The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Three Levels of Arctic Geopolitics

In K. Spohr, Davis S. Hamilton and Jason Moyer (eds), The Arctic and World Order. Brookings Institution Press, 2020, pp. 357-378.

The notions of a conflictual Arctic and great-power politics continue to make the headlines. Still, ideas of the Arctic as an arena for political competition and rivalry are often juxtaposed with the view of the Arctic as a region of harmony and shared interests. There seems to be a confusing multitude of actors and layers of engagement in Arctic (geo)politics. This chapter asks: What are the geopolitical characteristics of the Arctic region? Why are statements by Arctic states about the region sometimes contradictory? And how might the regional relations evolve in the near future? This chapter unpacks the notion of Arctic “geopolitics” by teasing out the different, at times contradictory, dynamics at play in the North along three “levels” of inter-state relations: the international system, the regional (Arctic) level, and bilateral relations. Labelling these three levels as “good”, “bad”, and “ugly” showcase how the idea of conflict in the Arctic persists, and why this does not necessarily counter the reality of regional cooperation and stability.