June 28, 2014


Antarctica: Notes on the Fate of Sovereignty (John Keane, 6/24/14, The Conversation)

But what kind of polity is Antarctica? Some observers commend it as a workable hotchpotch arrangement of entangled states, or as a model of 'sovereign neutrality' (Gillian Triggs). Most observers pass over the question in silence. That is a pity, for considered in descriptive terms, as a functioning set of governing institutions, Antarctica is a trend-setter, a new type of 'cosmopolitan' law-bound polity defined by a mixture of overlapping power-sharing jurisdictions that are connected with the rest of the world, and (arguably) have important implications for how it will in future be governed.

The novelty of its polity, its practical dismantlement of territorial state sovereignty, is evident on a variety of fronts. Talk of sovereignty always implied, in circumstances when push comes to shove, that states can rightfully lay claim, possess and defend territory if they demonstrate in practice that their grip on that territory is effective and durable. As a macho-muscular and frequently bellicose force in world affairs, the originally European doctrine, as is well known, proved virile in the history of attempted conquests of the lands and seas of Antarctica by various European powers. Yet today Antarctica has no standing armies or police forces or (as far as we know) surveillance agencies operating on its territory. Argentina's OperaciĆ³n 90 (1965) is one of the few documented cases of a military land manoeuvre on the continent. Conducted in secret, so as not to upset the two superpowers of the time, the manoeuvre in support of Argentina's land claims ended happily. Thanks to a chance encounter with an American radar operator, and confirmation they were not Soviet troops, the Argentine soldiers were invited to his base, where the food, according to their commander, General Jorge Leal, was the best his troops had eaten in some weeks.

In Antarctica, there is no executive power in the form of a presidency or prime ministerial system. The continent has no centralised taxation agency, no national judiciary, no bureaucracy (the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, established in 2004, isn't comparable to a civil service) and no welfare state institutions. The new polity of Antarctica doesn't even have a proper textbook name. It's a mode of self-government comprising a dynamic and highly complex mosaic of different types of overlapping legal and governmental institutions guided by the principle that unconstrained ('sovereign') power is power that is arbitrary, dangerous and illegitimate.

The governing architecture of Antarctica has decidedly unusual qualities. Amidst the jungle of acronyms - Europe has no monopoly on upper case stage names - there are many paradoxes. Things aren't what they often seem to be. Its polity has kaleidoscopic qualities. For instance, the instruments through which the continent is governed simultaneously pay homage to the principle of state sovereignty while in practice transcend its limits by means of a tangle of supranational structures. The Antarctic Treaty, agreed by a dozen states reluctant to cede powers to their competitors, has resulted in a rather sizeable and elaborate web of government and legal institutions whose regulatory powers far exceed what was originally envisaged. The creation of a permanent Secretariat to administer the Antarctic Treaty and its offshoot bodies feeds the trend towards post-sovereignty, or what I have elsewhere called cosmocracy. The same trend is evident in the expansion of the number of so-called Consultative Parties (there are now 29 member states in this category) and also the central role played by the supranational Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM). Since 1994, it has become something of a parliament. It is an annual meeting of various representatives, observers and invited experts hosted for two weeks by one of the Consultative Parties, in the alphabetical order of their English-language name; like the European Parliament, which convenes in Strasbourg and Brussels, the ATCM is a geographically mobile legislature of voting representatives.

From the standpoint of modern textbooks and classic authors, the compound, polycentric architecture of government in Antarctica is an incomprehensible mutant, yet its durability and functionality are striking. Compared with rigidly geometric hyper-centralised institutions, the architecture of government in Antarctica comprises a flexible, dynamic system of positively clumsy institutions marked by what might be dubbed 'useful inefficiencies'. These inefficiencies are useful in the sense that they facilitate access to power by outsiders and the sharing of power among the various represented parties. Such clumsiness - awkwardness of rhythm or performance - is not normally considered a political virtue. In the case of Antarctica, the word well describes a definite virtue of its governing system, which through time has become ever more differentiated, subtle and sophisticated. The polity of Antarctica is a type of 'mixed constitution' (Polybius) in a higher, more plural, more democratic form. Governing processes are openly 'messy', recursive and sometimes self-contradictory. Thanks to the tangled, rhizomatous (or rootstalk-like) structures of decision making, demarcation disputes abound. Matters are discussed, batted about, sometimes vetoed; details are probed, second and third opinions are solicited, compromises are struck, often after infuriating bouts of brinkmanship and slow-motion negotiations.

Antarctica could be said to be a strange new form of slow democracy.

The reality is that its unique forms exist on our sufferance. Posted by at June 28, 2014 7:08 AM
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