Governing Antarctica: A Continent Dedicated to Science or a Place of Geopolitical Rivalry?

The Antarctic Region in 2002.

In many respects, the history of cooperation and collaboration in Antarctic science mirrors the larger story of how the various great powers have interrelated since the conclusion of World War II. If one were to characterize it accurately throughout the last fifty-plus years, the undeniable conclusion is that all parties have enjoyed an uneasy relationship in which they have recognized that they were better off cooperating rather than competing on the icy continent.

This approach to dealing with Antarctica is really a relic of the Cold War rivalries of the latter 1950s, and especially of the remarkable scientific endeavor known as the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The IGY took place in 1957-1958, and 12 nations participated directly in Antarctic research during that organized scientific research effort.

Because of its success, within a year afterward, these same 12 nations met in Washington, DC, to sign the Antarctic Treaty, which “internationalized” Antarctica on a limited basis as a “continent dedicated to peace and science.” Article IV of the Antarctic Treaty suspended (or “froze” in the official pun of the conference) all sovereignty claims to the continent for its duration, bringing to an end the active phase of very real disputes between Great Britain, Argentina, and Chile over control of the continent.

To many people at the time, it appeared as if the idealism of science had trumped Cold War geopolitics. Historians have tended to follow this idealistic interpretation of the connection between the IGY and the Antarctic Treaty, and the southern continent tends to be held up as an all too rare example of scientific cooperation fostering political harmony.

The South Pole Station founded by the United States in 1957 as a part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY).

Of course, the IGY did indeed play an important role in the resolution of the Antarctic sovereignty dispute, but not in quite the idealistic way that the traditional narrative has suggested. The actual science of the IGY, and the improved understanding of the Antarctic environment that it facilitated, played an important role in the partial resolution of the question of sovereignty. As officials in the treaty nations, especially in Great Britain and the United States, learned more about the reality of the Antarctica environment through the work of IGY—in particular the realization that it contained little or nothing of immediate economic value—they acceded to arguments in favor of internationalizing the continent. There was, in any eventuality, not much of a downside in the foreseeable future.

Accordingly, the U.S. led an effort to diffuse geopolitical tensions in Antarctica by internationalizing the continent. As the various nations accepted this position they found themselves members of the Antarctic Treaty system’s “exclusive club,” which continues to govern the continent to this day.

Initially the Antarctic Treaty signatory countries disagreed on the question of the Soviet Union’s role on the continent. U.S. officials, perhaps somewhat naively, believed that they could create a treaty regime for Antarctica that would exclude the Soviet Union. British officials—who were especially keen to resolve the dispute—argued, more realistically, that the communist superpower would have to be included for any internationalization of Antarctica to work. After some discussion, the British position prevailed.

Since the ratification of the Antartic Treaty in 1960 the international partners have jockeyed and cajoled each other seeking to gain advantage, competitive or otherwise, in Antarctic activities.

In many ways, all the parties to the treaty got exactly what they wanted from the Antarctic Treaty: limited internationalism diffused political tensions, while claims (for the British) and the reservation of the right to make claims (for the United States) remained in a state of suspended animation, to be brought out again if ever the occasion should demand. The Argentineans and Chileans viewed the Antarctic environment differently, seeing it as an “integral part” of their national territories. They opposed any form of internationalization and only participated in the Antarctic Treaty negotiations when they realized that the weight of international opinion was against them. Nevertheless, despite this reluctance, their participation helped to give credibility to the solution of Antarctic internationalization. Science also offered the Antarctic Treaty signatories a useful tool for excluding unwanted countries from their new political club. Far from being a simple story of (good) science trumping (bad) geopolitics, the history of the connection between the IGY and the Antarctic Treaty involved the political exploitation of scientific goodwill to achieve essentially political objectives.

We now understand that the poles are critical to understanding the Earth’s environment. The ozone hole discovered over Antarctica led to successful efforts to mitigate its expansion.

Rather than bringing imperial interests in Antarctica to an end, as the traditional interpretation would suggest, the Antarctic Treaty reformulated and retained these interests. This observation opens Antarctica to study from a postcolonial framework. Postcolonial scholarship seeks to highlight and challenge continued imperial practices of exclusion and unequal power relationships after the “decolonization” of most of the colonized world in the mid-twentieth century. Despite the numerous achievements of the Antarctic Treaty system in protecting the environment and maintaining peace, it remains firmly rooted in the power structures of imperialism and the Cold War. The Antarctic Treaty itself is a distinctly postcolonial treaty, because the retention of imperial influence is written into its text.

The Antarctic Treaty has been quite successful overall. In addition to having an intrinsic value of its own—especially at a time of growing awareness of the centrality of the southern continent to the global environment—science has also done much to keep the peace in Antarctica. Scientific cooperation has laid the basis for half a century of peaceful coexistence in a region that was becoming increasingly contentious in the 1940s and 1950s.

Interestingly, a question must be asked, what might take place should something of worth be found in Antarctica?Historian John Krige of Georgia Tech has astutely commented that “collaboration has worked most smoothly when the science or technology is not of direct strategic (used here to mean commercial or military) importance.” As soon as a government feels that its national interests are directly involved, it would prefer to “go it alone.” What would happen to the trety system governing the continent if anyone discovered anything in Antarctica of great worth?

This entry was posted in Earth Science, History, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Governing Antarctica: A Continent Dedicated to Science or a Place of Geopolitical Rivalry?

  1. klausdodds says:

    Reblogged this on rhulgeopolitics and commented:
    An interesting review for those interested in assessing the resilience of the Antarctic Treaty (System) post-1961


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