In the summer of 2004, residents of a tiny Inuit village in a remote part of Greenland began to notice signs of imminent developments at a nearby air base, located a few miles away. There was more traffic than usual, both within the perimeter and along the roads outside, and security was suddenly being beefed up, as if in preparation for some special event. Among the 60 or so residents of Igaliku, rumours quickly began to spread that some high-level visitor was about to fly in.
The rumours added an even stronger sense of mystery to a place that is, by any standards, supremely intriguing. Located in a wilderness region in the far north-west of the island, the giant air base at Thule has always been closely guarded (and the subject of constant speculation) ever since the Americans had moved into the area in 1953, giving local Inuits just a few weeks' notice to leave their traditional lands and resettle elsewhere. In the intervening years, it had been at the frontline of the Cold War and the setting for numerous top-secret flights and deployments that the Danish, Greenlandic and American authorities had always done their best to hush up. For example, there were numerous allegations of a cover-up when, in January 1968, a B52 bomber carrying four nuclear weapons had crashed a short distance away, creating a big explosion that fragmented the nuclear payload and spread plutonium all over the surrounding ice. Officially there were supposed to be no nuclear weapons at Thule, but the Danish Prime Minister had probably been secretly informed by Washington and then tried to stop Parliament from finding out.
In those summer weeks of 2004, the suspicions of local people were confirmed when, on 6 August, the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, flew in from Washington and met the Danish Foreign Minister, Per Stig Moeller, to sign a new deal about the base's future. Under the agreement, the radar installations at Thule air base would be upgraded so that the site could, at some future moment, play a key role in Washington's New Missile Defense System - better known as 'the Son of Star Wars'- that would allow the Americans to track incoming ballistic missiles with an advanced radar system and then use sea-based interceptors to destroy them. The Danish and Greenlandic authorities had still not given Washington permission to deploy missile interceptors there, but for the moment they were prepared to take things a stage further forward and let the United States military upgrade its installations.
From a strategic point of view, it is easy to see why Washington has long been so keen to maintain a military presence at Thule and today remains committed to retaining and upgrading it. This is partly because, in the eyes of United States strategists, Greenland appears perilously close to their own shores, and if it fell into the clutches of a hostile power then it could be used as a staging post for attacks on the American mainland and, crucially, on Atlantic shipping. This was why, during the Second World War, President Roosevelt struck an agreement with the exiled Danish government 'to assist Greenland in the maintenance of its present status'. Washington would have a right to establish a military presence on its territory, ran this 1941 agreement, because 'defense of Greenland against attack by a non-American power is essential to the preservation of the peace and security of the American Continent and is a subject of vital concern to the United States of America'.1
During the Cold War, Pentagon strategists were also quick to realize that, in the event of any conflict, the quickest route for their long-range bombers to reach Moscow and other targets in the northern Soviet Union was to fly straight over the North Pole, and that Thule lies at the exact halfway point. So in 1951 a further deal was signed between the United States and Denmark that gave Washington a right to 'make use of facilities in Greenland' and 'take necessary and appropriate measures' on behalf of the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And more than half a century later, the island retains this crucial strategic role for the United States: in the words of John Holum, the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs in the Clinton administration, 'the Thule Radar is very important to the New Missile Defense System, to warn and track. It is our eyes and ears. The radar will track missiles, for instance, from Iraq and the Middle East'.2
For many local people, America's strong interest and presence in Greenland has long been ominous. Aqqaluk Lynge, the head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, is concerned that, if or when Greenland eventually becomes independent from Denmark, it will become a tempting target for Washington. 'We are afraid that the United States will take over Greenland if the Danes get out', he told one journalist. 'If Americans can take Iraq, then why not Greenland?'3 Lynge also points out that the United States did not hesitate to push local people aside at Thule in the early 1950s when it decided that its own national interests were at stake. 'The existing military infrastructure in our Inuit homeland was installed during the Cold War without consulting Inuit', he says, 'because both former superpowers treated the Arctic as an uninhabited wasteland, and without recognizing that we actively use and occupy this land.'4
The controversy surrounding Thule exemplifies a much bigger issue, one that affects the entire Arctic. For there are huge swathes of this wider region that the United States regards as its own backyard and where it could regard the deployment of military force as a legitimate means of pursuing its national interest. These aggressive tactics might perhaps reflect an interest in the region's untapped natural resources at a time when fears about future shortages are growing, but they are much more likely to be based on strategic considerations: if the United States does not step up its presence there, American strategists might argue, then another country, such as China or Russia, probably will.
There are several scenarios in which the United States could become embroiled in serious political, and conceivably military, confrontations with other countries over the Arctic region.
The most likely scenario is that Washington could argue that its continental shelf extends beyond the 200-mile limit of its economic zone and reaches for up to another 150 miles into the Arctic Ocean towards the North Pole. In order to make this claim, the United States would first of all need to become a signatory member of the 1982 Convention and would then have a 10-year period in which to collect geological data and formally submit a case to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. But if the American government does eventually pursue this course and then finds that its submission is rejected, then it is possible to imagine it blatantly disregarding any such ruling and perhaps making its own unilateral declaration of ownership over the region. Because no other country would have any formal claim over the same stretch of 'high seas', which lie so close to its existing territorial waters, Washington might calculate that such a move would arouse only limited protest.
A politically more risky and controversial move would be to stake a claim over an area of 'high seas' that neither America nor any other country could legally claim as its own because it falls beyond the maximum 350-mile limit of their outer continental shelves. So there is one large stretch of the Arctic Ocean that is currently due to be administered by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) because it is classified, under the 1982 Convention, as part of 'the Area' that lies 'beyond the limits of national jurisdiction'.5
Much more audacious, however, would be for the United States to make some unilateral declaration of ownership over waters that another country has unsuccessfully claimed form part of its own outer continental shelf, having found its advances spurned by the United Nations Commission. In 2001, Russia unsuccessfully claimed that its continental shelf reached beyond the 200-mile limit and was told to resubmit its bid with more convincing geological data. But if its case had been rejected outright, then this additional region, of up to 150 miles, would, strictly speaking, have remained an 'area of high seas' unless another had claimed it.
The most extreme, and unlikely, scenario is that the United States, or any other country, could use force to seize land or control waters that belong to another in the same way that American military forces invaded Iraq in 2003, as Aqqaluk Lynge referred to, or Argentina attacked the Falkland Islands in 1982. Earlier invasions had been undertaken when the United States looked for an excuse to use military force, or even actively created one. American involvement in Vietnam was justified on the grounds of a staged attack on United States warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, which was then wrongly blamed on the Hanoi regime, while prior to the onset of war in 2003, intelligence on Iraq was allegedly 'skewered' in an attempt to prove the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction. 'Even established facts were ignored if they did not fit in with this intuitive sense, this semi-divine power to select the right', as an American secretary of state had once sighed of his president.6
In the same spirit, it is plausible to argue that the United States could search for an excuse to stake a claim over the sovereign territory of another country in the Arctic, such as Greenland, or over its waters. An outright invasion, comparable to the attack of 2003, may be very unlikely. But using a pretext to despatch a large military presence in a country that already has close ties with Washington might sometimes make much more practical politics, just as in 1990 the United States deployed a large contingent of forces to Saudi Arabia, after it was threatened by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.7
This approach, which was also used by Great Britain at the height of its imperial powers, or the Soviet Union over Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, allows one country to retain its nominal independence even though in practice another exerts a great deal of influence.8
Hints of a unilateralist approach towards the Arctic region, un-fazed by the constraints of international law, had been dropped in a White House document that was released just days before President Bush stepped down from office in January 2009.9 'The United States has broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests', ran the text.10
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