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How Antarctica facilitated science as a tool of diplomacy

By choosing to allow the Soviet Union to be the first nation to launch a satellite into orbit, Sputnik, in October 1957, the United States found a way to engage its Cold War nemesis where there was no dialog before, says Paul Berkman, chair of the International Board for the Antarctic Treaty Summit. The Antarctic...

By choosing to allow the Soviet Union to be the first nation to launch a satellite into orbit, Sputnik, in October 1957, the United States found a way to engage its Cold War nemesis where there was no dialog before, says Paul Berkman, chair of the International Board for the Antarctic Treaty Summit.

Antarctic Treaty Summit logo.jpg

The Antarctic Treaty Summit convenes in Washington, D.C., on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the agreement “in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

“President Eisenhower’s decision to stand back for the Soviet Union in putting a rocket into space opened the possibility for the U.S. to engage the Soviet Union,” Berkman said. “Eisenhower recognized that science could be used as a tool of diplomacy to create a vehicle of cooperation where there was none beforehand.”

In this second part of a three-part series on the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, Berkman explains how the frozen southern continent presented the opportunity for the leading Cold War protagonists to come together on the basis of “common interests” and, in the name of science, co-manage a vast portion of the Earth for peaceful purposes only.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty on its signature-day in the city where it was signed “with the interests of science and the progress of all mankind,” the Antarctic Treaty Summit: Science-Policy Interactions in International Governance will be convened in Washington, D.C. from 30 November 30-December 1, 2009. Its goal is to assess lessons about managing nearly 10 percent of the Earth “for peaceful purposes only.” Visit the Antarctic Treaty Summit Web site for registration and other information.

By Paul Berkman,
Special Contributor to NatGeo News Watch

In May 1958, using the example of cooperation during the International Geophysical Year (read the first part of this series), President Eisenhower suggested that all nations engaged in research in Antarctica come to the U.S. and begin the process of negotiating an agreement to manage the Antarctic collectively.

Eisenhower did this over the objections of his Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the 1950s the U.S. was going through McCarthyism and the whole concept of pinkos and reds and people’s lives were damaged because of any word of Russian in their background.

During this period, between May 1958 and October 1959, there were 60 secret meetings between the 12 nations who were involved in studying Antarctica during International Geophysical Year.

In October 1959 the formal Conference on Antarctica began in Washington, D.C. It lasted from October 15 to December, 1, on which day the Antarctic Treaty was signed in the interests of all mankind, that Antarctica shall forever be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and prevent international discord.

So if we combine this history, there are several interesting features. There was a period when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were clearly racing toward ballistic missiles. It was a period of expanding the horizons of humankind to study the Earth on a planetary scale, with rockets that could circle the Earth, and it was a period when the Soviet Union and the U.S. were agreeing to cooperate and work together to manage a vast portion of the Earth for peaceful purposes only.

First nuclear arms treaty

It’s fairly well known that the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to cooperate in the management of the Antarctic. What’s less well appreciated is that the Antarctic Treaty also became the world’s first nuclear arms agreement, and that the inspection strategy that Eisenhower originally envisaged for Outer Space became part of the Antarctic Treaty.

So in a sense, although Eisenhower wasn’t successful in Open Skies in Outer Space, he was able to establish the Antarctic as a region to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, and he established this as the first non-nuclear region on the planet.

The Antarctic Treaty became what is known as a non-armament treaty. On the high seas there had been ships with weapons in the past, but the idea that Antarctica had never been and would never be armed would subsequently define it as a non-armament region.

That idea of non-armament and peaceful use was similarly extended to Outer Space in the 1968 agreement, and to the Deep Sea in the 1982 agreement. So three of the four international spaces beyond sovereign jurisdictions are specifically defined as non-armament regions.

Now the lessons of the Antarctic Treaty at the time were that the United States and the Soviet Union weren’t able to identify agreement explicitly directed at nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles in Outer Space.

However, they were able to look at issues in a sideways manner with science as the vehicle of cooperation.

So science provided a tool for cooperation that didn’t exist with other diplomatic means. It allowed the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the two principal protagonists of the Cold War, to set aside their difference and identify what were called common interests.

The notion of “common interests”

Among the lessons of the Antarctic Treaty is this notion of common interests, which is in contrast to the notion of national interests, which are defined by nations in relation to their boundaries, which is the way the world has worked for millennia. This is what nations contest. They defend their boundaries.

What happened from World War II onward is that, while there remains a component of national jurisdictions, confined to national boundaries, we now realize that 75 percent of the Earth is beyond sovereign jurisdictions. The challenge for the future is to how we manage these regions that are beyond sovereign jurisdictions.

One of the components to doing that is to recognize that international spaces have this concept of common interests. These are interests that are shared not only by nations, but by corporations, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and indigenous peoples organizations.

In effect, these are regions that are shared with all humanity into the distant future.

It’s an interesting time that we’re at in terms of beginning to germinate these ideas, because in a very practical way we are beginning to think as a civilization, not years or decades into the future, but centuries into the future.

Like the Magna Carta

When the Antarctic Treaty was up for ratification in 1960 in the U.S. Senate, Laurence Gould, one of the principal scientists who had been instrumental in using science diplomacy and helping the U.S. cooperate with the Soviet Union, said that in ways the Antarctic Treaty was like the Magna Carta.

Whereas the Magna Carta served as a tool of inspiration for nations and the development of constitutional law, Gould suggested that the Antarctic Treaty would serve similar import at an international scale for the development of international institutions.

It’s a fairly presumptuous statement in that in the Magna Carta we have experience from 1215 to the present to think about its role in the development of constitutional law and the development of democracies. To suggest that the Antarctic Treaty would have similar import means that we’d have to have 800 years of perspective.

What Gould suggested was that we have an experiment for the ages, that through time we’d have the opportunity to assess the treaty in terms of the development of international organizations.

So in a very practical way, the Antarctic showed nations how to build on common interests the concept that a region shall be used only for peaceful purposes. Questions of jurisdiction were a common interest, scientific cooperation was a common interest, freedom of scientific investigation was a common interest, conservation and preservation of living resources was a common interest.

In the case of Antarctica these common interests provided the framework for establishing the treaty. But more importantly they established the basis for a process for engagement among the nations to continuously interact and solve problems from 1955 to 1959 and into the future.

Think about, for example, the discussions that are ongoing today with regard to climate change and the upcoming meeting in Copenhagen, and the notion of specific carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. In effect the wrong message is being sent to the world because the idea is that if you achieve a magic carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere somehow we’ve solved the problem.

That’s not the case. The climate is a dynamic system operating over decades and centuries, as opposed to weather, which is days to weeks to years. The solution to a climate issue can’t be fixed by a specific level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is something that has to be ongoing and iterative and responsive to changing circumstances.

There is no magic bullet. The solution is the process. The Antarctic Treaty demonstrates that the process of consultation to engage the various parties continuously and effectively over time has to be built around common interests.

Common interests correctly phrased provide a beacon for nations to orient and consider and formulate measures and principles for whatever institution that is involved.

The history that built up to the Antarctic Treaty allowed the U.S. and the Soviet Union to identify their common interests, and those common interests became not only the framework for the treaty but also the basis for the process of ongoing consultations.

That allows the parties to continuously adjust to circumstances like living resources and even mineral resources, which weren’t envisaged or considered as part of the treaty.

Professor Paul Berkman is the head of the Arctic Ocean Geopolitics Programme at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK.

Special series on the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty by Paul Berkman

Part One: Antarctic Treaty at 50, a beacon for joint management of Earth

Part Two: How Antarctica facilitated science as a tool of diplomacy (this page)

Part Three: Antarctic Treaty lessons have enduring value for humankind

For more information, please visit the Antarctic Treaty Summit Web site.



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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn