Icy geopolitics and #digitaldiplomacy: the naming of Queen Elizabeth Land

Yesterday’s announcement of the naming of Queen Elizabeth Land came during a day-long visit by the British Monarch to various offices of state in Whitehall. The Queen was filmed and photographed interacting with her Government’s Ministers, officials and representatives of leading departments—as well as receiving gifts to mark the Queen’s 60th Jubilee. After becoming the first Monarch to attend a Cabinet meeting since George III in 1781—during the American wars of independence and under the premiership of Lord North—she was escorted into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for only the second time in her 60-year reign.

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth II and announced that:

I am delighted to announce that as a mark of our country’s gratitude to you, an area of the Antarctic 437,000 square kilometres in size, nearly twice the size of the United Kingdom and more than a third of the whole land mass of the British Antarctic Territory, will be given a name for the very first time. From today, in your honour, it will be forever known as Queen Elizabeth Land.

While the naming of 169,000 square miles (note the internationally-friendly kilometre figure cited by Hague) of Antarctica may have chimed with a bygone era—it was, after all Captain James Cook who named the Island of South Georgia after George III in 1775—, the mechanisms of yesterday’s particular moment of naming came straight out of the handbooks of both 20th and 21st century polar statecraft.

By naming the southern part of British Antarctic Territory, Queen Elizabeth Land, the Antarctic Place-names Committee and Foreign Office have shown themselves willing to embrace (and continue) the kind of Antarctic statecraft that would have been familiar to the likes of Scott and Shackleton during the early years of the 20th century. The highly contested Antarctic Peninsula region is claimed by Argentina, Chile and the UK. For the last hundred years, all three countries have mapped, surveyed, studied, exploited, named and built research stations on the vast area of rock, ice and frigid sea. All three countries have their own place-naming committees, and have applied thousands of place names to this part of the Antarctic’s landscapes and seascapes. Queen Elizabeth Land is not likely to be translated into Tierra de Reina Isabel by the Argentine and Chilean mapping authorities, but it will serve on British maps as a powerful marker of British polar sovereignty.

Yesterday’s announcement was an equally profound act of 21st century digital diplomacy. The Queen’s visit to the Foreign Office and Hague’s speech were relayed on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. For a while the term ‘Queen Elizabeth Land’ topped the UK tweet trends and contributed to raising international awareness of the naming announcement. The @foreignoffice Twitter account broadcast the news of Queen Elizabeth Land to its 106,000 followers with the aid of a newly rendered map (see below), as did the Foreign Office’s pages on Facebook. A few moments later, William Hague’s personal twitter account—@williamjhague—performed a similar function to his 118,000 followers. Both accounts linked to further information on Queen Elizabeth Land published on the Foreign Office’s new gov.uk website, which promises to be a new hub for the Foreign Office’s digital diplomacy efforts (which includes blogs by the UK’s Foreign Representatives and Twitter feeds in 47 languages). Curiously none of the Foreign Office’s foreign-language Twitter feeds gave the story quite as much prominence as the Foreign Secretary, and it was avoided by the Spanish and Portuguese feeds for Latin America altogether.

William Hague tweets the announcement of Queen Elizabeth Land (18 December 2012)

William Hague tweets the announcement of Queen Elizabeth Land (18 December 2012)

The Foreign Office website acknowledges that “it is for other countries to decide whether or not they will officially recognise this name [Queen Elizabeth Land”]. Sovereignty claims and naming practices are complex, confusing and are often contested. Within the Antarctic Peninsula region, for example, King George Island is known as 25 de Mayo Island by the Argentine authorities. But the Chileans call it Isla Rey Jorge, which is a direct translation of the English. And that is not the only case where the counter claimants have completely different names for the same geographical features – Adelaide Island/Isla Belgrano, George IV Sound/Canal Sarmiento and Cape Alexander/Cabo Suecia.

The complex geopolitics of the Antarctic Peninsula means that it might only be Commonwealth allies such as Australia and New Zealand that embrace Queen Elizabeth Land on their official polar maps. American maps might do so as well if the UK is lucky. It is possible that Argentina will formally protest the actions of the UK government. It is equally possible that the Argentine government will seek to demonstrate their own presence in Antarctica, in much the same way as they did with their Olympics-inspired video in the Falkland Islands earlier in 2012. If and when either of these possibilities occur, you will certainly read, hear and see it through social media and the digital diplomacy that defines 21st century statecraft.

Dr. Alasdair Pinkerton & Prof. Klaus Dodds


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