U.S. President Barack Obama announced an American National Strategy for the Arctic Region last week. There is much for Canadians to applaud and to learn from this strategy, and nothing to fear from a sovereignty perspective.
The Obama doctrine provides the basis for new co-operation with the United States on the Arctic, bilaterally and multilaterally, that will bring responsible economic development to our Arctic, and give substance to Canada’sArctic Council role.
For the first time, the United States has set out a comprehensive vision of its national Arctic policy that takes into account the changing circumstances of the Arctic, particularly the “dramatic, abrupt, and unrelenting” reduction in sea ice, and looks positively to the future.
It serves Canada’s interest that the United States, our geographic neighbour, partner and ally in the Arctic, has recognized new realities at the presidential level. Obama has shown a laudable determination to align American agencies, stakeholders and policies around an integrated Arctic national management approach.
The administration underlines the need to adapt responsibly to the reality of a more accessible and prosperous Arctic, while at the same time combating global warming through a variety of other national and international means.
The president takes an activist approach to integrating in a practical way the goals of expanding economic development and conservation in the Arctic region, and gives special weight to the role of the Alaskan state government and its native peoples.
The strategy emphasizes its continuing commitment to responsible stewardship. And it opens the door to working bilaterally and multilaterally with other countries to work out “new mechanisms,” charting the Arctic Ocean efficiently, developing new waterways management regimes, launching joint ventures and P3s with international partners, and promoting safe, secure, efficient and free flows of navigation and trade through new systems and new infrastructure.
As to Arctic security, the United States presents a positive, moderate and forward-leaning rather than threat-magnified approach. The Arctic region is in fact “peaceful, stable and free of conflict,” and sees America’s security interest as best met through continued trust, co-operation and collaboration with allies and neighbours.
Beyond noting its traditional freedom of navigation and national defence concerns, the strategy describes the need for Arctic infrastructure and capabilities, including ice capable vessels, and support for safe commercial and scientific operations as a U.S. security interest
It would be easy to dismiss the president’s strategy as “something for everyone” rhetoric to provide Secretary of State John Kerry with a doctrine to point to at the May 15 Arctic Council ministerial meeting, and to paper over fissures between intensely partisan environmental and economic interest groups over Alaskan leasing and drilling and other issues.
But the national strategy is a concrete and valuable attempt to deal with Arctic opportunities in an innovative way. In the U.S. system, a presidential determination like this provides guidance to the whole administration, and is close to a Canadian white paper.
The devil, as in all grand designs, will be in the implementation. The White House will need to keep an Arctic focus at the highest level, strengthen its capacity to monitor and drive collaboration, find smart funding in a difficult fiscal environment to match words with actions, and work directly with its most promising partner: Canada. Russia and the Scandinavian countries need no lessons from Washington on Arctic vision, investment and collaboration.
The appearance of the report is a strong incentive for the Canadian government to refresh and operationalize our own promising Northern Strategy in dealing with the same Arctic domestic challenges as the president. It is time to open a new high level bilateral and multilateral dialogue with the United States on Arctic issues, now that the United States has made the first move.