An Ice Cold War

Aboard Training Vessel Arctic Tern, off Newport, R.I.

Russia’s flag-planting caper at the North Pole last week captured the world’s attention. Harking back to the heady days of colonial imperialism and perhaps the success of Sputnik, a resurgent Russia dispatched from Murmansk a nuclear-powered icebreaker and a research vessel armed with two mini-submarines to stake a symbolic claim to the Arctic Ocean’s riches. Russia hopes that leaving its flag encased in titanium more than 13,200 feet beneath the frozen surface bolsters its 2001 claim that the Lomonosov Ridge is a geological extension of its continental shelf and thus the 460,000 square miles of resource-rich Arctic waters stretching from the North Pole to Eurasia fall under the Kremlin’s jurisdiction.

“The Arctic is ours and we should manifest our presence,” declared Artur Chilingarov, the celebrated polar explorer who led the expedition.

Russia isn’t alone in the great Arctic race. Thawing of the Arctic ice cap has opened access to billions of tons of oil and gas, valuable minerals like gold and platinum and untapped fishing stocks, and all the countries bordering the Arctic are staking a claim. Denmark has spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars to prove that the Arctic once was attached to Greenland, its possession. Finland, Norway and Iceland also have their eyes on the Arctic. And Canada is spending $7 billion to build a fleet of armed Arctic patrol vessels.

“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. “We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it.”

Will the rhetoric escalate into armed brinksmanship on the ice? History offers reason not to worry. Fifty years ago, the South Pole was the scene of a similar showdown. Seven countries — Britain, Argentina, Chile, France, Norway, Australia and New Zealand — had made claims to territory in Antarctica. These and other countries had established dozens of “scientific” stations on the continent. In 1956, the United States launched Operation Deep Freeze II, the last of four huge naval expeditions to fly the Stars and Stripes in the Antarctic.

Ultimately though, in a spirit of cooperation rare during the cold war, fostered by the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, 12 countries signed onto a treaty that established a legal framework to govern the southernmost continent. The treaty prohibited nuclear explosions, radioactive waste disposal and military deployments on Antarctica. And it encouraged continued international cooperation in scientific research. The overlapping territorial claims were not relinquished, but “frozen.”

A similar diplomatic solution could put an end to the Arctic arms race today. The 2007-08 International Polar Year, a scientific research effort comparable to the International Geophysical Year, presents an opportunity to propose a treaty. The United States, which has 1,000 miles of coastline in the Arctic, should work to convene an international conference at which all the countries bordering the Arctic could settle their sovereignty disputes in an organized and transparent way.

The so-called Arctic states — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States — already participate in an intergovernmental body, the Arctic Council, which manages the environment of the Arctic. But a comprehensive Arctic treaty could go much further. It could arrange for sustainable development of Arctic resources, do the seafloor mapping that’s needed to sort out the conflicting territorial claims, develop shipping shortcuts through the northern passages, set technological standards for ships that navigate the icy waters and guard the welfare of the more than one million indigenous people living within the Arctic Circle.

The United States should take preliminary steps to set the complicated treaty effort in motion. First, the Senate should immediately ratify the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would enable the United States to make its claim to the continental shelf extending northward from Alaska, and guarantee freedom of navigation for our Navy.

We should also explore making agreements with Russia, Canada, Denmark and other countries that would allow for cooperation in gathering weather data, running search and rescue missions and responding to oil spills — even before a larger treaty could be negotiated.

In order to back up claims of sovereignty in the Arctic, the United States should also establish a presence there, and that would mean reinvigorating our geriatric icebreaker fleet. Even though our Navy is as large as the next 17 navies in the world combined, we own only three ships intended for polar missions. Two of them are in disrepair, and the third is not robust enough for future Arctic missions. Russia, in comparison, has a fleet of 18 icebreakers. We should have enough ships to maintain a presence at both poles.

Disputes over maritime boundaries, particularly in the complex icy geography of the Arctic Ocean, require international solutions. No one wins if the region remains a lawless frontier. All the Arctic countries need a treaty that protects the environment as well as their national interests. Global warming has created the need for bold diplomatic action.

Scott Borgerson, who teaches maritime studies at the Coast Guard Academy, is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.