Casey and the Antarctic Treaty negotiations

Richard Gardiner Casey, Australian Minister for External Affairs from April 1951 to January 1960, is widely reputed to have played a prominent role in the diplomatic negotiations that led to the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. What was his actual role in these negotiations?

The formal negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty lasted for 18 months and took two forms. Firstly, representatives of 12 countries whose scientists had taken part in the Antarctic program of the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58 met in a series of 60 meetings in Washington, DC, between June 1958 and October 1959 to set up procedural arrangements and a framework for discussion. Secondly, a full-scale diplomatic conference began on 15 October 1959 and concluded with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty on 1 December 1959.

Casey did not attend the preparatory meetings, where Australia was represented mostly by Malcolm Booker, a senior officer at the Australian Embassy in Washington. Nor was he keen to attend the conference. He suggested to Prime Minister Robert Menzies that the Attorney-General, Garfield Barwick, should lead the delegation, but Menzies wanted Casey in charge, so that was it.

In the days prior to the conference Casey was active — in his own words, ‘rolling the pitch’ for what was to follow. The documentary record shows, however, that during his 23 days at the conference he did not play a major role in shaping the provisions of the Treaty or in overcoming any of the obstacles on the path toward agreement. He departed early, on 6 November, replaced as Head of Delegation by Howard Beale, Australian Ambassador in Washington.

So whence comes Casey’s reputation as a significant player? The answer lies not in Washington at the conference but in Broadbeach, Queensland, eight months earlier, where in March 1959 he attended an international conference of the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East. At this particular time, the Washington preparatory meetings had hit a serious snag.

A major sticking point had arisen over draft article IV of the proposed treaty, dealing with disputed Antarctic claims and rights. The draft article provided for the ‘freezing’ of the legal status quo — a provision seen to be at the very core of the draft treaty. This appeared to be acceptable to 11 of the 12 countries participating, but the Soviet Union was implacably opposed to it, seeking to deal with the the dispute over Antarctic claims and rights separately — perhaps at a later conference. At the Broadbeach conference, Casey had a private conversation with the leader of the Soviet delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister Nicolai Firubin. The discussion was mainly about the mutual reinstatement of their country’s embassies in Moscow and Canberra following the suspension of formal diplomatic relations over the alleged Petrov spy affair in 1954, but Casey also raised the difficulty over draft article IV in the Antarctic preparatory meetings. Here and in a following letter, he set out to convince Firubin of the value of the draft provision and the folly of the Soviet Union’s position.

By the end of April, 1958, it was clear in Washington at the preparatory meetings that Casey had succeeded in his quest. He had persuaded the Soviet government to change its position on draft article IV, later confirmed in a letter from Firubin to Casey. And from this time, Soviet participation at the preparatory meetings became active and flexible, in stark contrast to its earlier perceived intransigence.

In sum, Casey’s general contribution to the formal negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty was constructive but limited. But his role in March 1959 in persuading the Soviet Union about the merit of draft article IV — thereby breaching a serious impasse at the preparatory meetings — was clearly very important. Indeed, the substance of this draft provision remains today as the ‘keystone’ of the Antarctic Treaty. This breakthrough did not happen at the negotiations in Washington, but half-way around the world from there at Broadbeach, Queensland, when Casey met the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Firubin.

Robert Hall
School of Government,
University of Tasmania