This commentary is a modified excerpt of the article titled “Stephen Harper’s Arctic Paradox,” originally published by the Canada Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI).
By Joël Plouffe
Over the last 50 years, American policy in the Far North has been the pillar of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty and security discourse. But Canada’s Arctic region foreign policy started to shift following the 2006 federal election that brought Stephen Harper to power.
Indeed, following the Russian flag-planting stunt at the North Pole in the summer of 2007, Canada began an unprecedented process of rapprochement with the U.S. in the North American Arctic. While this is not inconsistent with the broader Canada-U.S. bilateral continental security and defense relationship, the change of tone regarding the Arctic region was different.
In Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy document of 2010, the Harper government broke away from the past, mainly because its chosen policy vis-à-vis the U.S. had identified the Americans as Canada’s “premier partner in the Arctic,” in a way to foster stronger bilateral “strategic engagement on Arctic issues” in the region.
At the same time, the Conservative government decided to point the finger at Russia as a suspicious neighbor up North – a significant change in Canadian foreign policy towards Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Despite a longstanding tradition of diplomatic ties between both countries since the Soviet years–notably on Northern/Arctic common issues–Harper unilaterally chose to pursue a strategy that would most likely, and negatively, impact its relations with Russia, but could potentially increase Canada’s influence globally and regionally in the eyes of Washington. Economic relations between Canada and Russia have been low, but growing since the end of the Cold War. Therefore Harper’s Russian/Arctic strategy would have low impacts on the Canadian economy and trade (that the country could absorb), and communicate a message to Canadians that the Harper government is on top of national security issues.
The shift meant that in the place of the U.S., the Harper government would pick a low-impact rhetorical fight with Russia to boost its image domestically, but also attempt to restore Canada’s power relations in the international arena, a goal Conservatives believe that previous governments have failed to achieve.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s renewed economic and military interests in this changing part of the circumpolar world, Russian national and foreign policy objectives in the North were portrayed suspicious by the Harper government, even though the Canadian Prime Minister had also voiced and implemented a similar interest in upgrading Canada’s (outdated) Arctic security policies and capabilities.
Harper’s famous Arctic region policy narrative was therefore based on remaining “vigilant” in the North, a posture that meant keeping a close eye on Russian activities.
At home, this involved stressing the need for new and reinforced military capabilities in Canada to defend Canadian sovereignty in the North – a posture arguably consistent with Harper’s neocontinentalist ideals.
With a Manichaean conception of world affairs, the Prime Minister identified Russia as the other in the Arctic – the bad guy – while the priority of reinforcing Canada-U.S. relations was being implemented.
Recently, in the face of the Ukrainian crisis, Mr. Harper also found a way to label Russia’s foreign policy as a potential threat to Canada’s territorial integrity in the Arctic.
In August 2014, during his annual tour in Canada’s North, the Prime Minister cautioned that in the face of Putin’s growing aggressive behavior, and “because Russia is also Canada’s neighbor, we must not be complacent here at home.” And in response to “Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine,” the Harper government, as Chair of the Arctic Council, decided to boycott a working-group-level meeting in Moscow last April (a task-force on black carbon and methane that Canada chairs). By not attending, Canada took, what it called, a “principled stand against Russia.” It was also the first time an Arctic Council state boycotted a meeting.
However, Canada’s rhetoric based on fear toward Russian behavior in the Arctic continues to be unfounded.
While Canada’s unilateral decision to boycott the Arctic Council working-group meeting in Moscow appears consistent with the Prime Minister’s neocontinentalist approach to foreign policy, its political impacts regionally in the Arctic may have larger implications for the entire neighborhood. As the Arctic continues to change due to climate change and geopolitics, Canada’s current position towards Russia therefore seems counterproductive since it breaks with years of continued dialogue, confidence building and cooperation.
On that issue, Admiral Robert Papp, the U.S Special Representative for the Arctic, explained recently that the policy of the White House regarding the Arctic continues to be one that will “keep those conversations going because we need consensus of all eight [Arctic Council] countries, and we need to keep Russia engaged there.”
While Canada’s Arctic foreign policy clashes with the United States’ current objectives, it is also paradoxically undermining Canada’s influence in the circumpolar world.
For more of Plouffe's Arctic ideas, click here.
Joël Plouffe is a Ph.D. candidate at the École nationale d'administration publique (ENAP) in Montréal, research fellow at the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur les relations internationales du Canada et du Québec (CIRRICQ) and Fellow at the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI). He is Managing Editor of the peer review journal, Arctic Yearbook, and a member of the UArctic/Northern Research Forum’s Thematic Network on Geopolitics and Security.