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.

Is the Arctic definable as such an environment? Is it a potential battleground? Should it be the object of a special kind of arms control agreement, like outer space and the seabed? Is it on the verge of exploitation that could generate serious conflicts? If it is some or all of these things, should it be subject to general multilateral (i.e., universal) rules like the high seas, the seabed, outer space, or Antarctica? Or regional rules by the countries bordering its waters? Or bilateral agreements between pairs of them? Or none of the above?


To answer such questions, we need to have a better sense than most of us now do of just what is going on there, who is doing what, and why. But while the Arctic has not been on the international "action agenda" so far, a mood of healthy skepticism is in order. A case can be made that a multilateral "solution" would not necessarily be beneficial in the Arctic. Six countries border the Arctic basin. Perhaps getting 149 other countries involved is a bad idea. Maybe excessive attention to the Arctic would just get in the way of science and exploration, agitate the military planners, and in general stir up the frozen mud, as it were. Moreover, as one-time Federal Budget Director Bert Lance was wont to say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." So the prior question ought to be: Is there a problem? and, if there is, What is the best way to tackle it?

The starting place has to be a confession of almost total ignorance on the part of most laymen other than a handful of Arctic explorers, scientists, air force and naval specialists, and oil and mineral prospectors. These specialists know a great deal about the subject. The rest of us know practically nothing.

This may seem strange, given the increasing international attention to the Antarctic. Perhaps one reason is that most of the Arctic, unlike the Antarctic, is not land but water (some of it, of course, in very solid form!). Yet unlike the Antarctic, the Arctic is inhabited by Indians and native peoples Americans call Eskimos, and who usually call themselves "Inuit." It is a mark of the times that the only continuing Arctic forum to date is a Circumpolar Conference of Alaskan, Canadian and Greenlander Inuit, initiated at Barrow, Alaska in June 1977. Transarctic diplomacy was thus pioneered not by the six governments of the adjacent states, but by a nongovernmental "transnational" association of native peoples. The only Arctic treaty entered into by the adjacent states, including the U.S.S.R., is the Polar Bear Treaty of 1973 (also signed by the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway), which leaves to governments implementation of its conservation provisions. What are other differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic? The Arctic at the moment looks richer in oil, gas and non-fuel minerals. And the Arctic, unlike the Antarctic, has also long been a superpower corridor for over-the-ice bombing routes and under-the-ice nuclear-powered submarine voyages.

If you look at the adjacent polar map projection, you are struck by several interesting facts:

- the Soviet Union borders on approximately 50 percent of the entire Arctic perimeter, and is undoubtedly its leading power;

- Canada is the second largest "littoral" state, embracing an enormous mass of islands and water within the Arctic Circle; unlike southern Canada, all of the north is administered by the Canadian federal government;

- most of Greenland and the tip of Iceland fall within the Arctic Circle. Iceland broke away from Denmark in 1918; Greenland (which now has home rule) is still Danish territory-but may not be forever;

- the three other Scandinavian states-Norway, Sweden and Finland-have some territory in the Arctic Circle, but only Norway borders on Arctic waters. Norway owns the Svalbard archipelago (for some strange reason still called Spitzbergen on many American maps) which sits astride one of the most vital strategic waterways on the globe, between the Soviet mainland and the Atlantic Ocean, and harbors numerous Soviet "visitors";

- that strategic waterway, usually called the GIUK (or GIFO) Gap-for Greenland and Iceland plus United Kingdom (or Faeroes Islands)-constitutes an outlet for, and a Western barrier to, the Soviet Union's most significant concentration of nuclear forces, those on its Kola peninsula. Their egress routes run through the Barents and Norwegian Seas;

- the United States has been pumping oil since 1977 on the northern slope of Alaska, from a field of potentially 30 billion barrels. Even more dramatic oil and gas finds may lie in the adjacent Beaufort Sea. Strategically, Uncle Sam looks to his left across the narrow Bering Strait to nearby Soviet territory, and to his right at Canada, whose Beaufort Sea coast contains comparable geological formations;

- the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), widely accepted today as a legal basis for enforceable resource exploitation and protection by coastal states, covers a substantial portion of Arctic Ocean waters. What is left is a rather modest international high seas (mainly ice) area that includes the North Pole.


For the most part the Arctic is militarily significant as an air route and waterway. The Soviet Union, because of its geography, has long grasped the strategic significance of the region. Given both the lack of southern Soviet ports and the intense activity in Soviet Arctic territory in contrast to the far more distant U.S. homeland, Soviet northern strategy emphasizes heavy concentration of its strategic power in the north. Today the Kola base area harbors the Soviets' largest fleet, deploying some 130 attack submarines and 70 major surface fleet combatants, as well as a large complex of tactical airbases and naval stations. Seventy percent of the Soviets' ballistic missile submarines are reported to be regularly in that northern fleet.

Moscow's strategic problem is underscored by a mean distance of only 180 miles of open water from the Kola coastline to the Arctic ice pack. As noted earlier, the powerful Soviet forces concentrated on part of the Soviet Arctic coastline are a prime concern to NATO naval and air forces that lie to the west, with the wartime mission of bottling up the Soviet fleets in the Norwegian Sea "killing zone" before they can prey on Atlantic shipping.

Polar air routes have been the basis of U.S.-Canadian (and doubtless Soviet) strategic planning ever since long-range bombers came into inventory. The Great Circle route (that is, the shortest distance) from the U.S.S.R. to the United States is across the Arctic Circle. Hence the intense activity in the 1950s to construct "distant early warning" radar stations-the DEW line-as far north as possible, plus close U.S.-Canadian cooperation in integrated air defense arrangements through NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, now headquartered in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.

U.S. strategic interests in the Canadian north declined in the 1960s when ICBMs emerged as the chief strategic threat to the U.S. mainland. Even with a suspected refueling capability for the new Soviet Backfire medium bomber, it seems unlikely that Washington will revive its languishing air defense preparations against potential Soviet bombing attacks. But a new Soviet strategic bomber or Soviet ALCM (air-launched cruise missile) might generate a whole new northern air defense program. The enormous Canadian Arctic still provides a precious cushion of time and space to deal with incoming hostile objects well before they could reach American cities, substantially enhancing U.S. defense. Conversely, the special conditions of the Arctic, including the enormity of the region itself, make an extremely complicated area-defense problem for Soviet military planners. Obviously, even Soviet subs attempting to evade the GIUK barrier by running between Ellesmere Island and Greenland could be thwarted by U.S., Canadian or Danish countermeasures.

Moscow also has reason to be concerned with rapidly developing U.S. air-launched cruise missiles. These could inspire a Soviet ALCM, or, at a minimum, an active expansion outward of the Soviet forward defense perimeter, possibly sharpening Soviet claims to a very large quadrangle of Arctic territorial sea. This in turn could rejuvenate the presently somnolent NORAD. (On the other side of the ledger, ICBM trajectories do not necessarily cross the Arctic, and ALCMs would not necessarily have to be defended from Arctic waters.)

Few disarmament or arms control or demilitarization agreements have so far been advanced for the Arctic, with the exception of an on-again, off-again proposal, first made by Finland in the early 1960s, for a "Nordic Nuclear-Free Zone." The proposal was not focused on the Arctic but has obvious relevance. In February 1981, then Norwegian Prime Minister Odvar Nordli offered to codify in a nuclear-free-zone treaty Norway's continuing policy of refusing to allow NATO nuclear weapons on its soil in peacetime. Other NATO members reacted unfavorably, and Norway later suggested that such a plan would have to include Soviet northern deployments.1

Then, in June 1981, Soviet President Brezhnev used a Finnish newspaper to offer the Nordic countries a guarantee that they would never be subject to Soviet nuclear attack if they joined in such a zone. Brezhnev pointed out that nuclear weapons were not yet deployed in non-Soviet Northern Europe and said that it was time to give that area a status that was "sealed and legally formalized." It was left unclear how such a scheme would affect Soviet nuclear weapons in this region, or for that matter superpower nuclear weapons in transit through Arctic waters. Brezhnev hinted that he would not rule out possibilities for discussing Soviet deployments, although on July 23, 1981 the Soviet press service Novosti asserted that the Kola peninsula and Baltic Sea were excluded.2

The Soviet move had a mixed reception, coming as it did at a time when Moscow was working hard to deflect Western Europe from the December 1979 NATO decision to acquire theater nuclear weapons in the form of cruise missiles and Pershing-2s. Perhaps predictably, Finland and Sweden welcomed Brezhnev's initial "offer," Norway and Denmark were more reserved, and Washington was not amused.3

Soviet interest in the Arctic is not something new. It has existed since the time of Peter the Great, became a conscious priority after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and today includes the key strategic element of hydrocarbon fuels: probably 70 percent of untapped Soviet oil resources are to be found on its continental shelf, 50 percent of which lies within the Arctic region. Over a decade ago a Soviet publication stated that for the U.S.S.R., "the polar regions are acquiring increasing importance in the development of the productive forces of society." (Translation: they are extremely important.) The Soviet paper noted that the Arctic represents for the Soviets an "invaluable depository of major minerals, ores, chemical raw materials, timber, coal, oil and gas."4

Even those who remember early Soviet postwar pressure on Turkey to alter the Turkish Straits regime, and on Iran to cede Azerbaijan, may not also recall that Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, at a dramatic midnight Kremlin meeting in November 1944 with Norwegian Foreign Minister Trygve Lie, also succeeded in darkening postwar Soviet-Norwegian relations by demanding revision of the Svalbard Treaty (which established Norwegian sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago), plus cession to the Soviet Union of Bear Island, which lies approximately equidistant between Norway's North Cape and the South Cape of the Svalbard.

Norway seems quite clear as to its strategic interests in the north and the linkage between the Arctic and the rest of Norway's strategic problem. Johan Jørgen Holst, Norwegian State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and an experienced defense analyst, recently wrote:

The Northern region constitutes a flank area from the point of view of defending Central Europe. At the same time the area occupies a central balance of deterrence. The Northern region is both a flank and a core area in the East-West confrontation. . . . Norway and Denmark have emphasized in the [European arms control] talks the need to have a reduction agreement for the center region accompanied by a set of associated measures which would apply to a wider area and thereby preserve the coherence and cohesion of the security order across the regional boundaries.5

No other Western states seem to have that sort of integrated strategic view even indirectly embracing the Arctic.

I referred earlier to U.S.-Canadian joint continental defense. The unhappy recent shift in U.S.-Canadian relations to an abrasive and more openly resented dependency relationship is at least somewhat exacerbated by the U.S. strategic perception of Canada as a useful polar barrier against trajectories of weapons targeted on the United States which cross Canadian territory. Put differently, Americans sometimes seem to look straight through Canada as they peer across the Arctic to the U.S.S.R.

Canada still cooperates for mutual defense. But like many a junior partner it suffers exquisitely on a whole range of issues-including being taken for granted in NORAD. The fact that only a few Americans are even aware of such Canadian sensitivities constitutes the unkindest cut of all for our northern neighbor. Impending developments in the Arctic area are likely to sharpen rather than dampen Canadian resentment of the perceived American mix of power and indifference. Relations are already inflamed over American ownership of Canadian oil companies, acid rain, and arbitrary negotiating postures on disputed Atlantic fisheries.

The father of modern geopolitics, Sir Halford Mackinder, was a bit premature when in 1904 he identified as the world's "Pivot Area" the place where Eurasian rivers drain into the icebound Arctic Ocean. His prediction was that this area would be linked to the Eurasian "Heartland" through the development of railroads and eventually air routes, basically altering overall power relations.

But perhaps Sir Halford was not wrong in his overall strategic geometry, only in his inability (shared by us all) to anticipate the technology which more than anything else gives new definition to power, and to military strategy. The mere fact that the Soviet Union and the United States share an Arctic backyard gives this region a special significance in contemporary geopolitics. That six countries look out on the North Pole along converging lines of longitude makes the Arctic at least potentially a "political region." But it is mainly the introduction of new technologies in the fields of oil, shipping and mining that, in the words of Canadian political scientist Franklyn Griffiths, causes the "Circumpolar North to come alive." Griffiths identifies three indicators: increasing national activity by the bordering "ice-states"; resource scarcity matched by galloping technological innovations to overcome that scarcity; and growing conflict among foreign offices, perhaps eventually among the nations themselves, as to who has the right to do what where.6


Above all, it is oil which is changing the Arctic from an exotic cryogenic laboratory for explorers and marine biologists into a major weight in the global energy scales.

It is generally agreed that global dependency on petroleum as the primary source of energy will continue at least until the end of the century. Americans already have access to nine billion barrels of Prudhoe Bay oil. Canadians, possessing far more of the Arctic, are in no doubt that they hold an area of old rock formations likely to support a richness and variety of minerals including uranium, gold, radium, silver, copper, iron ore, coal-and oil. The Arctic geologic structures in the Beaufort Sea, also in Greenland and on and around Baffin Island, suggest a vast new potential. Enormous accumulations of sediment along the Alaskan-Canadian margin may signify incalculable new quantities of oil. All in all, it is not surprising that Canada is in the forefront of Arctic petroleum development; Canadian oil companies announced in June 1981 a planned investment of $674 million (Canadian) for a year-round drilling system in "their" Beaufort Sea, whose proven reserves are estimated at six billion barrels.7

Arctic gas fields appear equally promising. Petro-Canada has invested substantially in its "Arctic Pilot Project" under which liquified natural gas is to be shipped east from Melville Island-although some Canadians feel that enough gas is potentially available in the southern part of Canada to render drilling in the north uneconomic. As if that were not enough, the Canadian Arctic contains coal reserves estimated at up to 130 billion tons.

The least one can conclude is that Arctic fuels are potentially able to reduce, and perhaps even eliminate, North American dependence on Persian/Arabian Gulf oil, with all the implications that would have for the new conventional wisdom which prescribes U.S. interventionist strategies in the Gulf on the grounds of U.S., European and Japanese vital interests.

As a source of non-fuel minerals, such as lead zinc, the Arctic region is already being exploited. (COMINCO's Little Cornwallis Island lead-zinc mine Polaris, the world's northernmost, already represents a $150-million investment.) But a quite different event of potentially enormous economic significance, which could eventually affect the Arctic region directly and indirectly, has recently been recorded by geologists experimenting on the seabed. This is the upwelling of enormous quantities of "mineral soups"-polymetallic sulfides-bubbling up through faults where the earth's crust has spread, mixing with ocean water and then being deposited in rich concentrations on the deep sea floor. In this species of mini-volcano the chemicals precipitate out as a variety of metallic sulfides such as gold and copper salts, with a potential value of tens of billions of dollars. The phenomenon has been observed since 1977 in the form of warm springs at approximately 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) under sea level. Although data are still scarce, at least one expert, Dr. Ned Ostenso, a senior U.S. government official dealing with Arctic matters, believes that this product of the earth's "juvenile crust" might prove far more valuable than the deep seabed manganese nodules over whose disposition the nearly completed Law of the Sea treaty negotiations have recently stumbled.

Taking all these developments into account, as one of the rare U.S. conferences on the Arctic (in October 1970) concluded, the Arctic is "the last usable part of the world as far as providing a resource base is concerned."8

The transit of commercial shipping through the Arctic waters would seem innocuous enough from a political standpoint. But in fact it produced one of the sharpest irritants of all in Canadian-U.S. relations-the "Manhattan incident" in 1969-70, centering on the fabled Northwest Passage that winds through the Canadian Arctic to provide a navigable waterway from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For the previous half-century, Canada had largely ignored exploratory activities in the Arctic on the part of Norway, Denmark and the United States. It took a direct challenge to Canadian sovereignty in the form of the Manhattan voyage to create a crisis in U.S.-Canadian relations, and to foster the notion of Canadian Arctic sovereignty as a "core objective" of Canadian foreign policy.

In 1968, after American oil companies had found huge oil deposits in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, they decided to reinforce a supertanker-the S.S. Manhattan-for a trial transit through the Passage. Much about the plan was improvised (it was said by Canadian oil-men that the only ice the Manhattan's Texas backers had previously seen was in their drinks). In fact, their Canadian counterparts hoped to profit from information the Americans would gain on northern ice conditions; and under international law a trip through the Northwest Passage would be considered "innocent passage" even if Canada claimed the waterways as "territorial waters." So far so good. But the crunch came when Washington announced that a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, considered a military vessel by Canada, would accompany the Manhattan despite offers of cooperation by Canadian icebreakers. Note that it "announced," not "requested Canadian permission." The crisis deepened when the Americans subsequently refused to share the information they acquired.

Canadians are not in agreement among themselves today as to whether Canada has sovereign rights over its entire archipelagic northern area, including the Northwest Passage. They are also not clear whether in law the "historic rights" of Canadians (including the Inuit who live there) would be preserved if a Law of the Sea Treaty is passed-or if it is not. But 1968 was a time of rising Canadian nationalism and the incident was construed in Canada as an American provocation. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in May 1969 publicly asserted a broad claim of sovereignty over the Canadian North (a claim which was weakened, however, by a failure to draw baselines that would enclose not only the land masses but also the waters of the area).

A more solid Canadian response was the passage the following year of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act. By this act Ottawa's Parliament subjected to Canadian construction and navigational safety standards ships that "innocently" transited those waters within zones up to 100 miles offshore. Canada's assertion of sovereign power (including the right to prosecute foreign ships) ran squarely against the U.S. stand that the Northwest Passage is an international strait which, under "customary" international law (and under the proposed Law of the Sea Treaty), could be freely transited by ships of all countries. Washington then (and now) held to the fiction of a three-mile territorial sea in the absence of a treaty agreement on 12 miles, and the Nixon Administration soon after acted to limit Canadian oil imports. The Trudeau government, in turn, has increasingly pressed for majority Canadian ownership of all its Arctic exploratory activities.

Calm has since returned on this front, in part because of the likelihood that pipelines will remain the preferred method of moving Alaskan oil south. But the Manhattan incident still rankles inside Canada and could generate an even worse crisis in the chronically jumpy U.S.-Canadian relationship if projections of up to 1,000 ship passages a year through those same waters prove to be accurate. This estimate assumes a new Middle East oil squeeze. But the Northwest Passage could become equally crowded when Canada's Dome Petroleum ships its oil eastward from the Beaufort Sea, or if Japan decides that the Northwest Passage is its most economical shipping route to Europe.

Canadians have also not decided which is the chief threat they need to defend themselves against-environmental degradation, control of navigation, oil spills, foreign use of Canadian ports, or perhaps just erosion of their sovereignty. It is by no means certain that Canada would ever close off the waters of its Arctic archipelago, claiming that they are "internal." Such an act would clash head-on with U.S. insistence (doubtless backed by other maritime states including the U.S.S.R.) on treating Canadian Arctic waters as high seas where all ships have equal rights. Americans, typically, remain blissfully ignorant of Canadian resentments, but could be jolted awake if an escalating political crisis put into question other fundamental elements of the relationship, such as Canadian membership in NORAD (an issue which some Canadian nationalists already raise).


The legal status of Canadian Arctic waters is, as we have seen, murky, and will continue to be until and unless a comprehensive Law of the Sea Treaty comes into force. Even in that happy event the legal waters could still be roiled by such national game-playing as "sector claims." As in the Antarctic, a sector claim here means asserting national sovereignty over a pie-shaped wedge of water and ice stretching from the mainland boundaries of the littoral state and coming to a point at the North Pole. (In the Antarctic all such territorial claims were put on ice, as it were, by the 1959 agreement.) Canadians talk about a sector claim of their own, and have implied sovereign status in the way they have conveyed "greetings" to drifting Soviet ice stations which happened to be within Canada's 200-mile EEZ. But no formal assertion of ownership has yet been made anywhere in the Arctic. (Sector claims have similarly been implied in the Soviet Union, though by scholars, not the Kremlin.)

Even without sector claims, U.S.-Canadian relations are troubled by unresolved jurisdictional issues, two of which I have already mentioned: the Canadian Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, and the Northwest Passage. A third issue is the U.S.-Canadian boundary running into the Beaufort Sea. Canada argues that the 1825 British-Russian treaty carrying the sector line to the Pole along the 141st meridian is still in effect. The United States prefers the dividing line through waters to be drawn on the principle of "equidistance," meaning that points along the line represent equal distances between adjacent or opposite states. (The irony is that Canada asserts the median-line "equidistance" principle with Denmark in talks on the offshore boundaries off the coasts of Ellesmere Island and Greenland, while the United States is not following that method in its sharpening quarrel with Canada over the Gulf of Maine east coast boundary, involving explosive questions of fishing rights.)

The basic issue is, of course, whether Canada can justify sealing off its entire northern land masses and waterways as an enclosed internal sea by drawing straight baseline boundaries from outermost island to outermost island. (In 1951 the International Court of Justice decided Norwegian outer boundaries in that fashion, but Canada has not yet argued this precedent.) Meanwhile, Soviet ice stations float in and out of Canada's Arctic waters.

The best guess is that, if the major outstanding issues are not resolved, Canada will eventually bite the legal bullet and formally claim for its entire Arctic region the international rules governing "archipelagic regimes." The United States will probably also continue to refuse to accept not only that ultimate claim but, at least for a time, even the application of a 12-mile limit to the straits of the Canadian Arctic. Both outcomes largely depend on whether the Third U.N. Conference on the Law of the Sea-UNCLOS III, now in its ninth year of negotiation-is able to reach final agreement in the face of Washington's insistence on reopening the central bargain that has been struck between navigational and exploitational freedoms-which we want-and shared deep seabed mining development and revenues-which the majority of developing countries want.

That treaty contains one article with special relevance to the Arctic, Article 234. This so-called ice-covered area article would allow coastal states to adopt "non-discriminatory" laws controlling pollution in their EEZs, and to enforce those laws in the case of ice-covered areas; Article 234 is clearly aimed at the Arctic. Article 89 provides that no state can subject the high seas (i.e., waters beyond the future 12-mile limit) to national sovereignty except for special regulations involving economic resources in the 200-mile EEZ and continental shelf, a provision which also directly affects the Arctic. Even if Canada calls its North an "archipelago," with implied sovereign rights in all enclosed land and water, the draft treaty provides that transit in a 50-mile-wide corridor through such islands is equivalent to the rule for international straits, which could ease the problem of the contested Northwest Passage (even though the draft articles involving archipelagic states were not actually directed at Canada's situation). The draft treaty also presumes collective, rather than national, action on pollution control, with the exception of Article 234.

Some international law does of course apply to the Arctic now. Even without a Law of the Sea Treaty, the new 200-mile EEZ zone, like the new 12-mile limit, will doubtless become customary law (although some embittered or greedy coastal states will probably revive their absurd claims to a 200-mile sovereign territorial sea). And some other international treaties apply now to the Arctic, such as the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty forbidding nuclear explosions underwater or in the atmosphere, the 1971 Seabed Treaty barring weapons of mass destruction on the floor of the seas, and of course the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for non-nuclear powers in the region. The almost completed treaty regulating west coast salmon fishing between the United States and Canada is another (rare) piece of good news. But when all is said and done, the overall Law of the Sea Treaty is badly needed to stabilize relations. Without it the potential squabbles are endless, laced with unresolvable arguments as to what customary or general international law would apply in the Arctic-or for that matter, in any ocean on the globe.


The strongest support for conservationist-minded rules for the Arctic comes, understandably enough, from the scientific community, backed by the newly vocal native peoples who inhabit this forbidding region. If those people, along with Canadian, U.S., Soviet and other marine biologists, geophysicists and explorers have one overriding concern with all the sudden commercial activity in the Arctic, it is fear of irreversible damage to what has been considered an uncommonly fragile physical environment.

Scientists, for example, worry about the effect of growing numbers of tanker tracks on seal hunting, and on the life of other marine mammals inhabiting the Arctic straits. Supertanker crossings will also interfere with the customary winter passages used by the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic. Greenlanders reportedly worry about noise problems caused by stepped-up air and naval activity. And scientists remain generally nervous over the Soviet scheme of reversing the course of major rivers running into the Arctic in order to benefit from a southward flow, which would change the salinity of Arctic ocean waters in unforeseeable ways.

The most preoccupying environmental fear is of gross pollution from a major oil spill in Arctic waters. Canadian scientists believe such a spill could conceivably change the Arctic's albedo (that is, its reflectivity to light) with potentially dire consequences elsewhere in temperatures and water levels. The worst-case scenario is a supertanker gashed as it breaks through the ice pack late in the season, with massive losses of oil before being detected, devastating the migratory bird population. U.S. expert Edward Miles sums up all of these nagging fears when he says that "the Arctic is an unforgiving environment, unlike other regions, and nations are capable of making big mistakes."

But some scientists are reaching a revised conclusion that the Arctic is not necessarily as fragile an environment as was feared, and that the effects of oil pollution on fish and other marine life have been somewhat overemphasized. Still, there is no doubt about the potential danger of major oil spills to birds, and broad agreement exists on the need for the kind of continuous environmental monitoring Norway now performs in its Arctic sector. In an era of declining government expenditures, Canadian oil companies are likely to do the necessary environmental monitoring, which may become a task for the American oil companies as well, although some might question the objectivity of such a procedure.

The Arctic is the climate-maker for much of the world. Most scientists believe that large amounts of carbon dioxide produced by vastly increased fossil fuel consumption in temperate zones could in theory melt Arctic ice with unpredictable effects on ocean levels elsewhere; some scientists disagree.9 When Americans (and Canadians) come to face paralyzing water shortages in their respective Southwest regions, they could be tempted by the Soviet-style vision of reversed-flow river systems, with all that implies for Arctic biological systems and climate. More optimistically, Arctic weather research leading to better climate prediction could have big payoffs for such economic interests as wheat-growing, and for national security as well. A more distant, but vastly important, possibility is the disposal of global nuclear wastes under layers of radiation-absorbing clay in the deep ocean bed. Such a program is already being studied for the North Pacific, and could also one day involve the Arctic Ocean deeps.

Arguments for cooperation among scientists have always been persuasive, and the possibility of activities that gamble with the Arctic environment underlines the need for scientific and environmental collaboration. But national competition remains strong. For example, the United States still has no capability to operate a research ship near the ice pack, while Canada has several ice-strengthened vessels usable for research. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has now recommended that such a U.S. ship be developed. Conversely, while U.S. satellite capability could provide a very useful tool for scientists studying the Arctic region, some cooperative programs are blocked because of the highly classified nature of American technology.

Those sorts of issues were discussed at a conference convened by UNESCO at Banff Springs, Canada in the spring of 1981-one of the few occasions when the Arctic littoral states have come together to talk. But in the words of Professor Miles, the players in the Arctic game still seem to prefer what he calls "dynamic ad hoc-ery" to an integrated approach.


On the basis of this brief survey, what can we conclude about the need for more active international involvement in the Arctic? Are things happening or likely to happen there that would benefit from more substantial common rules? Are they of universal interest? Should the Arctic be treated as a special region? Would a more purposeful political approach be helpful or harmful to the larger goal of improved international peace and security?

Clearly there are some universal interests in the region, most obviously in the categories of weather prediction and control, maritime transport and access, and arms regulation. There is also a globally accepted interest in the physical environment, although implementation is generally left to individual nations. And certainly scientific exploration and experimentation have traditionally represented a wide sense of community, with one nation's activities accepted by the others as innocent-at least until the present.

It would appear to be in everyone's interest to develop further the cooperative efforts in sharing weather satellite information through GARP-the Global Atmosphere Research Program of the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization. It is also desirable to encourage the new nongovernmental Comité Arctique, headquartered in Monaco, which can probably agree on things governments cannot or will not. Arctic scientific cooperation is in everyone's interest.

Equally compelling are the arguments for pressing on to completion of the draft Law of the Sea Treaty. Universally accepted rules governing territorial waters and passage through archipelagic and international straits would provide an invaluable legal framework for dealing with vexing Arctic issues, in particular the Northwest Passage.

Arms control or demilitarization agreements affecting the Arctic are, of course, a function of wider superpower relations. Regional arms balances as such do not seem relevant to the Arctic. But Western planners, while properly suspicious of Moscow's proposed northern nuclear-free zone, should consider improving on the proposals made so far by Helsinki, Oslo and Moscow (and those on demilitarization proposed by the Inuit at their 1977 conference). We might go even further and look at the potential costs and benefits of an Arctic "conflict-free zone," drawing on the approaches embodied in the Antarctic and Svalbard Treaties-freely exchanged visits, inspection in the agreed common area and demilitarization-plus provisions for arbitrating disputes.

Arctic political cooperation will not be as easy as it was in 1959 in the Antarctic. Whereas rudimentary institutions could be created and legal issues bypassed in the Antarctic, the Arctic is already an arena of competition in the newly vital realm of resource availability, and potentially in the strategic realm as well. Moreover, the political climate today for multilateral institution-building is nowhere near as propitious as it was two decades ago, for reasons that lie in both East-West and North-South relations. Nevertheless, official studies should be undertaken, while unofficial discussions among nongovernmental U.S., Soviet, Canadian and Scandinavian groups probe the prospects for general cooperation.

At a less-than-global level, are there special common regional interests among the six states that border the Arctic warranting cooperation or organization? Like all coastal states, the six demonstrably have a common interest in exploiting resources in their own economic zones that extend into the Arctic Ocean. What about the Arctic basin itself which they abut and surround? Its waters rank as "high seas," covered by such law of the sea as nations generally accept. But there may be a strong case for six-nation cooperation in ensuring all the Arctic waters (and peoples) against environmental degradation, in fostering scientific exploration, and in dealing with purely regional disputes.

Is regional political cooperation possible? One incentive for "regional diplomacy" would be to avoid involving 149 other member states of the United Nations in purely Arctic questions. But relations today among the key actors in this regional drama do not encourage the idea. Norway and the U.S.S.R. are in fundamental disagreement over the Svalbard archipelago. Canada and Denmark differ over Greenland, particularly its flourishing direct relations with Canada. A Soviet-Canadian draft agreement on human resources in the circumpolar region, drafted in 1977, has already collapsed. U.S.-Canadian relations are likely to get worse rather than better; even if critical issues such as the Northwest Passage and the Beaufort Sea are resolved, perceptions of the Soviet threat often differ so markedly that strains are likely to continue along the central security axis of the relationship.

Finally, U.S.-Soviet relations are nothing short of poisonous today. Even some proposals concerning the Arctic made during the détente period have come to naught (in 1972, Moscow proposed a joint manned underseas research effort-in a field where the United States was ahead-in exchange for which the United States proposed cooperative research on Arctic oceanography-which the Soviets rejected). Soviet relations with the United States, and to a lesser degree with NATO members Canada, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, are so burdened by fundamental differences not arising from Arctic issues that new agreements may be severely limited. But, by the same token, the arguments are strong for seeking out areas of common interest or common threats that are negotiable even in a period of strain. The Arctic may offer interesting opportunities for discussions at low cost, but with a possibly high payoff.

The Brezhnev proposal for a northern nuclear-free zone is patently one-sided. But since the United States would gain from a ban on placing nuclear weapons in some areas north of the Arctic Circle, American planners should explore a version that is not one-sided, and which includes Soviet deployments as well. An Antarctic Treaty type of agreement for mutual inspection of scientific programs could contribute to stability by reassuring both sides that a new battleground is not being surreptitiously designed, as could adaptation of provisions of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, featuring equality of access to the region's resources and a ban on "warlike activities."

An opportunity may exist here to improve U.S.-Canadian relations which, although also encumbered by a wider range of differences, centrally involve Arctic policy questions. Washington should consider what U.S. initiatives might help resolve amicably and equitably, during the present relative lull, the vexing questions of the Northwest Passage, the Beaufort Sea boundaries, and the shared fisheries. These could strengthen significantly links between the two allies.


On balance, the logical conclusion from the foregoing analysis could be a policy of benign neglect and laissez-faire. Functional cooperation among neighboring states would take place as needed on specific issues, always hoping that the Law of the Sea negotiations come to a successful conclusion with universally valid rules applied to the Arctic waters. In trying to think constructively yet realistically about this last unmanaged frontier, we can be humbled by the knowledge that, here as elsewhere, science and technology run far ahead of our feeble political capacities.

But in today's dangerously deteriorated global political atmosphere, such an attitude may not be the correct one. It might be in the higher national-and general-interest to consciously "use" the Arctic for overarching political purposes, as I have been suggesting. A creative and generous U.S. Arctic policy could well serve the larger cause of improved U.S.-Canadian cooperation. Even more compelling are the possibilities for using the Arctic as an additional avenue, albeit modest, toward reducing U.S.-Soviet tensions, and lessening the chances of thermonuclear war.

1 The New York Times, February 15, 1981.

2 The New York Times, July 24, 1981.

3 The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1981.

4 Man and the Frigid Zone, Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, no date, p. 2.

6 See Franklyn Griffiths, A Northern Foreign Policy, Wellesley Papers 7/1979, Toronto: Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 1979.

7 The New York Times, June 13, 1981.

8 Report of the Boston Conference for Arctic Planning, sponsored by the Adm. Richard E. Byrd Polar Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 14-16, 1970.



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  • Lincoln P. Bloomfield is Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1979-80 he served with the National Security Council, in charge of Global Issues. For the stimulus to examine the issues discussed in this article, he would like to express his indebtedness to the U.S. and Canadian co-sponsors of a workshop on Arctic questions held on Mackinac Island, Michigan, June 10-12, 1981: the University of Hawaii's Law of the Sea Institute and Dalhousie University's Ocean Studies Program.
  • More By Lincoln P. Bloomfield