Captain Alfred McLaren's Fight for the North Pole
Credit: Photograph by John Loomis

That's remarkable innocence from a man with so much experience in international affairs. Sweden and Norway, of course, are nothing like Russia. The flag-planting didn't happen in a vacuum; it was part of a much larger mosaic of action by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who invited Chilingarov and Sagalevitch to his residence after they resurfaced. Putin, for instance, recently ordered flights of nuclear-capable bombers to resume over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – and over the North Pole. He has issued combative warnings to the U.S. about planned missile-defense sites in Poland. And within Russia, he has cracked down on the press, at one point converting the nation's sole independent news network to a state-run sports channel.

Those moves all ring with Cold War tones. But this time everything pertains, of course, to oil. Russia is the world's largest exporter of gas and the second-largest exporter of oil. "The Russians are being aggressive," says Scott Borgerson, the Council on Foreign Relations fellow. "They were down for a while, but they're back up with the price of oil, and now they're flexing their muscles." The flag at the North Pole may not give them any legal claim, but it sent a powerful message.

So it came to be, at the Explorers Club dinner in March, that McLaren and McDowell stood with hands and eyes locked. The American offered to take his former friend outside to duke it out.

"Whenever you're ready," the Australian answered.

But before the two tuxedoed gentlemen could commence with the tail-whippings, a kilted man with bagpipes came reeling through the cocktail area, tweedle-tweedling the call to dinner.

Chest-puffery is endemic to great adventurers, according to Don Walsh, one of the original partners in the North Pole project. He is a quiet man; his achievements aren't found among the tusks and bells and paintings at the Explorers Club, but instead on that small engraved stone near the foot of the stairs: Almost a half-century ago, Walsh, along with Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard, dropped in the Trieste a crushing depth of seven miles to the ocean's deepest point. Walsh's humility stands in contrast to many of his colleagues' hubris. Some members, he said, treat the Explorers Club like "an ego feast."

After dinner in the Waldorf's grand ballroom, the Explorers Club presented several awards for meritorious exploration, leading to the evening's climax: the North Pole team's return of the Explorers Club flag it had taken to the Arctic.

The team, including Sagalevitch and McDowell, lined up on the stage, and Chilingarov, the Russian politician, stepped to the podium. He stroked his great beard, then gripped the sides of the lectern with both hands and issued a forceful, rousing speech in Russian. He finished several minutes later, as a translator struggled to keep pace, by adding a nod to international brotherhood; after all, he said with a grin, there's room at the North Pole for anyone's flag.

That was a bit of a dig. Anyone who'd care to try it – an unhistoric second visit – would be just as reliant on Russian equipment. I asked Explorers Club President Dan Bennett whether the club had been duped into supporting the Russians, whether the original science-minded expedition had been swallowed whole by a Russian oil exploit. "I don't think we've been manipulated," he said. "Or at least I don't feel I've been manipulated." The club, he said, takes interest in exploration, not politics. And the Russian territorial claim? "I didn't know anything about that ahead of time. I think few people did." With its Cold War echoes and overtones of oil, this latest Russo-American spectacle is really a new twist on two very old themes.