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The Guardian/UK

Stalking the Arctic

Instead of watching Arctic powers lay claim to its resources, the world needs a treaty on sharing the region

Alex Stein

The film There will be Blood deals with the brooding anarchy that lurks close to a scramble for resources. It is in the oil rush that Daniel Plainview, the anti-hero, is able to express his misanthropy: "There is a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed," he says, admitting the dark heart of his dynamism.

Watching him convince communities to give up their birthright is a distasteful experience, made more palatable by trying to convince oneself that it's an essentially pre-modern tale. But recent developments in the Arctic show that the spirit of Daniel Plainview remains alive and well in the corridors of power, and that multilateralism is once again failing to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Scott G Borgerson explains how global warming is "opening up access to massive natural resources and creating shipping shortcuts that could save billions of dollars a year" in the Arctic. Extraordinarily, however, in a world already belching out more bureaucracy than it can handle, there are no clear rules governing the region.

There are five Arctic powers - the US, Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway. In 2001, the UN rejected Russia's planned annexation of 460,000 miles of Arctic waters, although this didn't prevent Russia from sullying the North Pole with its flag. It even flew bombers over the Arctic Ocean, for the first time since the cold war. Next up was Canada, which announced funding for new patrol vessels, a deep-water port, and a cold-weather training centre. Stalking the sidelines are Denmark and Norway, although don't think that their Scandinavian temperament means they don't want a piece of the pie. As for the US, its relative indifference can surprisingly be traced to its impotence, primarily because it has only one icebreaker, and even that isn't prepared for Arctic missions.

Despite this, Borgerson argues that the US is best placed to lead a multilateral solution, and perhaps to avoid armed conflict. Because the Arctic has hitherto been frozen, there is no agreement as to which rules should apply there. It's as if the Island of Atlantis - treasure intact - suddenly emerged from the depths. Of the existing institutions that deal with the issue, the Arctic council is prevented (by the US) from addressing security concerns, and UNCLOS is not comprehensive enough.

Borgerson comes up with a number of practical suggestions for dealing with the problem, primarily based around bilateral agreements. These are well-thought out proposals by an expert in the field, ones which would no doubt reduce burgeoning tensions. But they fail to challenge the underlying assumption surrounding the issue: that these five states should have the right to declare sovereignty over the Arctic.

If we really want to solve the problem constructively, we should think a bit more naively. As Borgerson notes, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty froze all territorial claims and set aside the continent for scientific research. Why could a similar treaty not be enacted for the Arctic Ocean? Global warming harms the entire planet. If the melting of the ice will provide some unexpected benefits, shouldn't those be used to fund problem-solving elsewhere in the globe? Only the UN should be allowed to plant its flag in the Arctic, and if Ban Ki-Moon had any guts, he would send UN troops to do so as soon as possible.

I live in a neighbourhood of the world devastated by an inability to come up with new ways of thinking. It would be a tragedy of epic proportions if this led to conflict in the Arctic, if the ethos of Daniel Plainview is allowed to govern the future of such a testament to eternity. Multilateralism for the benefit of the entire globe is the only way forward.

Alex Stein is a freelance writer and educator based in Tel Aviv.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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