Canada Should Propose Creation of an Arctic Union

All over the world, countries with shared interests are establishing deeper levels of cooperation, integrated economies and cultural exchanges through the creation of region-specific institutions. Why not do the same for the Arctic?

Written byZach Paikin Published on Feb. 4, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Nearly two years after the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, relations between Russia and the West remain uncertain and frosty. In Eastern Europe, the Western and Russian worldviews remain unreconciled, and the regional quagmire in the Middle East – where American and Russian interests overlap – does not have an end in sight.

At present, Canada has little ability to influence the course of events in either of these two theaters, as they are regions where American interests remain strong and clearly defined. Fortunately, there is a region where Canada is a major power of sorts: the Arctic.

Reconciliation with Russia is critical, both as a Canadian foreign policy interest and as an international security imperative. In the absence of progress in other regions, Canada should push for the establishment of a fully fledged Arctic Union, which would go well beyond the existing activities of the Arctic Council.

Regions all over the world are deepening and institutionalizing their level of mutual cooperation, including Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. Major centers of power such as Europe and China are engaged in profound processes of economic and political transformation. The way forward is through greater integration, collaboration and respect, both within and between regions. In this emerging global reality, an Arctic Union would be a major force for peace and progress.

So far, Arctic states have managed to ensure that confrontation between Russia and the West elsewhere has not affected cooperation in the Arctic, but stability in the north is not a perennial guarantee. It was not long ago that Canada boycotted a meeting of the Arctic Council for reasons related to the Ukraine conflict, and overlapping territorial claims in the north remain a potential source of friction between the Council’s member states.

One of the greatest examples of peaceful regional integration to date is the European Union, which even went so far as to create a common, formal European identity at Maastricht in 1992. Building on the EU’s example, an Arctic Union would provide a consolidated institutional framework for the promotion of deeper economic integration and cultural exchange between Arctic countries, and would help to develop a shared northern identity among its members.

Geopolitical and security issues were excluded from the Arctic Council’s mandate when the organization was founded in 1996. Yet they should form an integral part of an Arctic Union’s work, particularly as global interest in the region increases. An Ekos survey conducted earlier this decade found that 85 percent of Russians support a peacebuilding mandate for the Arctic Council.

Much of Russia’s present-day foreign policy stems from its partial exclusion from the post-Cold War order, and from its belief that it is treated merely as a junior partner by Washington at the best of times. A fully fledged Arctic Union would finally create a forum in which Moscow is treated as a geopolitical equal on high-level issues, thus helping to build trust between Russia and the West and setting a precedent of partnership that could potentially be replicated in other regions.

At present, the Arctic Council has a small secretariat staffed by a handful of individuals. It holds a ministerial summit every two years and a meeting of senior officials every six months. An Arctic Union would go further than this, in order to tackle its enhanced mandate and to nurture the idea that Arctic countries have a common destiny. Like the EU, it would have a permanent capital, larger bodies and more frequent high-level meetings.

This Arctic Union wouldn’t just develop common policies between Arctic countries and present an image of Arctic unity to the world. It would also serve as a trial run for the potential establishment of a bonafide Pacific Community, a much larger project that would help to secure peace between major powers in one of the globe’s most significant 21st-century geopolitical hotspots.

China’s continued geopolitical rise suggests that issues concerning power in the Asia-Pacific theater will remain unresolved until Beijing reaches a greater level of strategic parity with Washington. Russia, by contrast, is economically, culturally and demographically oriented toward the West. Its security-related fears and behavior are in part the result of its relative decline. Creating an Arctic Union is a confidence-building measure that can be implemented today.

Many will ask whether a new institution is necessary. I would reply that times change, and we must change with them. The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was ultimately superseded by the Arctic Council when it became clear that a more comprehensive framework for northern cooperation was required. The Council, for its part, was created in a decade when American unipolarity reigned supreme. It’s time for a new approach.

For a whole host of reasons – including geography, geopolitics and global governance – we need a partner in the Kremlin. The establishment of an Arctic Union would go a very long way in helping us to get our relationship with Russia back on the right track. A multicultural country such as Canada is best equipped to reconcile the divergent perspectives and norms held by the Arctic’s diverse cultures. Ottawa can and should lead the way on this important file.

It was Canadian leadership in the face of U.S. opposition that led to the establishment of the Arctic Council 20 years ago. We have an opportunity today to secure peace in the Arctic over the long term, to deepen the scientific and environmental work being done in the region, to revisit and strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples, and to establish a durable framework built on trust that can regulate the conduct of external powers in this coveted part of the globe.

Let’s grab it with both hands.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Arctic Deeply.

Top image: Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, right, in Independence Square, Kiev, Ukraine, on Monday, February 1 2016. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)