The Arctic: The Geopolitics of Santa’s Workshop

ArcticBy Emma Campbell-Mohn.

Beyond the devastated seals and lonely polar bears, the melting Arctic presents a geopolitical challenge. It is the last bit of unclaimed land left on our quickly heating globe. In its icy, watery goodness, the Arctic is a place of opportunity, competition and resource development. In the coming years, the Arctic may either prove the next location of geopolitical struggle or a prized example of international cooperation. But, why are countries eagerly watching Santa’s Workshop thaw into a puddle?

Melting caused by global warming allows the world potentially 90 billions barrels of oil and 30% of the globe’s undiscovered natural gas, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration. These resources provide ample grounds for conflict and competition, as the last great frontier quickly becomes a giant swimming pool. Many of these resources remain unclaimed, as the North Pole exists in a neutral zone.

In our world of delineated countries with heavily guarded borders, why is the Arctic still unclaimed? One must understand the history of the Arctic. Robert Perry was the first man to stand on the North Pole in 1909. After his expedition, Norway began mining in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago in 1916 while Canada and the Soviet Union issued claims in 1925. Truman issued America’s claim in 1948. With all Arctic countries seeking a peace of the frozen pie, the international community chose cooperation instead of competition and, in 1958, UN Convention on the Continental Shelf was ratified. This treaty allowed countries to “explore and utilize resources of the continental shelf.” While the treaty applied to all seas, it remained particularly pertinent in Arctic by restricting countries’ claims to the region. This treaty was later superseded by the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), which gives countries’ economic rights to the 200 nautical miles off their coast in addition to more territory if the territory is part of their continental shelf. While the US never ratified UNCLOS, the rest of the Arctic countries signed it, allowing it to now serve as the modus operandi for control of the Arctic. Countries are limited in their ability to claim the Arctic, leaving the North Pole, and Santa, safe for now.

However, despite these limitations, countries have attempted to claim parts of the Arctic beyond those guarantied in UNCLOS. Global warming rapidly decreased the amount of ice, which had blocked further exploration of natural gas and oil. With increased access to minerals, comes increased competition. In 2007, Russia famously sank a Russian flag below the North Pole. Since then, Russia has been expanding its military presence in the Arctic by reactivating Soviet-era bases and conducting military training exercises. Russia is not alone in the cold. In December, Denmark claimed 350,000 square miles of the Arctic, including North Pole itself in a brief submitted to the UN.  Similarly, Canada and the US also looked towards the Arctic when they signed the Tri Command Framework for Arctic Cooperation in 2012, which increases military cooperation between Canada and the US in the region.

The countries with territorial claims are not only ones interested in the Arctic. China embarked upon its sixth expedition to the region during the summer of 2014. With its huge demand for oil, China maintains a keen interest in the region. Indeed, some term China’s Arctic policy as the next “Great Game,” while it invests heavily in surrounding countries such as Greenland and Iceland seeking natural resources. China sits, along with eleven other countries, as an observer on the Arctic Council, which researches and engages with Arctic affairs. Its continued interest in the Arctic demonstrates the worldwide implications of the Arctic as the next geopolitical hotspot.

From a geopolitical lens, the Arctic will be case study for the debate as to whether might makes right or international harmony is the wave of the future.  Existing methods of arbitration may lead to a peaceful solution for divvying up the next great cache of energy resources. Denmark has already indicated its willingness to engage with the international community by sending its brief to the UN. However, if we learned anything from the recent violence in Ukraine, international cooperation does not always stop violence. As Putin feels the censor of the international community, Russia may be more inclined to take matters into its own hands along its Northern border.  

In many ways, the Arctic represents the last frontier: a wild landscape where the rule of law has not been solidified. Just as the Wild West was full of rattlesnakes and gold, so too does the Arctic contain both violent dangers and immense riches. It represents a strategic challenge to any foreign policy expert who looks beyond day-to-day crisis towards enduring themes and goals. It’s time for foreign policy experts to deal with the implications of the growing frontier. Which will dominate: cooperation or competition? Will Santa’s Workshop be left intact?

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