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Contested Spaces: The Arctic

Module 1 of a two-module course

As the Arctic ice cap melts, interests are shifting, and the Arctic is quickly becoming a contested space. The melting ice (and improved technologies) have opened the Arctic as never before, creating a scramble for natural resources (especially oil and gas reserves), the opening of shipping routes and issues regarding the freedom of navigation, competing sovereignty claims, security concerns and evidence of the region’s militarization.

This module brings to bear competing interests in and perspectives on the Arctic, including different disciplinary, stakeholder, and theoretical perspectives. In the first rendition of this module (Spring 2015), it covered three class periods and included two central parts: visits from the other two members of Team Coe and a two-day simulation.

Note: Content adapted from curricular project.

I employed this module in World Politics, a writing-emphasis course designed to teach students relevant concepts and theoretical frameworks, so they can “analyze headlines yet to come” (Hastedt et al. 2015, xivii) in order to:

  • Expose them to key thinkers and sources.
  • Push students to think critically about important and enduring ideas and issues in world politics.
  • Understand and explain the alternative perspectives involved in policy debates.
  • Clarify their own perspectives.
  • Consider the connections among basic concepts, their own perspectives and values, and particular issues.

This module touches on numerous “Big Ideas”: the global commons, global and regional governance, globalization, global climate change, and contestation. Students should be familiar with these ideas before this module begins. The skill required to successfully complete the module is the ability to convey – clearly, concisely, and persuasively – a position on a given issue.

This module was used towards the end of the semester as part of a larger analysis of the global commons and global climate change.


Content/Concepts Goals

By the end of this module, students should be able to:

  1. Explain what makes the Arctic a “contested space,” especially the competing claims to and interests in this region, and an increasingly hot topic.
  2. Understand the impacts of global climate change, both beneficial and harmful.
  3. Better understand issues of global and regional governance, including the roles of international law and multinational forums.
  4. Articulate the political position of one of the state actors with interests and/or claims in the Arctic.

Higher Order Thinking Skills

The module encourages students to apply concepts and theoretical perspectives to a specific case.

Multidisciplinary Analysis

Various analytical frameworks used in international relations, most notably competing paradigms and the levels of analysis, demonstrate how the lens with which one views the world greatly affects one’s perceptions. Bringing other disciplinary perspectives into the picture, in this case rhetorical and scientific, provides additional analytical frameworks. (If I were to spend more time on this topic, I might add an economist’s perspective.)


Arctic Simulation – S’15

The melting Arctic ice raises the profile of overlapping sovereignty claims[1] and “poses economic, military and environmental challenges to governance of the region.”[2] The central question at the upcoming Arctic Council ministerial meeting is this: What type of governing system should be employed in the Arctic?[3] Should governance be through existing multinational frameworks or should a framework be created anew?[4] If the latter, which states and non-state actors should organize this governing system? Who should have a seat at the table? Should the governing system essentially mean “extending national jurisdictions into the region,” creating a regional agreement, or making a global treaty?[5] Should the governing system establish and follow “hard” or “soft” international law?[6]

Dissemination Strategies

I chose to students provide “confidential” position papers for the country they were representing, rather than having them do the research for themselves; however, other instructors might want to have students write up their own position papers. I choose this route for four reasons: first, having students research their position from the ground up would have made the simulation a more time-consuming, high-stakes part of the course; second, some of the positions are pretty tough to ferret out, and inaccurately stated positions would have further complicated the negotiations; third, students already do another research project in this course (for formal debates), so it did not seem as important to have them conduct all of the research themselves; and, finally, since I was new to this topic, developing position papers was a way of solidifying my own knowledge of where particular stakeholders stood.

As it turned out, since each student had to make a presentation to the class, many did additional research on their own. If I were to require students to do some additional research, I would ask them to contact the relevant stakeholder to get additional information and/or verbiage for the position they are representing.

As the attached briefing papers suggest (see Resources & Materials), five stakeholders were represented in the simulation: Canada, Norway, Russia, the United States, and China. The first four are four of “Artic Five”: five states with territory along the Arctic Ocean’s shorelines. I included China because (a) it is one the non-Arctic states granted observer status on the Arctic Council, (b) it makes evident the Arctic’s rising importance to Asian countries, and (c) it is a key emerging power. Depending on the class size, the next time I use this simulation I would add more stakeholders to the mix. Besides adding other key states – for example, Denmark, the fifth member of the “Arctic Five” – I might add an indigenous group (e.g., the Inuit Circumpolar Council) and/or environmental group (e.g., the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF)). Other state and non-state actors that might be added include the other members of the Arctic Council: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, and so on.

For any simulation to succeed, students need to play their parts as accurately and intelligently as they can. I find that small things help. For instance, I suggested that students dress the part. I also made placards for each delegation and decided that, to be recognized by the chair, they had to raise their country’s placard.

The next time I employ this module, I will either better prepare students with regard to the alternative means of governing regional international bodies or shift the focus to something other than the choice of governing system.

Resources & Materials

Artic Simulation – S’15 Instructions

Briefing for Artic Negotiations (Position Papers)

Activity Readings

[1] See Charles K. Ebinger and Evie Zambetakis, “The Geopolitics of Arctic Melt,” International Affairs 85:6 (2009) 1222.

[2] Charles K. Ebinger and Evie Zambetakis, “The Geopolitics of Arctic Melt,” International Affairs 85:6 (Nov., 2009) 1217.

[3] Glenn Hastedt, Donna L. Lybecker, and Vaughn P. Shannon, Cases in International Relations:  Pathways to Conflict and Cooperation (Washington, D.C.:  CQ Press, 2015) 262.

[4] Charles K. Ebinger and Evie Zambetakis, “The Geopolitics of Arctic Melt,” International Affairs 85:6 (2009) 1223.

[5] Hastedt et al., Cases in International Relations (2015) 263.

[6] Hastedt et al., Cases in International Relations (2015) 259.


Course Readings

Stephen J. Blank, “Enter Asia: The Arctic Heats Up,” World Affairs 176:6 (March/April 2014). – Ebsco

Scott Borgerson, “The Coming Arctic Boom,” Foreign Affairs 92:4 (July/Aug 2013) – Ebsco

Lawson Brigham, “The Changing Arctic:  New Realities and Players at the Top of the World,” Asia Policy (2014).

Lawson Brigham, “The Arctic,” Foreign Policy 181 (Sept /Oct 2010). – Ebsco

J. Carlson, et al., “Scramble for the Arctic,” SAIS Review of International Affairs 33:2 (Summer/Fall 2013)– Project Muse

John English, “Arctic Ambitions,” Canada’s History 92:6 (Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013). – Ebsco

Glenn Hastedt, Donna L. Lybecker, and Vaughn P. Shannon, “Governing the Global Commons of the Arctic,” Cases in International Relations:  Pathways to Conflict and Cooperation (Washington, D.C.:  CQ Press, 2015) ch.14.

V. Konyshev and A. Sergunin, “The Arctic at the Crossroads of Geopolitical Interests,” Russian Politics and Law 50:2 (March/Apr. 2012). – Ebsco

Ghulam Mujaddid, “Second Tragedy of Global Commons . . .,” Strategic Studies 32:4 (June 2013) – Ebsco

Ronald O’Rourke, “Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service (August 4, 2014).  – available on-line:  https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41153.pdf

Andrew Van Wagner, “Comment: It’s Getting Hot In Here, So Take Away All The Arctic’s Resources: A Look at a Melting Arctic and The Hot Competition for Its Resources,” Villanova Environmental Law Journal 21 (2010). – Ebsco

Oran Young, “Arctic Politics in an Era of Global Change,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 19:1 (Fall/Winter 2012).

Outcomes and Significance

As can be seen in the hand-out for students (see Arctic Simulation – S’15 in Resources & Materials), the simulation’s focus was on negotiating a governing structure for the Arctic. The governing structure is important because – with the different interests and perspectives as well as the looming threat of global climate change – decisions must be made. The governing structure will likely determine how those decisions are made.

As it turned out, the class negotiations coincided with an actual ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council. Since Canada chaired the meeting in Nunavut (in northern Canada), I asked our Canadian delegation to chair the meeting in Cedar Rapids, also. This worked surprisingly well. The Canadian delegation ran the meetings and tasked their classmates with presenting proposals during the second day of the simulation.

Since this spring’s course was the first run of this module, I made the simulation a low-stake part of the course. I assessed students primarily on the accuracy of the content they provided in their formal speeches, secondarily on their presentation style and the quality of their participation in the negotiations.

It would be a good idea to create a rubric for the simulation portion of this module.

Members of Team Coe provided two very different disciplinary perspectives on the Arctic. Presenting a view from the natural sciences, Maria Dean explained how changes in the Arctic associated with melting ice, including the loss of habitat and salinity, means changes around the globe. She discussed global climate change and the four-plus million people who live in the Arctic. Terri Donofrio explained the “rhetorical construction of the Arctic,” including the politics of ice and global warming and symbolic means of representing the Arctic. She presented two common rhetorical strategies: “Arctic and awe” and “Arctic and advocacy.”

The next time around, I will ask each of my colleagues to lead an entire class session, rather than splitting one day between them. Doing so would enable each of them to develop more fully the perspective of her discipline.

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