A Transnational Arctic


Fabrizio Tassinari is the executive director of the European University Institute’s School of Transnational Governance.

“The sea,” wrote the 16th century Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius “since it is as incapable of being seized as the air, cannot be attached to the possessions of any particular nation.” This elementary precept seems to have been lost on President Donald Trump in his gambit to increase access to the Arctic Ocean by seeking to purchase Greenland from Denmark.

Aside from the legitimate considerations about the nature of this proposition (Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark’s, is not for sale) or about how diplomatic relations among allies are being conducted, this episode illuminates a challenging geopolitical paradox. As regional stakeholders publicly restate their commitment to peacefully resolve any dispute in the high north, some policymakers seem to conclude that the Arctic is descending into zero-sum competition.

Massive changes in the Arctic ecosystem are occurring due to global warming, opening up previously inaccessible opportunities. Greenland alone is estimated to hold almost a quarter of the world’s reserves of rare earths — minerals used in everything from magnets to electric car motors and wind turbines. The U.S. Geological Survey calculated in 2008 that the Arctic holds about 13 and 30 of the world’s undiscovered resources of oil and gas, respectively. The opening of the Northeast Passage may reduce the sailing distance from Asia to Europe by some 40 percent.

“The sea, since it is as incapable of being seized as the air, cannot be attached to the possessions of any particular nation.” — Hugo Grotius

Episodes like Trump’s stunt underscore a sense of urgency about how potential disputes arising from exploration and trade will be resolved. In fact, throughout the last decade, there have been repeated instances of militarization and sovereign overreach in the Arctic, such as the military trainings regularly carried out by Canada and the 2007 Russian scientific expedition that planted a flag on the North Pole’s seabed. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Arctic Council earlier this year: “Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?”

So far, multilateral arrangements have helped avert escalation. Over the past two decades, the Arctic Council has grown into the premier venue for high politics and a vast array of policy issues in the region. Testifying to its global significance, 13 non-Arctic countries have gained observer status in it, including China, India, Japan and South Korea. Partly in response to Russia’s flag-planting exploit, Denmark initiated the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, where the five Arctic littoral countries committed “to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims” on contentious issues such as the delineation of the outer limits of the continental shelf. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea sets the legal framework to resolve such disputes: all Arctic countries are part of it, but the United States has not ratified it due to long-standing concerns among some of its senators about the consequences for U.S. sovereignty.

More broadly, the geopolitical and geo-economic constellation emerging around the Arctic is a complex environment with multiple stakeholders and different layers of policy action. National interests across policy sectors do not always align and often collide. But geography and the changing climate makes interdependence inevitable.

“Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?” — Mike Pompeo

In this sense, the Arctic would appear to be “multi-perspectival,” as some scholars of international relations have called it. Smaller countries have a much keener urge to regulate such a framework than the larger ones. As argued by Per Stig Møller, the former Danish foreign minister who masterminded the Illulissat process: “If someone would take the law into their own hands outside of Greenland and say, ‘We will take this,’ and then, for example, drill for oil without asking for permission, what could we do?” He was surely thinking about Russia then, but the reflection is eerily applicable to Trump’s America too. Finding workable formulas that meet the national interests converging on the region may well represent a litmus test for transnational governance in the years to come.

Here the Greenland controversy adds another useful input: part of Trump’s invective was on defense spending, which in a majority of European states is currently below the 2 percent of GDP level pledged by NATO members (in the case of Denmark, as Trump pointedly tweeted, it is 1.35 percent). To be fair, the criticism of European nations getting a free ride on U.S. security guarantees has been a bipartisan lament in the United States, preoccupying even more well-disposed administrations such as that of Barack Obama. The European riposte typically centers on the generous European contributions to Afghanistan or Iraq, as well as to the experience gained in a comprehensive approach harmonizing civil and military crisis-management and post-conflict reconstruction, most prominently applied in the Balkans.

“There is much to gain from a regulated and peaceful Arctic region; the U.S. would be advised to pay attention.”

Denmark’s prided “active internationalism” is premised on a set of circumstances even more pertinent to the Arctic conundrum: the momentous events that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Together with other Nordic countries, Copenhagen realized that their best chance at defusing great-power competition was to concentrate on the Baltic Sea. They did so by shepherding the transition of the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) from even before they declared independence from the Soviet Union 30 years ago, throughout their accession to NATO and the European Union in 2004.

Just as importantly, the Nordic countries persuaded all Baltic Sea states to tap into a genuinely transnational region-building process emerging from non-governmental actors around the region. This started out of functional imperatives — the need to clean up the heavily polluted Sea basin — and spilled over into other policy sectors, eventually fostering a joint ownership of the regional process. To this day, the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership offers a paradigmatic model of multi-stakeholder, multilateral endeavor, actively involving Russia.

The mindset guiding Danish policy in the Arctic is closely following this script and experience that it gained in the Baltic Sea over the past three decades. There is much to gain from a regulated and peaceful Arctic region; the U.S. would be advised to pay attention. From the Viking explorations onwards, Nordic nations have proven time and again that geography is not destiny; to that we may now need to add that geography is not for sale either.