Arctic politics heat up; The vaccine is here!

🥂Time to celebrate... depending on where you are.

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Q: How do you know it’s been a tough year?

A: Your Spotify 2020 Wrapped includes song titles like (100% true): "Be Afraid", "I’m Good?", "It's Gonna Be Okay, Baby", and "I Wish I Was Sober".

We’d explain but...

This week, we've got some stories to remind you that the future is complex but not all bad:

🧊 The Arctic region is warming at twice the rate of other parts of the world, but could global cooperation save this fragile region?

💉 The UK has certified a Covid-19 vaccine in an astonishingly short time. The ‘geopolitics of logistics’ sounds about as sexy as a brick, but they are the… building blocks… of our future. (ed note: John’s pretty proud of that one😂).

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1. 🧊Climate change x politics: it’s all heating up in the melting Arctic

By Helen

We apologise. Dampening news is probably not what you want to read to round out 2020, but the Arctic politics deserve some attention. But it might not be all bad.

If Santa’s actually in the North Pole, he’s in trouble 🎅🏽

The Arctic region functions like our planet’s air conditioning system. But thanks to rising global temperatures, the Arctic has lost 75% of its summer sea ice since 1970 and is now warming twice as fast as other parts of the world.

And it’s cyclical: as the Arctic ice cover shrinks, newly exposed dark water absorbs heat, which then melts more ice. At this rate, Arctic summers could be ice-free by 2040 - which we’re now closer to than when my anthem ‘Backstreet’s Back’ debuted (it’s still in my Most Played).

Why a thawing Arctic is like, really bad

A melting Arctic is devastating for the region’s people, particularly the indigenous Inuit communities who are also impacted by rising sea-levels.

It’s disastrous for wildlife, which depend on ice cover for survival and are already squeezed by drilling activities. The permafrost (frozen ground) is also melting. This releases greenhouse gases like methane, which accelerates the warming and leads to erratic weather globally.

Oh, and there are also frozen zombie viruses thawing. Cool, cool, cool. 🥴

A warmer Arctic means that more (and bigger) ships can now travel through the region much faster and throughout more months of the year. Before this, ships rarely travelled outside the summer months. This has opened new, shorter shipping routes and new opportunities to tap into the region’s abundant resources.

Accompanying all this is some good ol’ geopolitical rivalry.

Great power games in the Arctic

The good news is that all eight Arctic States (US, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark) have broadly cooperated for the last few decades to protect the Arctic. But with all these issues heating up, things might change.

  • Russia is the largest of the Arctic States. Its coastline makes up half the Arctic coastline, and nearly half of the four million Arctic residents are Russian. Russia’s been slowly growing its military presence in the Arctic by building new bases and ports. It’s expanding its economic influence by encouraging Russian energy companies to explore. Controlling the Arctic is good for Putin politically.

  • China is also eyeing the Arctic. In 2018, China declared itself a ‘near-Arctic’ state (despite being 3000km away 🤷🏻‍♀️) and pushed its ‘Polar Silk Road’ strategy along with more research missions to the region. China’s long game? To gain access to the Arctic natural resources and a shipping route that avoids the pirate-infested Malacca Strait 🏴‍☠️.

  • The US sees the Arctic as strategically and militarily important, though they’ve been distracted of late. They’ll refocus on the Arctic mainly to dampen an emerging China-Russia alliance. The US proposes expanding its military footprint by building more ports, increasing US ships in the region, and rallying other Arctic States to ‘strengthen the rules-based order’.

Zoom out

Like in other resource-rich and strategically important regions, there’s a tussle for control between the major powers in the Arctic. While there’s broad agreement that the Arctic’s unique and fragile environment should protect it from being exploited, the reality might not always reflect that belief.

As shipping routes become more accessible, economic activities will likely increase requiring more military protection. As history has repeatedly shown, that kind of development heightens the risk of military miscalculation and ultimately, conflict.

A shoutout to the Harvard Belfer Center’s Arctic Initiative for their great work on addressing the challenges of rapid climate change in the Arctic region, especially Halla Logadottir.


2. 💉Vaccine geopolitics: the powerful get powerful-er

By John

On Tuesday, a 90 year old woman in the UK became the first in the world to receive a Covid-19 vaccination. A remarkable feat of modern science, the vaccine has been developed, tested, approved, and manufactured in about nine months. Sir Winston Churchill predicted all this in 1942:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Now that I check my notes, Sir Winston might have been referring to the Second Battle of El Alamein - the turning point of WWII in Africa. But just like then, supply chain logistics will be vital in quickly defeating our current enemy with minimal loss of life.

For more background on Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing and supply-chain logistics, see these two excellent explainers.

The rise of vaccine nationalism

Because what 2020 needs is another form of nationalism 🙄. As we saw during the mad scramble for PPE, bigger nations are this time hoarding vaccines for their own populations first:

Enter COVAX, a fund comprised of state and private donors which negotiates deals with vaccine manufacturers for distribution to 92 developing countries. A laudable initiative, but the US, China and Russia have conspicuously put their national interest above global initiatives, because...

The geopolitical 1-2 punch 👊

... there are huge strategic benefits up for grabs:

💰 Economic power - the first countries to vaccinate their populations will get a 'first recoverer's advantage' in relative wealth and power. A fast recovery will attract the investment and human capital needed for further economic prosperity.

🚛 Distribution power - once their own populations are vaccinated, those countries that make the vaccine can determine how it is distributed abroad. So, not only will rich countries’ economies recover faster, they'll have a powerful tool of diplomatic leverage too.

How might that work you ask? Well, let’s take a look at China’s recent handiwork:

  • In Brazil → the Governor of São Paulo State - and likely future Presidential candidate - struck a deal with Sinovac to provide vaccines. So, current President Jair Bolsonaro sowed doubt about the 'China vaccine' to torpedo his political rival's chances. The result: a developing populace left unvaccinated and fortuitous political instability inside a strategic rival of China.

  • In Canada → CanSino, another Chinese vaccine manufacturer, agreed to test its vaccine in Canada over the summer. But the vaccine never cleared Chinese customs and the trials were abandoned. Why? No one knows, but Chinese-Canadian relations are at an all-time low thanks to 'hostage diplomacy'. Make of that what you will.

How countries can slip the punches

  1. Secure national capacity: invest in, develop, and grow a 'logistical national champion'. A national company that can be called on in emergencies becomes a national security priority. Not every country can develop high-tech medical facilities, but most governments can make sure that they have their domestic logistics infrastructure under their thumb. Think Amazon (US), Alibaba (China), Jio (India), etc.

  2. Create medical alliances: ally with countries that produce critical products (vaccines, PPE, etc.). Similar to 20th century defence alliances, the world is already beginning to split into 'medical blocs'. Leftist governments in Mexico, Belarus, Argentina, and Uzbekistan are relying on a Russian vaccine, while China has struck deals with many of the countries within its sphere of influence:

Zoom out: "never let a good crisis go to waste"

And when you need content for an article, google Winston Churchill quotes
- International Intrigue, 2020

Covid-19 is a truly global crisis that will force weaker governments to give concessions to stronger ones. Global supply chains for semi-conductors, nutritious food, and medical supplies are now matters of the highest national security, often (perhaps, ideally?) at the expense of rival countries.

The power games of the 21st century will be fought less over oil and more over secure access to high-tech industries. The world is already lining up behind the captains of those two industries: the US and China. And as many of us learned repeatedly during bouts of childhood dodgeball: choose the stronger team or suffer painful consequences.


➕ Extra Intrigue

Quick hits of foreign news to keep you extra intrigued and up to date:


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Only one prompt this week:

  1. Sum up your 2020 with one song!

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