The Antarctic Treaty turns 50 this year, and the United States marked this milestone by hosting, from April 6 through Friday, the Treaty Consultative Meeting in Baltimore and Washington.
The treaty is a major accomplishment, negotiated during a difficult time in international relations and fusing bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. It has secured decades of valuable security, diplomatic and scientific cooperation and promises to deliver more of the same in years to come.
The treaty and its implementation provide invaluable lessons for how to deal with other pressing issues related to the polar regions, including the looming challenges of the Arctic.
Twelve nations met in Washington in 1959 to sign the Antarctic Treaty, peacefully resolving conflicting territorial claims, demilitarizing the Antarctic’s land, air and waters, and transforming it into an exclusive zone for peace and science. At the height of the Cold War, amid the ongoing tensions over Berlin and Cuba, the treaty brought together the United States and the Soviet Union under one of the first major arms-control regimes.
Commercial rivalries in Antarctica were abated. The treaty also set a framework for mutually beneficial scientific and environmental cooperation. Its implementation has been remarkably cooperative and free from acrimony.
Arrangements in Antarctica also furnish a powerful model of environmental protection. Significantly, instead of dealing ad hoc with one environmental problem at a time, or ignoring the inevitable tradeoffs among them, the treaty and its 1991 follow-on Environmental Protection Protocol feature a comprehensive ecosystem approach, designed to manage the impacts of human activities and protect the Antarctic environment.
This strategy is particularly relevant at a time when the United States and other major economies are negotiating a long-term successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, while trying simultaneously to advance other environmental and economic goals.
Although the ozone holes over the poles are high, they have already started to trend downward, and the same layers are expected to recover by 2050. In this regard, the Antarctic Treaty has provided a major impetus for other multilateral environmental agreements, including a 1987 treaty, the Montreal Protocol, designed to reduce atmospheric concen- trations of ozone-depleting substances. This, of course, will be a long-term battle - these substances can stay in the air for more than 40 years - but we are on the right path.
Finally, Antarctica has been a showcase for international scientific collaboration. Countries such as New Zealand, Norway, Italy, France and Russia, among others, have conducted advanced environmental research, enhancing our understanding of climate change and other global challenges.
We are in the International Polar Year, a massive mobilization of more than 50,000 scientists from more than 60 countries to deepen our understanding of changes in the polar regions. Having had the privilege last year of dedicating our new state-of-the-art research facility at the South Pole, I saw firsthand how vital their work is to our efforts to better understand and protect the planet.
The Antarctic Treaty’s unique diplomatic framework furnishes a compelling template for international partnerships on other pressing security, economic and environmental challenges. The experience gained under this treaty provides valuable lessons beyond Antarctica for other international cooperative security and environmental efforts.
Thus, the cooperative spirit that produced the Antarctic Treaty augurs well for our efforts to cope with the challenges of the Arctic.
Our policy challenges in the Arctic have been reviewed by the U.S. government, the most recent completed in the last month of George W. Bush’s administration. They include contentious disputes about which countries have sovereignty over Arctic lands, waters and the seabed, how the region’s abundant natural resources can be harvested and how to protect its unique ecosystems and habitats, particularly amid the shrinking ice cover.
To be sure, because the legal situation in the Arctic is very different, with conflicting territorial claims by states bordering the Arctic Ocean, rooted in customary international law and the Law of the Sea Treaty, it would not make sense to simply replicate the Antarctic Treaty for the Northern Hemisphere.
The Arctic Council, which brings together 16 countries, provides both a history of cooperation and an excellent foundation for moving forward. Significantly, the fact that the Arctic Council participated for the first time in this month’s Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Baltimore - an event bringing together foreign ministers and other senior officials - provided a unique opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences.
While the news from the poles - dominated by reports of shrinking ice pack, melting glaciers and other environmental problems - can be sobering, a 50-year-old diplomatic success story gives us a reason to be optimistic that we can, and will, develop the solutions to today’s daunting polar challenges.
Paula J. Dobriansky is the former undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs and is a senior fellow at the Harvard University Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.