‘Christmas Treeplomacy’ and what the Arctic can teach us about goodwill geopolitics

From Norway with love. Hayoung Jeon

Across the UK, Norwegian Christmas trees are now decorating public squares for the season – the most famous of which stands tall on Trafalgar Square. The spruces have made the same journey across the North Sea as Norway’s King Haakon did as he fled the Nazi invasion in 1940. The annual presenting of Christmas trees are therefore a token of gratitude and a symbol of geopolitical ties – a diplomatic gesture that’s been repeated for nearly seven decades.

What once were simply (very big) trees are now an example of how so-called “high-level” geopolitics is also part of everyday life – even when we don’t quite notice it. And they’re far from the only seasonal reminders of how we’re all connected across borders. As we look north for a glimpse of a certain globetrotting man in a reindeer-sleigh, the Arctic once more enters our imaginations.

When most people think of Santa, the first thing that comes to mind might not be unresolved claims to continental shelves and Cold War histories; and snowflake-tinsel and polar bear-baubles don’t necessarily evoke worries a disappearing ice cap. But no matter how often we are reminded that there is no scramble for the North Pole, no matter how many books we buy on the Scandinavian concept of “hygge”, the idea of the threatening, frozen north can still send a shiver through our imaginations.

When I interviewed official representatives from Arctic states about their sense of an “Arctic identity”, many referred to their own personal fascination with the region. Many capital-based officials haven’t ever visited it – and never will – apart from through books, films, and imaginations. As one official mused, his own interest and now career in Arctic policy could be traced back to his childhood days, poring over books about Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition and Roald Amundsen’s journey through the Northwest Passage.

Jingle-bell politics

Also Santa himself at times becomes tangled up in issues that seem far removed from the everyday tasks of reading wish-lists and monitoring children’s behaviours.

While Russia planted a flag on the North Pole seabed in 2007, the Canadian government a few years later assured the generous old man that he and Mrs Claus were eligible for Canadian citizenship. Both were issued Canadian e-passports, though the status of the elves and the toy factory’s tax obligations remain unclear.

Taking sides? Worker

Although some sub-sea delimitations and agreements have yet to be formally sorted out, the real question might be the Clauses’ citizenship: Canadian e-passports or not, Danes claim that Santa resides in Greenland, while Finns insist his primary residence is in Lapland. While it might not trigger any outright conflict, it’s a circumpolar taxation nightmare waiting to happen.

Considering Canadians’ sense of Arctic identity, one politician informed me with a smile that there would be a national outrage if Santa’s nationality were to be questioned: “And that – right there from childhood – we see ourselves as an Arctic country, absolutely. I always did”. Our conversation soon turned to ice hockey and winter pursuits: activities through which he, like most from the southernmost edge of the country, felt that he could relate to a North of which he had no firsthand experience.

Canada is party to one of the few actual territorial “disputes” in the Arctic: that of Hans Island, a small rock in the sea between Canada and Greenland. Given the location between two of Santa’s many temporary homes, it is perhaps unsurprising that this has become a place to demonstrate a spirit of generosity: as Danish and Canadian troops take turns at occupying the island, they always leave behind a bottle of liquor for their “antagonists”.

While the above examples are certainly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, they hint at something more meaningful.

Come together

Geopolitics is not just a remote, highbrow matter – it infiltrates everyday life, which in turn inevitably permeates geopolitics too. So-called geopolitical “elites” are not isolated from society, not (necessarily) humourless, and not unaffected by events that are seemingly unrelated to “pursuits of power”. But the political events of 2016 have made clear that there is a common perception of a growing gap between the people governing and the people governed.

The lighthearted international playfulness of the Arctic might be an example of how to start bridging that perceived gap – by thawing relations between the popular and the political. Overcoming the resentful, exclusionary and downright dangerous populism that has exploded this year will not happen by continually pointing to politicians’ “unsuitable” tempers or “unpresidential” behaviours. After all, the great skill of Trump, Farage, and others of their ilk is to appear “real”. They display emotions, throw moods, appear fallible and share all the other everyday flaws of humans – that is, everything that’s considered un-politician-like.

As Christmas lights come on and Rudolph cheerfully flies over grounded border controls, what is usually seen as frostily cool politics might seem to warm up a little – and thereby allow us to acknowledge and allow some humanity back into the debate. Only then can we move towards a constructive conversation for change. And that – real political dialogue and real political change – is certainly what is on top of my wish-list this year.

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