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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, second from right, stands on an iceberg as he talks with Chief of the Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk (centre) as they take part in a training exercise during Operation Nanook in Resolute, Nunavut on the third day of his five-day northern tour to Canada's Arctic on Wednesday Aug. 25, 2010. The Canadian Coast Guard's medium icebreaker Henry Larsen is seen in Allen Bay.

Despite the military photo ops and defiant words aimed at the Russian Bear in the Far North, U.S. diplomatic cables indicate that Stephen Harper doesn't believe there's a threat of military conflict there: He told NATO it is not wanted in the Arctic because there's no likelihood of war.

The cables, released by website WikiLeaks, indicate that the U.S. embassy in Washington saw much of the Conservative government's aggressive public statements on the Arctic as a partisan strategy to win votes rather than substantive government policies. In private, the cables indicate, Mr. Harper was more "pragmatic."

The massive potential for oil and gas discoveries in the Arctic has countries scrambling for offshore turf, but those claims are largely being settled by United Nations legal arbitration. Nonetheless, Mr. Harper's government has often hinted at potential military encroachment by Russia and stressed the need for beefed-up military hardware to defend the Arctic.

One cable drafted by U.S. diplomats in Ottawa portrays Mr. Harper as dismissing the need for a military response to Russia over the Arctic. It includes an account from a Canadian official of a January, 2010, meeting between Mr. Harper and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in which the PM said NATO has no role in the Arctic.

"According to PM Harper, Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic, and a NATO presence could backfire by exacerbating tensions," the cable states.

"He commented that there is no likelihood of Arctic states going to war, but that some non-Arctic members favoured a NATO role in the Arctic because it would afford them influence in an area where 'they don't belong.' "

That contradicts the Conservatives' frequent calls for more military tools to defend the Arctic, sometimes accompanied by bellicose rhetoric.

Last July, Defence Minister Peter MacKay claimed Canadian CF-18s repelled Cold War-era Russian bombers flying near Canadian airspace, and the Conservatives quickly sent their MPs "talking points" that said the incident showed Canada needs new F-35 stealth fighters. In February, 2009, Mr. Harper rebuked Russia publicly for "incursions." And a month later, then foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon responded to Russia's military operations in its own Arctic territory with a warning: "Canada will not be bullied."

Mr. Harper tours the Territories every summer, has a penchant for showing off the country's military equipment - such as visiting a frigate off Baffin Island with Mr. McKay in 2009 while fighter jets flew around overhead - and has frequently promised development of the sparsely populated region, pledging during the election campaign to build a highway to Tuktoyaktuk.

And there's a populist reason to take such stands: Although defence experts often dismiss the idea that Canada's Arctic is actually under foreign threat, many Canadians seem to think it is. A 2009 Environics survey found that 60 per cent of people living north of the 60th parallel (and 52 per cent of those south of it) believe there is a security or sovereignty threat to the northern border.

Tough talk on the Arctic also reinforces the Tories' embrace of drum-beating nationalism, which also includes celebrating the country's mission in Afghanistan.

Mr. Harper's communications director, Dimitri Soudas, said he would not comment on leaked U.S. cables.

"I don't think there has been any suggestion by our government or, quite frankly, any other country that is adjacent to the Arctic that there is a question of war. The question here is territorial sovereignty," he said. "It's being present."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the Conservatives cannot claim they never raised the spectre of Arctic military conflict. "This was a pile of politics and not necessarily good policy being displayed," he said.

The release of the cables came as the Arctic Council - which includes Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland - signed its first legally binding treaty to divide responsibilities for search-and-rescue activities in the Arctic. The deal sets aside the trickier questions of territorial claims to provide for legally entrenched functional co-operation.

Mr. Harper's government has viewed that body as the forum for Arctic co-operation. But his assertion that NATO allies don't belong in the Arctic underlines a point of policy on which Canada and Russia agree: that the region belongs to the countries that border it, and is not a shared territory like the Antarctic. "The question is whether it's a global commons. The Canadian government's answer is no," said Janice Stein, director of the Munk Centre for Global Affairs.

But the U.S. diplomatic cables express skepticism about whether Canadian Arctic policies live up to the Harper government's rhetoric.

A 2009 cable on Canada's defence policy describes the plan to build six Arctic Patrol ships for the navy as "an example of a requirement driven by political rather than military imperatives, since the navy did not request these patrol ships. The Conservatives have nonetheless long found domestic political capital in asserting Canada's 'Arctic Sovereignty.' "

Another 2010 cable described some of the Harper government's early "frosty rhetoric" aimed at the U.S. over the Arctic, but added "thus far, the government's ardour for the 'North' has translated only into a modest array of actions that have an impact on American and other foreign interests …" Mr. Harper's tone was less pointed in private, the memo says.

"That the PM's public stance on the Arctic may not reflect his private, perhaps more pragmatic, priorities, however, was evident in the fact that during several hours together with Ambassador Jacobson on January 7 and 8, which featured long and wide-ranging conversations, the PM did not once mention the Arctic," the cable states.

Doubting Harper

Stephen Harper liked to say early in his tenure that his government was bringing Canada back to the world stage with a more muscular military, using the slogan: "Canada is back."

U.S. diplomats have their doubts.

The U.S. embassy sent a skeptical assessment home to Washington in a 2010 cable entitled "Canada is back - or is it?"

The cable reports that Mr. Harper's big plans, first articulated in the 2006 campaign, for transforming the Canadian Forces to increase Canada's influence on world affairs are likely to fall short because of budget constraints, and that Canada's role in the world will likely be diminished because Ottawa will focus the Forces closer to home.

The Canada First Defence Strategy, released in 2008, led to some increases in military capability, the U.S. diplomats reported to Washington. But they said the Forces were "severely stretched," and the strategy, based on 20 years of increasing military budgets, was likely to be unsustainable.

"PM Harper has set an assertive course for Canadian foreign policy, declaring that 'Canada is back' on the world scene. However, his ambitions for Canada may exceed his grasp …" the cable said.

"The effect is likely to be that military resources will be redirected, defending 'sovereignty' in the Arctic and other Canadian interests, at the expense of future post-Afghanistan expeditionary missions," the embassy warned. "Senior Canadian military officials ... have already begun to express concern at a likely loss of Canada's influence with the U.S. and NATO after the end of Canada's Afghanistan mission, but so far this concern does not appear to be on the Prime Minister's or the Conservative Party's radar scope."