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HomeInternational System 2050Dropping a Dispute: Why The U.S. Should Not Contest Canadian Arctic Sovereignty

Dropping a Dispute: Why The U.S. Should Not Contest Canadian Arctic Sovereignty

Image credit: Office of Naval Research

By Christopher Mott

As accelerating climate change is reshaping the face of the Earth through rising sea levels and shrinking ice caps, it is also dynamically altering the calculus for geopolitical strategists around the world. Former natural barriers seem less impenetrable than they once were, and disputes arise about who has access to what. As it concerns the Arctic, the largest scale shift is perhaps the increasing viability of the Northwest Passage to shipping traffic. 

The Canadian Arctic Archipelago that stretches from the northern coast to almost the North Pole has spent the entirety of human-recorded history being frozen over for much of the year. These days, the winter ice cover gets shorter, and the ice-free timeframe that can be used for shipping continually grows. The viability of a sustained major shipping lane through the region increases along with the temperature. 

While the Northwest Passage is increasingly a key national security concern for Canada, the United States has continued to take the position that the waters between these islands should be considered international—and therefore open to global traffic from all nations with no Canadian regulation or oversight. The reasons are logical, at least on first examination, as U.S. shipping times could be shortened drastically, especially as the Passage could cut the distance for Alaskan oil shipments internationally by almost half. This is, however, short-sighted. For allowing Canada to administer the Northwest Passage as internal waters enhances both U.S. geopolitical security and would serve as a boon in relations between Ottawa and Washington.

Consider that an internationalized Northwest Passage would not just be open to the U.S., but also to many other countries as well, including America’s geostrategic rivals such as Russia and China. These countries, and Russia in particular, see the Arctic as a new frontier for resource exploration and potential militarization. Should a consensus form around the United States’ position that the waters of the region are to be considered international, then America’s strategic and economic rivals could be free to send in their own vessels. This could include ships capable of espionage or even armed military vessels. Such a development is sure to raise security concerns in Washington and increase risk of confrontation and conflict in the region. Even if the risk of the Passage’s militarization is mitigated (perhaps through subsequent agreements), the mere threat of it would likely create a reactive outcome for both Canadian and U.S. defense establishments. This in turn would increase the likelihood that all sides begin an unnecessary and potentially environmentally damaging military buildup in the Arctic region. It would be wiser to turn the Passage into an environmentally protected buffer area under complete Canadian sovereignty, with the Canadian navy fully able to regulate entry. This creates a more defensible perimeter for the continent in the north to compliment the easily regulated and geographically contained Panama Canal in the south. 

The security benefits outweigh the costs saved by cutting the traverse time for American ships, but acknowledging Canadian sovereignty need not be an absolute loss for the U.S. Perhaps, in exchange for recognizing the waters as internal to Canada, the U.S. could get its own independent bilateral treaty regarding certain kinds of shipping to access the region. But even if such an arrangement does not occur, the long-term geopolitical cost/benefit calculation clearly implies that the strong U.S.-Canada relationship, which has endured since the First World War, would be best served by acknowledging that the long-term interests of the two North American countries are inextricably linked.

Considering how long the present positive U.S.-Canada relationship has lasted, their common historical heritage, and that they share the world’s largest undefended international land border and have conducted numerous joint operations, the U.S. would be wise to recognize that the Northwest Passage in Canadian hands is not a threat to its interests, but an affirmation of them. A fully sovereign and defensible North American geopolitical landscape from the Arctic to the tropics is in America’s national interest, particularly as the world’s multipolarity continues to come into sharper focus in the Twenty-First Century.

Dr. Christopher Mott is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.