Polar Conversations: Defining a Democratic Northern Foreign Policy: ... Where Once the DEW Line Stood ... a New Challenge Has Come

By Bocking, Stephen; Keeble, Edna | Behind the Headlines, December-March 1998 | Go to article overview

Polar Conversations: Defining a Democratic Northern Foreign Policy: ... Where Once the DEW Line Stood ... a New Challenge Has Come


Bocking, Stephen, Keeble, Edna, Behind the Headlines


In the Arctic, appearances can deceive. One may walk for weeks and not encounter another soul, on a landscape apparently untouched by humans. But a visitor might also perceive the traces of long habitation if she met Inuit with a deep knowledge of the landscape, accumulated through generations of life upon it; or if she found Inuksuit - stones assembled in human-like form - that for centuries have helped northerners find their way across their homeland. And evidence is accumulating of other human traces: persistent contaminants from the south, that with global warming and other environmental changes suggest that contemporary Arctic challenges have no borders.

That Arctic challenges are international was also evident on 17 September 1998, when Canada's foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, released `Towards a Northern Foreign Policy for Canada.' The paper took stock of Canada's Arctic interests, identified the goals Canada would like to achieve in its relations with its circumpolar neighbours, and expressed a commitment to pursuing these interests and goals.

The paper also identified a central feature of these relations: the diversity of Canada's northern interests. From the environment to sustainable development, from cultural and social renewal in northern communities to Arctic security, northern foreign policy concerns mirror the complexity of northern Canada. But the paper neglected another, equally significant, aspect of northern affairs: the diversity of processes by which northern interests are already being defined and expressed. Accordingly, we hope that the paper is just the beginning of a renewed interest in the process of northern foreign policy. Roundtables on Arctic issues currently being organized by the Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development (CCFPD), in partnership with the Circumpolar Affairs ambassador, Mary Simon, are a promising start.

It is often forgotten that Canada has northern as well as transatlantic, transpacific, and hemispheric neighbours. Here, too, Canada is committed to multilateral institutions. Canada took the lead in establishing the Arctic Council in September 1996 and acted as the organization's first chair or `host country.' In September 1998, the position of chair of the Arctic Council was passed to the United States for the next two years.

At the first ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, hosted by Axworthy in Iqaluit in September 1998, the American representative was Wendy Sherman, a State Department counselor. Sherman conveyed the commitment of President Bill Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore, and Secretary of State Madeline Albright to environmental protection and sustainable development in the Arctic. But it remains to be seen what role the Americans will play in strengthening co-operation among the eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States), the four `permanent participants' (the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Saami Council, the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation, and, most recently, the Aleut International Association), and a host of state and organizational `observers.' Sherman indicated, at least, that the US would encourage co-ordinated efforts between the Arctic Council and the Northeast Europe Initiative (NEI) launched by the United States, the Nordic and Baltic states, Germany, and Russia in 1997.

However, Canadian leadership and initiative cannot be allowed to end with its tenure as chair of the Council. Given the reality of other international organizations and foreign policy interests competing for the government's attention, it is even more imperative that a document outlining Canada's northern foreign policy be well-grounded, carefully reasoned, and sustainable.

Northern foreign policy provides not only challenges (not least, that of attracting the attention of governments in southern Canada), but also an opportunity to advance innovative approaches to the conduct of foreign policy generally. …

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