EDMONTON -- In a time when Canada's foreign and defence policies under the Harper government are constantly under fire, it is interesting to see the reactions to, and justifications for, Canada's impending chairmanship of the Arctic Council. This is the second time Canada has held the chair position of the council, but this time somehow seems to be different.
Observers of Canadian foreign and defence policies since Stephen Harper was elected in 2006 have been heavily critical of the Canadian government's distinct shift away from multilateralism and participation in international organizations.
Historically, Canada's role as a middle power has been contingent upon being an active member of institutions aimed at collective security and relationships with larger powers. Due to Canada's limited capabilities in comparison to great powers internationally, the multilateralist tradition in Canadian foreign relations has provided enhanced opportunities for national security, but has also provided multiple settings for Canada to project its values on the world stage.
Many Canadians are familiar with the important role Canada played in facilitating what became known as peacekeeping missions starting with the 1956 Suez Crisis, and Canada has typically done its part through organizations like NATO or the United Nations to engage in peacekeeping deployments since that time.
Canada's multilateral tradition was held in particularly high esteem during the Chr©tien years, seen quite evidently through work on landmines culminating in the Ottawa Treaty, Canada's role in Afghanistan justified under collective security provisions of both NATO and the UN, and also, in 2003, when Canada refused to join the Coalition of the Willing in its ill-fated intervention in Iraq because the UN Security Council refused to endorse the mission.
In Jean Chr©tien's later years as prime minister, he and then-foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy sponsored the writing and publication of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which radically sought to shift well-entrenched ideas such as national sovereignty, security and humanitarian intervention globally (though it is essential to note that neither Chr©tien nor his successor Paul Martin ever actually implemented the doctrine).
Immediately upon taking office, Harper was accused of being responsible for damaging Canada's multilateralist tradition, as he virtually gave up Canada's bid for a UN Security Council seat, altered Canada's behaviour at the UN with notable walkouts of speeches, drastically reduced foreign-aid spending, and had seemingly no interest in climate-change efforts.
In 2008, Harper released the defence strategy known as Canada First, which favoured national security and Canada's domestic interests over institutional binding agreements. Throughout the campaign in 2006, and in the time since, the Harper government has given considerable lip service to Canada's Arctic interests, and the need to assert our claims in the High North as part of that Canada First mentality.
To date, however, the rhetoric about Canada's role in the Arctic has not been met with the necessary actions that would be required to actually protect Canada's Arctic claims. While other Arctic states, mostly notably Russia, Norway and Denmark, have committed resources to protect their Arctic claims and national sovereignty, Canada has lagged behind, despite promises of ice breakers, fighter jets, naval vessels and development funding.
Which brings us back to the Arctic Council. It is readily evident that Canada's desire to chair the council at this time has more to do with finding new ways of showing leadership and strength in the Arctic, as other promises have fallen short. Employing a multilateralist approach and making use of the council is a clever way for a capabilities-limited nation to maintain its place as an Arctic state without being seen as weak.
The Arctic Council is a good place for dialogue, but without the mandate to discuss military security issues, it becomes almost irrelevant to the realities of Arctic politics.
Multilateralism is a positive step for Canada to protect its national interests, but this strategy should be coupled with living up to the promises Harper has made to bolster the resources necessary for Canada to be a strong and vibrant leader in the circumpolar community.
Robert W. Murray is an adjunct professor of political science in the department of political science at the University of Alberta.