Melting polar ice and the high cost of energy are creating a new battleground at the top of the world. Yesterday a Russian mini-sub released a capsule containing a Russian flag onto the seabed at the North Pole. This was the climax of a research expedition whose purpose is to support Russia's claim to what could be billions of tons of oil and gas reserves in an area of the Arctic twice the size of France. Russia has already been setting up new military and civilian posts, such as in the Zemlya Frantsa Iosifa archipelago in the northeastern Barents Sea.
Meanwhile, Canada has reasserted its claim over the melting Northwest Passage, a portion of the Arctic Ocean linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Its recent announcement that it will build patrol vessels in order to establish sovereignty over the passage had a belligerent tone uncharacteristic of our peaceful neighbor.
The United States has long resisted both claims. The international legal arguments are esoteric, but boiled down they amount to this: Russia's claim is based on the principle that a coastal nation controls the mineral resources of its continental shelf, and the as-yet unproved assertion, which the U.S. disputes, that the continental shelf abutting Russian territory extends deep into the Arctic. Canada argues that the straits composing the Northwest Passage amount to inland seas, and therefore are subject to Canadian sovereignty, just as the U.S. controls Lake Michigan. The U.S. replies that these straits are part of the high seas, and thus anyone can enter them without obtaining Canada's consent.
Power, not international law, will settle the issue. Indeed, international law recognizes this fact by making title dependent on a nation's ability to exert control over an area. That is why Russia is sending ships into the Arctic, and why Canada is saying that it will patrol the Northwest Passage. As long as such expressions of power are credible, other nations, disadvantaged by distance, will generally acquiesce and sovereignty will be extended accordingly.
Russia's expression of power is credible; Canada's is not. Canada cannot prevent other countries from sending ships up the Northwest Passage, as the U.S. has demonstrated from time to time for just this purpose. The melting of the Northwest Passage will significantly shorten the sea route between oceans, as well as open up access to energy resources. The U.S. does not want Canada to reap all the benefits of control of the passage, but this is a side show. The real threat is the Russian bear, not the Canadian beaver.
The world is divided into two types of space: areas controlled by states and areas that are uncontrolled. Oceans are mostly uncontrolled, with the significant exception of territorial seas, where states have been able to exert some control with naval resources. International law has long recognized states' control over their coastal seas (which extend about 12 miles), which means they can block and regulate foreign shipping in those areas. The high seas, however, are free to all.
The major naval powers have always advanced the principle of freedom of the seas for the simple reason that their naval forces dominate them. But "commons" are subject to overexploitation, and overfishing has been the predictable consequence of uncontrolled oceans. Predictable and unavoidable: If no one can control the oceans, then the problem cannot be solved by giving a country nominal title to them.
Where a state can exert control, it is best for it to do so, because this avoids the commons problem. It is in the world's interest for Canada to control the Northwest Passage, even if it will profit and has the formal power to keep the rest of the world out. Canada has an interest in protecting the passage and exploiting its resources, which the rest of the world can purchase. But given its military weakness, Canada cannot have this control without the support of the U.S.
Russia's claims present a different case. It is re-emerging as a global troublemaker, and its claims are far more ambitious than Canada's. At some point, Russia, the U.S. and other countries will carve up the Arctic into mutually exclusive economic zones. Russia is positioning itself to take the lion's share. Russia has major advantages over Canada and the U.S. in the battle over the Arctic. Control over the seas is determined by two things: power and propinquity. With respect to the Arctic, Russia has both. The U.S. has power but not, for the most part, propinquity; Canada has propinquity but not power. As long as the U.S. and Canada are at loggerheads over the Northwest Passage, they will have trouble resisting Russia's claims to the rest of the Arctic.
If the U.S. supports Canada's claim to the Northwest Passage, in return for some sort of guarantee of U.S. military and civilian access, the two countries will strengthen their position vis-à-vis Russia. As the world heats up, the two countries need to prepare themselves for the re-emergence of old rivalries, and in the battle over control of the Arctic, the U.S. and Canada are natural allies.
This originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, here.