Cooperation over conflict in the Arctic

Ebook on RI-co-hosted Arctic Security Webinar Series now available

Our blog this week features highlights from a wonderful new ebook of the transcribed, edited proceedings of an Arctic Security webinar series that the Rideau Institute was privileged to co-organize with the Canadian Pugwash Group and the North American and Arctic Defence and Security Network (NAADSN).

The book is co-edited by NAADSN Network lead Dr. P. Whitney Lackenbauer and RI President Peggy Mason, with a forward by Canadian Pugwash Group Chair Paul Meyer, where he writes:

Arctic policy is marked by elements of competition alongside cooperation and one might formulate the underlying message of the conference as how we can minimize the former and maximize the latter.

The webinar proceedings featured six panels of two speakers each, covering the full spectrum of Arctic-related issues from climate change to maritime security, northern perspectives, and political and legal considerations against a backdrop of resurgent great power competition and its implications for Arctic security and stability.

This ebook not only includes the oral presentations in full but also the edited transcription of the extensive question and answer period following them.

Chapter I. Reconceptualizing Arctic Security

In this scene setting chapter, Dr. Whitney Lackenbauer, Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North and a Trent University Professor, takes us through key Canadian policy documents relating to the Arctic, quoting first from Canada’s 2017 defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged:

The Arctic region represents an important international crossroads where issues of climate change, international trade, and global security meet…

He goes on to underscore the long history of cooperation on economic, environmental and safety issues of Arctic states, particularly through the Arctic Council, in respect of which he affirms:

All Arctic states have an enduring interest in continuing this productive collaboration…

But the transformational impact of climate change and the rise of commercial, research and tourism activity in the north — all against a backdrop of rising global great power competition, raises the fundamental question about whether these developments:

may ultimately undermine the spirit of peace and cooperation that has animated the Arctic in recent decades.

Whitney challenges readers to think beyond the binary concept of cooperation or competition and instead to focus the discussion on an environment characterized by both and where the fundamental challenge is therefore to bolster regional cooperation and work to avoid inter-state competition spilling over into conflict.

He articulates our over-arching objective as follows:

Our desire is to … reinforce an international order in the Arctic that promotes human security and environmental security.

On the issue of Arctic sovereignty, Dr. Lackenbauer brilliantly explodes the myth that it is somehow under threat or on “thinning ice”:

One of the reasons why Canada’s sovereignty is so strong is that it has been based explicitly, since Joe Clark’s 10 September 1985 speech, on the idea of an indivisible Arctic geography—of land and water (in both frozen or liquid state)—that Indigenous Peoples have used and occupied since time immemorial.

This is front and centre to Canada’s legal and political positions, and our sense of Arctic ownership.

That does not mean we are without boundary and other legal disputes with the USA and others in relation to the Arctic, the most well-known being the status of the Northwest Passage. The U.S. argues it is an international strait through Canada’s Arctic islands, and Canada, with considerable legal force behind it, argues that these are historical internal waters.

Whitney writes of our policy to “agree to disagree,” in place since 1988:

This is a core difference of opinion, but one that, as allies, friends, and neighbours, Canada and the U.S. have been able to solve without prejudicing our respective legal positions.

One of the most important distinctions that Dr. Lackenbauer makes in this opening chapter is between internal Arctic dynamics and spillover from elsewhere:

I suggest to you that climate change, access to Arctic resources, and uncertainty over Arctic boundaries are not driving the hard security or defence agenda in the North American Arctic.

Celebrated Canadian peace and security expert Ernie Regehr,  in his presentation, which initially focuses on Russian military operations in the Arctic, clearly demonstrates this point.  He writes:

The Russian Eastern and Central Arctic military installations are oriented primarily to protecting the Northern Sea Route and the resource base in the area, to patrolling borders, and to search and rescue facilities that are present throughout those bases along the entire North coast.

The orientation of that string of northern bases is towards regional defence and stability.

He further notes:

The U.S. Navy strategy blueprint, as they call it, sees the threat of armed conflict in the Arctic as coming from accidents, miscalculation, or spillover from other conflicts, not from Arctic-generated conflict.

He adds:

And it’s worth noting and emphasizing that these concerns have also been accompanied by a marked increase in calls for the reinstatement of military-to-military and broader consultations in the Arctic, for these to be routine, and for them to include Russia.

Good governance is a key defence and security strategy

In addition to strategic-level military operations in the Arctic, Regehr looks at domestic military and paramilitary forces and their contributions to national, regional and ultimately strategic stability:

The point is that national armed forces in the Arctic, when focused on domestic chores for which civilian agencies generally have the lead responsibility [ search and rescue, oil spill mitigation], are nevertheless contributing to not only local and national security and well-being, but also to regional and strategic stability.

In a context of a low overall threat level within the region, Regehr emphasizes:

an important factor in keeping threat levels low is the way the region is governed … [I]nternally stable and competently governed states are at much reduced risk of direct foreign military intervention.

That makes good governance a key defence and security strategy.

Ernie Regehr also focuses in some detail on the provocative ballistic missile SHIELD proposal for NORAD modernization we examined in our 12 February blog. It is not a shield at all, of course, but a system of missiles intended to shoot down other missiles. He writes:

The SHIELD planners recognize the reality … that there is unlikely to be any credible defence against conventionally-armed massed cruise missiles. The SHIELD operational plan thus proposes pre-emptive strikes on cruise missile platforms before the individual missiles are launched.

 And that, of course, is a military dynamic in which the advantage is perceived to go to the pre-emptive attacker. In other words, the advantage seems to go to the side that attacks first, and that’s not a formula for stability in the context of a major crisis.

He emphasizes two basic realities:

One, Arctic stability and security have a lot to do with governance and regional cooperation on local needs and issues.

And secondly, … it is unlikely that major powers are going to arm or SHIELD their way into strategic stability, but strategic stability remains the urgent imperative.

In conclusion, Ernie Regehr writes:

I would say that if the U.S. and Russians did manage to undertake consistent and persistent talks on arms control and on emerging security issues as a means toward strategic stability, that could indeed be a genuinely significant development both for Arctic and global security.

Note that the specific topic of great power competition and its implications for Arctic security are examined in Chapter 5, discussed below.

Chapter 5: Resurgent Great Power Competition: What Does It Mean for Arctic Security and Stability?

Dr. Andrea Charron begins her presentation with her “bottom line upfront” that:

I’m not sure that the resurgence and emergence of Russia and China are at the same level of concern as they are in other parts of the world. Rather, competition in the Arctic is buffered thanks to organizations like the Arctic Council…

However, she cautions that urgent steps are needed to improve continental defence and argues that:

Canada can contribute valuable information, especially to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance … in support of … “information dominance.”

Charron also throws cold water on the idea of a significantly increased focus of the U.S. military on the Arctic, giving as evidence “policy and money”. She writes:

In a report to Congress released on 27 January 2021, entitled “Renewed Great Power Competition: Implications for Defense, Issues for Congress,” there is not a single reference to the Arctic.

Happily, it seems that Canadian defence planners are thinking along the same lines and have, so far, limited Canadian plans — and funding — for NORAD modernization to the “niche area of domain awareness,” as we discussed in our 23 April blog on the defence aspects of the federal budget brought down on 19 April, 2021.

Chapter 6: Conclusions and Recommendations for Canadian Action

RI President Peggy Mason identifies a “three-pronged” approach to keeping the Arctic military threat low:

The first is building resilient Arctic states from the community level up. Canada has a huge amount to do here, and that, in turn, … requires sufficient resources and meaningful Northerner participation.

She continues:

Prong two is on diplomacy and arms control — the full gamut, from high-level strategic talks down to military-to-military talks, to build and reinforce strategic stability. We have a new opportunity to do that with a new American president, to build the broader strategic stability on which the Arctic also depends, all the way down to dialogues at the Arctic level.

And the third essential element relates to NORAD modernization, with Mason emphasizing the key principles that need to underpin the effort:

Prong three is a focus on continental defence to remove vulnerabilities to the extent possible and to do it in a way that is not destabilizing, that does not incentivize arms racing, and that does not undermine deterrence, which is based on mutual [nuclear] vulnerability.

Canadian [non] participation in the American ground-based ballistic missile defence (GBMD). 

Dr. Lackenbauer poses the question this way:

I think the most contentious questions will be about missile defence and whether or not the new deterrence by denial approach and the SHIELD construct unveiled by the United States encourage Canadians to revisit our stance against direct participation in missile defence, which we have held over the last couple of decades.

If so, what should our direct participation look like?

Peggy Mason was unequivocal in her response, arguing the system was dangerously provocative, ruinously expensive and, to date, completely unfunded. She concludes:

I’ve been involved in these discussions at the government level on ballistic missile defence, and Canada joining, and I’d … suggest that Canada should run in the other direction, rather than getting involved in the political dimension of that [discussion], which is quite difficult.

Chapter 4: A Changing Arctic: Political and Legal Considerations

This blog has only skimmed the surface of the rich discussions contained in this far-reaching ebook. To give just a hint of what else lies in store, we offer the concluding statement from the presentation of Dr. Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon, a brilliant legal scholar on the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in general and the Arctic in particular:

In conclusion, while media stories may lead us to conclude that we’re heading for “World War III on Ice,” the evidence supports more positive conclusions. In the delineation of Arctic extended continental shelves, there’s no need to resort to military solutions, as there is a regime in place and its rules are being respected.

The high degree of cooperation exhibited by Arctic countries in the delineation process and the fact that they continue to discuss issues related to overlaps both bode well for future settlements. While the overlaps in the extended continental shelves delineated in the Arctic Ocean are considerable, they will be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law.

Chapter 3: A Changing Arctic: Northern Perspectives

The final word, however, goes to Northerner Bridget Laroque, an Indigneous resident of the Northwest Territories with extensive knowledge and experience of Indigenous, gender and governance issues in the Arctic:

To the state, security is about power, hard power, and yet, in Indigenous worldviews, security is about soft power: cooperation, peace, and responsibility.

As Indigenous Peoples, our worldview is about “holism.” Everything is interconnected.

To download the ebook Beyond The Cooperation-Conflict Conundrum or to read it online, click here.

Photo credit: NAADSN

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