Remapping the American Arctic

July 27, 2020
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Maps play an important role in shaping national policy, and in shaping society’s consciousness and support. But they can also reinforce ideas of relative unimportance by leaving key areas off, or having areas appear as mere incidental inclusions, which can subconsciously constrain developments in foreign policy. Indeed, it is perhaps no surprise that many Americans still fail to recognize the United States as an Arctic nation when the majority of U.S. maps place Alaska in a small inset box, relegating it to a secondary geographic status despite Alaska’s critical role in U.S. national security, from missile defense to the interception of Russian strategic bombers.

Alaska’s Second-Class Map Status 

Thanks to Alaska, the United States is one of eight nations in the world with territory within the Arctic Circle. But in its latest poll of American attitudes toward the Arctic, the Arctic Studio noted that nearly half of respondents expressed strong disagreement with the statement “The United States is an Arctic nation.”

The failure to appreciate America’s fourth coast may help explain Washington’s late awakening to the changing strategic dynamics in the Arctic. The U.S. government has issued several Arctic policy papers, as have various departments and military branches, but there has been little coordinated action. Only in recent years has the United States approved the construction or acquisition of new icebreakers (the United States currently has only two such ships in its fleet, one rarely in operation and the other often deployed to the Antarctic), or prioritized establishing an Arctic deepwater port for Coast Guard and Naval operations. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) also calls for the creation of a Department of Defense center for Arctic security studies. 

But despite some progress, it is clear that Americans still struggle with the concept of an American Arctic, or of the significance of the Arctic for U.S. national security. In the same aforementioned poll conducted by the Arctic Studio, a higher percentage of Americans agreed the United States has “broad and fundamental interests” in the Middle East than in the Arctic. This may, in part, reflect flagging geographic education in the United States, as well as a dogged persistence of a horizontal Mercator map mindset. 

The Weakness of Maps: Inaccurate Perceptions 

Maps have long been tools of statecraft and national cohesion. They depict the connection between people and place, assert sovereignty, and portray messages of progress, opportunity and risk. The recognition of a "sea to shining sea" America drove U.S. involvement in Central America, highlighting the significance of the isthmus of Panama. World War II, with its far-flung battles on coral atolls in the Pacific, drove an increase in U.S. geographic literacy, and maps were frequently utilized to explain and gain support for U.S. sacrifices far from American shores.

But maps are also flawed. By their very nature, flat maps are an inaccurate representation of the round earth. Cartographers work to ease these inaccuracies, but each adjustment to fit one metric (comparative size or distance, for example) creates a distortion in another. Political intent adds another layer to mapmaking. If maps represent narratives, those narratives are shaped by political and social context. Even the choice of colors, scale or features reflects tradeoffs that highlight certain priorities and downplay others. 

So long as the American Arctic is considered something distant and separate from the United States, it risks being subconsciously sidelined in the national narrative, as well as U.S. foreign policy.

The fallibility of maps, however, does not negate their usefulness. Many of the core choices made in mapmaking are shaped by the intended purpose — are they for maritime or aviation navigation, are they to highlight comparable size and area of global geography, or are they for understanding political divisions? The smaller the area a map covers, the more fidelity to relative size and distance that can be preserved. With world maps, it is always a trade-off. The Mercator projection distorts the size of the northern latitudes, and its ever-present image has shaped perceptions of relative scale and location. The penchant for horizontal maps further limits ways of thinking about a round earth. 

The Strength of Maps: Framing the National Narrative

I have several maps in my collection that highlight clear political choices to shape national perceptions. Two maps of the Korean peninsula, one made in South Korea, the other in North Korea, both show the underlying provincial structure of a unified single Korea. The South Korean map, however, is fairly clear in showing where South Korean sovereignty ends and North Korean sovereignty begins. The North Korean map chooses not to show the divisions of split provinces that cross the demilitarized zone. But more interesting is the way the two maps showcase both countries' claims to Dokdo, a disputed islet with Japan. Dokdo is so small, it essentially disappears unless you are looking for it. But on the South Korean-made map, the frame is extended far enough east to ensure Dokdo is inside the boundary of the map. The North Korean-made map, by contrast, has a thick border, and it cuts out a chunk of that border to ensure Dokdo fits on the map. Rather than being a small speck far off from the mainland area, this breaking of the frame draws attention to Dokdo, and thus to the sovereignty claim. 

China has also been rather intentional in its efforts to use maps to change both the national narrative and international perceptions. In 2014, China debuted a new vertical map of China for national use. China’s traditional horizontal map always had a cut-out box in the lower corner showcasing its maritime claims in the South China Sea, similar to the boxes on U.S. maps for Alaska and Hawaii (and at times Puerto Rico). China’s vertical map resolved that issue by ensuring that the South China Sea region was contiguous. 

By tilting China and extending the map further south, there is no longer a break between continental China and its maritime claims. While I do not have empirical survey data for China, it is not unlikely that this shift in mapping aided domestic acceptance and even support for China’s assertion of its territorial claims and its strong resistance to U.S. maritime action in the Western Pacific. The map reinforced the idea that China was not merely a continental power, but also a maritime power. 

A New View of the American Arctic

Map changes do not immediately lead to perspective changes. But they can contribute to a national narrative and reinforce the significance of certain geographies to both the general public, as well as decision-makers. In Alaska, there are two common maps clearly designed to reclaim the sense of Alaska’s place in the American sphere. One shows the state of Alaska and its island chains stretched across the continental United States, reaching from California to Florida. The other shows Alaska as the main map, with two small inset boxes for Hawaii and the entire lower 48. Each tries to draw the viewer to geographic or political realities. The former regarding the sheer scale of Alaska, the latter the frequent ignoring of the state in the national psyche.

With the changing dynamics in the Arctic, it may be time to consider a new map of the United States, one that highlights all four coasts in a single image, and thus reveals their relationship to national security and identity. In building from the Chinese example, a vertical map could include the Far North, potentially excluding only Hawaii due to its distance. One particular projection is used several times in D.W. Meinig’s series, The Shaping of America; A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. This map doesn’t show the United States in the context of the rest of the world, and it gives a bit of a jarring twist to common perceptions as it moves into the northern latitudes. Nonetheless, the map highlights very clearly a United States with four coasts, and the connections between the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean with the Atlantic, and between the Arctic and the Pacific. For both the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean and the Arctic, it also showcases their unique vulnerabilities and their potential contribution to U.S. national security. Similar maps, as the one displayed above, can help Americans reenvision the continental and four-coastal nature of the United States. 

While a map by itself does not change the way a nation sees itself, or the way it prioritizes its interests and resources, it can serve to reorient perceptions and open new ways of thinking about place. The United States is an Arctic nation. It maintains a strong interest in a secure and stable Arctic, for its Alaska citizens, for economic reasons, and for core national security. So long as the American Arctic is considered something distant and separate from the United States, it risks being sidelined in the national narrative, and thus sidelined in national priorities and attention. The United States is already playing catch-up in the Arctic amid climate changes, Russian development and Chinese involvement. Remapping the Arctic to place it clearly as a fourth American coast may help shift the dialogue, and reinvigorate America’s recognition of its northern frontier. 


Rodger Baker leads Stratfor's strategic thinking on global issues and future trends. As the firm's senior analyst, Mr. Baker guides the company's analytical process, to include the development of international analyst teams to refine their understanding and application of Stratfor's proprietary methodology grounded in the study of applied geopolitics and intelligence analysis. 


This article appeared originally at Stratfor Worldview.



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