Britain as an Arctic nation: “Nearest neighbour” or “intensely connected”?

Further to my light-hearted reflections on the British delegation’s impact at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik last weekend, Klaus (who was following events from afar) and I decided it was also worth adding some more serious reflections on the UK’s contemporary manoeuvrings to find and to legitimate for itself an identity and role in Arctic affairs.

Of particular interest to us was the presentation by Professor Jeffrey Mazo from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, who presented on the subject of “Britain as an Arctic Nation” in the Plenary Session organised by the British delegation (yes, that session). For those interested, Mazo has reproduced the content of his talk on the IISS blog here.

What caught our attention about Mazo’s presentation was the way in which Britain’s identity as an Arctic Nation seemed so closely tied to a sense of a topographically determined history. In other words, his understanding of geography is as something pertaining to physical location. For example, Mazo rightly pointed out that by contemporary definitions, Britain was once an ‘Arctic nation’ by virtue of its colonial possessions in Northern Canada (only given up in 1880).  And as Charles Emmerson has noted elsewhere, the United States literally became an ‘Arctic nation’ following the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867. Location and proximity, then, are assumed to be the key determinants as noted above. Despite Britain relinquishing its Canadian Arctic territories, Mazo notes that by virtue of its ‘natural geography’ (a term that human geographers would not recognise as being part of contemporary university geography) Britain can still, “uniquely, be defined as a ‘near Arctic’ nation. The emphasis on the word ‘uniquely’ further implies that other states that today consider themselves to be ‘Near Arctic’, most noticeably China, simply do not have the topographical history to back up such a suggestion.

Contrary to this literal view of geography, there is another way of thinking about the geographical. A more relational understanding of geography poses rather different questions. Instead of focussing on so-called natural topography, we might consider how Britain as an Arctic nation is constructed topologically. In other words, attention is devoted to better understanding how a complex web of connections/relations draw together and/or exclude various sites across Britain and the Arctic, facilitating the mobility of all kinds of human as well as non-human actors (from diplomats, scientists and businessmen, to birds, fish and radioactive pollution). This idea of connectivity and networks draws attention to the importance of thinking about the varying intensity, the multiplicity and even the affectivity of the different ways that Britain (or any other state) and the Arctic are connected.

If you want to conduct a thought experiment think about how audiences have reacted to the proposition that Britain and China might be geographically proximate to the Arctic region. When stories emerged of China establishing a large embassy in Iceland or a Chinese billionaire attempting to purchase some land in Svalbard, the idea that China might be seeking to establish a geographical ‘foothold’ in the Arctic provoked anxious even fearful headlines in European and North American media sources. As if to suggest that China understood only too well how a more relational understanding of geographical connection and network could be used to counter-act any assertion that China was too far from the Arctic. Britain’s connections to the Arctic do not tend to generate the same kind of affective response; especially when commentators like Mazo seek to affirm its ‘credentials’ past and present.

To continue our example, tracing all of these connections between Britain and the Arctic and China and the Artic, both in their historical and contemporary manifestations, becomes revealing of how much Britain (or even China if you consider its involvement in the seal trade and the exchange of objects between Chinese traders and Inuit in Canada and Greenland in the nineteenth century) and the Arctic have mattered to each other over the course of history whether because of exploration, science, economic activity, military conflict or pollution. Seen in this light, Britain’s identity (and China’s to a lesser extent) as an Arctic nation becomes even more profound than what is suggested by simple geographical determinism. Again if you follow the object, the flow, the connector and the network you really do develop a more nuanced understanding of the geographical and what some are starting to term the ‘global Arctic’.

However, it also forces ‘us’ to think about how Britain might not be so uniquely “close” to the Arctic. As we have hinted at with our Chinese example, there are other geographies to be teased out showing how Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Germany are all actively developing far more intense connections/networks with the Arctic by mobilising bodies, practices, knowledges, and resources to draw themselves into ever closer relationships with the region. In focussing too much on its supposedly unique position in the topography of the Northern Hemisphere, there is a good chance that Britain might forget that its long-standing connections with the Arctic have been nurtured and supported through its own mobilisation of bodies, practices, knowledges and resources, and that Britain’s ‘Arctic identity and relationship’ are always being made and remade by British and other stakeholders.

This is not an enterprise entirely under the control of British writers and enterprises. Claims to proximity can also lead to others seeking to ‘distance’ as well as ‘embrace’. As the experience of past British explorers should remind us, it is never a case of plain sailing when it comes to the Arctic and Britain’s relationship to it.


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