There are two useful lessons in the international reaction to news that Russian explorers had planted the Russian Tricolor on the floor of Arctic Sea on August 2nd. The first is that symbolism is still powerful in international politics.
When the Russian Federation announced on July 27th its intention to annex the Lomonosov Ridge, a vast area beneath the Arctic Sea thought to hold vast reserves of oil and gas, the news was largely ignored by the press and officials outside Russia. Granted, news of the annexation was forced to compete with the news coverage of the antics of drunken Hollywood celebrities. Still, it is striking how little news coverage the annexation announcement received. That was remedied by the traditional gesture of planting the national flag, albeit one made of rustproof titanium rather than cloth, on newly claimed territory. Television news anchors and politicians are capable of recognizing and responding to such familiar symbolism.
However news coverage and official attention do not necessarily mean understanding. And therein lies the second lesson. American news sources interpreted planting the flag as evidence of resurgent Russian nationalism. For example, ABC News reporter Jim Sciutto was allowed a few seconds on Good Morning America to explain to the American audience that, “Russia has enjoyed a return to glory under President Putin. A different system certainly than during Soviet times but similar power and respect on the international stage.” NPR News Analyst Daniel Schoor explained that Russians were attempting to win a measure of international prestige because they are still smarting from having lost the Moon Race in 1969.
The official response from the United States was simultaneously dismissive, rude and petty. U.S. State Department spokesperson Tom Casey said, “I’m not sure of whether they put a metal flag, a rubber flag or a bed sheet on the ocean floor. Either way, it doesn’t have any legal standing or effect on this claim.” Given the Bush administration’s efforts to undermine on the Geneva Conventions, International Criminal Court and Kyoto Protocol, among others, it comes as a surprise that any of its officials would express so much confidence in the authority of international law, but that is a different subject.
Canadian news sources were closer to the mark in interpreting the Russian annexation and flag planting as motivated by the oil and gas under the Artic Sea. CTV Television anchor Seamus O’Reagan draws that conclusion by asking, “What’s at stake here? Oil and gas? Shipping routes in a melted North Pole? …So, what do we need to do to make sure that Canadian interests are protected?” Mineral rights are certainly part of the explanation but not all of it.
The response of Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay was simultaneously dismissive and defensive. “Look, this isn’t the 15th century,” he said. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say “We’re claiming this territory.” The Foreign Minister then added that Canada’s “claims over our Arctic are very well-established.” Leave it to a Tory to get the question right but the answer wrong. MacKay is correct that the news event was about sovereignty over territory. However he is incorrect about the meaning of planting the flag.
The underlying international law is that any and all unclaimed lands or terra nullius may be claimed as sovereign territory by states unless they are already appropriated or removed from appropriation by international treaty. Nor are existing international treaties necessarily the final word on the disposition of such real estate. Ultimately, national sovereignty over territory depends on the ability to hold it by force or negotiation against other powers.
Territorial expansion appears atavistic at the dawn of the 21st century in part because territory itself was less important to national prosperity during the last half century than previously the case. Britain, France, The Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal all achieved higher levels of prosperity after relinquishing the bulk of their colonial empires. Some of the least successful states like Congo and Sudan possessed immense territories and favorable resource endowments. Some of the most successful states like Switzerland and Singapore possess small national territories and poor natural resource endowments. Getting the economic incentives right has been more important for national prosperity than land or its resources for decades.
The better explanation however is that territorial expansion seems atavistic because there has been no territory left to claim for at least a century and no right of conquest since the creation of the United Nations. Nation-states laid claim to every speck of dry land on the planet no matter how small and uninhabitable since before living memory. Nor have states lost interest in sovereignty over those obscure and rarely visited locations. How else could we explain why in 2005 Canadian Defense Minister Bill Graham dramatically his country’s Maple Leaf flag on Hans Island, all 1.3 kilometers of it? He did so to challenge the claim of Denmark, whose Minister of Greenland Affairs enacted the same ritual in the same spot in 1984. Perhaps that is what Mackay meant when he stated that Canadian claims to ourArctic are well-established?
The mineral wealth under the Arctic Sea is a reason why the Russia Federation has staked its claim to the Lomonosov Ridge but not the only reason. Any justification capable of mobilizing a domestic constituency for territorial expansion would have been sufficient. Captive colonial markets, geo-strategic military position and international prestige have also motivated territorial expansion by nation-states in the past.
The nation-state is hardwired to establish and exercise control over territory in the same way that the business corporation is hard wired to maximize market share to make profits, organized crime is hard wired to monopolize opportunities to exploit vice, and churches seek to win converts at the expense of other churches. All are engaged in zero sum competition. The fact that no nation-state is without national territory indicates something important about the nature of all nation-states. Indeed, sovereignty over territory that distinguishes the nation-state from alternative large organizations.
As the production of economic value from the manipulation of information becomes more widespread and especially as it lodges in countries with the largest national populations like China and India, the pursuit of wealth through extraction of raw materials is likely may become more rather than less important. Technological advances permitting detection and extraction of resources under the oceans, the Antarctic and the Moon or other celestial bodies threaten to elicit the sort of territorial ambitions to claim unclaimed territory not seen for more than a century. Far from being the anachronistic gesture assumed by many, planting a Russian Tricolor to symbolize annexation of the Lomonosov Ridge may signal a new wave of international competition for territory.
Associate Professor of Government