“What about the rest of the North?” asked McGeorge Bundy, President of the Ford Foundation, back in the 1970s while considering yet one more grant to help the troubled Native Americans of Alaska. The initial reaction of a young staffer asked to research the question was that the boss was making some reference to the Civil War.
That was not his point, nor was he talking about the global contrast between rich and poor nations, described as the “North-South Divide.” Instead, Bundy referred to the Arctic, where nations share problems. As usual, though not always, he was right.
Today, melting polar ice encourages both commercial investment and nationalism. Neither the Obama nor Trump administration has given priority to Arctic developments, but that does not change the hard reality that important challenges are underway.
In that context, the apparently casual reference to buying Greenland by President Donald Trump is useful in drawing attention to northern latitudes. Denmark is sovereign over the territory of Greenland.
President Barack Obama visited Alaska four years ago, but the trip was essentially pro forma. This is unfortunate, especially since the United States chaired the Arctic Council, an important multilateral body consisting of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden along with the U.S.
Historically Britain has led in global geography, joined long ago by the United States. Now Russia is spearheading organizing a region where their stake is vital. These include major international investment conferences.
In April 2019, Russia hosted government leaders from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden in a session of the Arctic Forum held in St. Petersburg. In May 2019, participants from a wider range of countries attended Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW), held in Arkhangelsk in Russia.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 put a freeze on Moscow’s relations with other Arctic nations and the wider international community. The Arctic Forum event indicates warming relations for Moscow with close neighbors.
Yet end of isolation does not mean harmony. Continuing disputes align Russia against Canada and Denmark regarding control of the Lomonosov Ridge, most of which is in international waters. Other nations involved in such disagreements include Finland, Iceland, Sweden and the United States.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation can claim resources beyond a 200 mile limit if a direct continuous continental shelf can be established. Such technical measures can mitigate national rivalries. Territorial disagreements among nations in and near the Arctic Circle are complex.
There is also encouraging history regarding international Arctic cooperation. International Polar Years occurred in 1882-1883, 1932-1933 and 2007-2009. The first two inspired the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-1958, during the height of the Cold War. Discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts was among important IGY scientific discoveries.
American scientific and government leadership was instrumental in launching and successfully completing this comprehensive global research and policy enterprise. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also initiated demilitarization of Antarctica. This was the first major arms control agreement of the Cold War and laid the foundation for others.
Simultaneously, Eisenhower underscored military dimensions. He skillfully combined science cooperation with attention to national defense. In August 1958, the new nuclear submarine Nautilus made the first undersea voyage to the North Pole, certain to impress - and intimidate - Soviet government leaders.
Beyond the White House, the U.S. government is actively engaged in Arctic cooperation. A leader on a par with Ike would have great opportunities.
Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.