Adam P. MacDonald
The Arctic is one the world’s most stable regions, but whether this trajectory will continue is a source of growing debate as the region becomes more connected within an international landscape increasingly defined by great power competition, specifically between the United States, China and Russia. Many Realist-based analyses argue stability has largely been a function of the Arctic being a strategically unimportant space, but its opening economic and military potential will increasingly attract great power interest and result in contestation between them over shaping the regional landscape to their advantage: a process the region is poorly equipped to mitigate against. Conversely, many Institutionalist and Constructivist-based analyses argue a thickening institutional network of organizations, practices, and identities, based on and in conjunction with durable common interests, has and will continue to foster cooperation, involvement in and support for the current Arctic regional order by these great powers despite increasing tensions between them elsewhere. Both accounts have strengths and weaknesses, but in general this debate creates the impression that Arctic stability is predicated on whether great power competition is/will become a major influence in regional politics (unstable situation) or not (stable situation). Alternatively, this paper proposes that regional stability can remain even amongst augmenting levels of great power competition. This is so for the Arctic strategic landscape as it is premised on a Latent Balance of Power- defined by the region’s geographic division of authority, strategic alignments, and state coherence – that has ensured stability and the emergence of a decentralized but robust regional order. Great power competition is and will increasingly become part of Arctic politics, but this specific balance of power configuration is well positioned in attenuating it. This does not guarantee the maintenance of the status-quo, however, for beyond the popular portrayals of the region as either on the brink of debilitating contestation or maintaining its ‘exceptionalism’ is a third possibility:sub-regionalization into continentally anchored configurations of power based on exclusionary logics employed by great powers to deny each other position and influence in certain parts of the Arctic. Determination of the region’s continued coherence,however, is not solely the purview of great powers but the ways in which regional states work through and adjust to great power competition manifesting in the Arctic.