July 13, 2010

Natural Security Book Review: The Future History of the Arctic

9781586486365.gifA few months back, my colleague Shannon popped into my office with a review copy of a new book that someone had sent to CNAS. The word “Arctic” popped out in the title, causing me to sigh, “Not more about the Arctic.” Don’t get me wrong. It is a subject very important to our work. It’s just that most work on the Arctic is so boring; nothing new that we haven’t heard a million times already. We here tread somewhat lightly on the subject ourselves just to avoid parroting all that has long been repeated.

I eventually picked up this book as I was cleaning my messy desk, where it had rested for a few months, and decided to give it a shot. The Future History of the Arctic. Great title. Author: Charles Emmerson, an alum of the World Economic Forum and International Crisis Group. In other words, a credible decipherer and distiller of information.

As I read, I was quite happily surprised – more than happily, actually. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It reads like travel writing: the perfect balance of history, first-person anecdotes from interesting places, current events, and the context of where trends are pointing for the future. The text provides important information, but it is also highly entertaining. Though it would be a good read for anyone, its detail would prove especially useful for anyone in the national security field. I had marked about 10 percent of the pages in this book by the time I’d finished it, a high percentage for me.

Through a few paragraphs (on my copy’s page 165), the author provides a sound and succinct explanation for why I and many security types are turning more and more attention northward. “Further development of Arctic shipping is a double-edged sword,” Emmerson writes, because of the corresponding pollution, oil spills, and needs for investments in surveillance and governance mechanisms. “The prize, however, is a realignment of the world’s commercial geography, boosting the Arctic’s economic and geostrategic importance and confronting the cultural myth of the Arctic’s marginality head on.”

Emmerson clearly outlines the stakes that all Arctic countries see in this changing region – in other words, what motivations will be behind their moves. The book divides into sections called Visions, Power, Nature, Riches, and Freedom, yet the best quality of the writing is that it fully integrates environmental, economic, political, and security trends consistently throughout. The text within each part remains nicely focused on specific countries and cities, which lends a digestible feel to the massive amounts of information the author is feeding you.

Indeed, the vast number of facts and statistics worked into this book are surprising – not in their quantities, but by the fact that Emmerson sneaks them in with appropriate prose, so that they never get dense or boring. I won’t spoil them all, but Emmerson has a particular knack for tantalizing endings of chapters that neatly summarize yet provoke the reader to keep on reading. Here’s one from the fourth chapter: “Whatever laws are applied in the Arctic – in terms of claiming sovereignty or in terms of managing international shipping – any increase in activity will require additional surveillance and government presence. Who is going to provide it?” This rings so true here in Washington. The Navy, Coast Guard and many others have been pushing for UNCLOS ratification, improved icebreaking capabilities and other mechanisms for protecting U.S. interests in the Arctic for some time now with no major progress on the board.

Overall, this is the most informative source I’ve read to date on the Arctic, and in particular on what’s happening and likely to happen in Russia. I declare it a must-read for this blog’s readership.

And with this, I launch Arctic week for the blog, a cold contrast to last week’s time thinking about sunny Cancun. Tomorrow’s post will be a 5-Questions interview with the author himself, Charles Emmerson.

Photo: Courtesy of Public Affairs Books.