Nicol on Rowe, 'Arctic Governance: Power in Cross-Border Cooperation'

Elana Wilson Rowe
Heather Nicol

Elana Wilson Rowe. Arctic Governance: Power in Cross-Border Cooperation. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018. xi + 164 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5261-2173-8.

Reviewed by Heather Nicol (Trent University) Published on H-Diplo (November, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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Those who follow Arctic politics might wonder what more can be said about intergovernmental relations within the circumpolar region. Yet Elana Wilson Rowe’s Arctic Governance: Power in Cross-Border Cooperation provides readers—both generalists and specialists—with a refreshing new perspective on circumpolar cooperation. Although researchers have tackled the concept of Arctic governance from the perspective of its leadership, membership, and issue areas, there remain significant gaps in the existing literature with respect to how state and non-state agency are performed in relation to each other and within a structure of evolving policies and practices.[1] Moreover, rather than underscore the inherent Arctic exceptionalism embedded in much of the existing literature, Wilson Rowe turns instead to a broader international relations scholarship and an analytical approach that builds on Ole Jacob Sending’s discussion of “policy fields” in The Politics of Expertise: Competing for Authority in Global Governance (2015), adapted in turn from Pierre Bourdieu.

Bourdieu’s work emphasized relationality and the necessity of situating interests, practices, and meaning in terms of larger relationships. In adapting this relational framework for her own purposes, Wilson Rowe further refines “policy fields” to address Arctic cross-border governance. Although this link is somewhat attenuated (Wilson Rowe does not elaborate on the limitations of this theory of relationality within international relations scholarship more generally), there is real value in addressing Arctic governance from the perspective of the performative value where policy field “edges” meet. In structuring her approach in this way, Wilson Rowe challenges us to rethink more traditionally used and broader notions of “regime,” or ”webs,” as frameworks of analysis and to focus instead on the politics and relations of influence that undergird them. While not dismissing the importance of legal frameworks, geopolitics, and evolving concepts of security on Arctic governance, she shifts attention away from the “authority” of specific Arctic actors to the efficacy of their ongoing competition for recognition in a cross-border and transnational context. Indeed, for Wilson Rowe, the point is that the power and influence that shapes successful cross-border cooperation and diplomacy is performative and deeply contextual and relational.

Wilson Rowe explores what she claims are familiar themes—the dynamics of dominance and subordination inherent in both liberal institutional order and hard power manifestations of international geopolitics—but in different ways. Her work taps into a broad literature on geopolitical representation.[2] But rather than describe the “performance” of power, she explores how, when, and where such performances are influential. The result is a unique exploration of the performance of power among the Arctic states and a refreshing change to the speculative and dichotomous framing of Arctic policy choices inherent in more security-conscious work. The latter, for example, sees power and influence as inherently cooperative or conflictual, but for Wilson Rowe, the idea that the exercise of power is inherently conflictual is misplaced. Performance of power is instead part of the normal conduct of negotiation.

Indeed, from the outset, the author acknowledges that her aim is not to test dichotomous understandings of regional geopolitics and cooperation (the “either/or” dichotomies of exceptionalism [p. 1]), an approach that has indeed characterized much of the writing regarding Arctic governance for over a decade. Instead, her goal is to explore how relations and performance of power shape cross-border cooperation and diplomacy. These relationships reference norms and interests and create openings for agreement or disagreement. While not dismissing the potential for contestation, tension, and disagreement—or what she calls the relations of “deference” and “dominance” (p. 2)—Wilson Rowe directs our focus to the substantive ways that agreement and disagreement inform the strength of regional governance. The opening salvo of Arctic Governance is thus carefully designed to initiate readers into the longer lines of Arctic governance. In building her case, laid out in the five chapters and conclusion that comprise the body of this volume, Wilson Rowe identifies four key propositions that guide the translation of performance rooted in relational practices, meanings, and policies into fields of cross-border governance. These propositions assume that power relations are shaped by representations of Arctic policy objectives; that some actors will find themselves in occupation of a more advantageous position for securing their desired outcomes; that cross-border cooperation has social constraints and norms that allow for both greater and lesser success in the performance of Arctic diplomacy; and that power relations are malleable and constantly being refined, especially between different kinds of actors.

The scaffolding provided by these propositions thus sets the stage for the volume as a whole. In this sense, the concept of “framing” is an important sociospatial and analytical tool that Wilson Rowe draws on to speak to the packaging of “places and attending policy problems” (p. 39). Indeed, for Wilson Rowe, framing is the cornerstone for analysis of Arctic cooperation. She acknowledges, however, that framing policy issues has superseded analysis of the performance of framing, raising the questions: how are frames deployed to serve the specific interests of Arctic actors, and what practices mobilize them? This leaves us with larger questions about how “power” operates as a performative practice within and among Arctic states and actors. What is power if not demonstrable in all-pervasive ways?

One of the most innovative and important ways Wilson Rowe’s work contributes to the scholarship of Arctic governance is in her approach to the question of power. How and why do some actors find themselves in a more advantageous position for securing desired outcomes, and why do some not exercise more power? Acknowledging that international relations has traditionally focused on formal authority and its policing power, Wilson Rowe builds a case for understanding power as influence and influence as relational, contextualized, and contingent. It is not power per se but contextualized hierarchical power that matters, for example, the positioning of a state or organization within the broader spectrum of influence. Hierarchies vary across time and place, and power is deeply contingent and contextualized. There is nuance to leadership—based not just on the position and influence of the state but also on its interests and performative capacities. This means, Wilson Rowe asserts, that within the Arctic Council, great powers are kept “at rest” by the collective “club” status of regional cooperation and interests, while smaller powers like Norway can advance their interests through enlarging niche development interests to regional policy fields (p. 13). Overt demonstrations of power or dominance are, therefore, rare and generally unnecessary. In such ways, Arctic diplomacy survives larger non-regional tensions.

A central piece of Wilson Rowe’s analysis of power and influence is thus her chapter on Russia’s engagement with the Arctic Council. This discussion of Russia’s diplomatic ambitions in the North takes place in a historical context going back to the early days of the post-Cold War era when the Soviet Union had only just crumbled. During the 1990s, Russian policy proposals were rarely advanced within the Arctic Council and not broadly supported by other Arctic states. Nonetheless, Russia was able to promote its influence by supporting initiatives advanced by other Arctic states. After 2007, when Russia instead took pains to project itself as an Arctic leader, its preference for formal agreements grew into what Wilson Rowe calls a settled aspect of Arctic politics. Russia’s growing leadership role and its insistence on formal agreements thus built resilience. This resilience contributed to the weathering of diplomatic fallout from the 2014 annexation of the Crimea—much of this largely performative in nature. The lesson offered by Wilson Rowe is that the rise of Russia as a power within the Arctic is not reflected in a corresponding degree of “hard power” within the Arctic Council but rather a focus on formal agreements that reinforce its “highly socialized environment layered with field specific norms” (p. 103). As a result, this is a strong counterargument to the current notion that the power of Russia is rising unchecked in the circumpolar region.

Another important substantive issue that Wilson Rowe explores is the role of non-state actors within the framework of Arctic governance. Arguing that power relations are “malleable, constantly enacted, contested, and redefined,” Wilson Rowe explains how non-state and state actors interact within the Arctic Council (p. 14). Many more actors, including many non-state actors, are currently competing for authority to define what is to be governed, how and why. This process itself becomes important to securing authority.

Wilson Rowe suggests that discussions over who should be heard and how are both normative to the Arctic Council and central to the act of identifying the effective performance of authority therein. Nonetheless, power resides with states rather than with scientists and experts. The navigation of the science-policy interface is brokered by the working groups as well as by the shifting diplomatic and political representation of states. The former are less politically oriented in the planning stages than the latter. Whether because of insufficient or overwhelming evidence, diplomats receive and filter information in different ways. Wilson Rowe notes that political negotiations tend to revolve around how the science is communicated and to whom. This aligns state and scientific evidence to underscore national interest, and this weakens the the scientific community as influential actors.

Permanent participants, however, negotiate influence in different ways. They exercise a degree of influence simply because they represent the constituencies that science and policy is designed to protect. On the one hand, such actors have little power in the context of state agency. On the other hand, the diplomatic and political culture of the Arctic Council has created a place and role for exactly this type of agency and the moral authority it conveys. Nonetheless, the most successful performance of authority remains explicitly with states.

Overall, this is a comprehensive and worthwhile read. Although there is little substantively new in the way of factual information regarding the story of Arctic governance in Wilson Rowe’s work, the story is told with considerably more emphasis on the relationship among and between actors than previous work. Cooperation and conflict are seen as normative and both are manageable, and Arctic actors manage cooperation and conflict through performative channels. There are several small oversights nonetheless, one being the attenuated discussion of non-state actors (one chapter) and another being the lack of a more general and theoretical consideration of borderland scholarship on regional governance. The latter has informed international relations more broadly in areas of cross-border and transnational cooperation.  

In the final analysis, however, the volume’s exploration of the importance of hierarchical power is a real contribution to the study of Arctic governance. Similarly, her analysis of Russia’s engagement with the Arctic Council brings new insight and clarity to the discussion of Arctic cross-border governance. In this sense, Wilson Rowe succeeds in aligning the book’s approach with the broader analysis of cooperation in Arctic governance, yet her study marks out a distinctive path. As a result, this is an important and valuable addition to our understanding of Arctic governance—both conceptually and substantively.


[1]. See, for example, P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Heather Nicol, and Wilfrid Greaves, One Arctic: The Arctic Council and Circumpolar Governance (Ottawa: Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, 2017); Douglas C. Nord, Leadership for the North: The Influence and Impact of Arctic Council Chairs (Cham: Springer, 2019); and Douglas C. Nord. The Arctic Council: Governance within the Far North (London: Routledge, 2016).

[2]. Some of the key literature in this regard is mentioned by Wilson Rowe, including Klaus Dodds, “Flag Planting and Finger Pointing: The Law of the Sea, the Arctic and the Political Geographies of the Outer Continental Shelf,” Political Geography 29, no. 2 (2010): 63-67; Klaus Dodds and Mark Nuttall, The Scramble for the Poles: The Geopolitics of the Arctic and Antarctic (London: Polity, 2015); and Phil Steinberg, Jeremy Tasch, and Hannes Gerhardt, Contesting the Arctic: Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North (London: Tauris, 2015).

Citation: Heather Nicol. Review of Rowe, Elana Wilson, Arctic Governance: Power in Cross-Border Cooperation. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL:

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