Britain is no longer an Arctic nation, but it has a unique Arctic role.

At the second annual Arctic Circle Conference in Reykjavik in autumn 2014, the UK made quite a splash. The Arctic Circle organisation was launched in 2013 to increase participation in Arctic dialogue and strengthen the international focus on the future of the Arctic, and to date its conferences have featured plenary sessions highlighting the contributions of seven countries, including France, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

But the British plenary on 31 October stood out. Following a Finnish session, the conference hall was dominated by a giant Union flag on the video screen. A glossy, 24-page, full-colour brochure with abstracts and biographies for the British delegation was handed out to all participants. Like the brochure, the presentations were consistently branded with the UK government’s ‘GREAT Britain’ campaign. To many observers, and even to some members of the British delegation,3 it appeared that Britain was staking a claim. The British presence was further emphasised by the ubiquitous Remembrance Day poppies worn by most of the 60-strong delegation; many conference-goers, unaware of their significance, saw the poppies as another form of UK branding.

This ‘claim’ had nothing to do with assertions of or disputes over sovereignty. Such issues involve the eight states with territory above the Arctic Circle (A8), which, along with various indigenous peoples’ organisations, make up the membership of the Arctic Council, and particularly the five states (A5) – Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the United States – with significant Arctic Ocean coastlines and sometimes overlapping maritime territorial claims. The geopolitics of the contemporary Arctic is governed by the relationships among the A8 and the A5, and between the two groupings.

But this constellation of Arctic states has only existed since 1944. A century and a half ago, in 1865, there was an A4: Denmark, Russia, Sweden and the UK. The United States only became an Arctic nation in 1867, with the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Norway and Sweden were separate kingdoms, but until 1905 were in a union under a single (Swedish) monarch, with foreign policy conducted by Stockholm. Finland was a Russian Grand Duchy until 1917, gained an Arctic coastline with the acquisition of Petsamo in 1920 and ceded it back to the USSR in 1944. And Iceland was a Danish colony until 1944.

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Jeffrey Mazo is Consulting Senior Fellow for Environmental Security and Science Policy at the IISS, and a Survival Contributing Editor. This essay is expanded from his short plenary talk at the Arctic Circle Conference, 31 October 2014, available at

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2015

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