The aesthetic pleasures of a cruise to Antarctica are considerable. The scenery is majestic. The animal life – whales, seals and lots and lots and lots of penguins – is simply adorable. And I’m never giving another dime to National Geographic, because even a photographic newbie can produce calendar-worthy pictures. Like the one above. Or this one:

But does Antarctica tell us anything about politics? Given its remote, uninhabited status, I was pretty dubious. In preparation for this trip, however, I read Klaus Dodds’s primer “Antarctica: A Very Short Introduction” and David Day’s magisterial “Antarctica: A Biography.” And the history of this place proves illuminating about politics in a number of surprising ways.

In particular, here are three things I learned:

  1. The federal government’s dysfunction predates the 21st century, by a lot. In the late 1830s, as France and Great Britain were sending expeditions down to explore the White Continent, plenty of American explorers and whalers lobbied Congress furiously to fund more Antarctic exploration. Despite such strong political support – as well as President Andrew Jackson – the secretary of the Navy thought it a waste of time and used every delaying trick in the book, outlasting Jackson’s term. Eventually the outcry was large enough for President Martin Van Buren to ensure that the mission proceeded. As Day notes, however, “the years of political bickering and delay had given its European rivals a head start.” A century later, congressional dithering created a similar delay in American expeditions to Antarctica, despite FDR’s strong support.
  2. The methods to bolster territorial claims in the absence of occupation are pretty damn strange. As China and its neighbors bicker over uninhabited island chains, it’s fascinating to read similar disputes over Antarctic territorial claims from a century ago. Because there was no permanent occupation of the continent itself at that time, claimant countries used a variety of gambits to try to strengthen their case for why they merited a wedge of Antarctica. These included: publishing histories that demonstrated past discovery of the territory; establishing temporary post offices on the territory; naming geographical points inside their claimed territory and then publishing atlases with those names. Argentina flew a woman down to one of its bases to claim the first child born in Antarctica. Suddenly, China’s decision to issue passports with the Nine-Dash Line map on them look less loopy.
  3. The global governance of Antarctica works pretty damn well. Technically, there are still seven territorial claimants of Antarctica. In actuality, the claims don’t matter too much, because of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). In essence, the ATS allows any signatory to set up a research station anywhere they want, vitiating the significance of the sovereignty claims. Subsequent environmental protocols forbade any mining activity while protecting the indigenous flora and fauna. Compliance is not perfect, but it’s pretty good. On the whole, when it comes to Antarctica, the system works.
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