The Polarizing North Pole

Throughout human history, the Arctic has had little trouble retaining its reputation for austere beauty. However as the irreversible effects of global climate change continue to negatively impact ecosystems worldwide, the once ice blanketed region is rapidly melting away. This climatic shift has caused unexpected political tension between several northern nations. At the same time, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as much as 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may be available for extraction beneath the ice barrier.

The United States, Canada, Norway, and Russia are at odds as they compete for access to the potential wealth. When American politicians debate drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they must realize that the 7.7 billion barrels of oil and the 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to be found there pales in comparison to what the Arctic almost certainly has to offer. In a world where large energy consumers are scrambling for every last drop of oil they can find and energy resource exporters desire to maintain their hegemony on the political-economic ladder, any source of oil is worth pursuing, no matter how high the cost of extraction. Despite the still debated status of the Arctic Circle’s sovereignty arrangement, it represents a more desirable area to extract oil in contrast to the complicated diplomatic and geopolitical dealings with the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

Breaking the Ice, Laying a Groundwork for Today

Dating back as far as the Vikings’ colonization of Iceland, Greenland, and small coastal settlements in Canada, humans have tried venturing northward to their limits. It has not been until the last several hundred years that efforts were made to explore and discover the extremely harsh environment of the North Pole. Laying claim to the Arctic Circle has been a constant theme in international politics since exploration of the area began. The issue has reacquired international importance to the world’s commercial and environmental interests in the wake of an ever-dwindling supply of fossil fuels.

Russia and the United Kingdom led the initial push to establish defined sectors of ownership of the Arctic Circle. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1825 delineated the territorial boundaries between Britain’s adjacent territories in Canada and Russia’s Alaskan holdings based on the 141st meridian. Forty-two years after the signing of the Anglo-Russian Convention, the United States bought much of Russia’s position when it purchased Alaska from the Kremlin in 1867.1 As more states acquired grounds to lay title to the Arctic, it became necessary to create a clearer basis for territorial claims. At the African Conference of Berlin in 1884, territorial sovereignty was defined as the “so-called right to discovery to the principle of effective occupation.”1 The treaty set an international standard for territorial acquisition just as the Treaty of Westphalia defined the characteristics of a sovereign nation-state at the conclusion of the Thirty Years War in 1648. Canada’s first declaration of effective occupation occurred during the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush when Ottawa sent a quarter of its armed forces to patrol the Yukon.1

The “right to discovery” clause within the Berlin Conference formulations provided a framework agreement that invoked a period of frenzied Canadian exploration. The Arctic became highly romanticized in Canadian culture, which appealed to the country’s spirit of adventure and its sense of expansionism based on discovery. Captain-turned-explorer J.E. Bernier represented Canada’s newly vested sense of mission when he drew maps to assert Canada’s claim over the Northwest Passage to facilitate his efforts to reach the North Pole throughout the early 1900s. Despite the fact that his efforts to reach the North Pole were never fully successful, his contributions remained an integral part of early Canadian manifestations in its attempts to register its claims to the Arctic. His repeated gestures of inviting Canadian scientists aboard his vessel, while at the same time claiming islands in the name of Canada, represented his desire to legitimize the newly expansionist country’s claims to the Arctic. At the same time, in contravention of Canada’s claims to the Arctic, the U.S. Congress funded expeditions undertaken by Robert Peary and Frederick Cook whose adventures lasted from the 1890s to 1909. The American pioneering spirit meant that this country at least had to try to reach the North Pole first.

A Cold Race
Despite the heavy investment in the race to claim the Arctic, it would be almost fifty years before expeditions began to garner any serious, sustained, international interest. Between 1900 and 1950, two ravenous world wars engulfed the globe, diverting international interests and wresting attention away from any northern ambitions. At the conclusion of World War II, a newly polarized world had emerged as the Soviet Union and the United States became the two dominant superpowers of the 20th century. The Arctic Circle’s appeal once again quickly turned from a land of romance and adventure to the most frigid battlefield of the Cold War. For the United States and Canada, the Arctic became a new geopolitical venue upon which to focus.

The Bering Sea offered the shortest passage between the United States and the former Soviet Union, and traversing it represented a serious geopolitical threat for both states. To curb the threat of a potential strike from Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), the United States and Canada have cooperated on the construction of a series of radar based detection systems. Under the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the United States and Canada built the Pinetree Line, the Mid-Canada Line, and the North Warning System (still active), and the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, which the United States Air Force continues to operate in order to monitor the Arctic. These facilities have maintained a defensive network that complemented the constant presence of nuclear submarines and bombers in the Arctic maintained by the United States and NATO to counter Soviet forces.5, Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990‘s, the military presence in the Arctic dissipated; however, the Arctic remains an integral part of the national defense grid for the United States, Canada, and Russia.

Current Complexities of Arctic Sovereignty

To help alleviate territorial water issues, the United Nations (UN) created the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to the UNCLOS guidelines, territorial waters can extend 12 nautical miles from the shoreline, while exclusive economic zones (EEZ) can extend 200 nautical miles along the continental shelf. If a nation can prove its continental shelf extends further, then it can extend its respective EEZ an additional 150 nautical miles.9 The EEZ allows the nation exclusive privileges to exploit the region’s resources. To establish these extended sovereignty rights, a nation must collect scientific data to prove the extension of the continental shelf and submit it to the UN to be voted on by states that have ratified the treaty as per UNCLOS terms.9 Even though these procedures and definitions seem democratic and fair, a number of inherent problems persist that have emerged from their application.

The primary issue with territorial acquisition in the Arctic Circle is that UNCLOS does not provide explicit definitions of how to address EEZ overlaps in circular-based terrain. Moreover, the establishment of a claim over the Arctic by other states has been further complicated due to the fact that the United States has yet to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. The opposition in Congress believes that ratifying the treaty would result in ceding American sovereignty to international authorities and environmental groups. The opposition further argues that ratification would also prove redundant because the United States already adheres to many of the UNCLOS provisions. However, without the United States ratification, this creates cognitive problems for both the international community and for Washington, as the United States, in effect, voids its voting privileges. Without voting, the United States mutes its right for others to acknowledge oversight concerning economically viable territories with international recognition being affected. In order for international comity to be advanced as well as the Arctic’s long-term status to be resolved, it is imperative for the United States to act accordingly by becoming a full signatory (which Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated was a priority in her January 13, 2009 confirmation hearing).

Gas and Geopolitics: An Ottawa and Washington Affair

Arctic sovereignty arguably encompasses larger implications for Canadian and American projections of their interests. In terms of claiming territory where there is a high probability of finding natural gas and oil, the Beaufort Sea falls within the two countries’ EEZs. According to the USGS, the Beaufort Sea area alone is estimated to contain approximately 8.22 billion barrels of oil and 27.64 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. For the United States to continue to satisfy its domestic requirements, it becomes imperative to guarantee the most territory possible by having its maritime border run perpendicular to the coast. As for Canada, splitting the Beaufort Sea along the 141st meridian would provide it with a major economic advantage by allowing it to maintain its energy exporting status. This would be especially important since the United States plans to cut back on oil imports produced from Canada’s oil sands in the wake of Canada’s new environmental policies. By securing more oil and natural gas from the Beaufort Sea, new American refineries would replace exports that will not be available from Alberta’s oil sands.

Another major theater of Canadian-American engagement revolves around control of the Northwest Passage. For the first time in recorded history, the Northwest Passage was ice free in 2007. This trend will most likely continue for longer stretches of time, as the Arctic is expected to have ice free summers by 2013, which will afford the single biggest breakthrough in potentialmaritime expansion of trade since the development of the Suez and Panama Canals. By using the Northwest Passage, 5,000 nautical miles would instantaneously disappear from Asia-European shipping routes. Because this passage is within the 200 nautical mile zone, the Northwest Passage falls directly under Canadian jurisdiction, drastically increasing shipping traffic off of Canada’s northern coast. The United States, on the other hand, disagrees with Canada’s assessment of its territorial rights and insists that the Northwest Passage should be considered international waters to facilitate international trade and to allow the U.S. military to freely navigate and conduct operations in the area without meddling in Canadian territorial waters.

In response to Washington’s demands to make the passage an international waterway, Senior Administrative Officer of Canada’s northernmost settled community, Resolute, Josh Hunter said, “If the Americans try to come through unwanted, we’ll be out there on our snowmobiles blocking their passage.” To show Canadian commitment to the cause under an “use it or lose it” attitude, Prime Minister Harper ordered the construction of six to eight new patrol ships dedicated to policing the Arctic, and requires that every ship entering into the Northwest Passage register with the Canadian Coast Guard. As the race to claim the resources in the Arctic gains momentum, Canadian versus American competition appears to be heating up.

A Continuation of Friendship

Despite incidents of non-cooperation, there is still plenty of room for Canada and the United States to perpetuate their bonds as allies when it comes to a unified response to bold diplomatic steps taken by Russia. In a similar space-age symbol of power, a Russian expedition to the North planted a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed where, according to GPS coordinates, the geographic North Pole lies. In a practice that harkens back to the Cold War era, long-range bomber patrols on 20 hour flights as well as the redeployment of naval fleets to the Arctic demonstrate how the Russian government intends to retain its possessions. A resolution of Arctic jurisdiction will improve bonds not only between Canada, the United States, and its NATO allies, but also with Moscow, as well. Just as the Cold War augmented prompt Canadian-American cooperation with the creation of NORAD, these provocations by Russia can serve to create another set of cooperative arrangements between Washington and Ottawa. Furthermore, according to Dr. Valur Ingimundarson, an Associate Professor of History and Chairman of the History Department at the University of Iceland, Russia’s particular behavior would be a great opportunity for other Atlantic states, like Iceland, to improve their relations with NATO and provide further fronts for inter-NATO cooperation. With the Russians acting in an allegedly suspicious manner, NATO members, especially Canada and the United States have even more incentive to mutually strengthen their ties through collaboration.

One of Canada’s biggest concerns regarding Arctic sovereignty deals with ownership over the Northwest Passage. Although Canada and the United States have already expressed political discontent, there is still hope to come to a mutually beneficial agreement. The Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1818 and the Arctic Cooperation Agreement are perhaps the best examples of such an arrangement. The Rush-Bagot Treaty demilitarized and established clear regulations concerning the presence of weapons in the Great Lakes region, facilitating friendly border relations between the two neighboring countries. Furthermore, the treaty grew to promote interagency cooperation by utilizing border patrols to prevent smuggling through the Great Lakes. The Arctic Cooperation Agreement, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988, allowed for the United States Coast Guard to patrol the Northwest Passage as long as it notifies Canada. Canada can provide for the Coast Guard bases along its long stretch of border while the United States can provide the manpower, equipment, and supplies to maintain continuous patrols. By sharing the burden, Canada will be able to maintain a significant amount of control over Ottawa’s long stretch of wilderness, while the United States would have its security concerns adequately addressed.

Going to the Cleaners

The largest oil deposits are often located in extreme environments, ranging from the tropics of South America to the deserts of the Middle East. With the diminution of the Arctic ice cap, the world will begin to look to the Arctic for potential energy reserves and, as such, must find a way to peacefully divide the natural resources in the newly available territory. This is absolutely crucial to avoid potential large scale security dilemmas. In light of the inadequate territorial definitions laid down by UNCLOS regarding EEZs in circular-based terrain as well as the United States’ failure to ratify UNCLOS, it is apparent that changes to the treaty are not only prudent but critical. These international jurisdictional issues would seem to provide another opportunity for cooperation between Canadian, Russian, and American officials for economic, military, and political reasons. Whether concerning oil, natural gas, or rights of passage, the United States has to compromise in order to improve relations with its faithful neighbor to the north and its former enemy to the west.

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