Courtesy Reuters

The Artic: Last Unmanaged Frontier

On October 4, 1957 the Soviets dazzled the world by launching the first earth-orbiting space vehicle-Sputnik. In response, the United States organized the manned moon landing, made its children learn the new math, and presented the United Nations with a draft treaty of rules to keep earthly rivalries-and nuclear warfare-from outer space. The space age brought forth intensive new competition between the superpowers. But paradoxically it was also an extraordinarily creative period of international rule-making, covering not only outer space but also other environments no one country had yet grabbed-Antarctica, the high seas, the seabed, the continental shelf and slope.

At least for those special environments, it was encouraging that international common sense could compete successfully with narrow self-interest, and that steps to limit future conflicts could be accepted as a valid goal even if on land some nations still lurched from war to war.

Today new technology, combined with fresh superpower stresses, could eventually erode the agreements regulating outer space and demilitarizing Antarctica, and final agreement on sharing the "common heritage of mankind" in the high seas and deep seabed has not been reached. Yet even as superpower relations have waxed and waned through alternating periods of crisis and détente, the existing "regime-building" agreements have held up from 1959 (when the Antarctic Treaty was signed) to the present day.

There remains one notable area as yet largely untouched by existing or prospective international agreements. That exception is the Arctic.

Each of the other global (or cosmic) environments targeted for cooperation had three recognizable features: there existed a definable environment; that environment was a potential battleground between nations that get along badly on land; and not enough claims to sovereignty, or military arming, had as yet taken place to preclude peaceful bargaining and compromise. All these environments were recognized as potential candidates for a modern equivalent of the 1829 Oklahoma land rush, when 20,000 would-be settlers and exploiters strained for first place in order to seize for themselves a chunk of previously unowned earth.

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