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THE FAST-CHANGING ARCTIC: RETHINKING ARCTIC SECURITY FOR A WARMER WORLD. Barry Scott Zellen (editor). 2013. Calgary: University of Calgary Press. xi + 395 p, softcover, illustrated. ISBN 978-1-55238-646-0, $34.95 CAD.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 March 2014

Nikolas Sellheim*
University of Lapland, Faculty of Law, PO Box 122, 96101 Rovaniemi, Finland (
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Book Review
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

The warming trends in the Arctic have been widely documented and seem to have found rather unison acceptance among climate scientists. Secondary effects of this trend are reflected in the political developments in the region, albeit with differences in interpretation as to which path political developments will tread: conflict or cooperation? It is thus a matter of ‘security’ in the region which must be related to climate change. And this is what The fast-changing Arctic – rethinking Arctic security for a warmer world tries to achieve.

The book is subdivided into four sections, ‘Arctic climate change: strategic challenges and opportunities’, ‘Cooperation and conflict: paths forward’, ‘Regional perspectives’, and ‘Concluding observations’. Judging from the subheadings, there is not much ‘rethinking’ to be found and that indeed is the case with several of the chapters which have primarily been written by researchers as well as a few by military personnel. For example, Hong's contribution on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) implications of energy in the Arctic has been significantly more substantially dealt with elsewhere (see for example Byers Reference Byers2013 or Molenaar et al. Reference Molenaar, Elfering and Rothwell2013). Also Lackenbauer's chapter resembles an earlier one in a more substantiated version in a different volume (Lackenbauer Reference Lackenbauer, Griffiths, Huebert and Lackenbauer2011).

But there are several contributions in this volume which justify the ‘rethinking’-element of the book. For example there is Huebert's identifying of the US as a ‘reluctant’ Arctic power, which in political and environmental contexts has largely ignored the Arctic in its political agendas and which only now starts to reply to the ongoing changes in the Arctic. In the same vein, it is especially the article by Lieutenant Michael Clausen and Daniel Clausen which links traditional, state-centred security with environmental changes. In this article, climate change is not considered a threat per se, but rather a threat multiplier that furthers already lingering instabilities. While this is certainly not a very new finding, it is contextualised in a US political context and the authors highlight that the environment/security linkage has only rather recently entered the US political sphere, namely only in 2008 when climate change and associated security elements appeared in the National Defence Strategy for the first time.

Manicom's contribution is also very intriguing although not entirely convincing. He shows that there is potential for conflict, even in spite of an existing legal regime such as the Law of the Sea, which all Arctic states adhere to. Manicom here makes a direct comparison between disputes in East Asia and the Arctic. In his East Asian example, China, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam had overlapping continental shelf claims over a resource-rich maritime area. Domestic political rhetoric significantly aggravated the situation which, however, could be resolved peacefully. Although there are certainly parallels, I am uncertain whether a direct comparison is possible, because it neglects the role the Arctic Council plays in resolving potential disputes while the historical relationship amongst Arctic countries vis-à-vis East Asian countries may result in different political developments. In fact, Manicom recognises the differences, but given that the Arctic is governed by nation states, these differences ‘are less compelling than they may appear’ (page 121). Notwithstanding, drawing a parallel between East Asia and Arctic developments is certainly something new and has, to my knowledge, only been done by Icelandic President Grímsson with regard to potential cooperation in the Himalayas (Grímsson Reference Grímsson, Alfredsson, Koivurova and Loukacheva2009: 5).

Providing a comparative analysis between different political/state actors has also been undertaken by Bertelsen, whose article for me provides the highlight of The fast-changing Arctic. Within the overall context of the book's nation-state focus, he makes exclusive reference to the role of microstates such as Iceland and self-governing entities such as Greenland and the Faroe Islands in Arctic affairs. He shows how these, I dare say, countries have managed to exert sovereignty over large and important areas even in spite of the non-existence of their own military. In Iceland's case, for example, policing used to occur through US forces until 2006 when the US military base in Keflavík was shut down. Since then, new policies have enabled civilian authorities to engage in policing and monitoring activities while also agreements with foreign, NATO, forces enable sovereignty exertion. Bertelsen takes the reader through very enlightening sovereignty implications of these three countries, in how far military cooperation has occurred and how Greenland and the Faroe Islands can benefit from the Icelandic experience. Although not elaborating on it, he mentions the West-Nordic Council and by focusing on Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland provides valuable insight into the sparse literature of the West-Nordic countries, and therefore the West-Nordic Council, as political actors in the Arctic.

Also Antrim's contribution is noteworthy. Here, she traces the renewal, the ‘reset’, of US-Russian relations and puts this in an Arctic context. While emphasising US national security issues, she also provides brief summaries of the US and the Russian Arctic strategies. While this has happened elsewhere (see Heininen Reference Heininen, Heininen, Exner-Pirot and Plouffe2012), Antrim makes mention of a joint Arctic strategy of the two countries. This is indeed a new consideration and demands for further investigation, given that US and Russian ‘shared interests provide the basis for increased collaboration and partnership’ (page 327).

I am fairly divided over the issue of whether the book has actually succeeded in ‘rethinking’ Arctic security because although most of the 16 contributions are within themselves very informative and give nice insights into a multitude of issues, what I found significantly lacking in the book's underlying notion of ‘security’ is the human dimension. Issues of culture, health or individual security are not addressed at all in the volume and therefore I personally cannot subscribe to the book's subtitle, which encompasses a ‘rethinking’ of Arctic security as a concept. Here, I may point to Hoogensen Gjørv's work on environmental and human security in the Arctic (Hoogensen Gjørv and others Reference Hoogensen Gjørv, Bazely, Goloviznina and Tanentzap2014). Instead, the book is based on a nation-state definition of security, while also, albeit relatively marginally, the environmental dimension of ‘security’ is touched upon. Moreover, and that is what the reader should be made aware of, the book is largely based on the role of the United States in Arctic affairs. This as such does not reflect in the title and only becomes clear upon close scrutiny of the chapters. This is not to say that I have not enjoyed reading the book. It is merely to show the focal points of Zellen's conceptual ‘rethinking’ of Arctic security.

Throughout the book I have however often wondered about the readership that this volume is aimed for. Given its sometimes rather unsubstantiated claims and the strong political focus, I would assume that it is rather policy-makers that is the target group here. This is also supported by the political recommendations that some, not all, of the chapters include or rather simplistic, imperative statements such as in Hong's contribution in which she states that ‘Arctic and non-Arctic states should respect international law’ (page 111).

It is thus to conclude that The fast-changing Arctic provides many new perspectives on a traditional understanding of Arctic security with a dominant state-centred, North American focus. It however leaves out human security and insufficiently deals with environmental security in order to satisfy an academic reader who wishes to gain insight into a ‘rethinking’ of the concept.


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