John Higginbotham is a senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University and head of the Arctic program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
The United States has put a polar bear among the seals in Arctic diplomatic waters with its announcement that Secretary of State John Kerry will host an unprecedented foreign ministers' conference on the Arctic at the end of the month. At the gathering in Anchorage, Alaska, President Barack Obama is expected to spell out his "American Arctic" vision.
This U.S. initiative raises some issues, as well as opportunities, for Canada. The first sensitivity for Canada is that the conference, with its global focus and attendees, is not sponsored by the Arctic Council, of which the United States is the current chair. The meeting leapfrogs the Arctic Council's delicate regional governance architecture: eight Arctic member states, formal and empowered indigenous permanent participants, and a number of observer states.
While not a formal or powerful international institution, the Arctic Council has been the unchallenged regional forum for official discussion of Arctic issues for 20 years. One of Canada's claims to Arctic leadership is that it was a founder and keeper of the Arctic Council.
Now Mr. Kerry has invited to Anchorage the foreign ministers of 20 countries and organizations – the European Union, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Spain, United Kingdom, South Korea, in addition to the eight Arctic Council member states – to discuss Arctic challenges. Many countries have been unhappy about their modest role as Arctic Council observers, given their growing scientific, economic, and climate-change interests and activities in the ice-diminishing Arctic.
A second complication is the light this gathering casts on Canada's efforts to keep its own Arctic Council priorities alive through the U.S. chair. Prospects are not bright.
As council chair from 2013 until earlier this year, Canada's priorities emphasized responsible economic development for the people of the Arctic, while maintaining the council's traditional environmental and scientific focus. Canada's signature initiative was launching a private-sector Arctic economic council made up of Arctic Council member-state nominees; this is still at an early stage of development.
While Canada and the United States agree on most Arctic issues, Washington has signalled that its Arctic Council agenda over the next two years will be global, oceanic and ambitious, and linked to Mr. Obama's multifaceted climate-change agenda. The Anchorage gathering is intended to engage countries excluded from the Arctic Council and build political will toward a strong climate-change plan at the Paris climate conference in December.
Canada and the United States disagree about the weight to be given to Arctic economic opportunity and environmental risks (both countries are split internally on this issue), and also disagree on how much the Arctic should be insulated from geopolitical tensions elsewhere, and on how influential aboriginal and Arctic inhabitants should be on Arctic issues.
Key questions remain as to what will happen during and after the Arctic conference. Who will attend? Will it be be a one-off symbolic event, driven by Mr. Obama's domestic-legacy needs and by the fact that neither he nor Mr. Kerry will be in office when the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council ends in 2017? Or will the foreign ministers explore broader Arctic governance and economic development issues? Will some Arctic and non-Arctic countries find the "A20" a useful grouping reflecting new global realities, just as the Group of Eight became the G20?
Whatever happens, the call for a summit meeting signals a strong, new and welcome U.S. focus on the Arctic. It is in Canada's interest that its geographic neighbour, closest partner and ally has woken up to changes taking place in the Arctic and is unfolding a comprehensive national Arctic policy that goes well beyond climate change.
Canada is an indispensable Arctic partner to the United States for reasons of continental and polar geopolitics. It will soon be time to open a wide-ranging, high-level dialogue with Washington about Arctic futures. The new U.S. interest in this region offers important opportunities for bilateral co-operation and harmonization. Canada will have to be agile, flexible and outward-looking to keep ahead of changing Arctic pressures and players.