Game theory on ice

Peace, co-operation and how the world works

IN THE WORDS of Vladimir Lenin, ‘there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.’ How thrilled he would be to know that his pithy quip about the Bolshevik Revolution still resonates today, hinting at a timeless truth of politics: peace and stability seem inevitable until, suddenly, they don’t.

Even now, or perhaps especially now – I’m writing this in the first quarter of 2022 – the idea that ‘there are weeks when decades happen’ elicits visceral dread in politicians, business leaders and citizens alike. Chaos almost always runs counter to the interests of the majority, which is why the stated aim of most institutions, whether domestic or multinational, is to create and nurture stability. To extend the ‘decades where nothing happens’ out into the very distant future.

Yet the first half of the twentieth century was anything but stable. By 1950, the entire world had waged total war twice, suffered through the worst economic catastrophe in history and seen multiple centuries-­old empires fall. The beginning of the Cold War threatened to repeat all that, but with added nukes.

So when seventeen countries with a mishmash of interests, histories and ideologies sat down in Washington, DC in the summer of 1958 to figure out how to deal with the vast, freezing and uninhabited continent 14,400 miles to their south, the fact that they simply avoided new global conflict could be chalked up as a win.

And win they did. On 1 December 1959 – just eighteen months after negotiations began, which I suspect is probably still a world record – the Antarctic Treaty was signed. Today, the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), the term used to describe the various agreements, meetings and initiatives scooped under the Antarctic Treaty’s umbrella, is regarded by many as the ideal of harmonious international relations. 

Since the Antarctic Treaty came into force, Antarctica has never seen conflict. Geopolitical rivals routinely collaborate on matters of science, environmental protection and logistics. The treaty has successfully presided – for six decades and counting – over time and space ‘where nothing happens’ and is yet to see the realisation of those cataclysmic alternative weeks where the ‘decades’ turn up.

Don’t get me wrong: the ATS isn’t perfect. In fact, it has plenty of critics – for example, states that claim sovereignty over an Antarctic wedge bemoan that their claim is neither recognised nor protected. That’s because the Antarctic Treaty freezes all territorial claims to Antarctica and says that nothing any state does will affect these ‘frozen claims’ in any way. The resulting arrangement is a little like musical chairs: Antarctic claimant states are unable to stop other nations from building a research station or transport hub in the space they regard as ‘sovereign’ but all are busy buttressing their own ability to enforce their frozen claim on Antarctica whenever the music stops.

Non-­claimant states have gripes too. Beijing, for example, feels – perhaps not unreasonably – that the treaty entrenches a world order that is now more than sixty years out of date and fails to reflect the geopolitical reality of the modern world. But more on that later.

And plenty of scientists have issues with the ATS as well. Environmental experts say that the treaty’s design no longer adequately promotes scientific co-­operation and does too little to punish nations that violate ATS restrictions. For example, while dozens of vessels exceed fish-­catch limits in Antarctica’s marine protected areas, the punishment for this in practice boils down to not much more than a sternly worded letter from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

Because the annual management forum of the treaty, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), makes decisions by consensus, scientists also argue that it is too easy for one nation to hold the whole ATS hostage, stymying important and time-­sensitive research and environmental protections. I recall one such instance during my time working on the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Antarctic desk. At one ACTM, a broad coalition of Antarctic Treaty members were working to establish new environmental regulations to protect a particular species of Antarctic marine life (not being a marine biologist I confess I can’t now remember precisely which critter was in need of assistance). One country refused to agree to the entirely uncontroversial technical regulations that would have achieved this on account of feeling slighted that one of its own previous proposals had been roundly rejected.

All these criticisms of the ATS make good points, but if you think that it’s possible to design an international treaty to satisfy every stakeholder, then I have a bridge I’d love to sell you. In my view, the Antarctic Treaty has done a remarkable job of keeping a continent teeming with all the things that countries like to fight over – land, fish, minerals, development for tourism, to name but a few – peaceful. It has fostered world-­leading co-­operation on science and environmental protection to boot.

It’s no surprise then that many analysts think the Antarctic Treaty can serve as a template to solve modern-­day territorial disputes. But how realistic is that? To even begin to answer that question, it’s important to understand the unique historical conditions that gave birth to the pride and joy of every Antarctic fanboy or girl.


IN THE YEARS following the Second World War, Antarctic issues were not at the forefront of most policy-­makers’ minds. Resource extraction on the distant continent was not economically viable, and whaling – Antarctica’s biggest industry – was recovering from the wartime destruction of most of its fleet.

An attempt to create an Antarctic treaty in 1948–49 failed largely due to disagreements about territorial claims. At the time, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom all claimed slices of Antarctica. The United States – thanks to a complicated mix of history, geography, geopolitics, militarisation and fiscal priorities – had not made a claim. According to political scientist MJ Peterson, writing in Managing the Frozen South: The Creation and Evolution of the Antarctic Treaty System in 1988:

[B]y 1948, the claimants did all agree that the Antarctic landmass should be treated like any other and divided among countries according to the traditional rules of international law. They were so sure that this was the right solution that they even left the area between 90-­ and 150-­degrees West empty to accommodate a United States claim.

It is probably overly simplistic to say that the first attempt to create an Antarctic regime failed because of questions over who owned what, but these competing territorial claims were certainly a big part of the reason.

With the horrors of the Second World War still fresh in the minds of policy-­makers around the world, and against the backdrop of the lead-­up to the Korean War, the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb and myriad other geopolitical challenges, the failure to agree on how to handle claims in Antarctica was…ominous. 

The prospect of a new war that pitted the world’s powers against each other in Antarctica wasn’t as ludicrous as it sounds now. In fact, though Argentina remained officially neutral during the Second World War, its friendly relationship with Nazi Germany, and rumours of Nazi activity in Antarctica, prompted the British to establish secret Antarctic outposts in the Hope Bay region, a small, protected harbour on the Antarctic Peninsula. This expedition was codenamed ‘Operation Tabarin’, and after the war – and a couple of name changes – its site became the British Antarctic Survey, the UK’s national polar research institute. Britain and Argentina intermittently sparred in Antarctica for most of the 1940s, and developments in cold weather fighting technology meant that conflict was if not likely, then much more within the realms of possibility.

This conflict came to pass in February 1952, when the commander of the Argentine base in Hope Bay fired on a British landing party which was in the region to rebuild a damaged station. The incident prompted the British to sail a warship from the nearby Falkland Islands into the area to persuade the Argentinians to rethink their stance. And yes, when we’re talking about Antarctica, 1,296 kilometres counts as ‘nearby’. 

The Hope Bay incident was eventually resolved diplomatically, but British diplomatic cables during the postwar period show that the Colonial Office in London was more than a little worried about the prospect of war with Argentina. (It’s an open question as to whether the Falklands War in 1982 might have turned into a global conflict had the seventeen original parties to the Antarctic Treaty not agreed to demilitarise the continent twenty-­one years earlier.)

It was against this backdrop that the parties sat down again in 1958 to discuss the issue of Antarctic sovereignty. A decade is a long time in international politics, and many of the reasons why the 1949 negotiations failed had changed or disappeared in the meantime.

By 1958, general awareness of Antarctic issues was on the rise in the great capitals of the world. There was deeper discussion about the economic benefits to be realised in Antarctica and, because the world seemed calmer than it had a decade before, politicians and bureaucrats had the time and space to more fully explore what Antarctica had to offer.

Secondly, the US had begun to grasp that it was probably too late to make its own plausible territorial claim to a valuable slice of Antarctica that would stand up in international law. Instead, clever political thinking in Washington had coalesced around the idea of a grand agreement in which no country would be sovereign. The US to this day has not made an official claim in Antarctica and nor does it recognise any of the seven extant claims. Perhaps a more direct US negotiator may have named the ATS the ‘Treaty of If We Can’t Have It No One Can’. 

Finally, during the intervening period, a widespread consensus had developed among scientific experts that the technological advances that might make it economical to extract Antarctica’s resources were at least a generation away. This scientific consensus seemed to persuade the most ‘pro-­sovereignty’ claimant states to take up the argument of the US that the issue of who owned Antarctica didn’t need to be resolved then and there. 

All of these conditions, and doubtless plenty more, created an environment in which agreement was possible. Since the Antarctic Treaty was initially signed by twelve states in 1961, it has grown to include fifty-­four states – twenty-­nine of which are able to vote in the annual ATCMs on the basis of demonstrating their interest in Antarctica by ‘conducting substantial research activity there’, as delineated by the Secretariat. And in line with the treaty’s focus on science, countries interested in joining the ATS can also obtain consultative status to the meetings by demonstrating a significant commitment to scientific research in Antarctica.


OF THE FOURTEEN articles in the Antarctic Treaty, Articles I through IV present the key to its stability. Very generally put, Article I mandates that Antarctica must be used for peaceful purposes only, Articles II and III establish the conditions for international scientific co-­operation, and Article IV freezes (if you’ll pardon the pun) all claims to sovereignty in Antarctica by all states. As I like to think of it, this underscores the ‘anti-­weapon, pro-­penguin’ approach to diplomacy. 

If the Antarctic Treaty negotiations removed the biggest barrier to an initial deal by carving out the most contentious issue – sovereignty – thus demilitarising Antarctica and focusing on scientific research, the treaty ensures also that no single country can benefit from the continent at the expense of any other. These dynamics have created a stable norm of peaceful co-­operation in Antarctica.

The power of that peaceful co-­operation shouldn’t be underestimated. In the first months of my stint on DFAT’s Antarctica desk, over a decade ago now, I was surprised by how routinely the Australian Antarctic Division assisted Chinese scientists getting to and from Antarctica. That co-­operation was no secret: Australia and China had signed an official agreement at the end of 2014 when President Xi Jinping visited Hobart. As Greg Hunt, then Australia’s Minister for the Environment, remarked at the time:

Australia helped facilitate China’s first visit to east Antarctica thirty years ago and has provided support to the Chinese ­Antarctic program through intercontinental air capability, logistics and medical services.

That was news to me then, as I suspect it would be to many Australians now.

Of course, the Australia–China bilateral relationship was in far better nick in 2014 than it is today. And yet co-­operation in Antarctica continues. The Chinese Government was instrumental in rescuing a stricken Australian expeditioner from Australia’s Davis research station in East Antarctica on Christmas Eve in 2020, long after the bilateral relationship had been hit and was taking on water – and there are plenty more examples like this one.

One less understood effect of the treaty’s focus on scientific co-­operation is that the day-­to-­day work of ‘sharing’ Antarctica is – at least in my experience – driven by scientists, not diplomats. While a senior diplomat technically leads Australia’s representation within the ATS, and the international legal work is done by Australian Government lawyers, the real meat and potatoes of what makes the ATS work is the on-­the-­ground scientific collaboration between each country’s Antarctic experts.

Furthermore, Antarctic scientists don’t tend to rotate in and out of jobs. While a diplomat leading a country’s Antarctic program might have the job for a few years and then move on, a scientist might be in place for a large chunk of their career. This means relationships become less transactional and more based on reciprocity and trust.

I mention the history and context of how the ATS was negotiated and how it actually operates to make the point that the ATS is largely a function of the geopolitical context at the time it was negotiated, but Antarctica’s unforgiving environment also makes collaboration essential. And I suspect this kind of apolitical co-­operation is only possible because the Antarctic Treaty has so effectively created an ‘equilibrium state of affairs’ in Antarctica from which no treaty party has an incentive to deviate.

It has formalised stability.


TO TRY TO extract a generalised lesson from the Antarctic Treaty’s design is to become stuck in a chicken-­and-­egg problem: is the scientific focus and routine co-­operation on the continent the result of the fact that no state has a recognised claim over Antarctica? Or were the original treaty parties more amenable to agreement over the freezing of their territorial claims because of the beneficial scientific collaboration that existed prior to the signing of the treaty?

To try to answer that question, we need a little bit of game theory – by which I mean the formal mathematical analysis of relationships between parties. We international-­relations types love to talk about game theory; I suspect mostly because attaching numbers to inchoate theories gives a veneer of certainty in a field in which certainty is impossible. After all, no one earns a living by saying ‘well, it’s complex; history tells us X, but my experience tells me Y, so the answer is probably somewhere in between…unless this time it’s totally different’. But as long as its limitations are understood, game theory can be illuminating in geopolitics as it can help us understand ‘the science of stability’.

Let’s start with the game theory problem known as the prisoner’s dilemma – you might remember this scenario from high school mathematics. Two prisoners are being interrogated separately about their roles in a crime. If neither confesses, the prisoners get a small punishment. If they both confess, then they’ll both be punished but get a reduced sentence for co-­operation. If, however, one prisoner confesses while the other does not, the confessing prisoner gets to go free and the one who keeps mum will go to prison for the maximum sentence.

The key to this scenario is that neither prisoner knows what the other is going to say. If they could know, the best strategy would clearly be for neither to confess. But because each prisoner is incentivised to confess by the prospect of freedom, game theory tells us that both prisoners will rat each other out because they assume that’s what the other would do to them.

In a very general sense, the challenge of collectively managing states’ competing territorial interests in Antarctica is an example of a large-­scale prisoner’s dilemma with more than two players – also known as a collective action problem. Antarctic territory is a finite resource: only so many claims can be made on the continent until they start to overlap and become contested. Argentina, Chile and the UK have all staked claims to the Antarctica Peninsula, that wispy arm of Antarctica that looks like it’s reaching out across Drake Passage towards its long-­lost lover in Patagonia. Basic game theory (and geopolitical experience) tells us that those competing claims in Antarctica would normally result in either one or two of the three states voluntarily giving up their claim – or going to war to protect it.

Now let’s generalise that situation and plop it down in the summer of 1958, when Antarctic Treaty negotiations were beginning. The design of this game is for illustrative purposes only.

Let’s say an Antarctic claimant state stands to gain (say, ten points) if their sovereign claim in Antarctica is successful, but lose (again, ten points) if they pursue their claim – by war or negotiation – and are unsuccessful. By the maths of this scenario, every non-­claimant state would lose three points because they are all locked out of participating in activities in Antarctica while the others battle it out for the rest of the Antarctic continent. But if all territorial claims to Antarctica are put to one side, then all states – whether they claim a slice of Antarctica or not – gain five points.

In this case, the best result overall clearly comes from freezing all claims to Antarctic territory. Because if just one claimant state refuses to freeze its claim to Antarctica, all states will refuse, and we’re back to a ‘may the army most able to withstand the cold win’ situation.

In this very rudimentary game, there is an ideal equilibrium where every state does better by agreeing to freeze their claims, but some states – the ones most likely to win a war – have an incentive to deviate from the equilibrium to press their full territorial claims. Unfortunately, without some way of punishing a state for deviating from this equilibrium, the dominant strategy for every claimant state is to pursue their claims, because they know that at least one claimant state will.

This is where the Antarctic Treaty comes in. Unlike the prisoner’s dilemma, where some all-­powerful jailer is in charge of the prisoners and can ensure the rules of the ‘game’ are followed, the treaty has no ‘external enforcer of the rules’ – it cannot prevent a powerful state from simply tossing its provisions aside. But by creating a strong set of norms around how Antarctic countries have agreed to behave, the treaty can significantly raise the costs of any such belligerence.

Not only are there huge reputational costs to flagrantly breaking an international treaty, but there are real ones too. International relations are really just about the interactions between a vast network of colliding and overlapping national interests. Put simply, screwing a country now often leads to that country screwing you in the future. If, for example, the UK had decided to go to war against Argentina and Chile over its contested claims to the Antarctic Peninsula, it surely would have prevailed. But at what cost? Argentina and Chile would have become powerful obstructors of future UK goals in Antarctica and probably elsewhere, and one imagines that they’d have more than a few sympathisers too. Would violating the treaty’s principles for the sake of a territorial claim really be worth the pain that Argentina and Chile could cause them in return?

Understood through the language of game theory, what the ATS actually does is change the payoffs in the game. Where before a successful sovereign claim was worth an extra ten points, after signing the treaty a successful sovereign claim is only worth an extra three – because of the costs associated with breaking an international treaty and asserting that sovereignty.

And because three more points is a smaller payoff than the original five that every country gets by agreeing to freeze their claims to Antarctica, there is again an equilibrium around every state agreeing to freeze their claims. The difference is that now no single country has an incentive to deviate from that equilibrium. By formalising an agreement to freeze territorial claims in settled international law, and by banning resource extraction, the ATS created the conditions for all countries to agree to, and be satisfied by, collective Antarctic governance. 

A word of caution: the design of this game is of course highly stylised. In reality there is an unknowable quantity of unknowable variables that affect the payoffs to each country for each course of action. Geopolitical reality is impossible to theoretically game out with any precision: there are simply too many moving parts and information is too imprecise. While game theory is very useful to prospectively design frameworks, it is only one of many tools that can be used to understand states’ interests and how states will behave to further those interests.

Sadly, or perhaps thankfully, diplomacy is not based on mathematics, and until we’re all enslaved by AI there will never be a grand unifying theory of geopolitics. But what game theory analysis of international agreements can help us see is where the key sticking points are, what the end goal is and where we need to look to find solutions to promote – here’s that word again – stability. 


LET’S BRING THIS back to the current moment with a quick example. Today, China makes vast claims to 90 per cent of the waters and coastal features of the South China Sea under their principle of the ‘nine-­dash line’ – quite literally a line made up of nine dashes drawn on a map of the South China Sea designed to resemble the border that the Chinese Government says demarcates the country’s historical territory. In 2016, the Philippines challenged China’s claims in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China, finding that there was no legal basis to China’s nine-­dash-­line claims.

As Professor Shirley Scott, an expert in International Law and International Relations at the University of New South Wales, pointed out in 2018, territorial disputes in the South China Sea are often analysed either through the prism of power (China is the regional hegemon and therefore can do what it likes) or the prism of international law (China is in violation of international law and must cease this behaviour). 

But both approaches do precisely zero to change the status quo of the situation: China can do what it likes. If the Antarctic Treaty teaches us anything, it is that the most important thing is getting the most powerful state – the US in the case of the Antarctic Treaty; China in the case of the South China Sea dispute – to agree to a deal in the first place.

Right now, China has little incentive to agree to freeze its sovereign claims to that part of the ocean. It doesn’t need the collaboration of any other state to assist in its activities there, and similarly no state can stop it from operating there. That is fundamentally different to the situation in 1958, when the US feared being excluded from Antarctica and so dreamt up the basis for Article IV of the Antarctic Treaty.

But that doesn’t mean the Antarctic Treaty is of no use to us in other geopolitical contexts. According to analysts’ assessments, China believes that peace, stability and collaboration in the South China Sea is in their long-­term interests. If this is true, China may well be open to shaping an international agreement governing the South China Sea – and that is where the general lessons, or the basic game theory of why the Antarctic Treaty has worked so well for so long, could prove very useful.


THE WORLD FEELS less stable than it did a generation ago. Challenges to the current ‘world order’ from China, Russia and any number of other states and non-­state actors leave many despairing that we are inevitably spiralling into a new ‘might makes right’ world. Politicians and talking heads don’t help matters with their penchant for conflating a new, multipolar world in which China and the US compete alongside a coalition of self-­interested actors with the promise of total and catastrophic collapse of the rules-­based order. 

I believe that that line of thinking misunderstands the nature of the current challenge to the status quo. Sure, those countries undoubtedly want a bigger seat at the table, but it is still a seat at the same table. In fact, two of the leaders seen as the biggest ‘challengers to the world order’ – presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin – remain in power by explicitly raising the spectre of previous chaos; of the realisation of Lenin’s weeks in which decades of disruption and change did take place.

For Russia, that was the post-­Soviet 1990s; for China, the twenty or so years from the mid-­1950s to mid-­1970s – the time of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping believe they can chip away at the parts of the global order they find abhorrent (primarily the projection of US power into Eastern Europe and the South China Sea respectively).

But both leaders – Vladimir Putin has now been in power for twenty-­two years, and Xi Jinping for ten and counting – understand that for better or worse they are part of the current world order. To upend that order would be to upend them, and there may not be two systems more terrified of revolution than the Russian and Chinese ones.

The simple fact is that broad global stability remains in the near-­ and medium-term interests of almost every country on Earth, just as it was in the summer of 1958.

If we can really understand that the biggest impediment to functioning international agreements is to find and then quarantine the world’s most contentious issues, then we can better focus on things that are genuinely win-­win. As the Antarctic Treaty shows, kicking the can down the road on issues where agreement is unlikely can be a powerful strategy.

And there are plenty of areas where this strategy could be useful. For example, it is becoming clear that many countries will move to rein in the power of Big Tech, but few agree on the best way to do this. Might an Antarctic Treaty-style agreement help preserve the undoubted benefits of a globally connected world while allowing individual countries to have a say in how the industry is regulated?

Even if the success of the ATS is unique to its history and context, it also provides proof that geopolitical rivals with competing interests can co-­exist peacefully. As we look likely to head back into a multipolar world where conflict between major powers is the norm, not the exception, the Antarctic Treaty shows us that it is possible to prolong the decades where nothing happens – and to minimise, if not totally eliminate, those weeks where the ‘decades’ occur.



Klaus-John Dodds, Geopolitics in the Foreign Office: British Representations of Argentina 1945-1961, (1994), Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 19, No. 3 (1994), pp. 273-290  

Claire Young, Eyes On The Prize: Australia, China, And The Antarctic Treaty System, (February 2021), The Lowy Institute Policy Briefs Series, 

Hector Correa, Game Theory as an Instrument for the Analysis of International Relations, (2001), Ritsumeikan Journal of Asia Pacific Studies, 


Shirley Scott, What lessons does the Antarctic Treaty System offer for the future of peaceful relations in the South China Sea?, (January 2018) Marine Policy, Volume 87, Pages 295-300 

Peterson, M.J. Managing the Frozen South: The Creation and Evolution of the Antarctic Treaty System, (1988). 


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