How the global battle for the Arctic became the new Cold War

China has labelled itself a “near-Arctic state”; Norway, Denmark and Canada have all claimed ownership over the North Pole, while Russia has put in its bid too. 

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In 2016 North Korea became a signatory to a century-old agreement governing Svalbard, a smattering of frozen fjords, glaciers and islands in the High Arctic. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 is an unusual document: it recognises Norwegian sovereignty over the territory, while granting citizens of member countries equal rights to live, work, fish, hunt and open businesses there.

What piqued Kim Jong-un’s interest in the frozen North? “It’s probably because he realised it’s easy and doesn’t cost any money,” a Norwegian diplomat told me earlier this year. All Pyongyang had to do was write a letter to the Svalbard Treaty headquarters near Paris, where it has sat since the postwar negotiations at Versailles.

Given the permissive terms of the treaty, though, the DPRK’s accession might have been indicative of another trend: everybody wants a piece of the Arctic. But as warming temperatures make the region more accessible – and crucially, more exploitable – it’s not yet clear who will prevail.

China has labelled itself a “near-Arctic state” and is investing in icebreakers and scientific research in an effort to wield influence over the “polar silk road”. Norway, Denmark and Canada have all claimed ownership over the North Pole based on the size and location of their respective continental shelves – data on which the UN uses to rule on questions of territorial sovereignty.

Russia put in its bid, too, sending a submarine in 2007 to plant a flag on the ocean floor more than two miles under the sea, directly below the North Pole. Russia already controls plenty of northern territory – about a third of its land is above the Arctic Circle – but these days, even that’s not enough. The USSR abandoned its right to claim the islands of Svalbard when the Bolsheviks signed the Svalbard Treaty in 1924 (the Soviet state was clamouring for diplomatic recognition, and hoped to get it by recognising Norway’s sovereignty). But subsequent administrations in the Kremlin have backtracked, at least rhetorically: in 2015 Dmitry Rogozin, then Russia’s deputy prime minister, went so far as to imply that Russia’s Arctic borders should be redrawn.

Not that proximity, or even a northern location, is all that important. Singapore, a decidedly non-Arctic state, has observer status on the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body that shapes regional policy. It now offers indigenous Arctic peoples postgraduate scholarships to attend university in the tropical city-state, thousands of kilometres from their homes. Singapore is trying to avoid being pushed out of the shipping business: as polar ice supplies dwindle, companies may send their cargo westward along the much shorter Northern Sea Route instead of taking the Suez Canal through to the Malacca Strait.

Then there’s the question of Greenland. On 16 August, the Wall Street Journal reported that Donald Trump was openly talking about buying the territory outright. Like Svalbard, Greenland has an odd arrangement with its sovereign: it is its own country and enjoys increasing degrees of political autonomy, but remains part of the kingdom of Denmark.

Trump is the third US president to suggest buying Greenland (Andrew Johnson considered it in the 1860s, and Harry Truman tried to purchase it in 1946) but he is almost definitely the first to be lauded for not trying to invade it by force. He seems amused with the prospect: after news of his plans came out, he tweeted a meme of a giant gold Trump tower looming over a quaint Arctic village with a pledge: “I promise not to do this to Greenland!” The Danes did not see the humour in the situation, causing Trump to take offence in turn and postpone a state visit to the country.

With the Greenland affair turning into a battle over dignity and egos, it’s difficult as ever to parse the motivations of the raving 73-year-old president. Understanding the would-be acquisition in the same way other countries see their Arctic ambitions – as a strategic hedge against looming climate catastrophe – would mean first acknowledging that catastrophe, which Trump has been reluctant to do. Did he think Greenland was… green? And therefore had potential for a golf course? Did flying over the icy expanse on the way back from Europe on Air Force One inspire in him Shackletonian fantasies of frontierism, adventure and domination? Or was it as simple as wanting access to Greenland’s rich mineral resources?

Without ruling out any of these options, it might make more sense to turn to Trump’s foundational and only consistent belief: that everything – whether a building, a business, or a porn star’s silence – can be secured for a price. Because if everything’s for sale, why would another country’s sovereignty over a piece of land be an exception – particularly in the rapidly changing and territorially ambiguous Arctic?

Trump is correct to think national sovereignty can be bought: it is purchased, sold, rented and negotiated around the world every single day. That’s the mechanism by which Australia detains refugees in Nauru, by leasing the island as an offshore depot for immigrants. It’s how Luxembourg has for years been a hub for tech companies looking to avoid specific European taxes. States from Malta to Mauritius make bald concessions to the private sector on a regular basis, passing corporate-friendly laws, indulging lobbyists on regulatory matters and selling passports and visas to the wealthiest individuals.

In their forthcoming book The Triumph of Injustice, the economists Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez examine how the “Big Four” global accounting firms – KPMG, Ernst & Young, Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers – have taken advantage of small states’ propensity to “sell a key ingredient, a vital input, without which the scams peddled by the Big Four would be of little use: their own sovereignty”. Even Boris Johnson’s intention to create free ports to continue trading with the EU post-Brexit is a version of this ideology: “taking back control” – by carving out exceptions.

Like them or not, Trump’s insights into the profane underpinnings of our global economy are, even if inadvertently, rather profound. His mistake is to assume he doesn’t have competition.

This article appears in the 30 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler