23Ź Rencontres Jacques Cartier - Lyon, 22-23 novembre 2010




Changes on Northern Geopolitics - from a frontier (of confrontation) to a region (of peace)[1]


Extended Summary


Dr. Lassi Heininen

University of Lapland, Finland

Northern Research Forum




At the early-2010s there are two main discourses on a state and geopolitical situation of the Arctic Region: First, that of stability and peacefulness based on institutionalized cooperation across borders by the eight Arctic states and non-states actors. Second, that of a ‘race’ of natural resources and emerging conflicts, and an emphasis of state sovereignty and national interests by the five littoral states. The former discourse is (still) much the mainstream discourse, while the latter one challenges it.


Behind is on one hand, the very significant geopolitical change, when the circumpolar North transferred from a frontier of the confrontation of the Cold War onto a stable region of peace and institutionalized international cooperation. On the other hand, at the early-21st century another geopolitical change has occurred and influences the region. Even more, the (geo)political position of the circumpolar North has been in a constant change, since this unmapped area and ‘unknown’ world became known. It has been either a periphery, or marginal area, or frontier. Or, it has been a resource area for states, and / or a strategic security zone for superpowers like for example, the 2nd World War brought hot warfare into the circumpolar North.


Correspondingly, the Cold War period was consisted of the militarization of the region due to the military, political, economic and ideological competition between the USA and the USSR, and consequently, in Northern regions there were an increased military tension. This meant that the region, which used to be a military ‘vacuum’ for centuries, first turned into a military ‘flank’, and then became a military ‘front’ due to the nuclear arms race by the two superpowers: The Arctic became a highly strategic area militarily and military-politically which was manifested for example, by patrolling strategic nuclear submarines and anti-submarine warfare, by patrolling nuclear bombers, and by intensive military exercises and training.


Consequently, the military and political tension of the region was increased, and there was a lack of trans-boundary cooperation. This time period can be interpreted to represent a geopolitical point of view in Northern geopolitics. Furthermore, there are good reasons to say that in the Cold War period the Arctic was a frontier of confrontation.



The Cold War was, however, a rather short time period, since in the late of 1980s - just few years after the competition between the maritime strategies of the two superpowers was in its highest point - the frozen, divided and militarized North started to thaw. This was due to a raise of regional economies and self-determination on one hand, and on the other hand, environmental awakening among northern Indigenous peoples as well as by environmental movements and the scientific community. There was a growing concern on, and conscious of, pollution both from the region due to industrialization and militarization, and from lower latitudes due to agriculture and industrialization. The northernmost regions of the globe had transferred into an environmental linchpin influenced by nuclear wastes, and long-range air and water pollution as well as other flows of globalisation.


All this meant the first significant geopolitical change in the Arctic region in the early-1990s. This was manifested by the first ministerial meeting of the eight arctic states in 1991 for to sign the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). They were pushed to react by those regional and local non-state actors to react and start cooperation on environmental protection in the Arctic. Furthermore, the arctic states started to prefer trans-boundary cooperation and stability instead of confrontation. To decrease tension and increase stability became the ultimate aim of the states and new established intergovernmental organizations, and this was not an accident! Consequently, this meant a transfer from state hegemony into more sophisticated policy and from confrontation to international cooperation.


As a result, in spite of some disputes on maritime borders, asymmetric environmental conflicts and claims by indigenous peoples, and the fact that the region is legally and politically divided by national borders, the Arctic region soon become a peaceful region with high stability. The region is without wars and armed conflicts, and without emerging conflicts, even real reasons for violent conflicts. Much opposite, there is a wide and lively, and much institutionalized, international and regional cooperation. Furthermore, even some of the long-term maritime disputes, such as that between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea, have been recently solved.


Yet, this state of stability and peacefulness is neither given nor determined, since it can exist and be maintained only if there is a mutual political will, and if the rules of international treaties and agreements, such as the UNs Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), are respected and implemented.


The Arctic region is not, however, isolated but closely integrated into the world politics of globalization and the globalized world economy. This is indicated for example, by the growing importance of energy security and growing interest toward opening of new global sea routes. The northernmost regions are also influenced by global (environmental) problems or threats, such as melting of sea ice and glaciers due to rapid climate change. All these go beyond national borders and state sovereignty, and the traditional distinction between a core and a periphery.


These are not, however, taken only as disadvantages, since there is a growing global interest toward, and many future scenarios for, the Arctic due to an easier access for the utilization of the potentially rich energy resources and navigation in the trans-Arctic sea routes. All in all, the Arctic region is witnessing a manifold growth in its geostrategic importance.



Parallel to this, and as a consequent of the above-mentioned situation, another significant and rapid level of multi-functional - environmental, geoeconomic and geopolitical - change has occurred into the northernmost regions of the globe. This has been seen in many ways and recognized by several factors and indicators, such as climate change with its physical impacts and the retailed uncertainty; growing willingness and activity for to the utilization of natural resources and mega-projects; the importance of energy security both in national, regional and global contexts; and the above-mentioned growing global interest toward the region and its rich natural resources, and consequently, a manifold growth in the geo-strategic importance of the region.


Furthermore, the change can also be seen via the growing interest and activity of many regional actors, such as the Arctic states which have recently (re)defined their national interests, agendas and policies / strategies in and for their northernmost regions as well as the entirely Arctic region. This has also meant a new raise and emphasis of state sovereignty and national interests, which particularly the littoral states of the Arctic Ocean have shown. All this has consequently raised up a question, if the post-Cold War period is over in the Arctic region.


The significant and multifunctional change does, however, neither mean that there would be a danger of armed conflicts or warfare, nor that emerging conflicts would occur due to for example, maritime disputes or race on natural resources. Much opposite, the Arctic region continues to be stable and peaceful, even some sort of innovative region of peace, at the time. This can be taken as, and interpreted to be, a success story in the broader context of the international system. Furthermore, this is a real achievement in what ever times, but particularly in the times when there in the world does exist two major wars, about 20 minor wars or major regional armed conflicts, and a constant global fight and warfare against (international) terrorism.


The current geopolitical situation and the occurring change can also be interpreted to mean that the circumpolar North plays a more important role in world politics. Behind there are two obvious factors: first, geopolitics, since the Arctic is still highly strategic for the major nuclear powers and has a growing importance via global energy security; and second, geoeconomics, since the utilization of natural resources and transportation are playing more important role in the globalized world economy. The northernmost regions have also been taken as a ‘workshop’ for multi- or interdisciplinary research on the environment and climate change, and for the interplay between knowledge(s), and science and politics.



Furthermore, there are also more immaterial values, such as the diversity of the arctic ecosystem and that of northern cultures, indicating the growing importance of the Arctic in world politics. The region has also become “a leader in the development of innovative political and legal arrangements that meet the needs of the residents of the region without rupturing the larger political systems in which the region is embedded” (Conclusions by AHDR 2004). Behind are evidences to demonstrate both the feasibility and the desirability of applying advanced technologies to address social problems. And, furthermore there in the arctic regions are innovations in governance, and political and legal arrangements, such as devolution of power, which have become important for civil societies and sub-national governments, and turned to become like best practises.


Finally, there is one more immaterial value, the viewpoint of stability and peace; although to stability and peace the change will become materialized by warfare or armed conflict. As mentioned earlier, the fact is that the region is not overtly plagued by a war or armed conflict, and is not even in a potential danger, is a real achievement, particularly since it has been gained and built during the last 20 years. This fact would request more academic and political interest both to appreciate it as an achievement, and to increase scientific studies on stability, peace and security. Particularly, it would be interesting to study thoroughly how stability and peace was structured and will be maintained in the Arctic Region. Furthermore, the region can be interpreted to become a driving force on stability and peaceful in world wide, even a region of peace. It has all potential for that!

[1] This is a part of my study on the post-Cold War Arctic / Northern geopolitics and beyond. For more details see Lassi Heininen, “Circumpolar International Relations and Cooperation”, and “Globalization and Security in the Circumpolar North” in: Globalization and the Circumpolar North. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks 2010.