In The Media

Opinion: Arctic Powers Canada and US Need Arctic Thinkers 

by Joël Plouffe and Simon Sylvester-Chaudhuri

Breaking Energy
December 4, 2013

Once again, all eyes will turn to the Arctic this week as Canada sets to file its UN claim over an extended continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2003, in order to obtain exclusive rights over the upcoming claim to millions of square kilometers of Arctic sea-floor, and to plan future energy development in that zone, Ottawa must submit its data relating to the outer continental shelf to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf within 10 years of its ratification of the Convention. Time is up.

But Canada – who has also been chairing the Arctic Council since last spring – is not the only state attracting attention when it comes to the Arctic.

Just last month, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the Pentagon’s Arctic strategy which “articulates the balanced and collaborative approach” that DoD plans to take as it prepares for changes in “the future security environment” up North “due to the increased access and activity in the region.” He did this, interestingly, while on Canadian soil (at a security conference in Halifax), a gesture that confirms once again that both states have a solid relationship when it comes to continental security, including the Arctic.

Almost a year ago, Canada and the US expanded their security relationship in the North American Arctic by signing the Tri-Command Framework for Arctic Cooperation that supports enhanced collaboration between both nations “particularly in support of safety, security and defense operations”. The agreement also highlighted – without much surprise considering the last twenty years have seen a continuous progression of Arctic cooperation – that the circumpolar world “is not a region of conflict, but rather a place where nations can work together peacefully.” Last summer, the US, Norway, Denmark, and the Russian Federation all took part in military exercises during Canada’s Operation Nanook in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This was a first for Russian-Canadian military cooperation in Canada’s Far North.

The evolution in Canadian-American bilateral military relations in the Arctic follows an ongoing pattern of Arctic change. Indeed, the Arctic is changing, and much of it is due to a warming North, receding sea ice, and an increase in human activities across the circumpolar world where unprecedented security challenges are now appearing.

It is also indicative of a changing Arctic where informed policymaking and decisions from both federal and sub-state actors will become critical for national security.

In November, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported not only that 2013 was the “seventh warmest year since records began in 1850”, but also that the decade 2001-2010 has seen the “greatest average annual melting of Arctic sea-ice on record” since the beginning of satellite measurements in the late 1970s, and that all seven of the lowest Arctic sea-ice extents have occurred since… 2007!

Considering the Arctic’s changing landscape – from growing economic activities across the North(s), growing oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort Sea and the Barents waters, to new incoming stakeholders such as a number of Asian states (e.g. China, India, South Korea, Japan) integrating and modifying the geopolitical equation – it is not surprising at all, and rather reassuring, to see that ‘the Arctic’ as an issue area for policymakers has made its way onto public policy agendas across the Arctic states in the past few years.

Secretary Hagel’s DoD Arctic Strategy therefore fits in continuity with recent US policymaking.

Before exiting the White House in January 2009, President Bush released the US Arctic Region Policy (superseding a similar policy established in 1994 by President Clinton) in which new American Arctic-related regional energy security and foreign policy concerns were made public, and guiding the national interest ever since. That same year, the US Navy produced its Arctic Roadmap providing “strategic objectives” and “desired effects regarding the Arctic” through 2014. And most recently, in May 2013, President Obama released a National Strategy for the Arctic Region as a way to “advance U.S. national security interests, pursue responsible stewardship, and strengthen international collaboration and cooperation, as we work to meet the challenges of rapid climate-driven environmental change.”

Obama’s strategy signaled a renewed interest in developing the region’s “sizable proved and potential oil and natural gas resources” in the American Beaufort and/or Chukchi Seas as part as the nation’s “all of the above” approach to “developing new domestic energy resources.” It also implies an emerging situation of rapprochement between Washington and Alaska on future options for offshore development. In Barack Obama’s own words, “we will partner with the State of Alaska and Alaska Natives, as well as the international community and the private sector, to develop innovative solutions and new ways of operating.” All actors must now look for new ways to balance Alaskan economic interests, national energy security options, and, of course, Arctic environmental imperatives and sustainable development.

In America’s Arctic, Alaska has been moving forward with important initiatives like the Northern Waters Task Force that recently produced a comprehensive assessment on ‘emerging needs’ for Alaska’s Arctic development, from infrastructure to regulatory and research investments. Alaskans have also embarked in statewide discussions on opportunities and risks related to increasing economic activities in the Arctic – mostly transportation, fishing and extractive industries. Through the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, commissioners have been meeting with Alaskans with the objective of providing a statewide appraisal on various economic, human and national homeland security issues. This policy process seeks to bring needed adjustments and prepare Alaskans in a way that they might benefit from a shifting northern geopolitical environment – a pattern visible not only throughout the Arctic regions of the Pacific Northwest, but also across northern communities in the Canadian territories, provincial Norths, and elsewhere in the Arctic.

As challenging as it can and will continue to be, both Ottawa and Washington, independently or bilaterally, are propelled in the Arctic today by climate change. Moving forward means that both nations must accordingly plan, develop, coordinate, fund, and implement national (federal and sub-state) strategies in a region of North America that definitely requires technical expertise, innovative ideas and knowledgeable planners and region-builders.

Thinking of the future of the Arctic in the North American context therefore means that both Canada and the United States need to take into consideration in their long-term national security and nation-building strategies how knowledge of and on the region will be produced and inform policymakers. Arctic policy is derived from this knowledge. It is therefore the role of higher education institutions to collaborate and work with local and national organizations from government, the private sector, indigenous peoples and non-profits to learn more about all the different implications and scenarios that could possibly play out, and how region-building should be debated and implemented. As we speak, major non-Arctic players like the European Union and China are massively investing in Arctic knowledge for their own national interests, while strategies to address emerging social, political, economic and military issues in the Arctic lag disturbingly behind real time events in our North American universities.

While Canada leads the Arctic Council through to May 2015, followed by the US for the following two years, both countries have a mutual interest and opportunity to engage in knowledge building and to highlight their respective and collaborative plans to establish higher education in and on the Arctic as a long-term priority; both for their own development and for the future stability of the Arctic.

As Arctic powers, both Canada and the US need Arctic thinkers.

Joël Plouffe is from the Center for Interuniversity Research on the International Relations of Canada and Québec (CIRRICQ), National School of Public Administration (ENAP) in Montréal. He is Managing Editor of the Arctic Yearbook ( and Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI).

Simon Sylvester-Chaudhuri is an O’Mara Energy Fellow at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs focusing his work on Global Cleantech Development and Innovation. Plouffe will be one of the invited speakers at the NYU Washington DC Center’s event “The Last Frontier: Security Resources, and Politics in the Arctic, on December 5th at 6pm, organized and moderated by Professor Carolyn Kissane from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.

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