An American tradition

How likely are such scenarios to come true in the Arctic over the coming decades, as the region's ice melts and governments from the world over look north? Viewed in terms of American history, the answer is 'very likely'. This is because the national story of America, more so than almost any other country, is a story of expansion and acquisition. Just as it began and evolved in this way, so too over the coming decades could the United States view the Arctic in the same terms.

The first chapter of American expansion and acquisition began as the first settlers pushed their way out of the colonies, seizing the land of the native American inhabitants and killing large numbers of them, either by driving them off the land or else simply exterminating them, often with near-genocidal ferocity.11 As later generations looked further afield, the emerging American nation then seized land from the Spanish, from whose grasp they prised Puerto Rico and the Philippines; from the Mexicans, during the war of 1847-48; and then from the inhabitants of large numbers of Pacific islands. These expansionary energies were also directed against the far west, where the settlers captured huge areas of land in the 13 years that followed the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and then in the far north, when William H. Seward, the Secretary of State under both Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, succeeded in purchasing Alaska from Russia in 1867. Seward also wanted to take French Guyana and Western Hemisphere British Columbia but was frustrated. 'Give me fifty, forty, thirty more years of life', he informed a Boston audience in 1867, 'and I will engage to give you possession of the American continent and control of the world.'

Just as in recent years the United States has followed the same expansionary tradition by turning its attention to the Middle East, so too in the years ahead could it turn north to the Arctic. Much closer to hand than other potential targets and wholly without the large, rabidly anti-American indigenous population found in the Arab street and elsewhere, the lure of its large natural resources might pose an irresistible temptation. But another reason for its interest when, in the years ahead, the Arctic's ice melts, is a motive that has sometimes been difficult to distinguish from its territorial acquisitiveness. This is a strong, even exaggerated, sense of its own strategic vulnerability.

In other words, there have been times when Washington has seized places not just out of interest in their natural resources but because they are also deemed to pose a potential threat to American national security. The Vietnam War is perhaps the most obvious single example of just how exaggerated this sense can be, for events in a remote, poverty-stricken land, tens of thousands of miles away from the American mainland, were deemed to pose a dire national threat that justified enormous personal sacrifice. A decade after President Kennedy had properly started American involvement in South-East Asia, President Nixon and his key adviser, Henry Kissinger, were equally convinced that the outcome of an election in as far away a place as Chile 'poses for us one of the most serious challenges ever faced in this hemisphere', one that would 'influence developments as far away as Italy' and which now presented 'the most historic and difficult foreign affairs decision' for the White House. As a leading historian of the era has written, this 'apocalyptic' perspective on such distant events 'might fairly be described as nothing more than paranoia'.12

Finally, Washington's attitude to the Arctic region is likely to be shaped by what is termed 'American exceptionalism': the idea that America, being both historically unique and morally exemplary, is therefore not subject to the same legal or moral restraints as other countries. This attitude, which has already spawned a huge literature, probably has its origins in the distinctive theology that the early settlers brought from England, one that emphasized the unique role of 'Providence', or what President Theodore Roosevelt called 'Manifest Destiny', in the affairs of not mankind in general but the American colonies in particular.13

Whatever its roots, the underlying attitude has been evident in all sorts of ways. The decision to spurn the International Criminal Court, or the 'unilateralism' of a Bush administration that was willing to attack Iraq without a clear UN mandate and ignore the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, are obvious examples. And traits of the same mindset were arguably discernible in President Harry S. Truman's landmark declaration that the United States would no longer respect a doctrine that had underpinned international law since the seventeenth century: the doctrine of 'freedom of the high seas'. Instead, argued Truman in 1945, America would have jurisdiction over all resources that were found on its continental shelf.14

So it is plausible to argue that, at some future point, Washington could be tempted to use military force in the Arctic region on the grounds that it stands above the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea. By the spring of 2009 the United States has still not signed this treaty, although President Bush had endorsed it in April 2007, as it very slowly made its way before the Senate. In April 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also announced that she and President Obama were 'committed' to its ratification. But until that happens the Convention provides even less restraint on the world's most powerful country than the United Nations Charter, which Washington signed in 1945, but still effectively overrode, taking a very liberal interpretation of the right of self-defence, when it attacked Iraq in 2003.15

A sense of American 'exceptionalism' is one reason why the 1982 Convention has never been ratified by Congress, even though President Clinton signed it in 1994. Although it is increasingly supported in Washington, a powerful and vociferous alliance of politicians, academics and pressure groups have always opposed it on the grounds that it runs contrary to the American national interest. Its ratification, they argue, would curtail the freedom of the United States Navy, undermine America's maritime interests and pose a serious challenge to its national sovereignty. Of course this may be equally true of other countries but the United States is different, they claim, because it is the world's policeman and its policies and actions simply can't be compared with those of others. Some of the loudest and most determined of these unilateralists, who have blocked the Convention's path on Capitol Hill, have been leading figures, like the late Jesse Helms, the long-time chairman of the highly influential Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator James L. Malone, who once worked as President Reagan's special representative for Law of the Sea negotiations and who subsequently continued to strongly oppose its ratification. Another critic is Professor Jeremy Rabkin, who has emphasized that disputes under the treaty are decided not by an American court but by a Hamburg-based tribunal.16 So although the signatory states are exempt from the Convention in times of war, Rabkin points out that the tribunal judges have the freedom to decide what is, and what is not, 'military activity' and therefore perhaps act against America's best interests.17

There are other important reasons, besides an underlying sense of 'American exceptionalism', why the Convention has never been ratified in Washington. In particular, some senators instinctively dislike the description of 'high seas' as 'the common heritage of mankind', a phrase that they regard as having strongly Marxist connotations even though it appears to have been coined in a speech by President Richard Nixon.18 But perhaps the most important single sticking point has been the section that deals with 'the Area of high seas that lies beyond the limits of national jurisdiction'. For one particular article of the treaty - Article 140 - states that any 'activities' of any country in these high seas should be undertaken 'for the benefit of mankind as a whole' and the proceeds of, for example, mineral or petroleum exploitation should then be 'equitably shared' by the ISA. But although these clauses were renegotiated in l994, the treaty still never even got close to ratification in Washington.

By the spring of 2009, the United States still had not become a signatory member of the 1982 Convention, although in his closing days of office President Bush had urged Congress to endorse it. His presidential directive of January 2009 argued that 'the Senate should act favorably on US accession to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea promptly, to protect and advance US interests, including the maritime mobility of our Armed forces worldwide. It will secure US sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain'.

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