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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

It Comes With the Territory

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Russia's intrepid underwater conquest of the south side of the North Pole earlier this month raised some bemused eyebrows. If you're under a pole, one observer asked, do you plant the flag upside down? Another wondered if the Antarctic Treaty means the reverse can't happen: Russians in a blimp can't claim the north side of the South Pole, can they? Jokes aside, however, Russia's summer Arctic adventure -- though not a formal territorial claim -- may indeed carry real significance. Americans probably understand this better than anyone.

Russia and the United States have traditionally sought expansion into perceived vacuums. Both nations are big-time land grabbers and proud of it, sharing a common heritage of continental-scale acquisition artfully cast as a natural prerogative of the great power status that, well, comes with the territory.

U.S. real estate practices have been nicely framed. The Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny and the Turner Thesis together provided a serviceable rationale and road map for 19th-century expansion. The Doctrine essentially put the United States in charge of the New World. The Destiny explained why this should be so, proffering unique U.S. qualifications for the job. And the Thesis offered a conveniently quasi-Darwinian explanation for the success of the first two and provided a smooth enough segue into pan-Pacific endeavors. The challenges of an expanding frontier made Americans rise to the occasion. In short, it was an expansionist ideology that worked, whatever other people said.

Other people said plenty, of course, and are still saying it. But Americans have been selectively deaf to their critics and remarkably self-forgiving. They have also at times been disarmingly candid about certain ethical and legal inconsistencies in their early empire-building -- the opportunistic hustling, the fast-and-loose approach to treaties and even the outright heists. President Theodore Roosevelt simply noted, "I took the [Panama] Canal Zone and let Congress debate," leading one senator to proclaim the canal to be America's because "we stole it fair and square."

Of the things Americans are good at, claiming goodness may be the best. The chutzpah of the Roosevelt Corollary and its ilk was often justified as "advancing democracy" and "ensuring free markets," assertions that bore elements of truth even as they infuriated other peoples and nations -- usually the ones doctrined, destinied or thesis'd out of business or those who wished they had thought up these fine rationales first.

Russia's expansion saga ran parallel to America's but in reverse. Located at the far edge of an established Europe, the Russian Empire grew in the opposite direction -- west to east. The result was a reverse Manifest Destiny with a correspondingly opposite outcome: the east Slavs' drive for resources, markets and great power-dom over the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries propelled them across an enormous territory that they could neither control nor exploit sufficiently to prevent the 20th-century state they ultimately produced from failing. Twice.

The official rationales behind this overexpansion and mismanagement -- the Divine Right of Kings and the dictatorship of the proletariat -- have rightly landed on the ash heap of history. In the meantime, the successor state has wisely adopted a cryptic slogan no one can parse ("sovereign democracy"), which gives Moscow enough ideological wiggle room to rationalize dramatic new assertions of power -- such as deep-sixing a State Duma deputy-explorer in a mini-sub to plant a flag and declare, "The Arctic is ours." Some nations chuckled, but everyone took notice.

Appearances aside, Russia's polar ploy is not forcing Americans into a rapid-preparedness mode to ensure a good slice of the future Arctic energy pie. The forthcoming U.S. "response" expedition has been booked for well over a year. Still, our common acquisitive history and the symmetry of a 50th anniversary practically beg speculation. It was the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957, after all, that spurred the United States to a new commitment to expansion, one that led surprisingly quickly to a U.S. flag on the moon. Could some new feat of Yankee ingenuity be in the offing?

Russian and U.S. officials soberly insist that there is no Arctic land rush and that territorial claims will be adjudicated by the United Nations. Bravo. But just because we're both paranoid, it doesn't mean we aren't out to get each other.

The origins of the Monroe Doctrine, it will be recalled, lay in discouraging Russian expansionism. If references to a "little-known Arctic Corollary" to the Doctrine start appearing in the next few months, be assured that somewhere Teddy Roosevelt is smiling.



Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.