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18 January 2019

'Peopling' the Arctic State


When Arctic political relations make it into international news – often under a head-

line of competition or crisis – it is not unusual that the actors in these stories are states:

The Arctic states ‘do’ this, ‘think’ that; the states compete and claim. This might be

the language of media and everyday speech, yet we know that a state is not in and of

itself a thinking and acting being. A state is, first and foremost, the product of a range

of political practices and discourses – as state theorists such as Philip Abrams and

Timothy Mitchell have argued before me. And if that is the case,  then we – political

analysts and scholars interested in Arctic statecraft – arguably need to pay attention 

to the numerous people enacting those practices.


In my research I have been interested in, firstly, how national identity, nationalism, and performance feature in Arctic geopolitics. Examples include the former Prime Minister of Canada Harper’s rhetoric about and photo-shoots in the North; and, across the Pole, Russia’s President Putin’s strikingly similar performances. And secondly, I have wanted to explore how these narratives of ‘Arctic identity’ are not just rhetorical tools wielded to please an electoral audience, but how they may also influence the orators, performers, and actors themselves: state personnel. In short, I have spent the last few years trying to answer what it means to ‘be’ and to represent a so-called Arctic state – specifically for state personnel from Norway, Iceland, and Canada – thereby seeking to ‘people’ our understandings of Arctic states.


Here it might be useful to define the Arctic states as the eight members of the Arctic Council, i.e. the five Nordic states, Russia, Canada, and the U.S. States are not the only actors in the Arctic of course; in fact, the region’s governance is made up of numerous institutions and bodies that work together on specific issues or areas. Arctic inhabitants, and particularly Indigenous peoples, also have a significant political role to play across a range of forums, including in the Council. And scientists too play their part in the unfolding of Arctic geopolitics, not to mention the many organisations and companies that all have their own specific concerns or interests.


Yet, one intriguing aspect of Arctic geopolitics is that despite the region’s uniqueness – largely oceanic, sparsely populated, international, etc. – it remains undeniably state-governed. In a time when some scholars have argued that neoliberal globalisation has led to a diminished role for the so-called ‘nation-state’, the Arctic region offers a surprising stage for the performance of state sovereignty. 


Having observed the increasing rhetoric of ‘Arctic identity’ in such state performances, I therefore wanted to find out how the idea resonates (or not) among those tasked with enacting state practices in their everyday. As part of my doctoral research project, I interviewed 49 state personnel from the above three states, all of whom represented different positions, departments, specialisms, and of course personal backgrounds. 


What I found was that Arctic identities were articulated as both geographical and historical, as something that was about territories and temporalities in the north. And moreover, several state personnel explained their sense of Arctic identity as contextual and relational: It means something different to ‘be’ Arctic when faced with e.g. EU diplomats than when speaking to local populations in their own domestic north; and it means something different to speak of Arctic statehood in a southern capital than from a northern or Indigenous standpoint. 


Perhaps not surprisingly, how an Arctic identity was articulated also differed across the three states – as well as within their local contexts, and indeed, between individuals. In my view, the contrasting spatial foundation of their respective Arctic identities was particularly interesting: Whereas Norwegian personnel often spoke about the sub-sea, the Icelandic frequently spoke of oceanic currents and movements as ‘connecting’ them to the north, and finally, the Canadian spoke of the ice and of Inuit lives. In other words, not just physical geographies but also the ‘geographical imaginaries’ of the Arctic were different, which no doubt has implications for how the region is approached politically. 


In the end, these narratives – here, what it might mean to ‘represent’ an Arctic state – demonstrate that Arctic identities are not fixed, but depend on social and political relations. I would argue that this should not simply be brushed off as ‘just rhetoric’ or ‘empty words’, when those tasked with their articulation may simultaneously articulate their own ‘self’. How personnel view their own state, their jobs, their communities, and indeed themselves will all influence how the above idea of an Arctic state emerges. It is this I mean by our need to ‘people’ understandings of Arctic states and geopolitics: We need to pay attention to the practitioners of state practices, the actors of political performances, if we are to understand how it all plays out.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry welcomes delegates to the SAO Plenary meeting © Arctic Council Secretariat/ Linnea Nordström

Ingrid Medby is a Political Geographer at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. Before this, she taught at UCL and completed her PhD at Durham University in 2017. She is originally from Northern Norway, and became interested in questions of political representation while working as a trainee for the North Norway European Office in Brussels. You can find out more on her staff profile.


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