Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but he doesn't own the North Pole. It belongs to the Russians, if President Vladimir V. Putin gets his way. Or maybe it belongs to the Danes, the Norwegians or the Canadians, all of whom are staking their claims to whatever is under the melting Arctic ice.
Global warming has started a new Great Game in the Far North. Rival navies have been sailing into formerly ice-locked seas, bearing geologists in search of data to support territorial claims. The prize is perhaps 25% of the world's undiscovered oil and gas, as well as mineral riches and access to lucrative shipping lanes. As the Northwest Passage thaws, ships will be able to sail from Europe to Asia for more of the year, shaving up to 2,500 miles off the trip compared with going through the Panama Canal. And whose military will control the expanding Arctic Ocean? Who will own what lies under its seabed and control the airspace above its waves?
Russia planted a flag on the seabed under the North Pole earlier this month. Denmark is sending scientists on an expedition to prove that the Arctic is connected by an underwater mountain range to Greenland, which is Danish territory. And the Canadians say they would be best suited to protect the Northwest Passage against terrorist threats and polluters.
The laggard in the race to grab the Arctic's thawing resources is the United States. That's because the major territorial disputes will probably be decided by a body most Americans have never heard of, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, a United Nations body in Hamburg, Germany. The U.S. lacks legal standing to be heard there because it has not joined the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea or the 1994 implementing agreement -- though 114 other countries have.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee finally recommended approving the treaty in 2004. The Bush administration -- which has seen U.S. interests as limited, not protected, by international treaties -- didn't lift a finger to get the treaty through the Senate, even though the State Department and every branch of the U.S. military wanted it ratified. Then, in February, the born-again multilateralist White House, perhaps realizing that the United States has 1,000 miles of Arctic coastline, asked for Senate advice and consent on the Law of the Sea treaty.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should make time to approve the treaty as soon as possible. But the Senate should also ponder the future of the Arctic and how its treasures can best be used and safeguarded for the future. To ravage the melting ice cap for fossil fuels that will further warm and pollute the North Pole would be a tragedy for humankind.