It is not every day that a Nato secretary-general makes a visit to Canada. Indeed, the visit last week by Jens Stoltenberg was the first since he took over as the alliance’s leader in 2014. Rarer still is a visit to the country’s North; in fact, it had never happened until Mr Stoltenberg called on Cambridge Bay, in Nunavut, with a message that Canada’s North is Nato’s North.
“The Arctic,” Mr Stoltenberg wrote in a message to Canadians published by the Globe and Mail, a news outlet, on 24 August, “is the gateway to the North Atlantic, hosting vital trade, transport and communication links between North America and Europe.” During his appearances, he also repeated the Soviet-era saw that the most direct route for missiles being fired from Russia to North America is over the North Pole, thus underscoring that, as the alliance’s northern border, Canada has crucial role.
That Mr Stoltenberg must remind Canadians of where their North fits in in the big strategic picture is not because their country is a military slouch: to be sure, the 1.4% of national income it spends on defence falls short of the alliance’s 2% target, but it is in line with what other members spend, and lawmakers have agreed to increase budgets in the coming years. Nor is Ottawa blind to the potential threat posed by Russia to Europe’s Northern reaches or to its own: Canada was the first to approve Swedish and Finnish accession to the alliance, Ottawa has built new ships to patrol the Arctic, and Mr Stoltenberg’s visit was timed to coincide with Operation Nanook-Nunakput, one of a number of annual training missions the Canadian military holds — often, as is the case with the current operation, with the participation of alliance members.
Canada, though, has typically taken a Canada-first approach to defending its North, using training missions as a way to stress its national-defence capabilities, and as a show of sovereignty. Such attitudes are not tolerated at time when Nato is keen to show that it has a unified front against Russia.
In contrast, Mr Stoltenberg pointed out, Norway (coincidentally, his home country) has hosted two of Nato’s largest exercises in recent years — Trident Juncture and Cold Response; both were placed in the North and both were emphasised as joint-training missions that tested how well Nato forces would be able to work together in the event they were called on to live up to their collective-defence obligation.
But if Mr Stoltenberg’s message, both before and after he arrived, was an encouraging reminder to Canadians of their importance to Nato, it was also a statement of fact: Nato feels threatened by what Russia is doing in its North, and by its mostly friendly ties with China. Whether Canada likes it or not (and, so far, it has not) the Arctic will increasing be factored into Nato strategy.
Ironically, it may not be Russia, but America and Canada’s other Nato allies that are preventing it from committing itself fully to collective defence of the North. Canada would prefer to limit how much of a say non-Arctic countries have in the region. Ottawa it is not unique in holding this position; other Arctic capitals are just as protective of their interests there. But Ottawa has always been keen to avoid opening a discussion about whether, as it claims, the Northwest Passages are an internal waterway that it has the right to limit access to, or as others, like the US, claim, that they are international waters where they can sail freely. Ottawa may agree with Mr Stoltenberg that the Arctic is indeed a gateway the North Atlantic, but it does not want Nato to be other countries’ gateway the Northwest Passages.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
Featured image: Nato
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