Q&A with Klaus Dodds: the geopolitics of the Arctic

Following our Q&A with Greenpeace’s Ben Ayliffe, the first of our series of interviews on the Arctic, we now speak with Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

What do you think’s interesting about the Arctic at the moment, in terms of the geopolitics?

Klaus Dodds – One of the most interesting aspects of the Arctic is a tension between, on the one hand, a remote, exceptional and poorly understood space, and on the other, one that is increasingly globalised and of interest to far more people than ever before. It’s really interesting to see this place, this complex place, become the subject of so much public interest than it was, say, twenty years ago.

Do you think it’s a space that has been a bit ignored?

Within many countries, even those countries within the Arctic, it’s a space that has been reasonably neglected. It’s worth bearing in mind that, for example, for southern Canadians, the Canadian Arctic will seem like a very remote place – they are far more likely to travel to Europe than to go to Nunavut or the North West Territories – and I think part of it is the legacy of the Cold War. In a sense, it was one of the most politicised places on the planet and, in a lot of cases, not particularly easy to travel to.

The Arctic includes a range of different nations, could you give us a sense of who the various actors are?

The first thing to say is that the Arctic has four million residents. Most of them live in the Russian Arctic, and then the ratio between the indigenous residents and Northern – non-indigenous – residents varies enormously. There are eight different Arctic states: the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark via Greenland, Finland, Sweden, Russia and Iceland. Five of them are the ones that have Arctic Ocean interests: the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark/Greenland and Russia. So when we talk about the geopolitics of the Arctic, we have to bear in mind there are lot of people who live there, but there are these eight key states which all think of the Arctic as their neighbourhood.

From the climate perspective, one of the biggest changes attracting attention to the Arctic is ice melt, and this possibly opening up new spaces, and with it, business opportunities. Do you agree that’s a big change, and if so how do you think it’s playing out?

There’s no doubt that one of the biggest drivers of increased global interest in the Arctic has been this relationship between the idea that the Arctic might become more accessible because of climate change, and in particular, sea ice thinning, and this also being linked to greater resource extraction, or at least resource speculation. Resource extraction has been a feature of the Arctic for a very long time. There’s been mining in Greenland for several hundred years. Resource extraction is not new. But what is newer is the idea of the Arctic becoming more accessible, and that’s encouraged a great deal more interest, particularly from countries outside the eight Arctic states, to think of the Arctic as a new resource frontier. But for many people the Arctic is also being thought of as the climate change frontier.

That brings in two other actors – businesses, multinationals, and some national companies linked to Arctic states, but also citizens in other parts of the world. How are they able to express their interest – or trying to express their interest – in the Arctic?

In terms of business, this growing sense of the globalisation of the Arctic goes hand in hand with the idea that business and commerce is increasingly playing an important role, and that can happen in all kinds of ways. It’s about business and commerce taking actions with states, but also with indigenous communities, and Northern communities. It’s important to say indigenous and Northern communities are also involved in businesses which are going beyond the Arctic as well. It’s not one-way traffic. Business and commerce, and the networks that sustain it, are going in and out of the Arctic.

For citizens, it depends on what group you are talking about, but NGOs like Greenpeace, through their Save the Arctic campaign, have played a part in raising a sort of Arctic consciousness in citizens both within the Arctic states but also, increasingly, beyond. I think they’re trying to make the Arctic more demanding of our attention in a more global sense, to stop seeing it as a place that is disconnected and remote from our experience.

Do you see them as being able to have much success in that? They’ve got a fair number of people supporting them, but can they translate this into political power?

That’s going to be a difficult objective, for a number of reasons. First of all, you’d probably find that a lot of Arctic residents would have rather negative views about environmental NGOs. The idea that the Arctic needs saving might actually be slightly offensive to some of the people who live there. For many Arctic communities, resource extraction is a key employer and something that is seen as a wealth creator, and for many of these communities that’s important because their livelihoods can often be quite precarious. If you stopped oil and gas extraction, mineral extraction – such as zinc or copper or iron ore – or timber, then that could have quite a serious impact on those communities. When you also juxtapose it with high profile trade bans on things like seal products, then it has led, I think, to a rather jaundiced view of what NGOs outside the Arctic are trying to campaign for. I think Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign is most likely to be successful in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, but not in the Arctic states themselves.

Staying on the issue of global conversations, how do you see concerns from people who live in the Arctic – or work in, or study the Arctic – as able to influence global discussions on climate change, such as the UN talks?

For me, one of the biggest ways one might shape or influence debate regarding the relationship between climate change and the Arctic is to recognise that the indigenous and Northern residents have a multitude of views about climate change. In Northern Canada, for example, you often get a view about climate change that is very apocalyptic. But in Greenland you can get a response that is almost that we welcome the changes that climate change might bring, particularly if brings new opportunities for us as a people who want to be independent in the future. One of the problems with the Save the Arctic campaign is that it keeps talking about the Arctic in the singular. But there are multiple Arctics. There are different Arctic stakeholders who have different views on what climate change represents.

What do you think about the ways in which indigenous voices are folded into global political debates? Do they get collectivised together too much in the UN, for example? Do they have a voice through the various nation states, or do they get silenced by the various legacies of colonialism?

The most important venue is the Arctic Council. Within their structure, since 1996, six umbrella indigenous organisations are what are called permanent participants. There is a dilemma though, on one hand you want to recognise that indigenous voices are plural, but on the other hand, if there is an excessive celebration of diversity, then there is a danger that some fundamental messages like colonialism, imperialism, racism, marginalisation, deprivation get lost. One of the interesting things in Canada with the Idle No More movement was to gather together those voices and to raise some quite fundamental inequalities and legacies that Canada has to confront. And one of those, for example, would be land claims.

Moving to a slightly different focus now, how well do you think the scientific expertise is embedded in political discussions in the Arctic? And possibly vice versa too, do you think the scientists working in the area pay enough attention to the politics of the region?

Whether we use the term military-industrial-academic-complex or not, scientists are embedded in wider structures of power, and I think most scientists recognise that. On one hand, in places like Canada there are now quite elaborate rules and regulations governing how scientists work with indigenous communities. But on the other hand, I think science is absolutely integral to geopolitical performances of states. To give an example, at the moment, oceanographers, geologists and environmental scientists are playing a critical role in helping to track the seabed of the Arctic Ocean and the sole purpose, as far as states are concerned, is to enable them to extend their sovereign rights. That’s a classic example of scientific knowledge being essential to sovereignty and security projects. But you also find in certain Arctic states, science may also be able to speak openly about, for example, climate change, or permafrost thawing. Because of the politicisation of Arctic science, it’s true in several countries that scientists feel they are constrained and can’t speak openly. There is a strong connection – and a long-standing one – between science and geopolitics.

Is there anything else that you want to mention that our readers might find interesting, or you think we should look out for in terms of geopolitical changes in the Arctic?

In May 2013 a number of countries became observers to the Arctic Council, including China, Japan, Singapore and India, and something to look out for is what role these predominantly Asian states might play to increasingly shape the politics of the region. They might do this quite subtly. For example, producing their own Arctic scientific knowledge, but playing a role in terms of trade, investment, business. We’ve already begun to see this in places like Iceland and Greenland.

Overall, the relationship between climate change, science, resource extraction and geopolitics is likely to become ever more important, and interesting in the Arctic. And probably ever more contested.

Klaus Dodds

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and an expert on the Arctic, Antarctic and Falklands. He spoke to us in a personal capacity.

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