As one of the coldest and most extreme places on Earth, Antarctica is rarely discussed as a political theater. But in 1959, an international agreement known as the Antarctic Treaty, which is now a part of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), was signed between major world powers, who pledged to put the continent towards collective scientific research for the overall benefit of humanity. But are the intentions of the original signatories as benevolent as they may appear? In his “Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes famously described the lives of human beings in the “state of nature” as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Of course, this outlook on human nature is, among other criticisms, overwhelmingly pessimistic and masculine. But if we apply this cynical explanation to the behavior of countries, do we arrive at a more accurate picture?

The Antarctic Treaty is a landmark document that establishes international scientific research and cooperation in Antarctica. Signed originally by 12 countries, including France, the USSR, the UK and the US, the Treaty governs countries actions in the Antarctic region, which it defines as “the area south of 60º South Latitude, including all ice shelves.” The first object of the Treaty is to certify that the region should “be used for peaceful purposes only,” explicitly banning all military operations with the exception of “military members or equipment,” which must be used for a scientific or otherwise peaceful purpose. However, the primary purpose of the Treaty is to emphasize the promotion of scientific research and scientific cooperation in the region. All “information regarding plans for scientific programs” must be shared between countries, in addition to “scientific personnel” and “scientific observations and results.” This also includes allowing observers from all members of the Treaty to “have complete freedom of access at any time to any or all areas of Antarctica.” Notably, prior to the introduction of the Treaty, seven different countries had made territorial claims of Antarctica, several of which are overlapping. Although the Treaty does not invalidate these claims, it does preclude the creation of future claims while it is still enforced. If a dispute does arise between the members of the Antarctic Treaty, the disputants are supposed to resolve the problem peacefully between themselves, with any dispute not resolved “referred to the International Court of Justice for settlement.”

One other important document in the ATS is the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, also known as the Madrid Protocol. This agreement reaffirms the Antarctic Treaty by requiring “the development of contingency plans to respond to environmental emergencies” and “that all proposed activities must be subject to a prior assessment of their environmental impacts.” Most significantly, however, is its prohibition of mining: “Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.” Significantly, although this moratorium is supposedly indefinite, the Protocol will be up for renegotiation in 2048.

Hobbes understands the behavior of state actors through his conception of man in the state of nature. His underlying assumption is that the capabilities of every single person are not so different that “one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he.” Every single person believes that they have the possibility of defeating another, whether through their own strength and skill or through using the abilities of allies. Compounding this belief is an emphasis on the selfish aspects of human behavior, since “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies” and will ultimately “endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.” Disputes that inevitably arise do so because of desires for “competition,” “diffidence,” and “glory,” which cause people to invade or attack “for gain,” “for safety,” and “for reputation.” All of these psychological underpinnings, which exist unfiltered in the state of nature, result in brief and unfortunate lives. The easy result, for Hobbes, is that people should rationally attempt to create a state led by a sovereign who rules over all, mediating desires and taking people out of a natural state of war.

Crucially, Hobbes also believes that sovereign entities (sovereigns, states, etc.) function and interact with each other in the same way that men function in the state of nature. He writes, “in all times kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies and in the state of posture of gladiators,” and therefore are in “a posture of war.” If there is no government or overarching power that can control or regulate state-to-state interactions, then states will act selfishly and violently, always seeking to grow, stay secure, and maintain a good reputation. And, since “covenants without the sword are but words” in the state of nature because no higher power exists to enforce them, any agreements or treaties between states are inherently unstable.

Hobbes’ understanding of interstate relations as existing in the state of nature suggests that the ATS is an unenforceable and therefore precarious system of international agreements. Because it is an agreement between different countries, in order for it to be an agreement that could be enforced, there would need to be a higher power or entity that could mediate and resolve disagreements between members of the Treaty that cannot be resolved by themselves. As noted earlier, the Treaty designates the International Court of Justice as the governing body to mediate such disputes. However, rulings by the Court are subject to veto by members of the United Nations Security Council, four of whom are original signatories of the ATS. The result is that certain members of the ATS can violate its terms without fear of reprisal or punishment. In that sense, the Treaty is unenforceable and is begging to be disobeyed.

If this is the case, then why have countries stayed true to the requirements of the ATS, even if they weren’t required to? Perhaps the continued success of the Antarctic Treaty suggests that Hobbes has a fundamental misunderstanding about how countries interact with each other, and consequently the state of nature of people. The motivating idea behind the Treaty is to encourage scientific research and cooperation between all countries involved in Antarctica. Because of the information exchange, no single state is in any position to gain any research advantage over the other members of the ATS. Any form of research benefits everyone. Is it possible, then, that countries have interests beyond violent selfishness? Is Hobbes’ conception of the state of nature as a state of war deeply flawed in the context of state-to-state behavior?

There is not a certain answer to this question, but I do have my suspicions. It appears that abiding by the terms of the ATS, including the mining moratorium, is merely easier than attempting to undertake mining or military operations. Although there are potentially substantial mineral deposits under the ice cap, extreme weather conditions and the miles of ice make any potential operations exceedingly cost prohibitive. As a result, the ATS may exist because there is no other discernible advantage to be gained from Antarctica, other than scientific operations.

That said, in the last several years China has been increasing its involvement in Antarctica and there is suspicion that its motives are less than benign. Professor Anne-Marie Brady, author of the book China as a Polar Great Power, suggests that China views Antarctica as “a global resource from their point of view that has the potential to be exploited, notwithstanding the restrictions on it at the moment as part of the Antarctic Treaty.” We already see this sort of behavior with over fishing of krill in the Antarctic region, which is disrupting the already-vulnerable Antarctic ecosystem. “There is a clear overlap between the countries most strongly opposed to marine protection and those with an active krill fishing industry in the region,” wrote Luke Massey of Greenpeace’s Protect the Antarctic program. And, Professor Brady notes that China believes “many countries in Antarctica are occupying bases not to pursue scientific questions but to invest in long-term strategic interests, including potential access to any resources that may be discovered.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

It would appear that the ATS is an artifice, merely a part of the waiting game of resource-hungry nations driven by an economic system that demands of them to mine, trawl, drill and guzzle every single resource from the Earth. Even from Antarctica, given the current state of the planet, and perhaps even before 2048. I have no doubt that the creators and preservers of the ATS work tirelessly for the survival of the most beautifully extreme continent on Earth. But until the systems that governs our contemporary world is replaced by one that respects our environment, I have little hope.


Cormac Chester is a member of the Class of 2020 and can be reached at