The Arctic ice is melting, the Russians are coming and time is running out for Canada and the U.S. to reach an agreement on the status of the Northwest Passage. At least, that’s the sensationalist assessment published by political commentators Michael Byers and Scott Borgerson in the Wall Street Journal on March 8, 2016.
Over the past year, news magazines and websites have published splashy images of large military deployments across the Russian North, coupled with maps showing the locations of Russia’s new Arctic airbases. Throw in Moscow’s extensive claims to the Arctic continental shelf (which overlaps those of its circumpolar neighbors) and its recent activities in Ukraine and Syria, it’s no wonder comments warning of Russian warships charging into the Northwest Passage are feeding anxieties.
But Canada’s position in the Arctic is, however, not in peril. Over the past 10 years, studies of northern shipping routes and sea-ice dynamics have consistently shown that, regardless of how much ice is melting, the Canadian Arctic will not emerge as a safe or reliable sea route for the foreseeable future. Why Russia (or any country) would risk damaging a billion-dollar warship to sail through the passage is hard to understand.
A Russian “freedom-of-navigation” voyage through the Northwest Passage would be politically senseless and counterproductive. For 65 years, Russia has passively supported Canada’s position that the Northwest Passage constitutes internal waters. This reflects simple self-interest. Russia’s Arctic sea routes are claimed on a similar basis. To challenge Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage would weaken Russia’s jurisdiction over the various straits that make up the Northern Sea Route.
Despite these considerations, some scholars and analysts are advising Canada to prepare for an uninvited, and perhaps hostile, foreign naval incursion into its waters. Byers and Borgerson advocate immediate negotiations between the U.S. and Canada to resolve the 70-year-old bilateral dispute over the status of the Northwest Passage. If the U.S. could be brought to recognize Canadian sovereignty, they reason, both Canada and America would be safer from state-based and terrorist threats.
We’ve tried this approach before – many times, in fact. In 1963, Canadian negotiators travelled to Washington to warn their American colleagues of the threat posed by Soviet submarines, which intelligence showed were beginning to probe the North American Arctic. If Canada enjoyed undisputed sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, it could legally exclude the ships and strengthen continental defense. To the Canadians’ dismay, the U.S. State Department pointed out that America’s global interest in the freedom of the sea trumped – and would always trump – Arctic security concerns. Canadian officials used this security argument again in 1969-70 and 1985-88. But it foundered each time over U.S. fears that it would set a precedent in international law. If Canada could claim the Northwest Passage as its own, then other maritime states could make similar claims on far more important straits. The U.S. will not be cajoled into recognizing Canadian sovereignty today, when the military threat is insignificant compared to the existential crisis of the Cold War.
History shows that this lack of political consensus does not endanger Canadian or American security. For decades, our two countries have prudently managed our legal disagreements and preserved our respective positions while collaborating on continental defense. During the Cold War, American submarines patrolled Canada’s Arctic waters watching for Soviet submarine transits. Declassified American naval documents also suggest that the vessels were there with the knowledge and participation of the Canadian government. On a couple of occasions, they were even invited in by Ottawa.
Accordingly, the reality of Canada’s Arctic security is less worrying than sensational headlines make it out to be. Our joint defense capabilities in the region, while admittedly modest compared to other parts of the world, are more than adequate to meet the low probability of Russian (or other foreign) military operations directed against us. Cooperation with the U.S. runs deep and has long been executed effectively and managed with political tact. This will continue, even if we continue to “agree to disagree” on the legal status of the waters in Canada’s Arctic.
As President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau emphasized in their joint statement on climate, energy and Arctic leadership on March 10, a shared Arctic leadership model “to embrace the opportunities and to confront the challenges in the changing Arctic, with Indigenous and Northern partnerships, and responsible, science-based leadership” does not require outdated frameworks built around imaginary military threats to North American sovereignty and security.
Canada’s Arctic faces real security concerns but these are all unconventional in nature. The dangers from oil spills, shipping disasters and search-and-rescue operations unsettle the Canadian Armed Forces today. The prospect of a Russian violation of Canadian sovereignty is far-fetched and, at best, a distraction from the real problems facing the Canadian Arctic.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Arctic Deeply.