Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Scramble for the Arctic

On August 3, the oceanographer and polar explorer Artur Chilingarov descended 14,000 feet in a mini-submarine and dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole. "The Arctic is Russian," he declared.

In fact, the Russian government is laying claim not to the whole Arctic, but "only" to the Lomonosov Ridge, a wedge about half the size of Western Europe that it considers an extension of Siberia's continental shelf. According to the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, the five states with coastlines on the Arctic Ocean Russia, Norway, Denmark (through ownership of Greenland), Canada and the United States (Alaska) are entitled to 200 miles of territorial waters, but can claim more distant chunks of Arctic seabed by demonstrating links to their continental shelves.

This, of course, is a game that not only Russia can play. All the other Arctic states have advanced counterclaims or are preparing to do so, all on the basis of the same vague legal provision.

Why now?

Why is this carve-up happening now? Apart from people concerned with the deployment of nuclear submarine forces, the native Inuit (Eskimos), and a few scientists and explorers, no one used to care much about the Arctic. Vast quantities of oil, gas and other minerals might lie under the frozen wastes (up to 10 billion barrels of oil under the Lomonosov Ridge, for instance), but extracting them was not a practical proposition. So it did not matter if borders and exploitation rights were not very clearly defined.

Now, however, it is starting to matter. In part this is due to advances in extraction technology, but the main reason is the rapid melting of the icecap under the impact of global warming. The extraction of all those underwater resources is no longer a pipedream, and the big oil and gas companies and the governments that back them are jockeying for position in the new arena.

Survival versus profit

From the perspective of survival of the planetary ecosystem, the rush to grab Arctic oil and gas is grotesque in the extreme. After all, it is largely the burning of oil and gas that is melting the ice, thereby opening up the prospect of extracting and burning yet more oil and gas and further accelerating global warming.

The capitalists, however, have a quite different perspective. For them the overriding imperative is to be sure of making every last cent, penny and kopeck of profit from selling hydrocarbons before finally proceeding to exploit the next source of profit solar energy and other "alternative" energy sources. By then, unfortunately, it may well be too late to prevent runaway global warming from turning Earth into a second Venus. But that is something the capitalists do not want to know.

The melting of the ice will also have a huge impact on shipping. Over the next few years, expanding areas of the Arctic and within a few decades all of it will be navigable to commercial shipping throughout the year. The Northeast Passage through the Russian Arctic and the Bering Strait is expected to be open within eight years, greatly reducing the distance and cost of sea transport between Europe and the Far East. The Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic will provide another link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, competing with the Panama Canal. New deepwater ports are planned to support trans-Arctic trade. Finally, a continuing rapid growth in Arctic tourism is anticipated.

Not a new Cold War

The alarm with which the media have reacted to the Russian claim on the Lomonosov Ridge is reminiscent of the Cold War, especially in the context of other recent tensions between Russia and "the West." Nevertheless, it is misleading to talk about a new Cold War or, indeed, about "the West." We no longer live in a world of bipolar confrontation between "East" and "West." We now live in a multipolar world of fluid alliances among a fairly large number of powers, some of them rising (e.g., China) and others in decline (e.g., the US). In certain ways the early 21st century resembles the first half of the 20th century much more closely than it does the second.

Nothing illustrates the new-old pattern of multipolarity more clearly than territorial disputes in the Arctic. Several important disputes do not involve Russia at all. They are between the other Arctic states, all of which are still formally allies, fellow members of NATO.

The potentially most serious disputes are, perhaps, those between Canada and the United States. One concerns the offshore Canada/Alaska boundary, which traverses an area thought to be rich in oil and gas. The other dispute is over the straits that separate Canada's Arctic islands from one another and from the mainland. Last year the Canadian government declared that it regarded these straits, which together make up the Northwest Passage, as Canadian Internal Waters. The US government has made clear that it still regards the straits as international waters by sending its navy to patrol them.

Lord Palmerston is famous for his remark that "Britain has no permanent allies, only permanent interests." Evidently the same is true of any capitalist state.

Canada flexes its muscles

The behaviour of the Arctic states also debunks the widely held idea that some states are inherently peace-loving and others inherently militaristic. Many people think of Canada as being in the first category. They might be perturbed to come across the following Guardian headline: "Canada flexes its muscles in scramble for the Arctic" (

As Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper observed in this connection, "the world is changing." It is changing in ways that on the surface seem quite dramatic. But there is a deeper level at which, as the French saying has it, "the more things change, the more they remain the same." The 21st-century scramble for the Arctic is a phenomenon of the same general kind as the 19th-century scramble for Africa. Both are cases of commercial and military rivalry between the capitalist classes of different countries to open up for plunder and exploitation a region that was previously closed to them.

True, these scrambles now entail dangers that were unknown in the past. The 19th century knew nothing of either nuclear weapons or global warming. It is high time to move on.


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