crucial for the safety of humanity. However, the environment and human rights will suffer in the Russian Arctic.

Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen is Professor of Northern Studies, and Barents Chair in Politics, at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø

[This article was previously published in Danish in Nordnorsk Debatt.]