The Different Levels of Geopolitics of the Arctic

By Andreas Østhagen

Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

Few areas have been the source of as much speculation, hype, and overgeneralization as the Arctic region at the start of the 21st century. Propelled to the top of the international agenda by high profile flag-plantings and resource appraisals a decade ago, the Arctic continues to lure researchers and journalists to venture northward to “the next great game.”

Fortunately, with more attention comes more comprehensive knowledge as well. Several scholars have now debunked the notion of “resource wars” in the North, due to the sheer size of the areas in question and the fact that the Arctic states already have legitimate ownership over most of these areas via the Law of the Sea regime. Moreover, the foreign ministries of the Arctic states have highlighted the cooperative traits of the region, promising that “in the Arctic, we work together” to solve problems.

Nevertheless, notions of Arctic conflict and great power politics over the North Pole keep emerging on the political and news agendas. If all is well in the High North, why is this the case?

A fundamental concept in international relations studies is the “level-of-analysis problem,” first formulated by J.D. Singer. In the case of the North, it is particularly useful to distinguish between two levels of analysis: the international (system) level and the regional (Arctic) level. Such an approach helps to tease out the dynamics present in the Arctic, explaining why the idea of conflict persists, and how it does not necessarily contradict the trend of regional cooperation and stability.

Separating the international, or system, level from the regional, or Arctic, level can help to clarify various misconceptions about the Arctic and the interests of the actors involved. During the Cold War, the Arctic held a prominent place in the political and military standoffs between the two superpowers. It was a key area not because of interactions in the Arctic itself, but because of its strategic role in the systemic competition between the United States and the USSR. Recently, after a decline in geopolitical and geostrategic relevance in the 1990s—which enabled various regional cooperative schemes to be established in the Arctic—the strategic importance of the North has risen again.

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Picture: US gov [Public domain],

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