Arctic Ocean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting: Reactions

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On March 29, Canada hosted a closed-door ministerial meeting in Chelsea, Quebec attended by the five Arctic littoral states. Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the U.S. came, having been invited by Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon. One of the biggest headlines in the run-up to the event, and now in its aftermath, however, concerned who wasn’t in attendance: namely Finland, Iceland, and Sweden, indigenous groups, and NGOs. Conversely, all of these stakeholders are present in one form or another in the Arctic Council.

The Chair’s Summary of the meeting is available online at Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International
Trade, yet not many other substantive reports have come out of the meeting, since it was closed-door. According to the Chair’s Summary, the Arctic Five renewed their commitments to the May 2008 Ilulissat Declaration (PDF), which alleges that there is “no need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean.” Instead, the five countries value national sovereignty in the Arctic. In that spirit, at the meeting, the attendees underscored the need for a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, as this would best enable each country to draw permanent borders around its resources in the Arctic.

The ministers touched upon the importance of international cooperation in areas such as maritime search and rescue (SAR), as this is an area in which the littoral states probably have the most concern. They noted that they are working with the Arctic Council to develop a binding SAR agreement and the International Maritime Organization to develop an Arctic shipping regime. Yet interestingly, the following quote from the report demonstrates the extent to which national sovereignty, law, and government dominate the conversation about the Arctic:

We discussed the value of having our national agencies responsible for public safety issues consider these and other potential challenges in the Arctic and explore ways Arctic Ocean coastal states can share
information and strengthen cooperation, consistent with national law.

It is national law – not international laws or treaties – which is the underlying principle at work for the Arctic Five. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department authored this summary, and Canada is one of the foremost (and most aggressive) champions of national sovereignty in the Arctic.

Reactions to the Meeting

Not all of the other Arctic Five ministers, however, are as keen on such ideas, regardless of the fact that they still attended Cannon’s exclusive meeting. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton indirectly criticized Harper for failing to invite other Arctic stakeholders like NGOs and indigenous groups. She read from a statement,

“Significant international discussions on Arctic issues should include those who have legitimate interests in the region. And I hope the Arctic will always showcase our ability to work together, not create new divisions.”

Clinton’s position reflects the Obama administration’s more open diplomatic style. Were Condoleeza Rice to have attended this meeting during the Bush administration, she may have very well sided with Cannon. After all, a mere 11 days before leaving office, the Bush White House released National Security Directive 66 on American policy in the Arctic. In it, national security, sovereignty, and freedom of the seas are the dominant themes.

Clinton ended up leaving the summit before the news conference took place. She was interviewed by CTV on March 29, and her remarks are quite interesting. They are available on the Department of State’s website if you scroll down towards the middle of the page. Clinton is asked whether the U.S. would recognize “Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, say, in exchange for joint management of that water right.” She says, “I think that’s what we’re beginning to discuss seriously,” yet she then proceeds to skirt the question. Clinton also agrees that the Arctic is “moving up the chain of [American] concerns.” When prodded about the possibility of a new arms race in the Arctic, Clinton says “that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

In the end, Clinton says that the meeting was “excellent.” Yet in the blogosphere, others were deriding it.

John Baglow, a blogger for the National Post, wrote:

The Chelsea meeting was great-power chauvinism of the worst kind, a throwback to the Western “spheres of influence” in China, an unpleasant colonialist echo of the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-5 when Africa was parceled out to European colonizing nations.

This may be a bit of a hyperbole, but try telling this to the three Arctic states and numerous indigenous groups who were left out in the cold. Finnish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anna-Maria Liukko stated,

“We are worried that it might harm the role of the Arctic Council as a vehicle of trans-Atlantic and circumpolar cooperation.”

News links

“Media has a week of field days as Clinton shows Harper what real opposition looks like,” Toronto Life

“Nordic nations criticize Canada for Arctic snub,” AP

“Straight talk from Clinton was no smackdown,” The Globe & Mail

Lawrence Cannon’s televised speech, CTV (Video)

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