Chapter II

United States Antarctic Policy

A. United States Interests

The United States has important interests in Antarctica. We have long been a leader in scientific research there, research that provides insights essential to the understanding of the planet. The major U.S. commitment to Antarctic exploration and research over the past four decades has been based upon the unique opportunities offered by the continent and surrounding waters to carry out basic research in astronomy and astrophysics, glaciology, geology, geophysics, oceanography, the atmospheric sciences, ecology, biology, and biomedical science.

U.S. scientific interests have been matched by important political, security, economic and environmental interests, including maintenance of the viability of the Antarctic Treaty and associated agreements that are the indispensable framework through which we have pursued and achieved our interests.

U.S. Antarctic policy, therefore, as set forth most recently in Presidential Decision Directive NSC 26 of June 9, 1994, has four basic objectives:

  1. protecting the relatively unspoiled environment of Antarctica and its associated ecosystems;
  2. preserving and pursuing unique opportunities for scientific research to understand Antarctica and global physical and environmental systems;
  3. maintaining Antarctica as an area of international cooperation reserved exclusively for peaceful purposes; and
  4. assuring the conservation and sustainable management of the living resources in the oceans surrounding Antarctica.

These interrelated interests are the rationale for the establishment and continued investment in a focused and organized national program of research in Antarctica.

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B. The Antarctic Treaty

The ability to achieve United States' objectives, particularly in light of differences among nations over claims to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica depends upon a unique framework of international agreements. This framework is provided by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, as well as measures adopted pursuant to the Treaty and related legal agreements resulting from initiatives under the Treaty. Collectively, these are known as the Antarctic Treaty system. (See Appendix I.)

The basic feature of the political geography of Antarctica is the dispute over territorial sovereignty there. Seven nations - Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom - claim territorial sovereignty over parts of Antarctica. The claims of Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom overlap in the Antarctic Peninsula. In addition, a part of the continent is unclaimed. The United States neither asserts a claim nor recognizes the claims of others. At the same time, the United States has maintained a basis of claim, deriving originally from early U.S. expeditions of exploration and discovery in Antarctica.

Figure II-1. Antarctic territorial claims by seven nations. Most ATCP nations, including the United States, do not recognize these claims.

The Antarctic Treaty "freezes" the positions of both claimants and non-claimants and thereby permits its Parties to undertake cooperative activities and agree on collective regulation of those activities, without prejudice to their legal positions. This conflict avoidance and conflict resolution mechanism is key to the political system of governance embodied in the Treaty. The primary provisions of the Treaty are:

Maintaining the system of governance which has evolved under the Antarctic Treaty, and ensuring that is continues to be a dynamic and responsive mechanism, thus, is also a key element in achievement of U.S. Antarctic policy objectives.

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C. United States Presence

The permanent presence in Antarctica resulting from the research activities supported by the U.S. Antarctic Program also has major political and security benefits for the United States. (See Department of State Memorandum to the National Security Council at Appendix II.) The influence of a Party to the Antarctic Treaty is directly linked to the extent and quality of its scientific presence in Antarctica. The United States Antarctic Program accords us the leadership role in Antarctica.

For these reasons, U.S. Antarctic policy for 25 years has affirmed the importance of an "active and influential U.S. presence in Antarctica." This has been defined to include the conduct of scientific research in major disciplines and year-round occupation of three research stations, including the South Pole.

The need for an active and influential U.S. presence in Antarctica to achieve our national interests and policy objectives has remained constant through major changes in the political and economic forces affecting Antarctica. It has underpinned U.S. leadership in Antarctic affairs as the number of nations active on the continent continues to grow (from 12 in 1961 to 26 in 1996). It is the basis for our role in the successful management of fishing activities in Antarctic waters, where, U.S. commercial fishing interests are growing.

Moreover, the importance of an active and influential presence has not waned with the end of the Cold War. While there was an element of rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in Antarctic activities, there was also an identity of interests with common commitment to maintaining Antarctica as a zone of peace and with common positions on the legal and political status of Antarctica as non-claimant nations. Russia remains a player, but with diminished influence. This has increased the importance of U.S. leadership in maintaining the political and legal balance that makes the Antarctic Treaty a uniquely successful international mechanism.

For these reasons, the NSTC believes that at the current level of investment, a strong, year-round U.S. presence in Antarctica, including the three research stations, is necessary to serve basic U.S. science interests, as well as U.S. interests in maintaining the international peace and stability and an effective system of governance established by the Antarctic Treaty.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is of particular scientific and strategic importance. It is located on the summit of the polar ice cap and at the point of intersection of territorial claims that the United States does not accept.

As is pointed out in the Department of State Memorandum (Appendix II):

...United States presence at the South Pole Station demonstrates United States commitment to assert its rights in Antarctica, its basis of claim and its commitment to cutting edge scientific research there. Abandonment of the Station would create a vacuum and likely result in a scramble to occupy the site to the detriment of our position as well as to the stability of the Treaty system.

In sum, the NSTC concurs with the conclusion of the Department of State Memorandum that "it is essential that the United States continue to maintain an active and influential presence in Antarctica, including year-round operation of South Pole Station." The NSTC also endorses a continuing search for options that increase the cost effectiveness of maintaining this "presence."

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