Svalbard journey

Some twelve centuries ago, the Vikings inaugurated their infamous era of pillage and settlement along stretches of coastal and riverine Europe. They left a barbarous legacy from a barbarous age, on the fringes of a continent marginal to the great civilizations to the south and east. The Viking continues to capture imagination, demonstrating remarkable staying power relative to the length and import of his moment: the sleek and deadly longboat alights on unsuspecting shores, sacking supposedly sacrosanct monasteries and unsuspecting villages. The specter of the northern barbarians depicted by their pious southern victims is chilling, yet tinged with the romantic, and our popular culture has inherited this memory. For most of us, mention of “Norway” likely still first evokes images of Vikings.

From August 15-27, 2013, seven Fletcher School students and alumni, under the leadership of Professor John Curtis Perry, had the unique opportunity to travel to Oslo and Svalbard, Norway, for a research trip to actively learn about the challenges and opportunities emerging in the Arctic. Clearly no one expected to encounter latter-day Vikings; but the reference is intriguing, as it is difficult to imagine a more diametrically opposed reality a millennium after the end of that age. Young, impoverished, violent men once embarked from these coasts, sailing southward to plunder and resettle in more prosperous lands. Norway now prospers on its own natural richness, its citizens largely supported by the welfare state, its role as international mediator and developer lauded, while its southern neighbors struggle economically. The world now turns to it. Though of course entwined with southern economies, it looks northward, and famed Arctic scientist-explorer-advocate, diplomat, and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen appears a far better embodiment of national character. As a nation with a great stake in the peaceful and sustainable development of the Arctic, Norway provided an ideal host as we explored the broad spectrum of opportunity, challenge, and uncertainty that this region presents.

In partnership with the Norwegian Atlantic Committee, and funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, this Fletcher delegation first traveled to Oslo, where we received briefings on Norway’s strategic interests in the High North by government officials at the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, Ministry of the Environment, and Ministry of Fisheries. We had the distinct pleasure of meeting the U.S. Ambassador to Norway, Ambassador Barry White, and were briefed by the U.S. Embassy’s lead Arctic expert on America’s priorities as an Arctic nation. Additionally, we met with the World Wildlife Fund and the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS), the foremost security and defense think tank in Norway, where we explored a non-governmental perspective on challenges and realities facing this new frontier. On Friday, we organized a Fletcher Alumni Happy Hour and had the chance to enjoy the company of several recent graduates of The Fletcher School and learn about their professional lives in Oslo.

After a day spent touring Oslo, in particular the Viking Museum, the Fletcher student delegation flew to Longyearbyen on Svalbard, located at 78° North in the Arctic Circle. Through the generosity of the University Centre in Svalbard, the Fletcher delegation joined a group of 24 Arctic scientists and PhD students from such countries as Norway, Russia, Poland, Germany, China, and India to participate in a weeklong summer school conference. We listened to lectures by prominent Norwegian experts on Arctic shipping technology, natural resource extraction, climate change and sea ice conditions, search and rescue, indigenous peoples, and geopolitics. Each Fletcher student offered a presentation on a research project, which comprised Arctic security, maritime boundary dispute settlements, historical narratives of Arctic identities, satellite technology usage in polar regions, and global governance frameworks. Our delegation played a leading role in integrating diverse expertise and perspectives toward the authoring of a report on Shipping in Arctic Water.

During our stay on Svalbard, we marveled at the Arctic environment. We hiked around Longyearbyen beneath the midnight sun and set out on an expedition to see the Nordenskiold glacier and explore Pyramiden, a deserted Russian coal mine settlement abandoned overnight in 1998—a veritable time capsule of Soviet aspiration in the Arctic. During our time on Svalbard, we meet up with three Norwegian Fletcher alumni training as diplomats in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Together we represented five generations of Fletcher students—F’10, F’11, F’12, F’13, and F’14—an unexpected testament to the expanse of the Fletcher network!

Returning to Fletcher and our respective careers with a profoundly enriched understanding of the opportunities and challenges in the Arctic, we intend to integrate this knowledge into our academic and professional pursuits. As climate change radically transforms this long remote region, the United States must become aware of the benefits and responsibilities of its status as an Arctic nation. One cannot truly comprehend the depth of complexity and beauty embodied in this region until experiencing it first-hand. This small group of Fletcher students, privy to such an experience, acknowledges that this hands-on learning instilled in us a love of the Arctic and an appreciation for the power of collaboration among all relevant actors to develop and engage in the Arctic in a sustainable manner. Through ongoing research and exploration, the Institute for Global Maritime Studies will continue to contribute to our crucial discussion of the Arctic.

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