By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally warned NATO’s secretary general to keep the alliance out of the Arctic or risk increasing tensions with Russia, according to “confidential” U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by APTN National News that also reveal American diplomats believe the prime minister is more bark than bite on northern sovereignty.
During a Jan. 13, 2010, chat following an Ottawa lunch session, Harper “cautioned” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that the alliance had no “role” in the Arctic and warned continued attempts by some member nations to involve NATO in the region would increase tensions with Russia, one cable said.
Harper told Rasmussen that the push for NATO’s involvement in the Arctic was coming from nations who wanted to exert their influence in a region where “they don’t belong,” the cable said.
Climate change induced thawing of the Arctic has triggered speculation that a scramble by nations to get a piece of the resource-rich region could lead to conflict, requiring NATO involvement.
A separate cable on the Harper government’s Arctic focus, however, concluded that the prime minister’s strong Arctic sovereignty rhetoric was purely for domestic political purposes since it was rarely followed by concrete action. The same cable also said Canada could do little to assert its interests in the Arctic without U.S. help.
APTN National News obtained hundreds of confidential and secret U.S. diplomatic cables from whistle-blower website WikiLeaks.
CBC-Radio Canada also obtained the same batch of cables.
WikiLeaks also recently dumped over 2,000 unclassified diplomatic cables on its website.
A gathering of Arctic Council member countries is set to begin Thursday in Nuuk, Greenland. Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark are scheduled to meet and sign an international search-and-rescue treaty and see Sweden take over as council chair. Canada will take over the chair in 2013.
Canada will be represented by Nunavut Conservative MP Leona Aglukkaq, who was health minister in the previous Harper government, in place of defeated former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also expected to attend.
Harper sees the Arctic Council, which is not geared for military matters, as the primary vehicle to deal with issues between Arctic-bordering nations, according to the cable describing Harper’s conversation with Rasmussen.
“PM Harper contended that it is not like Antarctic, in that the Arctic is inhabited and largely delineated by defined national territory,” the Jan. 20, 2010 cable said. “It should not be a center for future conflict; practical issues such as search and rescue are addressed by the Arctic Council.”
Harper said he doubted Arctic-bordering nations would ever engage in a shooting war, according to the cable.
He said the push for NATO involvement in the region was coming from alliance members who were acting in their own interest to exert influence in a place far from their current reach, according to the cable.
“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,’” the cable said.
Robert Huebert, University of Calgary’s associate director of military and strategic studies, said Harper was either alluding to the European Union’s Arctic ambitions or France and Britain.
“Really, he is referring to the EU, that is my reading…he is doing multi-level diplomacy, letting people know he is pissed off with them,” said Huebert, one of the leading experts on Canadian Arctic security and sovereignty. “If not, then probably the French…the British have also been pretty assertive, but not to same degree as the French.”
The EU has tried and failed to get permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, and will likely make another attempt during the latest meeting, said Huebert. China is also looking at permanent observer status.
“I don’t see the Canadians seeing any upside to having increased European participation. There are enough Europeans that have the Arctic border,” said Huebert. “The Europeans and the EU, as it develops its Arctic policies, are increasingly in opposition to Canadian interests.”
The thawing Arctic and the gradual opening up of the Northwest Passage will allow easier access to previously unreachable resources and senior NATO officials, including former secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, have said this could force NATO to play a role.
Last October, Adm. James Stavridis, supreme NATO allied commander for Europe, told the Guardian that the thawing of the Arctic could lead to conflict.
His comments came as academics gathered for a NATO-sponsored conference on “Environmental Security in the Arctic Ocean” at Cambridge University, which Huebert also attended.
Much of NATO’s Arctic-conflict musings swirl around Russia’s stake in the region amid a looming dash for resources.
Harper told Rasmussen that he did not believe that Russia had any claim to a “sphere of influence,” but that it was important NATO keep an “open door” policy, the cable said.
Harper also told Rasmussen that Canada had a “good working relationship” with Russia on the Arctic, and NATO would just make things worse.
“According to PM Harper… a NATO presence could backfire by exacerbating tensions,” the cable said.
In a separate cable, sent a day after the cable outlining the Harper’s discussion with Rasmussen, U.S. ambassador David Jacobson wrote that the prime minister’s rhetoric on “Arctic sovereignty” was little more than talk and primarily aimed at attracting votes.
Tracing the birth of the use of the Arctic as a handy political weapon to former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin’s dust-up with Denmark over Hans Island, Jacobson wrote that Harper has consistently used it as a campaign issue.
“The persistent high public profile which this government has accorded ‘Northern Issues’ and the Arctic is, however, unprecedented and reflects the PM’s views that ‘the North has never been more important to our country,’ although, one could perhaps paraphrase to state ‘the North has never been more important to our Party,’” wrote Jacobson, in the Jan. 21, 2010 cable.
Jacobson also notes that some of Harper’s more big ticket, 2006 election promises on the Arctic, such as the armed ice breaker and underwater ocean sensors, have yet to come to fruition. He speculates that this likely reveals a gap between words and actual intentions.
“That the PM’s public stance on the Arctic may not reflect his private, perhaps more pragmatic, priorities, however, was evident in 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 said.
Huebert said the government could be making a decision on the ocean sensors as early as this summer.
Jacobson goes on to write that Canada has little leverage anyway on the Arctic without the American’s backing.
“Canada places great import on its Arctic partnership with the United States…Not only is that partnership materially significant for Canada, which benefits greatly from American resources invested in Arctic science and in defense infrastructure, but also Canada has much to gain from leveraging the status and standing of the United States,” the cable said.
“If the two countries can find bilateral common-ground…the chance for Canadian success is much greater than going it alone against the interests of other countries or groups of countries.”
Huebert said Canada needs to increase its investment in the Arctic if it wants to avoid being seen as a “paper tiger” by the Americans and the world community.
“If Canada is going to say that Canada has control of the Arctic, you have to have the ability to back it up,” he said.