The United States and Russia have been at loggerheads lately. The widely publicized “reset” in their relationship has foundered on a series of sharp disagreements over such issues as Syria, missile defense and the Magnitsky bill—just to name a few.
Thus, a recent bit of bilateral cooperation comes as welcome news. On Monday, the State Department announced that a joint U.S.-Russian team had just concluded a ten-day inspection of six different research stations in Antarctica. The inspection was conducted under the auspices of the Antarctic Treaty, a fifty-three-year-old agreement that governs activities on the icy continent, and its subsequent 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection.
Legally speaking, Antarctica belongs to no one. During the first half of the twentieth century, however, seven nations formally staked claims to portions of the continent, some of which overlap. While it may seem farfetched to imagine that territorial rivalry in an exceedingly remote and desolate corner of the world could ever lead to armed conflict, minor skirmishes between Great Britain and Argentina did in fact occur near the Antarctic Peninsula in the early 1950s. (Later, in 1982, the same two countries fought a tragic war over the Falkland or Malvinas Islands, not all that far from Antarctica itself.) Moreover, as the Cold War unfolded, American and other diplomats worried that the continent might somehow become ensnarled in the global competition between the two superpowers.
To help remove the possibility of conflict over Antarctica, nations with interests in the region negotiated and then signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. Often described as a model arms-control treaty, the treaty set aside rival territorial claims in Antarctica by effectively putting them on hold. It also explicitly mandated that Antarctica would be “used for peaceful purposes only” and banned “any measures of a military nature,” including establishing bases, conducting maneuvers and testing weapons. And, just to be sure, it prohibited nuclear explosions and disposal of radioactive waste in the region.
An important exception, however, was made to allow military personnel and equipment to support scientific research or any other peaceful purpose in Antarctica. As reported previously in The National Interest, U.S. activities in Antarctica rely heavily upon the military for logistics. Huge Air Force C-17 transport aircraft routinely transport people and equipment from Christchurch, New Zealand, to the sprawling American station at McMurdo on the Antarctic coast. From there, smaller ski-equipped LC-130s, flown by the New York Air National Guard, shuttle back and forth to the South Pole and other research sites. The navy’s Military Sealift Command also contracts for two ships each year to deliver cargo and fuel to McMurdo.
To ensure that nations complied with the ban on military measures, the treaty opened up the entire continent to on-site inspection. Inspectors from any of the twenty-eight so-called “consultative” parties to the treaty (those signatories that actually conduct substantial research activity in the region) can visit any of the research stations operated by individual nations, as well as the ships and aircraft that support them. Additionally, aerial observation is permitted over all areas of Antarctica. The treaty was thus one of the very first international agreements to provide for an "intrusive" inspection regime, a practice later adopted in several nuclear-arms-control treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union, and later Russia. The inspection provisions of the Antarctic Treaty were subsequently extended to include monitoring compliance with the treaty’s 1991 Protocol for Environmental Protection.