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The U.S.-Russian Antarctic Thaw

Author: Frank G. Klotz, Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies and Arms Control
December 12, 2012
National Interest

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The United States and Russia have been at loggerheads lately. The widely publicized "reset" in their relationship has foundered on a series of sharp disagreements over such issues as Syria, missile defense and the Magnitsky bill—just to name a few.

Thus, a recent bit of bilateral cooperation comes as welcome news. On Monday, the State Department announced that a joint U.S.-Russian team had just concluded a ten-day inspection of six different research stations in Antarctica. The inspection was conducted under the auspices of the Antarctic Treaty, a fifty-three-year-old agreement that governs activities on the icy continent, and its subsequent 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection.

Legally speaking, Antarctica belongs to no one. During the first half of the twentieth century, however, seven nations formally staked claims to portions of the continent, some of which overlap. While it may seem farfetched to imagine that territorial rivalry in an exceedingly remote and desolate corner of the world could ever lead to armed conflict, minor skirmishes between Great Britain and Argentina did in fact occur near the Antarctic Peninsula in the early 1950s. (Later, in 1982, the same two countries fought a tragic war over the Falkland or Malvinas Islands, not all that far from Antarctica itself.) Moreover, as the Cold War unfolded, American and other diplomats worried that the continent might somehow become ensnarled in the global competition between the two superpowers.

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