Op-ed

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Re-thinking sovereignty and security in the Arctic

by Whitney Lackenbauer

Open Canada
March 23, 2016

What do “sovereignty” and “security” mean? The two words are widely used – and misused – but they have an increasingly important place in current debates on global and domestic politics.

Neither “security” nor “sovereignty” has a neutral meaning; rather, each is defined by underlying political choices. What or whom we choose to designate as sovereign or secure reveals much about our society's values and theoretical biases, and indicates whose voices and views we think should be represented within our politics.

Such definitions are especially relevant in the circumpolar Arctic, typically understood as the northern regions of the eight states that have territory above the Arctic Circle. What Arctic sovereignty and security mean is changing rapidly due to the intersection of globalization, climate change and a greater acknowledgment of indigenous rights.

The traditional view of Arctic security focuses on military defence, especially the protection of national borders and the assertion of state sovereignty over Arctic land and water. During the Cold War, Arctic security was inseparable from national security, nuclear deterrence and the bipolar rivalry between the American and Soviet superpowers. But alternative understandings of security that emphasize economic, social, cultural and environmental concerns have emerged in the post-Cold War period. Many scholars and politicians now promote a broader and deeper conception of security that reflects new and distinct types of threats – and encompasses peoples and communities.

Historically, Arctic sovereignty referred to the consolidation of political control over distant Northern regions by the southern capitals of circumpolar states and tended to focus on maritime boundary disputes, perceived foreign threats to territory and control over natural resources. The legal status of the Northwest Passage has figured prominently in discussions of Canadian Arctic sovereignty, for example. Elsewhere, Arctic sovereignty focuses on polar waters – for instance, Russia’s Northern Sea Route – the control of unusual political areas, such as Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, or the determination of extended marine territories under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. These sovereignty issues are overwhelmingly orderly and non-confrontational despite the warnings and concerns of some analysts and journalists.

Such traditional narratives of Arctic sovereignty are being upended by the growing recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination and the devolution of political powers to northern and substate governments, from Greenland to Nunavut to northern Scandinavia. To borrow Inuit leader Mary Simon’s memorable phrase, “sovereignty begins at home.”

This view roots sovereignty in the daily activities of Arctic inhabitants, reducing the emphasis of the abstract political claims by distant central governments. In the contemporary Arctic, sovereignty is best understood by reflecting on the views of Arctic inhabitants, rather than focusing on borders, bombers and battleships.

Arctic scholars can help bridge the gap between different understandings of sovereignty and security, by generating theoretical and policy insights that reflect a diversity of perspectives from around the region. With this in mind, more than 40 researchers and analysts from across Canada, the United States and Europe gathered at the University of Toronto in January for a workshop on “Understanding Sovereignty and Security in the Circumpolar Arctic.” Featuring a keynote address by Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s new Minister of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development, the group discussed a wide array of Arctic issues from the distinct perspectives of elected officials, practitioners and academic experts.

Based on this workshop, and other recent scholarship, we identified five points that we believe are crucial for understanding sovereignty and security in the contemporary Arctic:

1. In a modern and a rapidly changing Arctic, security and sovereignty must also encompass environmental, economic, social and cultural issues. Climate change is especially important. As President Obama noted at a conference on climate change in Alaska in August 2015, climate change “will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other.”

2. We must stop thinking of the Arctic as a single holistic place. All eight Arctic states have released new Arctic foreign policy and security strategies responding to the changing climate, but the sovereignty and security issues of each state are shaped by geography, ecology, culture and national interests. Each country experiences the Arctic differently and assigns it a different symbolic importance. As a result, the Arctic is constructed differently within each country’s respective policies.

3. Arctic governments and Arctic peoples may not be united on definitions of sovereignty and security. Arctic states typically prioritize military defence, natural resource extraction and territorial expansion. But people living in the Arctic tend to stress social, economic, ecological and cultural concerns threatening their communities. On the other hand, citizens generally agree on which issues matter most, whether they live north or south of the Arctic Circle. Global warming and other environmental issues are overwhelmingly viewed as the greatest threats, according to recent findings from the 2nd Arctic Security Public Opinion Survey. Economic, social and cultural issues followed, and traditional national security issues ranked at the very bottom.

4. The perspectives of Arctic inhabitants must be included in policymaking. In particular, the voices of those who experience the most acute or chronic threats to their survival and well-being should be heard. This includes indigenous peoples, who experience many threats differently from settler populations or newcomers and whose claims to Arctic territory often underpin the contemporary sovereignty of Arctic states. It must also account for gendered forms of insecurity, where threats disproportionately affect one group over others. For example, women experience high rates of intimate and domestic violence, and young men are more likely to attempt suicide.

5. Communities and households must be empowered to address issues of Arctic sovereignty and security. Governments, militaries and constabulary forces, as well as regional organizations, such as the Arctic Council, remain essential to providing security and promoting sovereignty. But these concepts must extend deeper to encompass communities, families and individual households. We must examine the ways government policies, cultural and social pressures originating in the south, and the contributions of industrialized states to global climate change threaten security within Arctic homes and communities and find ways to mitigate them.

Security in a rapidly changing Arctic region can no longer be exclusively about military threats and dangers, and sovereignty cannot fixate solely on the rights of states. We must deepen and broaden our understanding of the terms “sovereignty” and “security” now, if we are to reduce the vulnerability and increase the resilience of Arctic societies in the face of compounding and accelerating social and environmental changes.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Chris Wattie

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