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Cartopolitics and the Scramble for the Arctic

December 6, 2012

The Scramble for Africa was the late 19th century contest among European powers to claim, conquer and colonize what was thought to be the last “unclaimed” territory on the planet.  It was the last gasp of classical imperialism, and although the Scramble came to an end with the First World War, the colonies themselves were not fully relinquished until long after the end of the Second World War.

A century later, there is a new scramble underway for the perceived mineral wealth of the Arctic seabed.   The eight “Arctic powers” and several interested observers are struggling to extend their own sovereignty and at the same time constrain that of others in the region.  Danish scholar Jesper Strandsbjerg applies the perspective of Critical Geopolitical theory to this new Scramble and argues that, in addition to being a contest for economic and geopolitical advantage, it is a process of defining or even re-defining space itself.  Strandsbjerg uses the term “cartopolitics” to describe this process – cartopolitics is the interplay between cartography and international legal agreements is used to define space and, therefore, borders.  Strandsbjerg’s latest  work appears in the most recent issue of the journal Geopolitics (subscription required).   From the abstract:

Critical Border Studies emphasise how distinct political spaces are produced by borders. In this article I suggest that the order of this relationship should be reversed. I argue that space precedes and conditions the manifestation of borders. The argument is based on an understanding of cartography as a practice that mediates the relationship between space and borders. Drawing on Bruno Latour, I introduce the notion of cartopolitics to describe the process where questions pertaining to sovereign control over space are decided through cartography and law. In analysing current border practices in the Arctic, the term cartopolitics captures how the relationship between the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and cartography is shaping the attempts by Arctic states to expand sovereign rights into the sea. The key is the continental shelf and how it is defined in law. In this process cartographic practices work to establish a particular spatial reality that subsequently serve as a basis for border making.

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