Canada and the United States in the Arctic: Testing the "Special Relationship"
by Oran R. Young


The Arctic today is recognized as a strategic arena of vital significance, a fact that poses a mounting challenge to the "special relationship" that has characterized interaction between Canada and the United States during this century. The United States is expanding its military presence throughout the arctic region and exerting growing pressure on Canada to co-operate with its plans for the defence of North America against ballistic missiles fired from submarines sheltered in arctic waters and cruise missiles launched from manned bombers operating in arctic airspace. In contrast, Canada is poised between the superpowers in a region of rising strategic importance to both the Soviet Union and the United States. Canada must also contend with the pervasive, though implicit, threat to its effective occupancy of the Far North arising from the burgeoning U.S. presence in the Arctic.

 Confrontations between the two countries over arctic issues could well become severe enough to cause a considerable erosion of the "special relationship". In fact, developments along these lines are almost certain to occur unless the United States abandons its traditional attitude of benign neglect toward arctic politics and the sensibilities of its northern allies, and unless Canada transcends its propensity to respond in a highly emotional fashion to specific arctic incidents, like the passage of the U.S. ice-breaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage in August 1985. At the same time, the emerging arctic agenda also offers significant opportunities for constructive dialogue between Canada and the United States if the leaders of the two countries recognize the importance of arctic issues and move briskly to agree on imaginative procedures to handle their arctic concerns.


Arctic Interests

 To grasp the full significance of this emerging arctic challenge to the "special relationship", we must begin with a brief account of the interests of the United States and Canada in the arctic region.

 A series of recent developments in military technology has dramatically enlarged the role of the Arctic as a theatre of operations for major military systems, transforming the region into a focal point of contemporary strategic thinking. ~ Whereas planners often dismissed the Arctic as a frozen wasteland over which missiles would fly at high altitudes during the heyday of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the 1960s and 1970s, the Arctic now offers a convenient and comparatively safe environment for the operation of nuclear-powered submarines (SSBNs) equipped with highly accurate ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and manned bombers carrying long-range, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs).

Coupled with growing concerns about the vulnerability of ICBMs, these attractions of the Arctic have captured the attention of those responsible for the deployment and protection of strategic delivery vehicles. In turn, these developments have attracted the interest of those charged with devising means of countering offensive systems. This accounts for the current resurgence of interest in arctic air defence arrangements, like the North Warning System that the United States and Canada are constructing to replace the outdated Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, as well as for the striking increase in emphasis on arctic sea defence systems, like the SSN-21 or Seawolf attack submarine that the U.S. Navy plans to build to support its new maritime strategy. Additionally, the growing economic significance of the Arctic (about 20 per cent of the oil produced in the United States now comes from northern Alaska, and well over half of the natural gas produced in the Soviet Union comes from northwestern Siberia) cannot be ignored by military planners as they contemplate the emerging strategic role of the Arctic.

 The growth of the Arctic's role as a strategic arena is rapidly transforming U.S. interests from those of a marginal arctic rim state, with parochial interests restricted to developments in and around Alaska, into those of a true arctic nation, with extensive interests throughout the region. Alaska contains less than a quarter of I per cent of the U.S. population, and broader arctic issues have tended to "remain well outside domestic political awareness and debate" in the United States;2 but the fact that the Arctic now looms large as a theatre of operations for the strategic systems of the Soviet Union as well as those of the United States has led to an awakening of U.S. interest throughout the region. As the Reagan administration recently stressed, in general terms, "the United States has unique and critical interests in the arctic region".3 More specifically, the United States is now moving vigorously to expand its military presence in the Arctic as well as its capability to engage in arctic warfare. The U.S. Navy regards the Arctic Ocean as "the new frontier for possible warfare with the Soviet Union".4 And the Arctic figures prominently in U.S. Air Force planning not only because of its attractions as an arena for the operation of ALCMs, but also because it is an increasingly important link in the comprehensive air and aerospace defence network contemplated under the Strategic Defense Architecture 2000 programme.

It follows, among other things, that the United States will insist on preserving "the principle of freedom of the seas and superjacent airspace" in the Arctic5 regardless of the concerns of other arctic rim states like Canada. Restrictions on freedom of access to a strategic arena of increasing significance would be intolerable, quite apart from the unfortunate precedent such restrictions might set for freedom of access in other parts of the world. Moreover, unlike the Soviet Union, the United States now finds itself with heightened interests in tying its northern allies closely into its expanded security arrangements in the Arctic. Since Canada is the most important of these allies, it is predictable that Canadians will experience increased pressure to fall into line with U.S. plans for the defence of North America against threats emanating from the Arctic.

 Canada's evolving arctic interests differ substantially from those of the United States. Increasingly, Canada finds itself "sandwiched between the two superpowers" in the Arctic,6 a fact of considerable significance, since it is never comfortable for a lesser power to be positioned directly between two great powers in a region of growing strategic importance. Under the circumstances, Canada is now in the delicate position of conducting a balancing act, seeking to remain an ally of the United States in good standing while simultaneously distancing itself from certain U.S. strategic initiatives in the Arctic and taking steps to strengthen its effective occupancy of arctic Canada. This accounts for the growth of Canadian doubts regarding North American air defence, even as Canada is co-operating with the United States in the construction of the North Warning System, and for the evident Canadian desire to acquire a few submarines capable of keeping tabs on U.S. naval operations in the Arctic, even though the official explanation is that these vessels would help with surveillance of Soviet arctic operations.7

 It is also predictable that Canada will exhibit a heightened interest in arms control measures adapted to arctic conditions as a means of alleviating some of the discomfort associated with its position as a strategic forefield in the region.8 Thus, the Special Joint Committee on Canada's International Relations recommended in 1986 that "Canada, in co-operation with other arctic and nordic nations, seek the demilitarization of the arctic region through pressure on the United States and the Soviet Union".9 Additionally, Canada will experience rising incentives to take the lead in forming a bloc of lesser arctic rim states, not as a clear-cut alternative to its continuing ties to the United States, but as a means of adding a distinctive northern dimension to its foreign policy. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the committee also recommended that Canada undertake "a concerted program to develop co-operative arrangements with all northern states", and singled out Greenland for special attention on the part of Canadian policy makers"10

Arctic Issues

Given these differences in the emerging arctic interests of the United States and Canada, it seems inevitable that the two countries will experience significant conflicts of interest in the region from time to time. For convenience, we can group the resultant clashes under two broad headings: security issues and sovereignty issues.

 The Security Agenda

Those who follow the news media will be aware of a series of seemingly unconnected security issues affecting Canada-United States relations in the Arctic over the last several years. Many Canadians have protested the agreement permitting the testing of (unarmed) U.S. cruise missiles over the Northwest Territories. There has been considerable debate over certain provisions of the agreement regarding the North Warning System (including the siting of the radar facilities). The proposal to use Canadian airstrips in the North as forward operating locations for U.S. interceptors or as dispersed operating bases for U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft and the plan to upgrade Canada's ability to deploy its CF-18 fighters in the Far North have both provoked considerable controversy.11 Although Canada has agreed to a five-year renewal of the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) agreement with the United States, many Canadians were displeased by the omission of any specific language from the extended agreement relating to the development of ballistic missile defence systems. It is widely understood that one of the arguments driving the idea that Canada should acquire submarines capable of operating in the Arctic is a desire to keep track of U.S. naval operations in the Arctic Basin and, especially, the waters of the Canadian arctic archipelago. The Liberal Party of Canada has recently taken a stand in favour of banning vessels carrying nuclear weapons from Canadian ports and waters. And recent evidence indicates that the Canadian public is increasingly sceptical about the utility of efforts to defend North America against possible Soviet attack.

Underlying these specific concerns, however, is a much more fundamental issue closely related to the emerging strategic significance of the Arctic. Although there is no basis for predicting a clear-cut turn toward a policy of neutralism on the part of Canada, many thoughtful Canadians are deeply disturbed by the implications of the growing American interest in the development of an integrated North American air and space defence system and in the articulation of war-fighting strategies for the nuclear age. They fear that the construction of the North Warning System, along with the unrestricted renewal of the NORAD agreement, will initiate a gradual, but irreversible, process in which Canada is drawn further and further into the U.S. air and space defence network envisioned under the Strategic Defense Architecture 2000 programme.12 Similarly, they are deeply disturbed by U.S. preparations for naval warfare in arctic waters and, especially, by the maritime strategy which envisions efforts to destroy Soviet SSBNs in the Arctic Basin during the early stages of a conventional war in Europe.13 From a Canadian perspective, such developments are not only of doubtful value in purely strategic terms, they also imply a serious loss of Canadian autonomy. As a result, it seems inevitable that a vigorous debate over Canada's defence policy will arise in the near future and that this debate will centre on the implications for Canada of the U.S. response to the growing strategic significance of the Arctic. Perhaps the publication of the long-awaited white paper on defence this spring will serve as the trigger for such a debate.


The Sovereignty Agenda

Here, too, those who follow media accounts will be aware of a series of specific incidents producing or reflecting friction between Canada and the United States in the Arctic. The voyages of the Manhattan, an ice-strengthened supertanker, through the Northwest Passage in 1969 and 1970 provoked the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau to promulgate the Canadian Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act of 1971 and, then, to push hard for the inclusion of Article 234 in the new Law of the Sea Convention as measures to enhance Canada's control over its arctic waters.14 Similarly, the voyage of the Polar Sea, a United States Coast Guard ice-breaker, through the Passage in August 1985 evoked a storm of protest in Canada.15 The Conservative government of Brian M ulroney reacted by issuing a formal statement declaring the waters of the arctic archipelago internal Canadian waters and announcing plans to construct the Arctic 8, a giant icebreaker intended to play a major role in asserting Canada's effective occupancy of the Far North.16 The facts that U.S. nuclear-powered submarines are known to operate in arctic waters and that the U.S. Navy evidently intends to expand its operations in the region constitute a major force behind pressures on the Canadian government to acquire submarines capable of operating in the Arctic or, at least, to construct a system of underwater detection devices located at key points throughout the arctic archipelago. And many Canadians have expressed concern about the prospect that emerging plans for North American air defence will lead to a great increase in U.S. military operations in the Canadian North where Canada has neither the military capability nor the resources to maintain a significant presence itself.

 As in the case of security, these sensitivities regarding Canadian sovereignty in the Far North are surface indicators of a deeper and more serious issue. Without doubt, Canada is a northern country. More than 40 per cent of Canada's land area lies in the Far North; the Arctic occupies a prominent place "in Canadian political consciousness and in a broad range of domestic policies", and many Canadians have come to treat the North as a kind of "emotional and geographic preserve".17 Yet, only a fraction of I per cent of Canada's population is located in the North: "There are no Canadian combat aircraft based in the North, no ground combat units, no warships, and no missile installations."18 Some observers have even questioned Canada's ability to demonstrate effective occupancy within its arctic preserve in purely civilian terms. If we couple these conditions with the fact that the United States often appears as an overwhelming neighbour in economic as well as military terms, it becomes understandable that many Canadians see the United States as a threat and that there "is a historic perception of the United States as an acquisitively minded competitor and an unreliable cooperative partner".19 Therefore, as the Arctic looms larger and larger as a strategic arena of vital significance, we must expect the sovereignty issue to become a major factor in Canada United States relations. Because Canada is not likely to devote enough resources to the Arctic to alleviate its concern about effective occupancy in this region,20 we must also anticipate that Canadian emotions will run high with respect to this issue and that disturbing incidents, like those involving the Manhattan and the Polar Sea, will continue to occur from time to time.


Arctic Dialogue

 What can we do to alleviate this emerging arctic challenge to the "special relationship" between Canada and the United States? Of course, the first step in any programme designed to deal with these issues is to identify the underlying sources of the problem and to acknowledge publicly its significance. But surely this does not constitute a sufficient response to the arctic challenge.

 We must, at the outset, make a concerted effort to alter deep-seated attitudes, both in Canada and the United States, toward arctic issues. As John Holmes, the Canadian diplomat and scholar, has put it: "When the Manhattan or the Polar Sea move north, Canadians get a rush of blood to the head and don't think very straight. Americans don't think at all."21 The result is an extremely dangerous combination of emotion and (perhaps benign) neglect. The fact that Americans typically deal with the Arctic in a thoughtless and, therefore, insensitive way is certainly sufficient to trigger Canadian emotions regarding a region that plays such a large role in the Canadian sense of national identity, even though it is hardly an area of crucial importance to Canada in material terms. By the same token, the emotional character of the Canadian response to arctic incidents and issues regularly gets in the way of sensible efforts to solve problems between the United States and Canada arising in the region.

Approached as practical problems, rather than as issues of principle, many arctic concerns, like the development of appropriate environmental standards for arctic shipping, could be dealt with without prejudice to Canada's underlying claims to sovereignty over arctic waters. What is more, time is not apt to deal kindly with Canada's claims in this region. As the Arctic becomes the scene of a growing array of military and economic activities, Canada's more advanced jurisdictional claims in the region are likely to become increasingly threadbare. Needless to say, these observations do not offer any magic recipe for reforming Canadian and U.S. attitudes toward the Arctic. But we must make a serious commitment to changing existing attitudes as a precondition to taking other steps toward meeting the emerging arctic challenge.

 As a second step, we must acknowledge the striking differences in the political cultures of Canada and the United States. We are accustomed to treating the two countries, somewhat simplistically, as generally comparable Western democracies. This is not only a mistake, but also a major source of misunderstanding regarding arctic issues and other bilateral concerns. Anyone who deals regularly with Canada United States relations cannot help being struck by the remarkable differences in the political cultures of the two countries. Canadians ordinarily endeavour to resolve their differences through various forms of negotiation, in contrast to the U.S. propensity to resort to some combination of litigation and legislation. Canadians, used to the operation of majority governments capable of exercising effective control over the activities of administrative agencies, as well as the formulation of policies, find it hard to understand the bureaucratic politics and lack of coordination that characterize the activities of the U.S. government. In contrast, Americans, accustomed to a system in which the federal government typically dominates state governments, regularly have difficulty comprehending the character of federal-provincial relations in the Canadian setting.

 What is needed is a series of steps designed to bridge this gap in political cultures and to maximize each side's ability to comprehend the behaviour of the other with regard to arctic issues. The 1984 United States-Canada Arctic Policy Forum, a workshop that brought together a group of prominent Canadians and Americans in their private capacities, was surely a constructive step in this regard.22 But we need to do much more along these lines. The modest expense entailed in mounting a regular programme of unofficial Canada-United States meetings, in which senior representatives from each side could exchange views on arctic issues in an off-the-record environment, would be dwarfed by the resultant gains toward meeting the arctic challenge to the "special relationship". Additionally, we must do a better job in arranging for actual exchanges of individuals interested in arctic issues between the two countries. Though informal contact is extensive, the two countries do not currently have any formal exchange arrangements, even for arctic scientists; yet, both Canada and the United States have developed formal exchange agreements with the Soviet Union in this realm.23 Moreover, even informal exchanges between the two countries are not impressive when it comes to individuals whose interests lie primarily in the field of public policy. For example, it is inexcusable that those working in Alaska know so little about contemporary developments in the Canadian North and that those working in northern Canada are so poorly informed about developments in Alaska.

 Once these steps are taken, it will become apparent that there is considerable scope for the development of bilateral or even multilateral regimes to enhance co-operation without triggering extreme sensitivities relating to arctic sovereignty and security. Although different from the arctic situation in a number of important respects, the development of a successful international regime for Antarctica does illustrate the possibilities of devising co-operative management arrangements without prejudicing claims to sovereignty when there is a will to do so.24 Much the same can be said of the international regime governing the Svalbard archipelago, an arrangement that has survived major changes in economic and political conditions since it was negotiated in 1920.

 What is more, an array of concrete problems in the Arctic currently demands co-operation at the international level. The recent collapse of world energy markets may well give us a temporary respite from pressures to devise a suitable regime to regulate commercial shipping in arctic waters, but transboundary environmental problems, like arctic haze and the buildup of carbon dioxide, increasingly demand co-operation among the arctic rim states. The movement of renewable resources, such as whales, seals, and caribou, across national boundaries in the Arctic makes international cooperation imperative to protect these resources as they experience heavy human usage or threats from environmental disturbances. And many of the pressing concerns of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic can only be addressed properly if arctic rim states like Canada, Denmark-Greenland, and the United States initiate more extensive dialogue among themselves in an effort to co-ordinate their responses to arctic issues.

 Some of these specific problems will not wait patiently while Canada and the United States engage in protracted efforts to arrive at the perfect solution to their differences regarding security and sovereignty in the Arctic. The bowhead whale may be threatened by offshore development, and caribou herds by onshore development, whether or not Canadian and U.S. representatives can reach agreement on the jurisdictional status of the Northwest Passage and the waters of the arctic archipelago or come to terms on the maritime boundary between the two countries in the Beaufort Sea. Therefore, let us embrace the recommendation of the Special Joint Committee on Canada's International Relations and proceed with the formation of cooperative regimes to address specific problems in the Arctic.25 We could begin by finalizing the proposed agreement covering the Porcupine caribou herd, working out co-ordinated arrangements to protect the bowhead whale throughout the Beaufort Sea, or assessing the extent to which the 1983 marine environmental agreement between Canada and Denmark- Greenland could serve as a model in dealing with certain Canadian U.S. issues in the Arctic.26 In the process, we might well discover that the newly emerging conflicts over security and sovereignty in the Arctic would begin to fade into the background of Canada-United States relations and that the "special relationship" would prove fully capable of meeting the arctic challenge.


Oran Young is Senior Fellow of the Center for Northern Studies at Wolcott, Vermont.





1. Oran. K. Young ``The Age of the .Arctic". Foreign Policy, 61 (Winter 1985-1986). pp. 160 79: and R.B. Byers and Michael Slack eds. Strategy and the Arctic (Toronto: Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, 1986).

 2. John Kirton. "Beyond Bilateralism: United States-Canadian Cooperation in the Arctic", in William E. Westermeyer and Kurt M Shusterich, eds., United States Arctic Interests: The 1980s and 1990s (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1984),p.308.

"In This Issue..."