Wednesday, 29 May 2013



How should Canada manage its relationship with the United States when dealing with Arctic issues?

The subject is in the news perhaps in part because on 10 May 2013, US President Barack Obama signed his 'National Strategy for the Arctic Region'. Included under the heading 'Strengthen International Cooperation' is a pledge in the name of safeguarding peace and stability, to secure the "international legal principles of freedom of navigation" (1)

Recently Mark Collins wrote that;
 Canada and the U.S. actually do have a dispute over our claim that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway. ….   The passage aside, the great mass of our Arctic waters are as undisputed as our land. We have not “lagged behind” concerning our sovereignty, as Murray as asserts.

  So perhaps it would be best if we could all calm down about supposed threats to our precious Arctic sovereignty–threats the Conservative government has far too often raised, with an unwontedly jingoistic response on the part of far too many Canadians.(2)

 This was a response to an article by Robert W. Murray in the Winnipeg Free Press, who argued in favour of a greater Canadian military and federal government role in the North. He said, in part;
Historically, Canada's role as a middle power has been contingent upon being an active member of institutions aimed at collective security and relationships with larger powers. Due to Canada's limited capabilities in comparison to great powers internationally, the multilateralist tradition in Canadian foreign relations has provided enhanced opportunities for national security, but has also provided multiple settings for Canada to project its values on the world stage.

Multilateralism is a positive step for Canada to protect its national interests, but this strategy should be coupled with living up to the promises Harper has made to bolster the resources necessary for Canada to be a strong and vibrant leader in the circumpolar community. (3)

The argument has been made, most recently by Stephen Priestly at CASR. (4) , that military capabilities should be a small part of sovereignty assertion in the North. He wrote;
The question Mr. Suthren and the unnamed Citizen editorialist failed to address is: How will new Canadian warships ensure Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic in the face of  incursions by commercial vessels whose infringements upon Canadian sovereignty are wholeheartedly supported by their foreign governments – including the governments of our closest allies?

 Many observers would say that serious territorial rivalry between democratic and culturally similar nations such as the U.S. and Canada is unlikely if not impossible.

The question this post addresses is; would this dynamic change if the U.S. becomes a power in decline, specifically military decline?

Quinn Dyer has opined on more then one occasion that managing this decline will be one of the great issues of the 21st century. (5)

In his book “Canada and Conflict” author Patrick James has suggested that the oft heard metaphor for Canadian-U.S. relations, that of the mouse and the Elephant is no longer appropriate, if indeed it ever was. He suggests that the Musk Ox and the Elephant is a more accurate depiction of our relative strengths. (6)

In the past Canada has managed defence by being an active member of multilateral security alliances. This has allowed us to leverage our limited military force to its greatest value.  Much of Canadian strategy, to the extent that strategy is practiced in Canada, has been about insuring our continued relevance and input into those alliances which have influence over our destinies.

Is it possible that this situation, which has endured since our relationship with Great Britain segued so gracefully to our similar relationship with the United States, is changing?

In a different, but relevant, context Edward Luttwak in his book “The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy” has discussed the strategic issues surrounding the growth of Chinese power.(7) In Chapter five, “The Coming Geo-Economic Resistance to the Rise of China” he writes that,

 “… the contradiction between a threatening military posture and diplomatic influence over any state that still retains its autonomy, that has not already passed the tipping point beyond which subordination to overwhelming power is accepted as inevitable. Only then can a rising military power generate more influence, and very effectively too.
 In this regard also, the logic of strategy can not be linear: a rising military threat normally stiffens resistance against it, leading to loss of influence; if the threat persists and intensifies, the threatened power will strive to re-arm or seek allies, or do both if it can. But if the threat increases still more, overtaking rearmament efforts and allied support, a culminating point of resistance will be reached. If no other factors or powers then intervene to interrupt the process, any further increase in the threat will not evoke more resistance in most cases, but to the contrary it will induce more accommodating attitudes that might even evolve towards submission.”

At this point in time the relationship between Canada and the United States could be seen to be similar to the situation described by Luttwak as one of being in a position in which subordination to overwhelming power is accepted as inevitable. It might even be said that in our case accommodating attitudes have evolved towards submission.

Is it possible that this strategic paradigm could change? If the relative military power of the United States declines as the economic and military power of Canada should increase is there a possibility of conflict?

In the event that American strength should wane it is not unlikely that a Canadian response would be to increase its own military spending to compensate. Would our relationship with the U.S. change if U.S. military and political strength should ebb as Canadian military and economic strength grows?

Is it possible that if this should happen then the relationship would more closely resemble that which Luttwak describes as stiffening resistance leading to a loss of influence by the U.S. over Canada, and if this is the case, how should Canada manage this changing relationship?

It is important to remember that Luttwak makes the argument that this situation, one of military rivalry between rising and declining powers, brings with it less security for all concerned.  This would suggest that using the Canadian Armed Forces as our lead agency for ensuring Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic would be a mistake. It may seem at present that using the CAF is a simple and straightforward solution to deal with sovereignty issues in the Arctic; it will not necessarily be the same in the future.

As, and if, the United States should decline in absolute terms as a military power it will be a time of great uncertainty for Canada. Managing these changes will be complex and delicate. As U.S. – Canada positions differ over issues like Arctic sovereignty and resource allocation it will become more and more important that we weigh our responses to these challenges carefully.

Right now no one can imagine that any show of Canadian military resolve in the Arctic could lead to genuine military confrontation with the United States. The point here is that this situation could change. If it does change, if confronting U.S. military power no longer seems completely unthinkable, then a greater emphasis on the use of the Canadian military in the far north to achieve our ends could lead to less, not more stability.

Canada has in the past successfully pursued a course which emphasizes a whole of government, and even multilateral, approach to security matters such as Canadian sovereignty. In an uncertain future it may be even more important to build on this legacy when dealing with both foes and friends alike.

(1) National Strategy for the Arctic Region

(2) May 24, 2013 · Mark Collins – Arctic Sovereignty Hoo Hah Letter to Editor Printed!

(3) Winnipeg Free Press - Harper embraces multilateralism on Arctic issues
Robert W. Murray

(4) What evidence is there to back claims that new ships for the Royal Canadian Navy would secure Canadian Sovereignty in the Arctic?
By Stephen Priestley, CASR Researcher

(5) Fighting Decline, Gwynne Dyer

(6) Canada and Conflict, Patrick James
Chapter six; The Elephant and the Muskox: Canada-US Relations

(7) The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, Edward N. Luttwak