March 7, 2019

Putting Arctic Geopolitics to Work

Posted by AGU Career Center

When I started my academic career over 25 years ago, I would never have imagined that one day I might be working for the UK Parliament or commissioned by a UK government department such as the Ministry of Defence to conduct a specialist piece of research work. Like most of my contemporaries, I was eager to learn more about the various aspects of my new job, at the University of Edinburgh, and avoid making too many embarrassing mistakes. What made everything so much more daunting was that there was no formal training for the role of assistant professor/lecturer. You were expected to learn ‘on the job’.


My academic interests are geopolitics and the governance of the Polar Regions. I focus on how, why, and where states and other actors such as international organizations, non-governmental organizations and corporations do and hope to do in parts of the world where elemental extremes (such as cold, darkness, ice and snow, remoteness) make things harder to act. My work has taken me all over the world, especially the Arctic and Antarctic, in pursuit of these interests. It has been immensely varied ranging from reading archival materials about science diplomacy in the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) to observing NATO military exercises on board a British helicopter carrier somewhere in the Norwegian Sea. I have had the pleasure of listening to and working with scientists in Svalbard, environmentalists in Antarctica, indigenous peoples in northern Canada and Greenland, and business professionals operating in major cities such as Washington DC, London, and Ottawa.


We write, as academics, primarily for our peers. We publish articles, book chapters and books in either peer-reviewed, international journals, and/or with university and commercial publishers. Or at least that is the ideal. However, over the years, in the UK context there has been even greater emphasis on communicating beyond the academy and working with external stakeholders and communities. A great deal of this is now being formally recognised and even rewarded in what are called Research Excellence Frameworks (REF) in the UK. Universities and academics are being incentivised to be ever more entrepreneurial in the way in which they produce and circulate expertise and knowledge. As part of that shift in the higher education landscape, I along with others found new avenues for the promotion of my research into polar geopolitics.


In July 2014, I was invited to present my work on Arctic geopolitics to a specially organised seminar on the Arctic. It was, as I later learned, an opening event for a new select committee appointed by the House of Lords, the upper house of the UK Parliament. The select committee was specially created to study the contemporary condition of the Arctic and to assess the UK’s future policy options. On the basis of my presentation, I was invited to become the committee’s specialist advisor. For the next 10 months, I helped the committee organise evidence sessions, plan a trip to the Arctic (Svalbard and northern Norway), draft and complete a formal report, which was published in March 2015.


Until appointed the committee’s specialist advisor, I had never thought about the role academics might play in advising our parliamentarians. And yet, once in the role, it was abundantly clear that I had a privileged opportunity to guide and advise the committee on who to call to give evidence and how to frame questions and themes that the committee might wish to concern itself with. It is a difficult role to perform; you provide expert insight and comment but you are also expected to be attentive at all times to the ‘wishes’ and ‘interests’ of committee members. In my case, I was liaising with 12 peers (House of Lords parliamentarians), a distinguished group of men and women from all political party backgrounds. Some of the members were very knowledgeable about the Arctic while others may not have had much prior knowledge but were formidably quick in mastering the topic.


The final report is the committee’s report but I was able as select advisor to highlight certain things for the committee membership; the Arctic is changing rapidly, the geopolitics of the Arctic is sensitive and prone to disruption from elsewhere (e.g. the Russian annexation of Crimea), the commercial potential of the Arctic is widely recognised by Arctic states and extra-territorial parties such as China, and indigenous peoples are not only securing autonomy and legal rights but also acting as global actors as well. The UK, as a near-Arctic state, had a contribution to make in the form of scientific excellence and as a hub of commercial/legal/technical expertise (e.g. City of London). But as a geographer one of the key messages I wanted to get across to the committee was that there is not just one Arctic – there are multiple Arctic(s) and they vary spatially and temporally.


Putting geopolitics to work, or what I thought of as a critical and responsible form of geopolitics, is not easy. It is demanding being a specialist advisor; no one can possibly master every possible dimension pertinent to Arctic-related discussions. I was indebted to a network of academic and professional colleagues who took the time and trouble to explain complex issues and themes to me, so that I could advise the committee accordingly. Importantly, the formal evidence sessions of the committee became wonderful opportunities for us all to show-case the diverse expertise that UK and international academic colleagues had to offer. I hope, and think, that the final report Responding to a Changing Arctic paid due respect to that incredible expertise.


Professor Klaus Dodds, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK