Breaking the Ice: Canada, the Arctic, and the New World Order


  • Kyle Friesen


In October of 1987, then-leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, launched efforts to transform the highly militarized Arctic into a “zone of peace.” After the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the threat of nuclear exchange over the Arctic an increasingly unlikely event, the securitized focus on the Arctic North began to shift elsewhere, with concerns in the region becoming far less of a priority. Approximately thirty-five years later, this trend is now reversing. The world is now witnessing a shift away from post-Cold War American unipolarity, with so-called ‘rising powers’ presenting a challenge to American dominance. This challenge manifests itself not only globally, but also in regional politics, dragging local medium and small powers into the fray. The Arctic is no exception to this. Interest in the natural resources, shipping lanes, and strategic significance of the circumpolar Arctic has grown significantly in recent years, and as climate change continues to make this region more accessible, such interest seems poised only to grow in the future. Certainly, the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, and the United States of America have all demonstrated their interest in the potentials of this region.

It is within this context of an uncertain and uncharted international reality that Canada finds itself in the centre of what appears to be an impending clash between untested giants in the middle of its Arctic backyard. Canada no longer merely sleeps beside an American elephant, as former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once commented, but also a Chinese tiger and a Russian bear. As a medium power, Canada cannot hope to counterbalance these great powers in the Arctic. Therefore, Canada must, in line with Neoliberal Institutionalism, use international institutions to build on the potential for cooperation in the midst of Arctic discord. Though the region may seem primed for conflict, space for cooperation between these states does exist and can be reinforced. In particular, Canada must use the Arctic Council to encourage deeper cooperation in this ‘multipolar’ Arctic, and thereby develop the regional governance and stability that all regional powers desire. The Arctic Council, despite being a young and largely informal organization whose founding and permanent members only consist of all eight sovereign states with Arctic territory (thus not China), can nevertheless be effectively mobilized for this purpose. While the Nordic states also have a role to play in this, the focus here will be on locating Canada’s place in the Arctic of the ‘New World Order.’ This article will thus proceed by outlining the core interests of Canada, China, Russia, and US in the Arctic, and assessing the intersection of these interests. It will then explore the Neoliberal Institutionalist position, review the structure of the Arctic Council, and finally demonstrate how the Arctic Council can be used to facilitate further cooperation and develop more robust regional governance in the Arctic.