By Robert W. Murray and Anita Dey Nuttall
Canadians care about the Arctic. But they also care about defending Canada’s sovereignty the old-fashioned way. The extent of public support for traditional views about territorial integrity and national defence should give us pause as we debate about the meaning of security in a globalized world.
When international relations scholars, idealistic policy makers and international institutions define security in the post-Cold War world, they usually talk about human security, human rights, environmentalism, poverty and underdevelopment, economic security and so on. Rarely do such idealists give much attention, or credence, to traditional views of national security
There are many reasons for this shift in the academic and policy-related discussion of security, including the changes to the international system in the wake of the Cold War, modern globalization trends, new weight attached to humanitarian crises, and the reinvention of international organizations with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of East-West tension. By contrast, popular responses to sovereignty issues often seem to centre more on the traditional meaning of security, where effective armed forces are an essential part of protecting sovereignty over territory, and to resolving conflicts between countries.
Consider a recent poll by the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto that compared opinions in eight Arctic nations. The first finding, that popular Canadian support for circumpolar sovereignty was almost unanimous, might seem unsurprising. After all, the Harper government has conducted an aggressive media and public relations campaign over Arctic sovereignty and security, asserting our position and identity not just as an Arctic country, but as a circumpolar power and key player in international discussion about the world’s Arctic regions. And extensive discussions of climate change and its impact on the resource potential of Canada’s north and the possible opening of the Northwest Passage has certainly increased awareness of the Arctic. But government PR campaigns and press attention can only take a story so far unless it resonates with the public.
The second finding from the Munk School survey released in January 2011 carries an important lesson that while aspirational concepts like human rights enforcement are essential to discuss, people and states have not forgotten about the traditional idea of national security and sovereignty. That means idealistic thinkers must not forget them either.
Arctic security is going to be very important in the near, and distant, future, to states and to the people within them. And it is a key point of intersection between modern and traditional concepts of security. Clearly the more global side of security requires us to highlight the environmental, social and cultural elements of any discussion of Arctic sovereignty. But central to Canada’s assertion of sovereignty in the North is our ability to use our armed forces to protect and patrol the region.
Whether the government’s attempt to assert our sovereignty will succeed on the international scene is an open question. But there is no doubt that its rhetoric is resonating with the public. Canadians across the country favor securing our nation’s vast circumpolar region for Canada and doing it chiefly through traditional means. Those who would make effective security policy, including connecting with the public and securing popular support, must not forget that despite a host of new issues, traditional security concerns remain vitally important.
Dr. Robert W. Murray is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. Dr. Anita Dey Nuttall is Associate Director of the Canadian Circumpolar Institute at the University of Alberta. They write for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute on foreign affairs.