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Antarctic Exceptionalism in a Changing World

18 Jan 2024
By Jake Latham, Dr Marcus Haward, Dr Lynda Goldsworthy AM and Dr Jeffrey McGee
Antarctica, South Pole Station. Source: Eli Duke /

Global political challenges to the rules-based order are beginning to signal an end of Antarctic exceptionalism. Initiated during the Cold War among major powers, existing governance institutions may not be fit for purpose, but what may constitute an appropriate alternative is unclear. 

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have often been seen as “a place apart,” often described using superlatives; most isolated, driest, and the coldest place on earth. Commitments embedded in the 1959 Antarctic Treaty for the peaceful use, scientific collaboration, setting aside territorial disputes, and reliance on consensus decision making has further entrenched its difference, and even exceptionalism. Here, Antarctic exceptionalism refers to the relative immunization of the continent over the past seven decades from external geopolitical issues.

In recent decades, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean’s role in the global climate system has attracted increased attention regarding the region’s governance. Broader intersecting challenges however are on the horizon as the world enters an era of increased volatility, providing the conditions for the emergence of a polycrisis.

Antarctic Exceptionalism

The great power struggles between the US and USSR during the cold war were clear; “keeping Antarctica separate” during Antarctic Treaty negotiations and, encouraging “mutual benefit and pragmatic considerations” helped harness the 12 original signatories’ ambitions for the Antarctic territory. The settlement established by the Antarctic Treaty, and geographic isolation of the continent, also played an important role, ensuring broader geopolitical issues (until recently) did not cross over into the Antarctic. This “exceptionalism” was reinforced by the norms and practices adopted by parties during negotiations and continued on after the Antarctic Treaty entered into force in 1961.

Between 1982 and 2012, both the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs) and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) added further to this exceptionalism, aiding in the mitigation of regional challenges. The Falklands/Malvinas war, South Africa’s political isolation during apartheid, and the United Nations “question of Antarctica” are all examples where the Treaty system was able to keep external issues from impacting meetings within Antarctic governance. An alternative view, by contrast, is that issues within Antarctica are “merely a regional manifestation of a global activity.”

Polycrisis and the End of Antarctic Exceptionalism?

The polycrisis literature demonstrates how seemingly unrelated events and systems can coalesce and compound into a crisis. There are three main components that separate a polycrisis from systemic risk: “The causal interaction of multiple crises produces greater harms than the sum of the harms produced separately”; individual solutions will not work to solve the problem; and, “multiple global systems become causally entangled in ways that significantly degrade humanity’s prospects.”

The external challenges to the ATS between 1982 and 2002 were managed effectively. But this raises the question of how much influence the international rules-based order played in keeping issues separate while maintaining effective governance. A post COVID-19 world has generated a pivot point within global power dynamics and international order. Challenges can be witnessed in the increased polarisation of positions globally, and by the testing of established norms and rules. Increased tensions like those in the South China Sea and the Russian invasion of Ukraine confront established norms and practices underpinning the rules-based order.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, unprecedented “walk outs” in both the ATCM and CCAMLR meeting of 2022, and lengthy interventions condemning Russia’s behaviour at both the 2022 and 2023 CCAMLR meetings, occurred. Meanwhile, the establishment and growth of the global alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – (all ATCPs) – under the BRICS bloc, adds further potential for polarisation. For the time being, unanimity between BRICS members has not emerged within the AT or CCAMLR, but a time when this may occur may be near. If this is the case, two important questions need to be raised and considered by those engaged in Antarctic policy discourse: Is there a correlation between a challenged international order and stresses on Antarctic exceptionalism? (And subsequently how strong is this relationship/correlation?) And if we are witnessing the end of Antarctic exceptionalism, will current Antarctic governance institutions be useful going forward?

As the elements of a polycrisis manifest, the pillars of Antarctic exceptionalism and the norms within established Antarctic governance are also likely to be challenged. The pressure for change is likely to further intensify. While the Antarctic regime has shown historical resilience, increased challenges to consensus may lead to critiques of the ATS’s performance.

Relying on the historical resilience of the institutions has the potential to damage and weaken Australian interests within the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. It is doubtful that, under current geopolitical circumstances, a multilateral agreement, similarly composed along the lines of the existing Antarctic Treaty and CCAMLR, could be re-negotiated. A major concern, therefore, is what may replace such mechanisms if they are allowed to weaken. A renewed focus on understanding the impact of such external influences is needed to help mitigate the adverse challenges facing Antarctic governance. To do this, the idea of Antarctic exceptionalism needs to be put aside and the analysis and strategic planning of Antarctic governance needs to include global events.

This article was authored by Jake Latham, Professor Marcus Haward, Dr Lynda Goldsworthy AM, and Associate Professor Jeff McGee. Their extended bios can found in the links attached. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.