Lessons From the White Continent

Why does peace and goodwill bloom at the South Pole, when the Arctic is so tense and frosty?


ANTARCTICA — Forgive this old mariner’s meanderings, but as I recently sailed across a choppy Drake Passage, a couple hundred nautical miles of stormy water between South America and the enormous landmass of Antarctica, it seems possible to draw a few lessons from the international approach to the vast “White Continent.”

Antarctica has been “governed” (the correct expression might be “managed through international benign neglect”) under the Antarctica Treaty which came into force in 1961 for well over 50 years. There are no weapons, no sovereign territories (although some claims have been staked), no conflicts, and broad international agreement about its future.

What went right to set in place this impressive international regime of peace? And more importantly, what could we learn that could be applied at the other end of the Earth — in the High North of the Arctic, where tensions are rising and good advice is needed?

First, let’s stipulate that the two regions are quite different. Antarctica is the fourth-largest continent, with slightly less mass than South America and larger than both Europe and Australia. The Arctic, on the other hand, is merely a geographic space defined within the polar circle. While much of it is covered by ice throughout the year, there is no land to covet outside of that already firmly under sovereign control.

While both regions have oil and natural gas, both resources are far easier to obtain in the Arctic; the same goes for fish stocks. A crucial difference is that the increasingly accessible shipping routes in the Arctic are much more valuable passages given the natural flow of international goods and the relative stability of weather patterns.

The crucial difference, of course, is that the Arctic is immediately abutted by five significant nations: Russia, Canada, the United States, Iceland, and Denmark (through its oversight of Greenland). Four of the five are NATO members. The Antarctic, on the other hand, is much further from its sovereign neighbors — Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia — none of whom have significant tensions between them.

What is both impressive and hopeful in Antarctica is the absence of great power politics, probably because there less to argue about so far from Washington and Moscow; and that thus far there is not an abundance of easily obtainable natural resources.

Given that breathing space from the normal cut-and-thrust of international tension, the world managed to craft a sensible, broad, and largely agreed treaty covering the White Continent. It lays out simple rules for governance, fisheries, scientific research, protection of the fragile environment, non-militarization, and so forth.

Unfortunately, in the Arctic, we see increasing tension between NATO and Russia; military activity at a robust level (although, thankfully, not yet at Cold War levels); competition over territorial claims; large-scale exploitation of natural resources; disagreements about shipping lanes; and a host of other troubles.

Some of these are being addressed by the Arctic Council, a league of nations with territory in the High North or significant shipping interests. Others fall under the massive U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, given the huge sea space inside the polar circle. But there is a big problem: Even though these international bodies exist, most states are continuing to act unilaterally, pushing the envelope of their claims to neighboring waters and pushing geopolitically on borders and boundaries. Fortunately, there are lessons from the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty that could apply to the Arctic.

First and foremost, there needs to be an effort to execute an Arctic Treaty, using existing international organizations to structure the negotiation. As pressure builds in the High North, having an actual treaty focused upon it — as exists in Antarctica, today — is essential. The Arctic Council would be the logical place to begin such a dialog, with cooperation from the U.N. and the attendant bodies, such as the International Maritime Organization and others.

Second, the public needs to see the Arctic as part of a global commons — a worldwide ecological preserve — rather than a fiefdom of competing claims. Publicizing the Arctic as a region that is part of the “common heritage of all mankind,” as the High Seas were styled in the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty, is a good place to start. There is an increasing understanding in the public’s mind of the importance of dealing with such environmental issues through broad-based cooperation. This will require a public outreach, especially on social networks, about everything from “Save the Arctic” videos to proposals for global collaboration. And non-governmental organizations like Greenpeace and the Arctic Forum will be helpful.

Third, there must be a push to significantly limit military and strategic activity, creating a “code of operations” in the Arctic. While it is probably too difficult to fully constrain military activity — as is the case in Antarctica — it is worth considering limits in tonnage, mission, deployment zones, subsurface activities, and exercises. The code of operations would seek to minimize military endeavors broadly, and set specific limits on what would be permissible. The long history of cooperation in the Antarctic is lacking in the High North, and one key reason is simply the tradition of competition created by the Cold War “Hunt for Red October” scenarios that dominated that long twilight conflict.

Fourth, the Antarctic Treaty and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea negotiating mechanisms should be used to produce a new treaty for the Arctic. Virtually every country on earth participated in the UNCLOS process, which produced a treaty signed by 166 nations thus far (although not the United States for a variety of domestic political reasons). The Antarctic Treaty process was similar, although far smaller in scale. But the principles of inclusion, negotiation in good faith, and respect for all viewpoints were fundamental to both.

Negotiating such an accord for the Arctic would be much more difficult than the Antarctic; probably close to the challenge of the UNCLOS process, which lasted over nine years and required the efforts of literally thousands of participant negotiators. All the more reason that we get started sooner rather than later, and to use the existing success of the Antarctic Treaty as a model.


About the Author

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is <i><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Leaders-Bookshelf-James-Stavridis/dp/1682471799">The Leader's Bookshelf.</a></i>

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