Canada: The Arctic Middle Man

By MarEx 2014-08-21 18:45:00

Op-Ed by Zach Paikin

Until recently, Canadian foreign policy ends were relatively simple: maintain good relations with Washington and contribute to the stability of the global system. Ever since the 1871 Treaty of Washington that brought formal hostilities between Canada and the United States to an end, the former's geography has been defined by three surrounding oceans and a non-enemy state to the south.

Since its birth, Canada has been able to count on a superpower ally to ensure its defense—whether as an integral member of the British Commonwealth or a treaty member of NATO. In short, there was no pressure on Canada to think strategically.

Looking forward, however, things will become more complicated for Ottawa. A shift from an American-dominated “unipolar” world order to one containing multiple major powers means that the global system is in flux. Furthermore, climate change is causing previously icy Arctic waterways to thaw, in effect establishing a border between Canada and Russia. This implies that good relations with Moscow—not just with Washington—will become critical to ensure Canadian security.

The Arctic’s significance to Canada, as well as to the world, has only increased with time. Following the Second World War, Canada’s airspace found itself geographically situated between the bombing routes of two nuclear superpowers. From Ottawa’s foreign policy perspective, the Soviet Union (and later, Russia) could no longer be viewed as being exclusively to Canada’s east—it was now also situated to its north.

Today, the Arctic lies in a region containing two major global powers and several NATO states. Moreover, not only is it believed to be rich in natural resources, it is also home to some of the most important choke points in the international shipping system.

When considering NATO through the lens of the present struggle over Ukraine, it is easy to project an epic struggle between East and West renewing itself. Yet looking at the alliance's individual member states and their vital, long-term interests paints a very different picture, particularly in regard to Canada. The Arctic will likely have a significant impact on the future unity of the geopolitical bloc we have come to know as “the West”.

Whereas the West was united geopolitically during the Cold War by a struggle against communism, it is highly unlikely that Western states will find themselves singing the same song vis-à-vis Russia throughout the 21st century. The world order present throughout the Cold War was distinctly bipolar, featuring but two superpowers. A gain for one side was inevitably a loss for the other. In such a situation, countries like Canada were more than happy to place themselves under an American nuclear umbrella, in order to ensure their own security and international stability.

In contrast, a world order featuring more than two major powers (i.e., multipolarity) does not provide for a zero-sum game. It is estimated that in twenty years, so-called emerging markets will represent two-thirds of the global economy. And, as geostrategist Robert D. Kaplan notes in his latest book, Asia’s Cauldron, the more rising powers—like China, India, and Brazil—trade with other states, the greater their geopolitical reach becomes, and the more assets they acquire throughout the globe that may require protection through hard power. In other words, economic weight is potential military clout.

Despite Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's strong stance against Russia's most recent incursion, one can expect relations between Ottawa and Moscow to become more amicable with time. This is the case for two main reasons.

First, as mentioned before, global geopolitical multipolarity is likely to take hold. The rise of new powers has a natural consequence: the relative decline of the United States. If America ceases to be the world's only superpower, it will naturally become more interested in its own security than that of its erstwhile allies.

This geopolitical trend intersects with an environmental one—the Arctic thaw, which is creating a new reality in which Canada and Russia share a border.

These developing factors will likely force a shift in Canada's foreign policy strategy, for the fundamental geographical and geopolitical facts that have guided it for so long—for example, a lack of hostile neighbors and a superpower ally to boot—will have changed.

Unquestionably, for both economic and security purposes, the United States will remain Canada's most important partner. Canada isn't about to engage in a full-blown superpower patron change the way Egypt and Ethiopia each did during the Cold War. But a more comprehensive Canadian grand strategy that takes the formation of new geopolitical blocs into account will prove essential.

Yet with the decline of the unipolar system comes the steady downfall of the international structure it built. Canadians may have to begin asking themselves difficult questions: Are we Canadians prepared to recognize Russia's claim to sovereignty over the Northern Sea Route if it means that Moscow will reciprocate by declaring the Northwest Passage internal Canadian waters?

The United States, the superpower responsible for protecting free navigation of the seas and the current international liberal trade regime, naturally claims that both of these waterways constitute international straits. Could Ottawa and Moscow find common cause without upsetting the existing arrangement between all Arctic powers, including the U.S.?

Looking further into the future, we are faced with even more dilemmas. Are we prepared to acquiesce to renewed Russian geopolitical influence in parts of Eastern Europe if this ultimately proves to enhance our own security? Will Canada’s possible attempts to win the Kremlin’s favor truly produce a perpetually tranquil northern frontier for Canada?

None of these questions are easy to answer. But one thing is for certain: Canada will, for the first time in its history, share a border with a powerful state to its north. This fact cannot be ignored. If Ottawa chooses to hitch its wagon over the long-term exclusively to the receding power to its south, it will do so at its own peril. 

Zach Paikin holds a Master of Global Affairs degree from the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.

Source: World Policy Blog