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The Arctic: Simmering Tensions Between Canada And US – Analysis


By Julia Meyer

The focus of international attention on melting polar ice is hiding simmering tensions between Canada and the USA – two of the eight states with Arctic territory – which need be urgently resolved to avoid complications in a new emerging geopolitical situation, says a new study.

“Both countries need to pay attention to the challenges in the Arctic but should also be wary of how their domestic posturing in the region is affecting their international relations, including with each other,” says the study by the prestigious Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Location of the Arctic.
Location of the Arctic.

Authored by Kristofer Bergh, the study says: “The abilities of Canada and the USA to pursue their interests in the region will rely on them cooperating closely, not least because from 2013 they will hold successive chairmanships of the Arctic Council. Canadian-US relations will thus be an important factor in the future of a changing Arctic. Resolving key disagreements and identifying common priorities would strengthen both countries’ positions in the region.”

Together with Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Canada and the USA are members of the Arctic Council. The Council, which includes the representatives of the region’s indigenous populations, has evolved into a decision-making organization with a permanent secretariat and budget. Subsequently it attracts more attention from the rest of the world.

Since 2006, three successive chairmanships of the Council have been held by Nordic states – Norway (2006-2009), Denmark (2009-2011) and Sweden (2011–2013) – which agreed on a common set of priorities to pursue. From 2013 it will be chaired by Canada for two years (2013-2015) and then the United States (2015–2017).

The study, titled ‘The Arctic Policies of Canada and the United States: Domestic Motives and International Context’ cautions that “the lingering disagreements” between Canada and the USA would undermine their ability to pursue their interests in the Arctic region.

In fact the future of the Arctic will require close cooperation between Canada and the USA, not least if human activity in the area increases as it becomes more accessible. Increased traffic in the Northwest Passage will present a challenge to both Canadian and US capacity to operate in the region, not least if responsibilities in the area are unclear.

Bergh continues: While the USA has not particularly distinguished itself in the international cooperation over the Arctic – although it seems that this is now changing – Canada has repeatedly made clear that it is seeking a leadership role.

Canada’s domestic policy for the Arctic, the Northern Strategy, was presented in 2009. It was published under the authority of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (who is also Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-status Indians) and focuses on four priority areas: (a) sovereignty; (b) social and economic development; (c) the environment; and (d) improved governance for the people of the north.

Canada’s Arctic foreign policy, presented in a statement in August 2010, focuses on the international dimensions of the same four pillars, with an emphasis on Arctic sovereignty.

The United States defines the US Arctic as all US territory north of the Arctic Circle or “north and west of the boundary formed by the Porcupine, Yukon, and Kuskokwim Rivers; all contiguous seas, including the Arctic Ocean and the Beaufort, Bering, and Chukchi Seas; and the Aleutian chain”.

US foreign policy on the Arctic region is set out in a presidential directive from January 9, 2009. This document, the final presidential directive issued by President George W. Bush, has largely been accepted by the succeeding administration of President Barack Obama and is considered largely bipartisan.

The US policy emphasizes issues of national security in the changing and increasingly accessible Arctic region. Other issues highlighted in the document include the environment, economic development, governance, indigenous communities and science.

While Canada has fairly comprehensive strategies to deal with its own Arctic areas as well as wider foreign policy in the region, the presidential directive that guides US policy is quite limited, avers Bergh, the author of the study. However, the scope of the two policy documents also testifies to the importance of the Arctic as a political issue in both countries.

Bergh adds: “The Arctic has become a region of great political importance in Canada. However, the Canadian Government’s statements about identity and sovereignty may not be conducive to international cooperation. Although US public and political interest remains low and the USA’s capacity to operate in the region leaves much to be desired, changes are visible in terms of US foreign and defence policy.”


The author of the study points out that both the Canadian and US policies place heavy emphasis on sovereignty and security in the Arctic region. The US directive states that the USA “has broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region”, while Canada’s policy states that “exercising sovereignty over Canada’s North . . . is our number one Arctic foreign policy priority”.

Both countries acknowledge that increasing accessibility will lead to more human activity in the region, with positive and negative consequences. While the USA mentions concerns about terrorist activities and maritime law enforcement, Canada identifies concerns about organized crime and trafficking of drugs and people.

The USA names several military challenges with implications for the Arctic, including “missile defense and early warning; deployment of sea and air systems for strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime presence, and maritime security operations; and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight”.

For both Canada and the USA the issue of sovereignty is closely related to the prospect of new resource discoveries in the Arctic region, and the extended continental shelf and boundary issues that may affect their access to these resources.

The USA recognizes that several disputed areas in the Arctic may contain resources critical to its energy security, including in the Beaufort Sea, where Canada and the USA disagree on the maritime bound- ary.

Canada regards this and other disputes as “discrete boundary issues” that neither pose defence challenges nor have an impact on its ability to cooperate with other Arctic states.

Another point of disagreement between Canada and the USA is the Northwest Passage, which the USA views as an international strait through which any ship has the right of free passage. “Numerous US Government agencies acknowledge the status of both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route as having implications for strategic straits anywhere in the world,” says the study. Canada, in contrast, claims that it “controls all maritime navigation in its waters” which, according to its own definition, includes the Northwest Passage.

Both countries view the enhancement of their capacity to operate militarily in the Arctic as an important part of solving their respective security and sovereignty challenges.

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IDN-InDepthNews offers news analyses and viewpoints on topics that impact the world and its peoples. IDN-InDepthNews serves as flagship of the International Press Syndicate Group, partner of the Global Cooperation Council.

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