The Road to the Arctic

Coalter G. Lathrop, Scott Borgerson
Content Type
Journal Article
Foreign Affairs
Issue Number
Publication Date
May/June 2008
Council on Foreign Relations
To the Editor: Scott Borgerson's article "Arctic Meltdown" (March/April 2008) is an addition to the recent wave of Arctic journalism rife with Wild West imagery of chaos and lawlessness -- a reporting trend spurred by Russia's August 2007 flag-planting stunt on the North Pole. Arctic frontier jargon that included "land grab" and "ungainly scramble" is now augmented by Borgerson's "gold rush" and "legal no man's land." While Borgerson correctly identifies the many sources of tension in the region, he is wrong when he writes that "the Arctic region is not currently governed by any comprehensive multilateral norms." The Arctic is not the "legal vacuum" invoked in his piece; it is a region governed by international law and, for the maritime issues that are the main subject of the article, specifically by the international law of the sea. With one exception ("growing talk of Greenland petitioning Denmark for political independence"), all of the Arctic problems that Borgerson raises -- offshore hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation, overlapping maritime claims, wide-margin continental shelves, the dumping of nuclear reactors, indigenous whaling, and a variety of shipping issues, including contested shipping routes, the use of flags of convenience, vessel-source pollution, and ship-based tourism -- are quintessential law-of-the-sea problems, around which a robust and widely adopted body of international law has grown.
Political Geography