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Can the Arctic teach the world to cooperate?

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Just maybe, the Arctic could represent a giant do-over.

It is safe to say that the history of world exploration has not always made for comfortable reading. True, the courage of the adventurer has inspired. But the Age of Exploration was not known for its humanity. Among its products were enslavement and exploitation. In more recent years, the negative byproducts of such an expansionist mind-set have been attenuated, yet they still remained the same in essentials: The cold war was defined largely by powerful countries using others for their own benefit.

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Apart from these colonial tendencies, though, something different and powerfully positive was also going on. The world was being connected. The capacities of the human race were being pooled. Every corner of the globe was being brought into the collective enterprise of generating wealth. 

Obviously, that process has happened extremely unevenly and often unfairly. Yet it is also true that the world is orders of magnitude healthier and more prosperous than it was centuries ago.

The question now being posed in the Arctic – and by Peter Ford’s cover story this week – is whether we can do better this time. Must exploitation and conflict inevitably accompany exploration and expansion? Or can we learn the lessons of the past and reap the benefits of expansion without falling prey to its temptations?

The case is an odd one. The Arctic’s potential has always been there; it has just been locked in a deep freeze. As the climate changes, polar ice is dramatically retreating. The consequences for the planet could well be severe, even catastrophic. But unless something changes, it is a fact that the Arctic will be increasingly open for business – an unexpected new frontier. How the world responds will be a test of how its views of power have changed – or not.

Of course, the negative drivers of fear, dominance, and exploitation are still percolating. And not surprisingly, they’re most apparent in authoritarian countries like Russia and China. Their interest in the Arctic recalls the Great Game of the 19th century, when British and Russian men with glorious handlebar mustaches competed for influence in Central Asia, or the cold war of the 20th. Russian President Vladimir Putin is still in this world. Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to pioneer its 21st-century equivalent: global economic dominance.

But the post-World War II order offers a different model. It suggests that more powerful than national ideologies are universal ideals of freedom, human rights, and collaboration. And that when nations of goodwill work together to put these values first, the world makes remarkable strides on almost every metric of human progress.

Already, there are positive signs in the Arctic. Institutions like the Arctic Council, born of the cooperative spirit of the post-World War II era, have so far helped keep the lowest motivations in check. But that work takes vigilance.

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Authoritarian regimes often excel at banging their shoes loudly in promotion of their narrow vision. But the fact is, the rest of the world has a better story to tell.