Canada's Arctic Strategy – playing to the strengths of others

Last week I the good fortune of participating in an intimate workshop on Canadian foreign policy hosted by CIGI and convened in preparation for an upcoming issue of the International Journal in which the papers will be published.

One of the participants, Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon, gave an excellent paper on The United Nations and the Regime to Manage the Continental Shelf Beyond 200 Nautical Miles. During the discussion of her about her paper and Canada’s activities in the North more generally she reiterated the point she made in her September 2008 Policy Options article entitled Canada’s Arctic continental shelf extension: debunking myths:

Contrary to commonly held myths that Canada is losing the race to stake claims to the Arctic continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles as other Arctic countries move more quickly and effectively to secure the resources for themselves, there is no “Wild West” scramble occurring, and relations among the participants are remarkably cooperative. There is an international legal regime in place, and its rules are being observed by the Arctic countries. Furthermore, these states already have sovereign rights over the continental shelf beyond 200 miles that do not depend on occupation or proclamation.

I found Riddell-Dixon’s comments fascinating. Her thorough and convincing assessment sits in stark contrast to the headlines one normally reads in the news: “Battle for the Arctic heats up” (CBC), “Arctic military bases signal new Cold War” (The Times), “Canada uses military might in Arctic scramble” (The Guardian) and “Sweden’s arctic army can beat up our arctic army” (who else… The National Post).

Given these articles one is liable to think that a Russian invasion of The North is imminent! And this is perhaps understandable, talking about military exercises and a “wild west” sells newspapers and makes citizens feel patriotic. It is however, completely divorced from how decisions are presently being made. Indeed, Riddell-Dixon pointed that if anything the activities of Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark have been marked by cooperation – we share information, resources and even ships – as we collectively map out the ocean floor. Indeed, this – and other areas of cooperation between the 5 circumpolar countries – was outlined in the (dramatically under-reported) Ilulissat Declaration in which the Arctic Five reaffirmed that:

The five coastal states currently cooperate closely in the Arctic Ocean with each other and with other interested parties. This cooperation includes the collection of scientific data concerning the continental shelf, the protection of the marine environment and other scientific research. We will work to strengthen this cooperation, which is based on mutual trust and transparency, inter alia, through timely exchange of data and analyses.

So we have an international legal regime (based on the Law of the Sea) for resolving boundaries in the North. All the relevant actors are adhering to (and even cooperating around) it. And yet, the military rhetoric around the North continues to get trotted out. If the only consequence was to whip up a sense of nationalism and win votes this would be okay. The problem is that, internationally, this behaviour is irresponsible.

Why? Because language about militarizing The North that implicitly suggests disputes will (or worse, should) be resolved through military strength plays to our weaknesses.

If the North really is going to be resolved through (or influenced by) military might then we will find ourselves clashing with the United States (the world’s lone superpower), Russia (a Great Power) and Denmark and Norway (both of whom can more easily focus their military resources in the North). In a game of military chicken we are, in every scenario, the losers. Ratcheting up rhetoric around the military is the exact opposite tact we should be taking. There is an international legal regime in place plays to our strengths: it reaffirms Canada as a norm adherer, commits every one to a rule-based process as well as reinforces the norm that science and data are central to resolving disputes. For a middle (or model) power like Canada, it is hard to ask for a better outcome.

This isn’t to say we should have no military presence in the North – but by emphasizing the military aspect of the North we encourage others to deviate from a process that benefits us and push them towards one that can only hurt our interests. While it may be a simple vote-getter, let’s hope the Prime Minister tones down the rhetoric around the North – my suspicion is that a North that is truly militarized will be a massive drain on resources, an unwelcome distraction and ultimately, a vote loser.

11 thoughts on “Canada's Arctic Strategy – playing to the strengths of others

  1. Brenton

    Interesting piece, David. While I'm not necessarily a huge fan, I'm surprised you didn't mention Michael Byers' recently released book Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in Canada’s North.

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