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An essay I wrote for my 300-level (NZ = final undergraduate level) geopolitics paper.  The essay question was: Critically discuss what the Trans-Pacific Partnership can tell us about recent transformations in the international state system.  I received A+ for this essay.  Discussion or critique appreciated.  Please don’t steal my work (Turnitin will get you anyway).


The TPP evidences the substantial change in the international state system that has occurred in recent decades.  As a transnational agreement, it reflects a growing inclusion of global governance, rather than simply state sovereignty, as the means through which domestic policy is implemented.  Global governance is defined as a system of international coordination, based on multilateralism, and in which state sovereignty is not considered as important as integration (Heywood 2011).   In the pre-war and inter-war eras, and to a lesser degree under the Bretton Woods system, state sovereignty was considered practically absolute.  An examination of this legacy provides context, enabling the TPP to be understood as an important embodiment of modern global governance.  Though it is accepted that global governance diminishes the sovereignty of nation-states in the traditional sense, governments still utilise softer powers during negotiations in order to achieve their ends.

In order to understand the transformation in the international state system that the TPP demonstrates, the historical status quo must be considered.  It is most helpful to focus on economic relations, as this area is the one in which conflict might produce the most immediate and potentially serious consequences (Heywood).  Prior to WWI, and perhaps causing it (Heywood 2011), an imperial arrangement dominated the globe.  Within imperial systems, wealth is distributed very unevenly, concentrated at the centre (Baylis et. al. 2011)  A major causative factor of WWI was conflicting imperial interests.  The Depression of the 1930s then helped to feed political instability and extremism, culminating in WWII; protectionism was hereafter viewed unfavourably.  In 1944, at the UN Monetary and Financial Conference, it was decided that economic liberalism was the path to integration and the prevention of further crises.  Three organs were constructed, known collectively as the Bretton Woods System: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.  The IMF oversaw the stabilisation of exchange rates by pegging them to the U.S. dollar, and the U.S. dollar to gold.  The World Bank provided reconstruction loans to war-affected parts of Europe.  GATT aimed to reduce tariffs on a global scale.  All of these organs together provided regulation of global trade and finance, with a view to integrating and liberalising (Baylis et. al.).  This is an early example of the kind of multilateralism exhibited in today’s system of global governance; an international agreement aimed at avoiding conflict, for which member states are required to surrender some sovereignty.  However, as will be discussed further on, the states involved in designing the system also had national interest in mind, and were merely pursuing their policy objectives through means other than the exercise of sovereignty . 

The Bretton Woods system remained functional until 1971, when President Nixon announced his New Economic Policy (U.S. Dept. of State 2013); after the system’s collapse, multilateral agreements continued to be popular.  The American dollar had become overvalued primarily because of military spending, and President Nixon unpegged the dollar from the value of gold.  Exchange rates were floating from this point on, so the organs of the Bretton Woods System could not fulfil their original purposes.  However, multilateralism was on the rise, and the organs adapted.  The IMF became somewhat of a watchdog for financial transparency; the World Bank turned its focus to developing nations in need of loans, and the GATT became the World Trade Organisation in 1995.   Along with these central multilateral bodies, regional trade and security agreements began to spring up frequently after the end of the Cold War.  Rosecrance (1991), from a realist perspective, argues that this was primarily due to the collapse of bipolarity.  By 2010, 462 regional trade agreements were known to the WTO (Heywood 2011).  This was the same year in which the TPP was entered into by New Zealand, Brunei, Chile and Singapore. 

The TPP demonstrates, in several ways, this gradual shift from an inter-war era of protectionism and strict exercise of state sovereignty.  Although the TPP negotiations themselves are not publicly released, and thus an analysis of individual parties’ conditions can only be performed to the extent that leaked documents reveal anything, the programme and locations of meetings, et cetera, are available.  The first noteworthy point is the lack of a supranational authority involved in the TPP negotiations.  The states involved in negotiating the TPP are surrendering some national sovereignty in order to make concessions; whereas in bygone eras, nations did not consider integration a primary goal, and as such exercised total sovereignty over domestic policy.  However, even though some sovereignty is being conceded, there is no larger power that coordinates these nations. While the WTO will require that the agreement is recorded, it does not have any binding power over states, so to speak (Heywood).  The WTO cannot be considered supranational for this reason.  The agreement exhibits multilateralism, as it is based on negotiations and agreement rather than authority.  Similar to earlier examples of multilateralism, such as NAFTA, the negotiations themselves are even moved around to different localities to create more of a sense of fairness and inclusion. 

The second notable way in which the TPP demonstrates global governance is the considerable involvement of transnational corporations, and, less influentially, other NGOs.  There are more than 600 TNCs involved in the negotiating rounds of the TPP (Citizens Trade Campaign 2014).  This reflects a “hollowing out” of the state in an upwards direction.  TNCs are involved in the agreement at the expense of members’ state sovereignty, because they are powerful enough to negotiate their preferred outcomes.  As Herod (2009) explains, TNCs are able to virtually dictate the financial environment of many states, because governments desire their investment.  They may demand tax breaks or amendments to labour legislation.  Thus, there is no denying the significance of TNCs as global actors which are, in some cases, more powerful than entire countries.  Multilateralism involves input from many more parties than just the traditional nation states; it includes TNCs and other NGOs.  Despite the restriction of TPP negotiations, the attendees of these rounds is sometimes public knowledge, and NGOs on a local level have been shown to have been included.  On April 20, 2012, First Union General Secretary Robert Reid stated in an interview for TVNZ’s Breakfast show that his organisation had had a presence at the most recent round of negotiations in Auckland, in an advisory capacity.  The Hon. Murray McCully also stated in the House on December 6th, 2010:

“MFAT has called for submissions from NZ interests in relation to TPP…the discussions underway in Auckland at the moment are open in the sense that there are over 100 national and international interest groups…”(inthehouseNZ 2010)

This demonstrates that along with an upwards “hollowing out” of the state, global governance operates on more regional and local levels.  This is an inherent trait of the system; unlike the earlier state-centric approach of government, governance is very versatile, and a single negotiation can involve multi-level input, from local to global. 

It is true that literature concerning the TPP is highly speculative, considering the confidentiality of the agreement.  A commonly cited protest to the TPP (It’s Our Future.co.nz 2012, New Zealand Herald 2013) is that it compromises state sovereignty.  While, as aforementioned, global governance as exemplified by the TPP is considerably less state-centric than earlier approaches to international relations, it is not necessarily true that sovereignty itself is under threat.  Baylis et. al. argue that this is irrefutably the case.  These authors cite the considerable involvement of TNCs in global governance as an insurmountable barrier to state sovereignty.  Uncontrollable cross-border financial flows, triangulation and problems of extraterritoriality of TNCs and their subsidiaries are given by way of explanation.  In the traditional sense of the term ‘Westphalian sovereignty’, that is, absolute sovereignty, these issues do pose a problem in terms of necessity for the state to consult with and consider other parties.  However, Herod and Heywood both take the opposite stance.  States, it is argued, may still maintain sovereignty through the strategic employment of such ‘soft power’ methods as negotiation, example and the establishment of trust. 

Insofar as sovereignty can be understood as the ultimate ability to implement policy, states are still able to do this within a system of global governance.  Two examples are relevant here: firstly, the U.S.’ motives in the original establishment of the Bretton Woods System; and secondly, that same nation’s intent regarding China and the TPP.  The U.S. was pursuing its maxim of economic integration in 1944 with the aim of expanding its hegemony.  John Maynard Keynes, of the U.K. delegation, had originally suggested that one of the supposed organs should have the power to hold large lender states accountable for ‘loan-sharking’, should smaller economies default on unreasonable debts.  The U.S. was able to completely negotiate this provision out of the agreement.  While Baylis et. al. make the point that states are unequal, and smaller ones have no hope of defending their sovereignty, it has been seen in the leaked Intellectual Property Rights provision of the TPP (Wikileaks 2013) that New Zealand disagrees with America over something in that section; and the Hon. Murray McCully stated in the House on December 6th, 2010 (inthehouseNZ), that the government is not prepared to negotiate on the status of Pharmac.  It is therefore clear that, despite being a small state, the NZ government believes it has reasonable bargaining clout in the negotiations.  In another example of soft power exercise, it is argued by Kelsey (2013) that the U.S. intends to either isolate China from its Asia-Pacific trading partners by joining the TPP, or to force China to join and agree to American provisions.  Either way, both of these nations will be required to make some policy concessions, but will not be so isolated that they will be forced to accept unfavourable outcomes.  With a lack of bipolarity and a variety of regional trade communities, both the U.S. and China will have other, albeit perhaps less lucrative, opportunities.  As such, both are free to pursue policy objectives in the negotiations, but will fall short of being able to blackmail one another.

The TPP is a convenient vehicle through which to understand the recent changes to the international state system, as these are most easily conveyed from an economic perspective.  The pre- and inter- war eras, from imperial beginnings, emphasised the significance of the nation-state and the sovereignty thereof. The implementation of the Bretton Woods System was the point of change after which multilateralism began to replace this state-centric approach.  Despite the collapse of Bretton Woods in the 1970s, global governance – as opposed to government – gradually became more salient, particularly after the end of the Cold War; and this system is prevalent today, employed on both macro and micro levels, from the global marketplace to local councils.  Advisory groups, business interests and states all cooperate to achieve the most mutually beneficial end possible.  The TPP evidences the involvement and power of TNCS; the inclusion of small NGOs; and the ability of states to employ ‘soft power’ methods to achieve policy goals.  It is this ability that circumvents the proposal that states are losing sovereignty under the global governance model.












Baylis, J., Smith, S., & Owens, P. (2011). The globalisation of world politics. Oxford, England: Oxford     University Press.


Citizens Trade Campaign. (2014). The Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement: NAFTA for the Pacific Rim?. Retrieved from http://www.citizenstrade.org/ctc/trade-policies/tpp-potential-trade-policy-problems/


Goodwin, M. (2009). Governance. in R. Kitchin and N. Thrift (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (pp. 593-599). Oxford: Elsevier.


Herod, A. (2009). Governing Globalization: Geographies of Globalization. Malden, MA, Oxford and West Sussex UK: Wiley-Blackwell.


Heywood, A. (2011). Global politics. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.


inthehouseNZ. (2010, December 6). Question 1: Russel Norman to the Minister of Trade [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LICeK6xizro


Jane Kelsey: TPPA end game can only come from dirty compromises. (2013, Nov. 29). New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11164328


Kelsey, J. (2013). US-China relations and the geopolitics of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Third World Resurgence, No. 275. Retrieved from http://www.globalresearch.ca/us-china-relations-and-the-geopolitics-of-the-trans-pacific-partnership-agreement-tppa/5357504


Rosecrance, R. (1991). Regionalism and the post-Cold War era. International Journal XLVI. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40202895?uid=3738776&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104253025633


U.S. Dept. of State. (2013). Nixon and the end of the Bretton Woods System, 1971-1973. Retrieved from http://history.state.gov/milestones/1969-1976/nixon-shock


Wikileaks. (2013). Secret Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) – IP Chapter.  Retrieved from     https://wikileaks.org/tpp/




Grade: A+

This is an excellent essay. It shows a clear understanding of the international state system and the concepts we use in the course to understand its transformation and you integrate this successfully with a good sense of the TPP. The essay is well constructed and well written and you show the ability to make use of examples in appropriately nuanced ways. I’m glad to hear you are considering postgrad study! Great work.


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This is an essay I submitted for my 300-level (final year of undergraduate study in NZ) geopolitics paper.  It discusses the effect that Arctic sea ice reduction is having on geopolitical action regarding the Northern sea routes, and how the routes came to be viewed as they are today in terms of the purpose of space.  I received A- for this assignment.  Feedback stated that I could have framed the discussion in terms of resource, commerce and military imaginaries for a better structure; and that I should have explored more fully the motivations behind the US’ opposition to Canada’s sovereign claim over the Northwest Passage.  I  also apologise for my lengthy sentences and somewhat epic style – I think it comes from reading LOTR too many times.  Please feel free to leave any feedback.

Oh and if you are a student: please don’t steal my work, you might get kicked out of school. 🙂



The Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route: Geopolitical Imaginations and Shipping Viability

The Northwest Passage (NWP) and the Northern Sea Route (NSR) are both subject to the influence of geopolitical imaginaries of prominent actors.  These imaginaries, based in classical geopolitics and the maritime discourses of industrial capitalism, have scripted action taken by both states and private organisations in the Arctic sea routes.  Two distinct, though related, categories of approach to these routes can be identified; littoral states asserting sovereignty due to security concerns, in which the routes share many characteristics; and economic potential, in which there are some similarities between approaches taken to each route by both states and industry, but overall, the two are more dissimilar.  Implications of these geopolitical approaches are thus far fairly minor, but may become more serious when ice-free passage can be guaranteed consistently.

The NWP and NSR, considering their common geographical characteristic of linking major seas via shorter routes than currently established trade seaways, have been the subject of geopolitical discourse since before the Modern Era.  The emergence of merchant capitalism out of Italian city-states in the fifteenth century spawned the geopolitical consideration of trade routes over the sea, defined principally by the Roman imperium ethos of authority.  The Dutch, who enjoyed naval hegemony and the first stock-based economy in the seventeenth century, chartered the Dutch East India Company to establish an almost global shipping network.  Aside from this space-based imaginary, by which oceans were viewed simply as voids for goods to be transported over in the most profitable way possible, expansionist maritime policies were employed by naval powers such as Britain, moving into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These were in line with the contemporary classical trend of geopolitical thought made popular by theorists such as Mackinder, in which security was the paramount consideration.

Following Renaissance advancements in cartography, various Northern European states as well as Britain attempted to penetrate the Arctic in the search for routes to East Asia.  Following (and preceding) several failed expeditions, the NWP was eventually explored more comprehensively by John Davis of Britain in 1858, and the NSR completely traversed by Nordenskiӧld in 1878.  A lack of icebreaking and meteorological technology at this point rendered the routes unusable for commercial purposes; while icebreakers entered the routes as early as the mid-twentieth century, the commercial viability of the Arctic routes is only now becoming apparent with the decline in Arctic sea ice.  While estimates are contradictory as to how soon industrial shipping may become prolific through the NWP and NSR, conflicts over sovereignty regarding the passages are receiving more academic attention.  As a separate but related issue, there is also concern in the private sector around whether or not the two passages are yet, or in fact will ever be, economically viable transport options.

Sovereignty in both the NWP and NSR is claimed by littoral states; the former by Canada, and the latter by Russia.  As regards both claims, the primary opposition comes from the United States.  While Canada maintains that the waters of the Northwest Passage are internal waters, based on the provision in Article 7 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for the rendering of straight ‘baselines’ under particular circumstances, the United States regards this area as international waters.  The criteria for the allowance of straight baselines include geographical requirements in Article 7(3) – “In localities where the coastline is deeply indented and cut into, or if there is a fringe of islands along the coast in its immediate vicinity” (United Nations, 1982) – but also espouse historical and functional use as factors which would support a case for straight baselines.  Steinberg (2014) cites the arguments of Pharand (2007) and Byers and Lalonde (2009) that the geographical criteria are met in the case of Canada, but acknowledges their difference in opinion regarding historic and functional use.  Steinberg concurs with Pharand that Canada’s case is weak on this front, particularly as UNCLOS makes a point of equating ice with water, and thus asserts that ice cannot be subject to territorial claims.  The United States asserts that the NWP waters are an international strait.  This definition suits the U.S. because the regime of innocent passage that applies to territorial waters according to UNCLOS gives way to “transit passage” in international waters (Steinberg 2014).  Under this regime, there is no requirement for military ships to make themselves known or to apply for any kind of permit to use the passage.

As Lassere (2010) notes, there is similarity between this conflict and that concerning the NSR between the U.S. and Russia, and in both conflicts the European Union supports the U.S., while Canada and Russia recognise each other’s claims as legitimate.  Here the influence of colonial era geopolitical imaginaries is clear.  States (or multilateral unions thereof) that stand to establish naval hegemony will, according to the classical geopolitical ethos of Mackinder and contemporaries, fear the growth of a polarised sector, a ‘them’ to challenge the ‘us’.  This is enacted through scripts whereby sovereignty of any singular states over naval routes is challenged vigorously, in order to keep transit networks as open as possible.

The NSR has endured the same mythological status as a possible strategic game-changer.  In a comparative absence of multilateral agreements to the NWP, sovereignty over the NSR is generally discussed more in terms of precedence, in particular the Corfu Channel Case of 1949, and that decision’s ratification in the International Law Commission’s 1950s approach to international straits in territorial zones.  In these judgments it was considered that functional use of the waterway for international shipping was necessary for definition as an international strait, and it can be argued that this criterion is not yet met in the case of either the NWP or the NSR.  While Russian state-owned enterprises are very active along the Siberian Coast, The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) considers that regular international transit shipping may not occur in the NSR until 2025 (Ho 2010).  Ho asserts that no non-Russian ships had even followed the Siberian Coast route through the NSR prior to 2002.  Russia has asserted sovereignty over the NSR with perhaps more recognition than Canada has over the NWP, due principally to its capabilities for functional use in the area.  Parallels can also be drawn between Canada and Russia’s issuing of permits as a means of seeking sovereign recognition – for shipping transit in the NWP, and for icebreaker accompaniment in the NSR – and the British issuance of whaling licenses in the Antarctic in 1908 as described by Dodds (2008), although this was successfully legitimised.

Overall, it can be said that the conflict over sovereignty in both the NWP and NSR is based on the same security-based geopolitical imaginaries; both Canada and Russia are concerned with protecting homeland security by asserting control over these passages, and the U.S. in particular fears having its security and economic hegemony compromised by regulation of transit routes.  The passages in this context are imagined as military space.  The implications of the scripts resulting from these imaginaries are currently minor; however, this is only because there is no imminent risk of a naval war that the United States, Canada or Russia might become involved in.  If these circumstances changed for the worse – and the current situation in Crimea may inflame tensions – simple disagreement over the terms of multilateral conventions could evolve into assertions of military force, particularly considering the vulnerability of both the United States and Russia to one another through the Arctic passages.

While it is related to the security-based imaginary of the NWP and NSR, an economic imaginary is also significant.  In terms of this imaginary, there are more differences between the two passages than there are similarities.  The practical challenges of Arctic shipping are reasonably prohibitive.  This is more true concerning the NWP for one salient reason; a lack of infrastructure and icebreaking support (Lasserre and Pelletier 2011).  Canada has little to invest in resource extraction compared to Russia, which has already built a strong state energy industry on which the European Union relies.  While risks posed by icebergs and surface freezing apply in the NSR as they do in the NWP, any ship running into problems in ‘Russian’ waters can expect aid from their escort, and a safe berth nearby at one of the Siberian Coast ports.  This factor, along with Russia’s already extensive extraction operations in the NSR, has contributed to the much advanced development of geopolitical imaginaries of the NSR as a resource-rich natural environment to be exploited, as compared to the NWP.  Russia’s work in encouraging this imaginary will have heavy implications if shipping becomes established through the NSR.

Ho and Lasserre and Pelletier are in agreement that for the immediate future, Arctic shipping is not viable.  Lasserre and Pelletier’s study found that most companies out of 98 surveyed were not particularly interested in expanding operations into the Arctic on a large scale.  Difficulties for private corporations are related mainly to a very large upfront investment with a dubious likelihood of return.  Reasons cited include the ice-strengthened ships necessary for insurance requirements in Arctic waters; these are inefficient in warmer waters because they are not as hydrodynamic as regular shipping vessels and therefore have a higher cost of fuel per kilometre.  Aside from this, insurance premiums in general for Arctic operations are enormous.  Added to this is the unreliability of ice cover from year to year, despite established warming.  Far more companies involved in destination/bulk shipping indicated interest in expanding Arctic operations, compared to container shipping companies.  Lasserre and Pelletier’s explanation for this is based in the essential nature of timing and schedules in the container shipping industry, which operates on a roll-on, roll-off premise.  Reliability of transit routes is of the utmost importance; this is in contrast to local destinational contracts for the bulk industry.  In general, the study concludes – like Ho’s analysis – that the shipping industry will not be thoroughly interested in operations in the NWP and NSR until infrastructure and shipping technology becomes accessible enough to negate the extra costs of investing in this market.  This will likely occur more quickly in the NSR due to Russian investment and promotion.  The NWP, on the other hand, will probably not become a viable route until ice-free Summers can be guaranteed.  Discrepancy between the routes illustrates the influence that geopolitical imaginaries fostered by particular states can have on economic action.

Implications of a shift in established maritime trade routes could be very serious for smaller economies such as New Zealand, as secondary routes are more expensive to ship along, and consumers along these routes must pay inflated prices for goods.  Environmental implications would not simply be limited to oil spills, but would include the impact of construction on the purity of Arctic ice and water, which may have unpredictable effects on native species and indigenous people.  And, of course, relating to the aforementioned security-based imaginary, economic expansion into the Arctic could have military consequences as multiple nations seek sovereignty over profitable areas.

It is clear that geopolitical imaginaries have scripted behaviour of both states and private organisations in regard to both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route.  These two routes share many aspects of a security-based, classical geopolitical imaginary, being important transit routes that serve as a dual vulnerability between Russia and the United States. The U.S. refutes these claims in its historical ambition for global military hegemony.  Economically, the passages exhibit more difference, with much greater private interest in the NSR as opposed to the NWP; this can be credited to the fostering of a resource-based imaginary by Russia.  Serious implications of these imaginaries have not been seen yet, due to the persisting unreliability and danger of both routes.  However, AMSA’s prediction of 2025 may be the year that military and economic concerns become more immediate.




Baylis, J., Owens, P., & Smith, S. (2011). The globalization of world politics: An introduction to     international relations (5th. Ed.). Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press.

Blunden, M.  (2012). Geopolitics and the Northern Sea Route. International Affairs 88(1).

Dittman, P. (2009).  In Defence of Defence: Canadian Arctic Sovereignty and Security. Journal of               Military and Strategic Studies, 11(3).

Dodds K. (2008). The Ice. In Clark, N., Massey, D., & Sarre, P. (Eds.), Material Geographies (pp. 161-        212). London, England: SAGE.

Heywood, A. (2011). Global politics. Hampshire, Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ho J (2010). The implications of Arctic sea ice decline on shipping. Marine Policy 34, 713-715.

Lasserre, F. (2011).  The Geopolitics of Arctic Passages and Continental Shelves. Public Sector Digest. Retrieved from http://www.ggr.ulaval/.ca/fileadmin/ggr/fichiers/profs/Lasserre/articles/Geopolitics.pdf

Lasserre, F. & Pelletier, S. (2011). Polar super seaways? Maritime transport in the Arctic: an analysis        of shipowners’ intentions. Journal of Transport Geography 19, 1465-1473.

Rothwell, D. R. (2012). International Straits and Trans-Arctic Navigation. Ocean Development & International Law 43, 267-282.

Steinberg P (2014). Steering Between Scylla and Charybdis: the Northwest Passage as Territorial Sea.     Ocean Development & International Law 45, 84-106.

United Nations (1982).  United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  Retrieved from                 http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/UNCLOS-TOC.htm












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