Beware the fox in the Arctic henhouse

June 13, 2010

Inviting the United States to assume responsibility for patrolling Canada's Arctic waters, as a new report from the Canadian International Council proposes, is a bit like inviting a fox to guard the henhouse. While the U.S. is undoubtedly Canada's leading ally, and the interests of the two nations are intertwined, Arctic sovereignty stands as something of an exception to the rule for this close friendship.

Not only has the U.S. failed to recognize Canada's long-standing claim to the Northwest Passage, but the two countries have conflicting claims to a petroleum-rich part of the Beaufort Sea basin. The report describes the disputed area as a "wedge of water," but in fact it covers some 21,436 square kilometres (8,276 square miles). These two disputes are the greatest challenges to Canada's Arctic sovereignty.

The proposal to combine forces with the U.S. in Arctic security, found in "Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age," is really a call for the U.S. to assume responsibility for the security of Canada's Arctic, since the might of the superpower would inevitably relegate Canada to the status of junior partner when it tried asserting its sovereignty. The notion that the two countries would enter into the arrangement only after the Beaufort Sea dispute is settled is hardly reassuring.

The report seems to riff off an earlier CIC paper that was critical of Conservative government policy on Arctic sovereignty and security, which has involved a strengthened Canadian military presence, suggesting it is fed by "partisan political rhetoric rooted in alarmism, even paranoia."

The new report, however, is correct to place emphasis on the growing strategic and economic value of the Arctic. It makes a convincing case that Ottawa should place greater emphasis on the Arctic Council (a forum of eight Arctic nation-states and six groups representing Arctic indigenous peoples), arguing that Canada should use its forthcoming role as chair of the council to enhance the status of the organization, most importantly by expanding the mandate to include security issues and by inviting heads of government when Canada plays host in 2013.

This emphasis is welcome. The report is right that the future of Arctic sovereignty discussions lies not in gunboats, but in diplomacy.

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