15 November 2019

Masterclass: The Scramble for the North Pole

The masterclass given by Political Geographer Dr Duncan Depledge was enthusiastically awaited by a large delegation of International Relations in Historical Perspective students. Dr Depledge’s condensed lecture on why the Arctic region receives increased attention in recent years clarified, intrigued and spurred students to interesting questions.

As this masterclass was part of a series on the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Dr Depledge commenced his lecture by referring to the long strategic history of the Arctic region. Ever since the Dutchman Willem Barentsz discovered the Svalbard archipelago and with it the Arctic region, it remained of strategic importance for both west and east. In the Cold War NATO and the Soviet Union regularly held military trainings and operations for the intimidation of each other. Mainly through submarine deployment and forward military presence.

Special Identity    

However, Dr Depledge explained that now, having passed this Cold War strategic interest in the Arctic, the region started to construct its own identity. The Arctic council - comprised of the eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States), indigenous peoples, and Arctic observers (United Kingdom and the Netherlands amongst others) -  created a special identity for the region as a whole. This initiated states to sign environmental treaties respecting to the Arctic’s environmental and commercial situation.

Threats       

Nevertheless, at the start of the 21st century, climate change threatens the North Pole as never before according to the Arctic Council and the IPCC. This attracted more attention towards the geopolitical situation of the Arctic. These melting icecaps would open up various new commercial opportunities, like the North Eastern waterway along the coast of Russia, the central waterway directly across the North Pole. This would diminish costs for commercial shipping towards East-Asia from Western Europe, but Dr Depledge states that this conception is not to be overestimated. The melting and freezing dynamics of the icecaps are still too unpredictable for these commercial routes to outweigh the profits of the current sea routes through the Suez and Panama.

Need for nuance   

Furthering this point on the misinterpretations surrounding the Arctic region, Dr Depledge stated that the media is unjustly directing attention towards the Arctic as a security concern. Illustrated by the outrage towards Russia to plant a flag underneath the Northern icecaps as if they were claiming the North Pole, while this was mainly part of celebrating successes in a scientific project. Although we should not be naïve to the intentions of the Russians or other powers regarding the Arctic region. We also should not think too much of certain small actions of Russia or China to be primarily for military strategic interest, there is more nuance to it. Thus, there is still a long way to go for the Arctic to be that profitable to promote major conflict escalation. Dr Depledge concluded with the suggestion that we should monitor the geopolitical situation in the Arctic closely, but refrain from hasty conclusions.