The U.S.-Russian Antarctic Thaw

December 12, 2012 Topic: International LawGlobal Governance Region: RussiaUnited States

The U.S.-Russian Antarctic Thaw

Relations with Moscow aren't great, but new cooperation at the South Pole offers hope.

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.

Given the costs and logistical challenges of getting there, not all consultative parties to the treaty have actually invoked their right to conduct inspections. New Zealand carried out the first one in 1963, followed by Australia and Great Britain. The United States mounted its first inspection in 1964, and conducted one every four years on average in subsequent years.

The United States teamed up with Russia for the first time in January 2012 for a short-notice visit to research stations belonging to New Zealand, Italy and France. As with all previous inspections, no concerns about compliance with the arms-control tenets of the treaty were identified.

Nine months later, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed a Memorandum of Understanding for Cooperation in Antarctica during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Vladivostok. Noting that the two countries conduct some of the most extensive and diverse scientific activities in Antarctica, the memo specifically called for reinforcing cooperative activities already taking place in the region, including continuing joint inspections of the facilities of other countries in Antarctica.

Accordingly, this month the United States and Russia carried out an even more ambitious inspection together, visiting six stations belonging to India, Belgium, Japan, Norway and China. Their findings will be reported jointly at the next plenary meeting of the all the consultative parties to the Antarctic Treaty scheduled for May 2013, in Brussels, Belgium.

The fact that the United States and Russia have joined forces in conducting inspections under the Antarctic Treaty is a relatively modest achievement in the larger scheme of things. But it does provide an opportunity for the United States and Russia to work together on an important area of common interest—both at the diplomatic level and, perhaps even more importantly, at the level of scientific and technical experts. At the same time, it helps facilitate a continuing dialogue between leaders of both countries while the thornier issues in the bilateral relationship are being resolved.

Frank Klotz is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, and the author of America on the Ice: Antarctic Policy Issues.