David M. Brock: Canada in the Post-American Arctic

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Canada in the Post-American Arctic

by David M. Brock

(First published May 4, 2009)

The 2009 biennial Arctic Council ministerial meetings were recently held in Tromso, Norway. Some of the delegates in attendance were speaking Mandarin.

Mandarin-speaking mandarins at an Arctic policy conference may be perceived by some as odd. Not so.

Diplomats from the People’s Republic of China were dispatched to nearly seventy degrees north latitude because China now holds ad-hoc observer status on the Arctic Council.

Non-Arctic states are making strategic investments for polar positions.

For example, in the past decade, research stations have been established on Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago by South Korea, China, and India. In the Polar Regions, scientific investment serves as a proxy for diplomatic interest.

Non-Arctic states are also inviting polar specialists into their countries.

This past winter I served as visiting lecturer on polar issues at the West Bengal National Law School in Calcutta, India. My own experience reflects a broader trend.

In 2007, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings were held in New Delhi, India; this year, the International Symposium on Polar Sciences will take place in Incheon, South Korea. We may yet see an Arctic Council meeting in Beijing.

One hundred years after United States Rear Admiral Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole, we are entering the age of the post-American Arctic.

Fareed Zakaria’s argument, that American power is not irrelevant, but that it is diminishing, is as applicable in the Arctic as it is world-wide.

Shifts in polar power are being driven, in part, by rapid changes in the Arctic’s physical geography. As the sea ice diminishes, the level of U.S. concern rises. Consider the magnitude of these policy developments:

the U.S. Navy considers climate change a strategic threat, and openly calls upon American politicians to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty that governs activities on the Arctic Ocean and will help delineate sovereignty below;

in December 2008, President George Bush issued a National Security Directive on Arctic Policy calling for multi-lateral institutional cooperation in the region;

in April 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. Senate has been asked by President Barack Obama to approve ratification of the 1991 Madrid Protocol on Antarctic environmental protection.

The United States will remain, for the foreseeable future, the most robust and capable power in the Arctic. However, innovation, ideas, and information are enabling other nations, particularly non-Arctic states, to assert their polar interests.

How might Canada fare in the post-American Arctic?

The changing physical and political environment in the Arctic is prompting continuous commentary in this country about how best to protect Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. Too often Canada’s Arctic policy debate is characterized by anti-Americanism, anachronistic Cold War rhetoric, or self-congratulatory fawning.

Some recent efforts, such as the book, Arctic Front, by Ken Coates, et al., attempt to realign the debate. They use an historical position to argue in favour of a mix of defense and development policies in the North. Yet, the sub-title of this book – “Defending Canada in the Far North” – reveals that these authors are ensnared in the same intellectual trap as those they criticize.

Defense is a predictable response to change.

Canada would benefit from an Arctic policy that strives to do more than defend what we have.

Canada needs a strategic policy framework that seeks to leverage our Arctic advantage in international affairs.

Our Arctic advantage is derived from our circumpolar expertise, location, and status.

Canada’s Arctic advantage could be used to build stronger networks with non-Arctic states that demonstrate polar interests.

Take the case of India.

India is a natural partner for Canada. The country is democratic, federal, and an English-speaking member of the Commonwealth, with immeasurable economic potential and a government that seeks to expand its international influence.

India has long-standing polar interests. It was one of the only countries pressing the Antarctic question at the United Nations in the 1950s, when a treaty governing the South Polar Region was still a contentious proposal. In 1983, India gained consultative status as a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, a status that Canada has never acquired. During the 2007 to 2009 International Polar Year, India rebuilt its Antarctic research station and erected a new research facility on Svalbard.

India’s scientific pursuits in the Polar Regions are more than epistemic. They are also economic and strategic. The potential for shortened marine transportation routes, bio-prospecting discoveries, and resource extraction partnerships are all of interest to India. Moreover, for a country excluded from G-8 meetings, the best way to convene with senior diplomats from the United States, Russia, Germany, and France, may be to attend meetings of the Arctic Council.

Canada could leverage its Arctic advantage and assist India in advancing their polar interests. Canada could offer scientific knowledge, logistical expertise, access to northern terrestrial and marine locations, opportunities for resource investment, and institutional backing.

In exchange, Canada might attain entrée into India’s expansive markets where local networks are critical for business success, as well as deepen our partnership with an emergent world power that could become an influential ally both in the Arctic and in other international fora.

Arctic sovereignty is an important issue for Canada, but one that receives a disproportionate amount of attention. Canada should begin to debate how to leverage its Arctic advantage in international affairs, as the age of the post-American Arctic begins.

David M. Brock has been a Students on Ice expedition staff team member and is a public policy strategist currently living in the Northwest Territories, Canada.

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This website was made possible by a generous contribution from the Leacross Foundation.