Stephen Harper’s Arctic policy: gently now

Russian nuclear icebreaker clearing path to North Pole, aerial view

Strong reporting from Josh Wingrove, the tall new guy at the Globe Ottawa bureau, who profited from the presence of Arctic premiers at last week’s Council of the Federation shindig to produce an article on evolution in the prime minister’s Arctic policy.

“When’s the last time you hear anyone use the ‘use it or lose it’ analogy?” asks Rob Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary who studies defence and the North. “It’s very much focused on improving the North for northerners now, rather than building up the security side.”

This is because, as I wrote in 2009, building up the security side was really hard and not overly bright. Military exercises across the Arctic are still worth doing, because there will sometimes be trouble to which only military equipment can respond. But as I wrote in 2009:

Despite spending serious money to bulk up Canada’s military and civilian resources in the North, our ability to reliably project power will remain limited. The zones of international conflict are also limited, in geographic size and in the likely real-world payoff for any player, Canadian or foreign, who hopes to strike it rich there. And most important, our legal claim to be able to tell anybody else what to do in the Northwest Passage is slender at best.

What to do, then? Griffiths and Huebert suggest Canada needs to get back in the habit of co-operating with our northern neighbours instead of chest-beating. A well-regulated Northwest Passage is in American interests too, Griffiths argues, because the Obama administration won’t want terrorists or rogue states sending anything nasty through the Arctic Ocean. While “agreeing to disagree” on the fundamental question of the Northwest Passage’s legal status, Canada and the United States could work together for mutual benefit. Probably it will help if Harper stops threatening to scuttle the U.S. sub fleet.

And he has indeed stopped threatening to scuttle the U.S. sub fleet. When the prime minister switches positions, it is often away from a position that made little sense toward one that makes more, which is why he has survived for as long as he has. In that 2009 article, I noted that Op Nanook’s goal of conducting a military exercise in Alert, Nunavut by 2012 was “ambitious.” Indeed there was no push to Alert last year, and there’ll be none this year, although Cornwallis Island is plenty bold.