Canadian Arctic Security Issues: Transformation in the Post-Cold War Era

By Huebert, Rob | International Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Canadian Arctic Security Issues: Transformation in the Post-Cold War Era


Huebert, Rob, International Journal


THE CIRCUMPOLAR NORTH IS undergoing unprecedented transformation. Changes at both local and international levels are altering the very fabric of all northern societies. Much of the change can be attributed to the end of the cold war, which had frozen international relations among the circumpolar antagonists - the United States, the USSR, Canada, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway - the two northern neutrals - Finland and Sweden - and the northern societies within each. In particular, security concerns prevented the development of any meaningful international co-operation, except, for some, as military allies. With the fall of the Soviet empire, northern areas have attained greater political, if not economic, control over their future. Likewise, the possibility of nuclear war has greatly diminished. However, while there has been a marked decrease in the perception of the military threat, little, if any, attention has been given to the evolving nature of security in the circumpolar world. Although there is a growing consensus that the states in the Arctic region are moving away from a traditional understanding of security, few attempts have been made to conceptualize a more comprehensive variant.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that neither the United States nor Russia has abandoned all of their traditional security concerns in the north, and neither has indicated a willingness to do so in the foreseeable future. For example, the Americans agreed to join the recently formed Arctic Council only if the agreement specifically omitted any security issues. Likewise, the Russians are still testing missiles from their nuclear-powered and armed submarines uncomfortably close to Canadian waters (500 kilometers off Ellesmere Island).

The changing conceptualization of security in the post-cold war era adds further complexity. While some experts contend that traditional military issues are still the core concerns among states,(f.1) others seek to expand both the understanding of the nature of security and the issues associated with it.(f.2) Even before the cold war ended, some argued that it was necessary to look beyond military threats to such issues as terrorism, illegal immigration, resource based conflict, and environmental degradation in the context of national security.(f.3) Others thought that it was also necessary to eliminate traditional military rivalries by developing comprehensive security. While there is no consensus on what constitutes comprehensive security, its general elements include an expanded concept of threats to the national security concerns of a state and its peoples and a belief that the best means of reducing those threats is through co-operative international behaviour.

The Canadian government has expressed a desire for an Arctic foreign policy that emphasizes comprehensive security over traditional military security.(f.4) In particular, it would like to use concerns about transboundary environmental threats in the Arctic to develop stronger international co-operation. Yet, there continues to be a more subtle recognition that traditional military issues remain. My purpose here is to assess how Canadian circumpolar activity in the post-cold war era has reacted to the opportunities, tensions, and problems posed by international environmental transboundary problems and traditional military requirements.

CIRCUMPOLAR SECURITY

The cold war

The Arctic became one of the most militarized regions during the cold war, in the early days of which both sides developed long-range bombers as their main delivery system for nuclear weapons. This meant that both sides also placed defensive measures such as radar surveillance and interceptors as far into their northern territories as possible. As technology advanced, the preferred means of delivery became inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). While the speed and range of ICBMs were fundamentally better than the bomber, the shortest path of delivery was still over the Arctic. …

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