The Arctic and Antarctica are well-known Cold War theaters. While these frozen frontiers hosted strategic competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, they also produced legacies of cooperation that have extended through the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. Indeed, the polar regions continue to host cooperative relations between Washington and Moscow, despite cooler ties elsewhere. Why is this the case? Perhaps more crucially, how can this current climate of cooperation between Russia and the West within these regions be bolstered for another thirty years? And what might fracture it?

Likening the polar regions to each other is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Both are cold, operationally challenging environments located at the ends of the earth. But the Arctic is primarily an ocean; the Antarctic primarily a continental landmass. The Arctic is a region generally delineated above the Arctic Circle, though the US definition also includes the Bering Sea and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain. The Arctic is, save for few areas of contestation, predominantly claimed consistent with the agreed international legal architecture—United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. In contrast, Antarctica is a continent covered in ice a mile thick in most places, with no formal state sovereignty and where the question of territoriality is all but suspended by the Antarctic Treaty System. While seven states claim sectors of the continent, these are not formally recognized, and the southernmost continent is all but protected as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.

Yet, both regions are stress points in our geopolitical futures scenarios. Beyond the catchy but sometimes superficial connotations of “new” Cold Wars, the polar regions remain arenas of strategic competition that are vital to better understand.

Great Powers in the Polar Regions

Great power competition is a traditional driver of geopolitics and a longstanding feature of global power dynamics. It is also a central component of polar history and has shaped Arctic and Antarctic trajectories for decades.

The Arctic, despite renewed tensions between Washington and Moscow, has remained a collaborative, cohesive environment ever since Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1987 Murmansk Speech—which outlined the Soviet Union’s Arctic plans, laying the foundation for a cooperative Arctic environment for Moscow and the West. This rationale was the basis for the formation of the Arctic Council in 1996—an institution accountable for the collective governance of the region. Consisting of eight Arctic states (those with territory above the Arctic Circle), the council is an intergovernmental body that makes decisions based purely on consensus. Formal observers—including several Asian states like China and Japan—bound by strict criteria for admission, can engage with Arctic Council members but lack any real power or ability to vote within the forum. Significantly, the council is a regional body affording great powers (i.e., the United States and Russia) an equal mandate in the management of the global Arctic. For its lauded success as an effective international institution, the Arctic Council is conspicuously resistant to defense and security discussions within its forum, despite the Arctic’s history of twentieth-century military tensions and similar regional dynamics presenting again in the twenty-first century.

During the Cold War, the Arctic featured as a hotbed for Soviet-US tensions and strategic posturing. Geographically speaking, the Arctic was the shortest distance between the two nuclear-armed superpowers—any missile strike would likely make use of this proximity. Similarly, Moscow’s expansive Northern Fleet was based in the Arctic. In the 1930s, Stalin utilized the region as an ideological tool to fan nationalistic sentiment around the Soviet capacity to conquer the unforgiving frontier.

Today, the Arctic political environment is best explained by the phrase “high north, low tension.” This speaks to the Arctic states’ commitment to protect the region from strategic spillover originating beyond the Arctic. Overall, Arctic stakeholders have managed to keep the Arctic peaceful, even despite strained ties between Russia and the West following the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. That year was a litmus test of sorts for the Arctic’s resistance to strategic spillover. The Arctic stakeholders have maintained constructive and cooperative relations despite tensions elsewhere—so far.

Now, some features of the bellicose Cold War–era Arctic are re-emerging—in particular, the evident militarization of Arctic coastlines. However, investments by both Moscow and Washington (as well as similar efforts from Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Canada) in the region are more reflective of states securitizing their vast, open borders than they are of posturing for conflict. Arctic borders are increasingly busy, thus requiring bolstered search-and-rescue capabilities as well as military capacity to serve as a visible deterrent in the protection of Arctic states’ immense economic investment. Given the economic potential within these states’ exclusive economic zones, their actions are driven more today by normative calculations than by great power politics, as they once were during the Cold War. But as more states seek access to the Arctic and subsequent involvement in its governance and economic affairs, great power politics are creeping north again.

Likewise, Antarctica is defined by great power politics and has been since the 1960s. The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) is heralded as a legacy of Cold War cooperation and is widely considered the first international arms control agreement of the twentieth century. Crafted to “freeze” the question of who owned the fifth largest continent, the ATS also banned nuclear testing and—save for military logistics support to research ventures—the militarization of Antarctica. In preventing militarization and potential conflict in an unclaimed region of international intrigue, the ATS paved the way for a collaborative and cooperative scientific research and environmental protection agenda around the South Pole.

Although a Cold War–era artifact, the ATS is the gold standard for international cooperation. Open for signature in 1959, the superpowers came together during the depths of the Cold War to agree to terms of Antarctica’s future. In line with great power expectations, both the United States and Soviet Union engaged as equals and walked away from negotiations with the international community on mutually beneficial terms in which their sovereignty was not undermined, but at the same time reserved their rights to stake an Antarctic claim at a later date.

After its 1959 adoption, the Antarctic Treaty went into force in 1961 and will mark its sixtieth year of functional execution in 2021. Since then, the treaty has enabled decades of successful Antarctic governance and conflict avoidance, albeit on the fragile assumption of prevailing institutional liberalism that carried the day in the twentieth century. Now the twenty-first century is seeing renewed great power competition, only this time with three influential states vying for global influence and power instead of two. With global resource competition intensifying, the ATS is still a fragile solution for Antarctica governance, but is on even shakier ground today than ever before.

As the world’s last remaining unclaimed continent, Antarctica is protected by a rather flimsy treaty. Primarily, the ATS has no teeth and is instead reliant on increasingly tenuous normative international relations dynamics to keep the whole thing together. What is stopping a particularly motivated state from simply opting out of the treaty and making a unilateral territorial claim? There is no policy architecture or behavioral guidelines for such an occurrence. However, the fact that no state has withdrawn from the ATS and made such a claim points to the reality of the ease in which signatories are able to manipulate their strategic interests while remaining within the bounds of the treaty’s mandate.

For all of its simple elegance, the ATS is equally nebulous and open to wide interpretation. For example, the treaty bans military personnel and equipment on the continent unless deployed in support of scientific research. As the bounds of what constitutes scientific research expand, so too does the permissible military activity by extension. To this point, the treaty provides for unfettered access to and inspection of states’ installations, bases, and other Antarctic facilities at any time to ensure compliance with the ATS. States are able to easily skirt this surveillance concern because aerial observations are often the most viable method of conducting these inspections and few states send ground inspection parties to Antarctic bases. The net effect of the convenience of aerial observations yields an ironic lack of insight into the ground-based realities of Antarctic base activities, which can subsequently motivate deviation from the ATS provisions toward self-serving aims, especially with the increasing importance of space access for military power projection.

The treaty was not crafted in a time of gray-zone warfare and does not consider conflict below the threshold of war in its military prohibitions. Furthermore, the notion of dual-use security concerns is not dealt with effectively by the ATS. Dual-use technologies are such that they can have both scientific (permissible in the treaty) applications and military-security applications (not permissible). These vulnerabilities are known and exploited to serve strategic interests by signatories, including some of the most influential states in twenty-first century great power politics.

Emerging great power China leverages ATS ambiguities with its deployment of ground stations for its BeiDou satellite network in Antarctica. Offering the clearest point for earth transmission, Antarctica is hot real estate for states’ satellite programs. Beijing can conduct these programs under the guise of scientific research to plot ice sheet shrinkage. Of course, many analysts would point to the more sinister data-collection and surveillance capability the network affords China to advance its great power aims. Fisheries, particularly krill in the Southern Ocean, is another driving factor for great power engagement in the Antarctic given the economic prospects of controlling the regions.

Mirroring the Arctic, states invest heavily in Antarctic research programs and presence to further cultivate what are best described as identity projects. For Russia, the ability to illustrate global reach to both ends of the earth and its polar profile are tools used to craft a narrative about Russian power and capability for its domestic audience. Likewise, the United States maintains its polar great power identity by remaining active, present, and engaged in the Antarctic, but largely approaches both poles with similar intent. The same cannot be said for rival great power China.

China treats its Antarctic stake remarkably differently to its Arctic engagement. As an ATS signatory, Beijing is, in effect, on equal footing with both Russia and the United States within the Antarctic access and governance conversation. While Australia’s 42 percent continental claim is “frozen” by the ATS, China has constructed most of its Antarctic bases within Australia’s perceived Antarctic territory. And Beijing is not breaking any rules by doing so. China approaches its Antarctic agenda and activities in a much more assertive manner than it does in the Arctic. China’s footprint in Antarctica and its icebreaker capability is such that should the ATS collapse, it is unlikely that the remaining Antarctic stakeholders could forcibly remove Beijing from the continent without devolving into open military conflict—and China knows it.

Meltdown: Accelerating Strategic Competition

The overarching security implications of climate change have the potential to sharpen power dynamics and shape global order like nothing else. Climate change is altering geopolitics today in ways that have not occurred in generations. This is certainly the case when it comes to the polar regions.

Warming temperatures in the Arctic is either a commercial blessing or a curse, depending on one’s viewpoint. Arctic meltdown refers to the shrinking of the winter ice sheet coverage and thinning of the summer ice sheet. Essentially, more and more of the Arctic Ocean is navigable without year-round icebreaker support. This means a few things. First, commercially it is cheaper to transport goods along the polar passages. Voyages also take less time, so transit costs are reduced. Second, energy projects are arguably more viable with reduced ice coverage affording easier access to offshore deposits. The lower the commercial overheads, the cheaper firms can price their oil and gas, thus out-competing rival energy exporters.

However, these windfalls are quickly outstripped by the damage caused by climate change. Easily exploitable fisheries, hydrocarbons, and transport corridors draw outsider interest to the strategic value of the Arctic. This leads to congested Arctic shipping routes and heightened tensions over access to and control of the Arctic arena. This moves the Arctic narrative from one of a clearly delineated zone of peace with a central institutional governance body to one of state competition and, potentially, conflict.

Climate change is severely impacting the strategic asset value of many Arctic projects. Russia’s recent Norilsk environmental disaster, in which a fuel tank leaked into an Arctic river ecosystem, is one stark example. Unprecedented heat in the Arctic region, with temperatures reaching 100ºF in Russia’s Arctic in 2020, melted permafrost throughout the region. This has resulted in unstable grounds and critical infrastructure vulnerable to collapse. The threat to infrastructure also reaches Arctic ports and facilities built on ice sheets.

Similar impacts are felt in Antarctica. Like the Arctic, Antarctica in 2020 also saw its warmest temperature ever recorded at nearly 65ºF. Given that 90 percent of the earth’s freshwater deposits are held in Antarctica, there is a litany of security implications that arise as it melts. Antarctica is the world’s refrigerator, and its freshwater store is pivotal to the global oceans and current bionetworks. Changes in this delicate balance of saltwater and freshwater exchange have implications for entire ecosystems, starting with a building block of the global food chain—krill fisheries. Both China and Russia invest heavily in krill fisheries, with Beijing extremely active in Southern Ocean fishery zones around Antarctica.

Thinning Antarctic ice will also make onshore mineral resources readily accessible. Assuming the ATS remains in place, there is no foreseeable strategic competition developing over access to the continent’s reserves. However, void of a plan for a post-ATS world, it will merely be a case of “might is right” and the state with the largest military presence will no doubt set and enforce the rules. For now, it appears polar powers will continue to exploit the gray zones of the treaty and push for points of weakness in the ATS without overtly departing from it.

The interactive dynamic among great powers engaging with each other in the polar regions is especially interesting. Russia and China have arrived at a (for now) comprehensive strategic partnership in the Arctic. This is predicated on Moscow’s need for Beijing’s capital and Arctic technology, as well as its vast energy export market. By contrast, in the Antarctic, Russia and China are competitors, closely watching each other’s development of Antarctic bases, research projects, and respective footprints on the continent while also looking to the other to stretch the bounds of acceptable action and creation of new precedent. In contrast, the United States and Russia maintain equal footing in both poles as legitimate stakeholders—in the Arctic by way of territory and in the Antarctic by virtue of treaty agreement.

These power dynamics continue to influence polar behaviors. Despite the commercial coup that climate change presents petro-states, it is unlikely polar states will relish this scenario. A short-term win for all states in terms of easier access to resources and quicker global transport routes is ultimately outweighed by the consequent looming crisis. How do Arctic states cope with a warmer climate in which operations are threatened either in terms of unviable infrastructure or international convergence of resource-hungry states?

In theory, climate change should push polar stakeholders to band together to craft collaborative agendas. Reality is different. Environmental protection strategies to offset global warming in the Arctic and Antarctic ought to be hallmarks of international polar engagement—but the world is increasingly competitive and resource competition is on the horizon. The ATS is evidence of international capacity for cooperation despite apparent bilateral tensions between states; and though the conditions for conflict in the polar regions are burgeoning, such cohesive cooperation is still possible today.

Future Polar Security Dialogue

Traditional approaches to assessing the future trajectory of the Arctic and Antarctica in strategic competition often rely on single-lever analysis. For example, strategic futures are considered largely in terms of the impact that a rising China will have on global markets and resource competition. However, relying on one lens to view strategic competition, in the polar regions particularly, is myopic and shortsighted. This approach only gives policymakers one element of the geostrategic polar equation and there are clear policy implications missed as a result. Risks of strategic miscalculation are increased when policy is crafted based on incorrect or incomplete assessments of what is driving state interests in the polar regions.

While great power competition in the polar regions is currently constrained by agreed legal architectures and international institutions presiding over normative constructs, these agreements are reliant on continued goodwill and commitment to consensus-based solutions. Despite current changes in great power relations—especially between Russia and the West—the polar regions have so far remained insulated from the effects of these changes. Of course, if this ceases to be the case it will spell strategic disaster for the polar regions. Maintenance of goodwill between great powers in the Arctic and Antarctica has been the necessary conditions for polar cooperation, but it is at greater risk of dissolution today than ever before.

As such, a more informed, collaborative, and substantive discussion about future approaches to polar affairs—within the scope of defense, security, and renewed great power competition—is vital.

Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan is a lecturer in strategic studies for the Defence and Strategic Studies Course at the Australian War College in Canberra, a fellow at the Modern War Institute, and co-director of Project 6633.

Dr. Ryan Burke is an associate professor of Military & Strategic Studies at the US Air Force Academy, a fellow at the Modern War Institute, and co-director of Project 6633.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the Australian Department of Defence and Australian government.

Image credit: 94th Airlift Wing