Saturday, March 26, 2016

Cultural and Sports Diplomacy in the North

image from

Janelle Trowbridge, Arctic Youth Ambassador, Nome, Alaska, United States March 24, 2016

Analysis by Mieke Coppes

Video: Janelle Trowbridge

The future of the North will be determined by the choices, aspirations, and priorities of its youth. The Youth Perspectives Series is a publishing platform for students to voice their opinions, share their experiences, and influence the debate about their homeland. The forum features articles, videos, illustrations, poems, and multimedia projects created by youth living in the Arctic on the issues that matter to them most. Hosted by The Arctic Institute (TAI), Youth Perspectives is produced in partnership with Students on Ice, Arctic Youth Ambassadors, and the Arctic Adaptation Exchange. The installment below is the second of many throughout 2016 that will be featured on the TAI’s forthcoming new website.

If you are a student living in the Arctic and are interested in publishing with us, or if your organization would like to partner with or sponsor Youth Perspectives, please contact our Managing Director

Located in Northwest Alaska, Nome is a small port community on Norton Sound of the Bering Sea. This is the community where 18-year-old Janelle Trowbridge got her start in dog-mushing. “I started mushing in April of my 8th grade year. We originally started with ten Greenlandic Huskies. They are stubborn, tough, slow and steady dogs. The next year we got a team of older racing dogs and got involved with local Nome races. Those dogs taught us more than we taught them. My dad, Rolland Trowbridge, caught the racing fever and I was right with him. We bought some dogs from Anchorage mushers and I ended up racing in two Jr. Iditarod’s, earning 6th and 5th place. I like mushing because it teaches so much. You have to learn how to be alpha of your dogs and maintain connections with them. You learn how to prepare and care for yourself and the dogs against the elements. After many hours of training, flipped sleds, tangled lines and guidance from other experienced mushers, I can now silently coast through the sunsets and under the stars with the company of my team”.

Analysis by Mieke Coppes

Dog sledding is often no longer seen as the most viable and accessible mode of transportation in the North. Yet, there is potential for this cultural mode of transportation to blossom into a method of building better relationships between Northern nations.

Public diplomacy, which is the diplomacy of influencing, informing, and understanding the public of another nation,  involves above all else the process of intercultural relations. It is key that we move away from the focus on state to state relations and instead emphasize the forming and building of bonds between people. This fairly new type of diplomacy, which was re-coined in 1958 but first used in 1856, shows a new, more modern way of relating to each other. No longer is formal, or traditional diplomacy, the only way in which international ties can be built – insteadt relations between the average everyday person becomes the focus of this type of diplomacy. Within the ranks of public diplomacy, there are many types that can further be investigated. Both sports diplomacy and cultural diplomacy are examples of this – Just think back to the last Olympics, World Cup, or international sporting event that was broadcast around the world. Not only do these events give the world an opportunity to see the best of a country – as the host country can truly display to the world their home – but more importantly it gives the audience a chance to connect with other audience members from around the world. Fans get to meet each other, have a beer together, discuss a shared passion, and maybe even learn the similarities between their nations. Furthermore, the organizers of these events often work in collaboration with other countries, in particular those who have already held the event and can offer advice on how to overcome the logistical challenges

In the north, dog sledding is transitioning from a form of transportation to a social form of international relations.  Dog sledding has long held an important role in the cultural and life of northerners. In the north, it was the key method of transportation, which led to hunting opportunities and the opportunity to travel.  In a land where horses could not survive and where motorized vehicles have limited purpose, dog sledding allows for a transportation otherwise impossible. Nunavut recognized the cultural significance of Canadian Inuit Dog as the official animal of the territory. This was a sign to show that world of the importance that sled dogs had in shaping and maintaining a lifestyle in the north.

Building on the history of sports diplomacy, dog mushing has the opportunity to become the sport in the north that forms bonds and builds relationships. The changing role of dog mushing is due to the transforming landscape and the efficiency of snowmobiling. Thus, although the days of dogsledding as a key form of transportation may be fading, it is poised to become a form of cultural and sports diplomacy in the North. This shows that while many people may think that international relations are only developed behind closed doors in national capitals or at the United Nations, public diplomacy, and specifically sports and cultural diplomacy, show that this is not the case.

The Importance of Sports Diplomacy
Diplomacy plays a critical role in the world of today.  But the way diplomacy is being done, as was already mentioned, has shifted due to the changing landscape of our international society. In the past, diplomacy was done between the nobility, behind closed doors, surrounded by pomp and circumstance. Today, with the increase of public transportation, with the 24-hour media cycle, and with the internet, the international connections that people have bypasses the elite entirely. The everyday, ordinary person can make connections abroad, and furthermore has the ability to influence policy makers.

The recent Arctic Games, held in Nuuk from March 6-11th is another great example of Northern sports diplomacy. This was an opportunity for athletes, journalists, and tourists, to experience not only the culture of Greenland, but of the North as a whole, to celebrate what it means to be a northerner and to show the world the unique traditions of northern peoples. The Arctic Games not only involved 1,500 athletes from numerous countries, but it also hosted more than 100 journalists, who bring stories, memories, and connections home with them when they leave.

Former United States Ambassador to Denmark, H.E. Jim Cain, emphasized the importance of sports diplomacy at the 2nd Hague Conference on Diplomacy in 2009: “Sports can be a powerful medium to reach out and build relationships . . . across cultural and ethnic divides, with a positive message of shared values: values such as mutual respect, tolerance, compassion, discipline, equality of opportunity and the rule of law. In many ways, sports can be a more effective foreign policy resource than the carrot or the stick.” The 2008 Olympics in Beijing can be seen as the country’s ‘coming out’ party, where the world’s perspective on China was meant to be shaped by the success and forward thinking of the country at the time; China was to be seen as a rising, modern, economic powerhouse. People around the world not only traveled to China to partake in the celebration, but the eyes of the world were on China and their ability to create a connection with the citizens of the world. This is the power of sports diplomacy.

The Importance of Cultural Diplomacy
Today’s dog mushing is also a type of cultural diplomacy, which may best be described as, “a course of actions, which are based on and utilize the exchange of ideas, values, traditions and other aspects of culture or identity, whether to strengthen relationships, enhance socio-cultural cooperation or promote national interests; Cultural diplomacy can be practiced by either the public sector, private sector or civil society.” Because of the past of dog mushing, and the implications of northern culture within the sport, it also becomes a means of cultural diplomacy.

Cultural diplomacy is important because it encourages countries and their people to give another nation the benefit of the doubt on specific policy issues or requests for collaboration since there is a presumption of shared interest. When connections are built, either on shared experiences and culture, such as dog mushing between northern nations, or when new cultures experience dog mushing, such as peoples from England, Argentina, or Japan (all of whom have participated in the US dog race the Iditarod), it allows bonds to be built which can then be used as soft power. Joseph Nye describes soft power well, explaining that co-optive power is the ability to attract through cultural and ideological appeal. Dog mushing allows for soft power, by displaying shared northern culture specifically to other northern countries, by emphasizing the shared, communal, historical aspect of transportation.

The Iditarod and the Finnmarksløpet
The Iditarod may be the most famous dog sled race, recreating the harrowing journey to deliver diphtheria serum to the town of Nome, known to many as “The Last Great Race on Earth.” The Iditarod has always beckoned to a variety of people, including international mushers; the last international winner was a Norwegian named Robert Sørlie in 2005. Although the Iditarod has never played up the importance of international connections, it does allow people around the world to experience what it means to be in Alaska, what the history of this northernmost state is, and most importantly a chance to see not only the stunning landscape, but the people who inhabit this desolate world. Ned Cathers, a competitor in the race, explains that the race is becoming more international, he even hosted a Jamaican who was training to compete in the Iditarod.

This year saw ten foreigners, the highest number ever, competing in the race. The stories of these international competitors speaks to the draw of this race and its ability to display both cultural and sports diplomacy. Many have heard tales of the Iditarod, dreaming of competing for years, and save up thousands of dollars for the honour of competing at what is known as the ‘Super Bowl’ of the dog mushing world. The ability to share and experience the North is not limited to the people who attend these races. Indicative of as much, the Discovery Channel created a television series about the 2008 race (now available on Netflix) that allows people around the world to experience, in some form, the communities of the North. More recently, in 2014, Professor John Bailey, rode on the back of a sled so that he could capture the Iditarod for Google Street View. The draw of such an international race, allows for the sharing of these stories, and with new media, the real life experiences of Northerners can be shared around the world.

It is not only the older generations who are using dog mushing to explain who they are and share their culture, but also the next generations. Using new technologies, they are already sharing their experiences. Janelle, a Arctic Youth Ambassador from Nome, Alaska, has made a youtube video about her life and career as a musher. She has already competed in two Jr. Iditarod races and will, in all likelihood,  be seen in some of the longer races in the future. Her video shows in a very real way the impact that sports can have in making a connection and in sharing an experience from a fairly remote community to the entire world. Sunniva, a thirteen year old living in Norway, is also looking towards the future and competing in the Finnmarksløpet, as well as potentially the Iditarod. With many of the experienced mushers already competing in more than one of the large competitions, it is not uncommon to see cross-border friendships being built.

These three examples display the importance of new media in both cultural and sports diplomacy. The Internet has changed the way that transmitting information is possible, lowering costs and allowing people to gain traction and power by bypassing traditional centers of information. Even today, the power of the Internet is not completely understood; to fully understand how our world works with these new types of technology will take more research, study, and debate. What we do know is that the Internet allows people around the world to share their stories, their lives, and their cultures in new ways. And this changes the way human history is being shaped and developed, there are new abilities in how we can develop a global story, one that connects the world by showing us who we are as one group.

The United States is not the only country promoting dog mushing for cultural and sports diplomacy purposes. In fact, there are numerous long distance dog sled races, including but not limited to Canada and the United States’ Yukon Quest, Russia’s Beringia Sled Dog Race, and Norway’s Finnmarksløpet. There is an increasing focus on connecting dog sled races from multiple countries and increasing the international traffic at the dog sledding events. Furthermore, these races honour the bond between humans and animals while focusing on a key cultural element of living in the North.

The Finnmarksløpet is also pushing to become more international, with this year's winner being the first-non Norwegian to ever win the race. Petter Karlsson, a Swede, won against competition from Norway, Sweden, the UK, Scotland, Germany, and Finland. Not only are there more international participants, but the Finnmarksløpet itself is looking to cross the Atlantic Ocean and foster better relations with the United States by working together with the Iditarod. Per Aronsen, the chairman of the Finnmarksløpet, took a trip to Alaska late last year to discuss deeper relations between the Norwegian race and the Iditarod. By attempting to work together and bringing more Alaska mushers to Norway by means of shared passions, there is an opportunity to build international relations at the interpersonal level.

This is not the first connection that the Finnmarksløpet has made with a different country’s dog race. TheArctic Alps Cup is a cross-border competition that adds points received from both the Finnmarksløpet and La Grande Odyssée, a dog race in the French and Swiss Alps, and then awards 5,000 Euro to the three top mushers. This type of competition encourages mushers to experience both races, and thereby experience both countries, cultures, and peoples. The Yukon Quest is but another example, with the added bonus that the races literally crosses international borders. This race starts in Fairbanks, Alaska and ends in Whitehorse, Yukon. Not only does the race involve mushers from both countries, take place in both countries, but the staff are also from both Canada and the United States. This opportunity to further deepen a bond between two neighbours is one of the benefits of such an event. Canada and the United States have great diplomatic ties, of course, but such a race can show other nations the benefits of using dog sled races to further cultural diplomacy.

Finally there are several international associations that help foster relationships between mushers. TheInternational Sled Dog Racing Association (ISDRA) organizes and encourages mushers to travel to numerous dog mushing events around the world. They represent over 120 races in Canada, the United States, and even Japan. Another example is the International Federation of Sledding Sports (IFSS), which focuses on sledding both on snow and dryland. When the IFSS was first formed the Council members included countries such as Canada, France, the US, Norway, and Germany. Furthermore, the headquarters have been in both the United States and Brussels, allowing for the employment of a wide range of nationalities.

Dog mushing is clearly an example of both sports and cultural diplomacy happening in the north. No longer is it seen as simply a mode of transportation, but more and more it is becoming a way of connecting northern countries.. These new forms of diplomacy are reshaping the way that stories are being told, and youth are at the forefront of shaping how public diplomacy will be seen in the future. Governments, NGOs, citizens, and sports organizations, are utilizing the benefits of public diplomacy to foster relationships and build bridges in a constantly shifting international world. Making connections with people, and not only other governments, may be the key to wielding soft power, which in the end can mean the difference between peace and war.

No comments: