Arctic region presents excellent test case for international cooperation rather than a threat of superpower conflict
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Nonetheless, Russia’s gambit accelerated a media obsession with the Arctic. In the more than two years since Russia’s North Pole adventure—and against a backdrop of a retreating polar ice cap and rising temperatures3—journalists and scholars have come to describe the Arctic’s future in alarmist terms. These reports include warnings of “a race for control of the Arctic,”4 and a “coming anarchy” in which states will “unilaterally grab” as much territory as possible to secure new sources of oil and natural gas.5 Some describe the Arctic as the site of “an armed mad dash” and a potential source of a future armed conflict, likely involving the United States and Russia.6 This troubling picture has generated calls for a new international agreement—an “Arctic Treaty”—to provide a comprehensive legal regime for the region.7 In light of the above, it is easy to see why the casual observer would be left thinking that when it comes to the Arctic, we are operating in a legal vacuum.
But that is simply not the case. Indisputably, the Arctic poses many challenges, but it is not a twenty-first century incarnation of the Wild West. There are institutions and legal frameworks in place through which the challenges of Arctic governance and management can and should be addressed. As discussed below, the centerpiece of that framework is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS” or “Convention”).8 Moreover, within the existing governance structure, Russia’s track record with respect to the Arctic—perhaps in contrast to Russia’s recent record elsewhere—has arguably been more positive than not. As such, rather than fixating on the Arctic as a flashpoint for confrontation, it may be more useful to consider the Arctic as an opportunity for constructive engagement.
Despite the rhetoric, disputes over Arctic resources are unlikely to devolve into conflict as states have to date been operating in a cooperative manner and there are sufficient international forums and structures (including UNCLOS) in place to manage disputes if they should occur.