I have often argued with extreme libertarians (and anarchists) that the existence of property rights first requires the existence of a government with a monopoly on coercive force (ie. government requires the largest armed force). If such an entity didn’t exist, then the largest armed force would simply take control and become the government. Many voices in these debates suggested that I need only look to international treaties to show how cooperative we can be without the need for world police.
Putting aside the very obvious point that the US is the current world police, with their military budget making up 43% of the world total military spend, and that their international military presence often conflicts with international treaties, we can examine whether the extreme libertarian views are vindicated by one of the shining examples of international cooperation – Antarctica.
Back in 1959, the twelve countries active in the Antarctic signed the Antarctic Treaty (implemented in 1961), which led to further treaties and conventions to manage activities and resource use (especially fisheries) in the whole Antarctic region south of 60% latitude (collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System). With the shadow of the second world war still looming large, the top priority of the original treaty was to ensure that the area remained conflict-free by outlawing a military presence – prescribed in Article I of the treaty. Other peace-inspired provisions include Article V, prohibiting nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive material. Who knew that the dominant ideologies of 1960s youth originated in Antarctica?
Since that time the Montreal Protocol was adopted as part of the Antarctic Treaty System with the explicit intention of preserving the Antarctic as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. Critically, Article 7 of the Protocol prohibited all non-scientific mineral resource activities.
The Antarctic Treaty was a bold and lasting agreement, recently celebrating its 50th year. The treaty’s anniversary gave rise to some optimistic claims
The lesson of fifty years of the Antarctic Treaty System is that the nations of the world can set aside their political and territorial aspirations to share in the management of a vast region of the planet, says Paul Berkman, chair of the International Board for the Antarctic Treaty Summit.
But I wouldn’t make such strong claims so fast.
Geopolitics was not cast aside by the free love of the original Antarctic Treaty. The US does not recognise the territorial claims of other governments and reserves the right to assert claims. The USSR, and later Russia, made the same non-commitment to the Treaty. The success of the Antarctic treaties over the past fifty years was perhaps more the result of the low value of any commercial or strategic military operations in the Antarctic.
While the US has no current claim over territory, it has positioned its Amundsen-Scott research base at the South Pole so as to maintain a presence in all claimed territories (shown in the map below). The US may very well have secured a right to claim territory that existing claimants leave unoccupied.
We also know Australia does not have the capacity to visit the inland areas of its territorial claim. This may be problematic as the original Antarctic Treaty has a provision in Article XII allowing a contracting party to call a review of the operation of the treaty after thirty years. One could expect that our absence, or lack of presence, in our claimed territory puts us in a poor position for any future treaty negotiations that may establish new claims based on current activities.
The rise of new entrants into Antarctica is also concerning for existing territorial claimants.
Russia has seven stations in the AAT; China opened its second station last year; India will start construction on its first over summer; and South Korea is planning to set up a new station near the Easter sector by 2014.
So it seems that the ingredients for conflict are slowly being added to the spicy Antarctic political stew (these concerns have been noted elsewhere). How one resolves these new interests in the mineral rights of Antarctica, with the interests of the existing parties to the Antarctic Treaty System, I am not sure. But let’s be clear. The US will not lose out in any future negotiations that allow further exploitation of the Antarctic. In a hypothetical future scenario where mining becomes allowable under the treaty system, does anyone really expect the US respect the rights established by existing territorial claims? I don’t.
In the end, current Antarctic territorial claims are only valid as long as they are not challenged. So I ask the anarchists and extreme libertarians, exactly how does one negotiate a territorial claim (or defend their property right) with an unmatchable armed force that happens to be an absolutely necessary military ally?