Ending a four-decade-old dispute, Russia and Norway recently signed a treaty agreeing on a boundary in the Barents Sea—a feat of diplomacy that may have inaugurated a fresh approach to the exploitation of the Arctic. On signing the treaty, one Norwegian spokesperson said: “(T)here is no need for an international treaty in the Arctic.” It is a view wholly different from that prevailing about the other end of the world, where the Antarctic Treaty System has protected that frozen continent from sovereignty claims since 1961.
As countries scramble for resources—energy in particular— the Arctic has begun to seem the next logical frontier for exploration. There are, as mentioned, no overarching treaties beyond what states draw up bilaterally. The payoffs are potentially massive; the Barents Sea alone is supposed to hold 10 billion barrels of oil. Exploration is getting easier, as global warming makes for milder winters and less glacial ice.
In his new book, The World in 2050, the scientist Laurence C. Smith imagines the high Arctic to be “rather like Nevada—a landscape nearly empty, but with fast-growing towns”, an “economic engine, shovelling gas, oil, minerals and fish into the gaping global maw”. Aesthetically, this sounds bleak. Bleaker still, however, are the prospects of conflict over this new Nevada, foreseen by experts who advocate an Antarctic-style treaty system for the planet’s north.
Already, signs of friction are beginning to show. Canada and Denmark, normally pacific nations, have in the past decade become increasingly invested in a dispute over Hans Island, “a piece of Arctic rock” (as one commentator describes it) in the middle of a strait separating Greenland and Canada. Norway and Canada are, Smith says, “bolstering their militaries with ice-strengthened patrol ships, frigates, attack submarines and fighter jets”. Russia, in arguing that a section of the Arctic seabed is an extension of its continental shelf, has provoked Canada’s foreign minister, Lawrence Cannon, to say: “Canada will be quite active in defending its territory. We will…take steps necessary to do that.”
The last thing the Arctic needs, after already suffering from man-made climate change, is to become a theatre for conflict and a pell-mell rush for resources. The international community should—while the situation is still fluid—look to a more considered and negotiated approach of the sort that has served the Antarctic well.
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