[Denmark’s submission] doesn’t exercise self-restraint … a lot of people are surprised they went for the whole enchilada. – Michael Byers
The media reactions to Denmark’s Arctic seabed filing with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf have been predictable: Politicians and pundits have decried the potential for Denmark’s outrageous sea-grab to start a new era of aggression in the region (while these pundits are promoting just such a scramble by framing the Danish filing in these terms!). Meanwhile, scholars and lawyers have been noting that a) the rights that would accrue to Denmark in its ‘portion’ of the Arctic seabed if these limits were agreed upon would be quite limited; b) the filling was a statement of scientific findings which Denmark is aware will likely be reduced (presumably through a peaceful process) as countries with overlapping claims resolve their differences; and c) since the North Pole has no existential significance in the delimitation process, once Denmark had concluded that the Lomonosov Ridge was a geological extension of Greenland there was no reason to stop at the North Pole or, indeed, anywhere before the limit of Russia’s EEZ.
Into the midst of this fray, Michael Byers’ likening of the Arctic to a Mexican dish seems a bit incongruous. But in fact it reflects a long history of making the Arctic safe and manageable by referring to it as a food product. I grew up eating baked Alaska and Eskimo pies. When I began studying the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, I learned about Arctic donut holes. And most recently, at the Arctic Circle, I listened to a presentation from the British delegation on how the Arctic was like a big biscuit tin (I’m still trying to figure that one out).
With these references, the Arctic is associated with something that’s familiar and consumable: an object that is ‘out there’ and different from ‘us’ but that can be claimed and internalised, and ultimately excreted as part of normal, everyday life. At the same time, the complexities and interdependencies of the region are reduced to an ethnic fetish…the same kind of reductionism that occurs when one ‘goes out for Chinese’ or, for that matter, ‘eats a Danish’ (something that, to my knowledge, isn’t on the agenda of even the most militant Greenlandic nationalist!).
The perceived relationship between food and the Arctic has a long history in its colonisation. A key element of Stefansson’s argument that the Arctic was a ‘friendly’ place was that the region was fundamentally fertile, a conclusion that he reached by tying his advocacy of Arctic colonisation with promotion of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. Today, numerous studies are being conducted on Arctic food security. Although the authors of these reports are well meaning, a steady ‘diet’ of stories about nutritional deficiencies in the North can then be used to justify further state intervention.
Metaphors matter, in international politics, as in other realms of social discourse. As a space that’s increasingly presented as suitable for ‘consumption’ by outsiders (or, perhaps, as space that states are preparing to ‘serve’ to waiting investors), it matters when the Arctic is presented as an ice box brimming with delicacies.
That’s food for thought.