Foreign Affairs

Arctic diplomacy: The past was prologue

Arctic diplomacy: The past was prologue

China has taken to calling itself a “near Arctic” state.  Its diplomats have also invented the concept of a “third” pole—the Himalayas—to suggest that their country lies closer to the polar regions than a glance at a world map might reveal.  Meanwhile, Russian submariners have dropped a marker on what they call the real North Pole, ninety degrees north on the floor of the Arctic Ocean.  American subs have been probing those depths since 1958, but never mind.  Now the Canadians, armed with fresh survey data, are reportedly preparing to assert sovereignty over an extended rim of the northern seabed including the Pole.

The presumption of vast mineral resources beneath pack ice and tundra has produced a global follies of claims and maneuvers.  But the Arctic has seen it all before.  In fact, the diplomatic hustling has been presaged by an exciting and, at times, comical series of events that took place nearly 100 years ago.  Instead of oil and natural gas, the international competition then was prompted by a widespread belief in new land in the Polar Sea.

In 1925, Navy aviator and future Admiral Richard E. Byrd first sailed north to locate the mythical continent and claim it for the U.S.  The leader of the Byrd party, an experienced Arctic hand named Donald B. MacMillan, gained support for the undertaking by reminding President Calvin Coolidge that the Danes had established themselves in all of Greenland.  Copenhagen, according to MacMillan, posed a clear and present danger to an American presence in the Arctic.  The progress of aviation suggested the possibility of northern air routes in the near future.  America needed to find and claim new land in the Polar Sea to establish the bases that would enable it to compete in a 20th Century economy.  MacMilllan’s argument was widely quoted in the press.

Then as now Arctic land claims were a ticklish issue in global politics.  Denmark resented the intimation that something was rotten in Greenland.  A Norwegian parliamentarian who happened to be in Minnesota in 1925, attending the centennial of Scandinavian immigration to the American Midwest, pointed to the proximity of Norwegian territory—the Svalbard islands—to the Arctic Ocean.  The lost continent he said would be “Norway’s nearest neighbor on the north.  No land lies between us and the unexplored region.  It is close to home, so to speak.”

A reporter on the scene raised the question of the Monroe Doctrine.

“The Monroe Doctrine,” said the Norwegian, “can hardly be stretched from Pole to Pole.”

On the matter of land claims in remote wilderness areas, international law was and remains perfectly ambiguous.  Discovery is not in itself a sufficient basis to support a land claim; discovery has to be followed by “occupation,” although the nature of “occupation” is subject to interpretation.  Countries finesse this requirement today by establishing science stations in the polar regions.  This is one reason why Chinese and Russian science stations are multiplying like Arctic hares and why the Canadians have just allocated $18 million for the construction of a High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

In 1925, the Canadians didn’t have a High Arctic Research Station.  They did have a hut in the southeast corner of Ellesmere Island, which Ottawa, in a missive to the U.S. State Department,  referred to as a “post” of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  The State Department replied that it wished to be informed what constituted a post of the R.C.M.P., how frequently it was visited, and to what extent and by whom it was permanently occupied?

The leadership of the American expedition duly grappled with the diplomatic protocols before embarking for the high latitudes.  Commander MacMillan wrote to the Secretary of the Navy asking exactly what he was authorized to do if new land was discovered.  The Secretary of the Navy referred the question to the Secretary of State.  The State Department was so befuddled by the matter that it  solicited the advice of the National Geographic Society.  Unfortunately, Gilbert Grosvenor, the President of  the Society, wasn’t available to respond to the request.  He was in Wiscasset, Maine, celebrating MacMillan’s departure.

The expedition consequently sailed north without any clear-cut notion of what to do if it found the continent it was looking for!  One hopes that the seekers after mineral resources converging on the Arctic today are more properly instructed.

Sheldon Bart is president and founder of Wilderness Research Foundation and a member of the Board of Governors of the American Polar Society. His most recent book, “Race to the Top of the World: Richard Byrd and the First Flight to the North Pole,” has just been published by Regnery History.

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