"What about the rest of the North?" asked McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation, back in the 1970s while considering yet one more grant to help the troubled Native Americans of Alaska.
The initial reaction of a young staffer asked to research the question was that the boss was making some strange reference to the Civil War.
Instead, Bundy was referring to the Arctic Circle, and asking whether geographic unity and climate uniformity were reflected in similarity of challenges to public policies. He spotted an important point.
On March 12, the people of Greenland, a semi-autonomous territory of Denmark, voted in an election which has drawn unprecedented international attention. The melting of polar ice is making enormous deposits of gas, iron, oil, uranium and other vital minerals accessible. Independence from Denmark is also debated.
The election victor is the centrist pro-mining Siumut Party. Leader Aleqa Hammond, who favors controversial uranium mining, likely will be Greenland’s first woman prime minister.
China is emerging as a major investor in economic resources. In the election, a prominent issue has been a $2.3 billion mining project proposed by British Mining Plc. China would be a major beneficiary of the production.
The U.S. government seems largely disengaged. Revealingly, serious environmental debate between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney in the recent presidential contest focused primarily on domestic concerns. Obama’s often soaring rhetoric regarding the global environment contrasts with absence of action.
Other nations are showing forceful leadership. The Russian Geographical Society has been paramount, and in 2010 hosted two international conferences on the Arctic. More than 400 scientists and other scholars, business executives, government representatives, investors and lawyers were brought together.
Historically, Britain has led in global geography, but now Russia is spearheading organizing a region where their stake is vital. Others are joining China and Russia in aggressively seeking to develop the wealth under land and sea.
Serious conflicts over territorial jurisdiction will escalate as more northern territories are freed from the ice and snow. Disputes have aligned Russia against Canada and Denmark regarding control of the Lomonosov Ridge, most of which is in international waters.
Other nations involved in such disagreements include Finland, Iceland, Sweden and the United States. Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation can claim resources beyond a 200-mile limit if a direct continuous continental shelf can be established.
Meanwhile, the UN continues to experience frustration in achieving the exceptionally ambitious Millennium Development Goals. They aim to cut world poverty in half while achieving universal primary education, fighting dangerous diseases, empowering women, and improving water quality and sanitation.
Some MDG progress has been made, but the declared goals remain largely distant. The Group of Eight industrial nations have fallen short in a collective pledge to increase official development assistance, in particular regarding Africa. Established government foreign aid programs are politically weak.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should lead regarding orderly development of the Arctic. The potential of private investment to help the poor through jobs as well as philanthropy is generally ignored at the UN.
Polar policies are unavoidably global in impact. Secretary-General Ban is from South Korea, a nation uniquely spanning the global rich-poor divide. International law provides a foundation for orderly resources development.
Bundy would approve this approach. By the way, indigenous peoples around the North share remarkably similar problems resulting from poverty.