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North America in the Arctic: A Regional Power Disparity

USCGC Willow on Arctic-Patrol

US Coast Guard Cutter Willow and Her Danish Majesty’s Ship Hvidbjoernen navigate through icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, during joint Operation Nanook, Aug. 23, 2011. Photo: Charles McCain/flickr.

In 2013 the Canadian government will hold the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. In preparation for this the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program last week released a set of recommendations of what should guide the Canadians’ two year tenure. Expectations are that the chairmanship will prove an assertive Canada acting on their belief that they promote the interests of the Arctic by advancing Canadian leadership.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was on her way to Tromsø (Norway) and Stockholm (Sweden) to reaffirm that the US has an interest in the Arctic, rebuffing criticisms that this rarely shows. With her trip to Scandinavia some experts conjured that this was the first baby-step to finally signing the UNCLOS. This would be a landmark as it (at least officially) enables the country to press its claims on the Arctic. Even if this was the case, the US will still need to work hard to keep up with their Arctic partners.   

Oh Canada

With their territorial rights, huge energy resources and (soon) trade routes opening up as ice caps melt, there is no doubt that “The Arctic represents tremendous potential for Canada’s future”. Their comprehensive strategy can be found in Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy. Similar to the Danes and Norwegians, the hallmarks are: key strategic goals, sovereignty and tight governance by the Arctic states only. What makes the Canadian perspective curious is their professed “spiritual belonging” to the High North,“The Arctic is embedded in the Canadian soul” and “the North is our home and our destiny”.

The last couple of years Canada has thus concerted an Arctic leader-state strategy or, as they call it, a “strategic communications role”. In 2010 the country hosted the Arctic Ocean Foreign Ministers meeting, at the same time as they were busy developing a “Canadian International Centre for the Arctic Region” in Oslo with the explicit purpose of advancing “Canada’s presence on Arctic issues abroad”.

Both projects and a number similar ones are part of Canada’s attempt to design an assertive Arctic foreign policy. The most recent symbol of this is the just finalised annual military Game “Operation Nunalivut” (Inuktitut for “land that is ours”). In the exercise the Canadian Armed Forces practiced diving under thick ice, rescue ski-landings and the intellegence services, somewhat successfully, a new communication method (a chat program) that will give them situational awareness over the Arctic.

These annual excersises are paralled by an initiative to develop new military hardware especially earmarked for the Arctic. Maybe most noteworthy is the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy which includes building 6-8 new Arctic Armed Patrol Ships. Looking back over the past couple of years a picture starts to form. There is by now little doubt that the Canadians demonstrate preparedness and vigorous interest in an “Arctic responsive to Canadian interests and values.”

United States

While the Canadians are flexing their Arctic muscles, frustration is building in the US over the American unpreparedness. Only last week Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Bob Papp argued that there is no question that the US is “behind the power curve regarding the Arctic”.

Although all Arctic national strategies are in their adolescence, the US remains the only Arctic state with no Arctic strategy at all (some mentioning of the Arctic can be found in the National Security Presidential Directive 66).

One reason for the lack of interest has to do with that the US has failed to ratify the UNCLOS. Because of this they cannot file a bid for Arctic border establishment (for an infographic). But this is likely to change pretty soon. In addition to Hillary Clinton’s own initiatives, pressure is building up that the time for ratification has come. Only last week a number of former Secretaries of State (Kissinger, Shultz, Baker III, Powell and Rice) expressed that the US has more to gain by participating in the UNCLOS than by staying out.

Another reason is lack of resources. If the US would sign the UNCLOS today they would have to protect their Arctic lands by pulling personnel and money from other national seucurity priorities, like protecting fisheries or stopping drug trade from Mexico. The lack of resources became evident last year with the US Naval War College’s War Gaming exercise in the High North. It found that the Navy is “woefully unprepared and ill-equipped” for activities in the Arctic.  As a force, the Navy lacks everything from bases and Arctic-capable ships (the Navy turned over its last icebreaker, the Glacier, to the US Coast Guard in 1966), maps, to reliable communications and cold-weather clothing. The upshot of signing the UNCLOS and commiting soverign responsibility would thus have to mean an increase  of US dependence on other Arctic states.

The Navy has applied for government money (8$ USD) to sketch an initial design of what a new icebreaker could look like. But building ships are expensive (estimates of at least $1 billion USD) and often takes more than a decade to complete. With two expensive wars stretching over the past decade and weak economy, the chances of purchasing a new ice-breaker (anytime soon) are dim.

Ostensibly, the most fundamental reason of all for why the Americans show so slight interest in the Arctic is a mere lack of awareness and feelings of “Arctic belonging”. A report from the National Defense University explains that “The U.S. simply doesn’t understand we are an Arctic Nation. We’re a landowner in the Arctic with unique obligations, environmentally and strategically”. This is maybe the most important concern of all and marks the starkest contrast from the Canadians’ professed spiritual beloning and active engagement to the North.

The odds are that for the foreseeable future the North American Arctic power disparity will stay pretty much the same. Canada will continue to celebrate their Arctic inheritance and ardently defend it by gaming exercises, while the US will (for now) have to rely on their Arctic partners, maybe most of all their Northern neighbour.


For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners:
Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress

Arctic Ownership Claims

Fixed Rules of Play for Dividing Up the Arctic Ocean


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Security Watch and Editorial Plan.

One Response to “North America in the Arctic: A Regional Power Disparity”

  1. We (as a country and a service (CG)) having a vested interest in the Arctic have not paid attention to what’s developing in that area going back to the mid-80s. Instead we/they (aaaaah, the infamous “they”) decided to invest in Deepwater as a package, and the NSC in particular – was the NSC’s mission ever really identified and quantified?

    As for playing “catch-up ball” in that area and the supposed time line and budget demands, take a look at what Edison Choest, among other entities, has done (and doing) concerning ice breaker construction……………..