In 1987 the Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated a thawing of the ‘Ice Curtain’ that had separated east and west across the Arctic Ocean since the end of the Second World War. Speaking in the city of Murmansk, Gorbachev asked whether the Arctic might not become a ‘pole of peace’ — an example of international community that the rest of the world could follow.
It’s 2050. And the future Arctic is still a pole of peace. The region is dramatically changed, yet the dystopian prophecies of the early 21st century have failed to materialise. Polar bears are rarely seen in the wild and the sight of sea ice in the summer months is now a distant memory. However, the ice — along with that unending darkness — always returns after the September solstice.
In addition to this environmental uncertainty, the domination of global trade by China and the US feeding the resource-hungry economies of Latin America and Africa means that the economics of Arctic shipping remains a niche market. Although Svalbard has become a major hub for the summer shipping season, investors have never found the confidence to risk their capital on the kinds of large- scale economic projects that would be needed to turn trans-Arctic routes into major shipping lanes. Manufacturing has been brought back to the New European Community, but all roads lead to the Global South (Africa, central and south America, and most of Asia).
Perhaps what eluded these harbingers of conflict is that the Arctic remains an unpredictable environment. After all, who would have predicted the astonishing successes achieved by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015 and 2020? Fortunately, in response to new international laws to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the global economy has rapidly divested from fossil fuel developments. The associated increased investment in a greener global economy has saved the world from another major depression. There has, of course, been collateral: Russia, so wedded to the plan of developing hydrocarbons in its Arctic territories to feed global demand, imploded in 2030 as the legitimacy of centralised authority collapsed, and the economy was fundamentally restructured.
Since then, even in the absence of demand for oil and gas resources, Muscovy and the Sakha Republic have both looked to the Arctic to bolster their young economies — and the Arctic has been a bonanza. Arctic fishing, tourism, data storage and renewable energy projects are worth billions of dollars to Norway, Iceland, and Greenland, as well as the still relatively new states of Muscovy and the Sakha Republic.
“United as a nation, the indigenous peoples have finally regained some measure of control over their own destiny.”
Cities such as Nuuk, Tromso, Reykjavik and Murmansk have become vibrant economic centres, while towns such as Sabetta and Tiksi have also grown dramatically. New technology has overcome the challenges posed by the thawing permafrost across the north of the Eurasian continent, allowing transport infrastructure to rise and fall with the landscape. Mining is out of the question in such unstable ground, but this has helped preserve the natural beauty of these regions — the very basis of the boom in tourism. Where land-based resources are developed, they are quickly evacuated southwards through the new transportation corridors, rather than via unpredictable sea routes.
Of course, militaries still operate in the Arctic. The US and China — an Arctic state since the balkanisation of Russia — remain suspicious partners in the global economic order, and the Arctic Ocean represents a potentially major front in the minds of strategic planners. Yet as joint US–China exercises in the Arctic Ocean have shown, this mutual suspicion has not prevented the formation of a collective security architecture for the region, underpinned by the close cooperation between the 13 Arctic states over search and rescue, fisheries management, and emergency response operations
In 2014, Greenland celebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence from the Kingdom of Denmark. However, the celebrations encompassed far more than Greenlandic identity, reminding us that Greenland has become a beacon not just for the Inuit, who were the first to emigrate from northern Canada to join in the birth of a nation, but for all of the different indigenous peoples of the Arctic.
No longer regarded as ‘indigenous’, these peoples have become Arctic citizens, thousands of whom have benefited from the social and economic security — as well as the health care — brought about by statehood. United as a nation, these peoples have finally regained some measure of control over their own destiny. Nevertheless, the ‘new’ Greenlanders still mourn their distinctive identities from the past, and there are some who still work to keep these traditions alive.
Even in the rest of the world, nostalgia for the old ‘Arctic’ remains strong.