From Defending to Exercising Arctic Sovereignty

See The Simons Foundation's Arctic Security Briefing Papers for information on military policies and practices in the Arctic region by Ernie Regehr O.C., Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence at The Simons Foundation.


From Defending to Exercising Arctic Sovereignty

Questions about sovereignty are a constant in Canadian discourse on the Arctic – a current iteration being a study of “Canada’s Sovereignty in the Arctic” by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (FAAE).   As of Oct 22, the Committee had held four sessions, heard 15 witnesses, and received four written briefs,  and the overwhelming thrust of testimony so far is that Canada does not have an Arctic sovereignty problem. Furthermore, there is an irony in the application of northern sovereignty that the Committee has yet to address – namely, the inescapable reality that, in a challenging region made manageable through international cooperation, part of the responsible exercise of national sovereignty in the Arctic is the willingness to curb purely national prerogatives in favor of regional collaboration and collective well-being.

Invoking sovereignty

Political calls to be more attentive to Canada’s Arctic inevitably invoke the fragility of sovereignty, a worry that is given an air of credibility by reminders that outstanding territorial disputes mean that the outlines of the geography over which Canada is formally sovereign are yet to be decisively defined. The Beaufort Sea boundary dispute with the United States, and the disputes with Denmark over Hans Island and maritime boundaries in the Lincoln Sea await settlement, but in the meantime they do not undermine Canadian sovereignty or security, and because, as is widely accepted, these disputes will in time be settled by either political or judicial means, the military defence of sovereignty is not part of the equation.

Arctic sovereignty – defined in the brief to FAAE by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) as “the absence of any higher authority”  – may not be fragile, but Canada’s national control over its sovereign territory is far from absolute. That’s a truism that applies to all states inasmuch as the responsible exercise of sovereignty regularly means agreeing to limits on national prerogatives in favor of collective interests expressed through treaties and evolving international law. The absence of a higher authority does not mean the absence of outside interference or external influences over national affairs. Economic, political/diplomatic, and security realities impose constraints on individual states that can sometimes be rather severe – but even then, formal or de jure sovereignty is not in question. 

It is also true, for example, that sovereign states are not always able to exercise control over, or bring services to, all of the territories that are recognized to be under their jurisdiction. It is a mainstay of UN peacekeeping forces in post conflict or conflict mitigation operations that they are mandated to help governments gradually extend their authority and influence to all areas under their jurisdiction – the UN focus being on establishing within the host state’s territory the capacity to provide services, to enforce national laws, to win the support of local populations, and to be a cooperative presence within its international neighborhood.  For many states, sometimes called fragile states, those conditions remain aspirations, but they are no less sovereign as a result. A weak state remains sovereign even if, in practical day-to-day terms, parts of its territory are effectively beyond the government’s reach and capacity to deliver services (the examples are unfortunately myriad – Libya, Mali, Somalia, Kenya, DRC, Iraq, Ukraine, and so on). But even stable, wealthy states face limitations. Canadians won’t appreciate the parallel, but climate, geography, and competing national priorities have left parts of the Canadian Arctic territory beyond the timely reach of the central government.

As for the defence of sovereignty, it is also commonplace for governments to enjoy uncontested sovereignty over their territory, even though they would not have the capacity to defend it in the event of determined military attack. No country, to use the most extreme example, has the capacity to repel or defend itself against a nuclear attack, but that’s obviously not a weakness that undermines national sovereignty. A state can enjoy full sovereignty even without the capacity to withstand physical attack. “Military might” to repel “armed state invaders” or to suppress “armed internal forces contesting government authority,”  are not the means by which sovereignty for most states is secured. They rely instead on their own populations and other states voluntarily respecting their territorial integrity and recognizing and honoring their sovereignty. Indeed, voluntary acceptance of state sovereignty is essential to a mutually beneficial international order. The CGAI brief, by academics Andrea Charron and James Fergusson, agrees that sovereignty is increasingly “assumed and enforced via measures short of force or via international courts of law.” This reality, they add, “is vital to understanding why no Arctic sovereignty problem confronts Canada….” 

Establishing sovereignty

Sovereignty is no a fragile thing. Almost 400 years into the Westphalian order, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states are highly valued. States under a broad range of circumstances – strong, weak, democratic, autocratic, efficient, dysfunctional – enjoy the international community’s consistent recognition and respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity. And that certainly applies in Canada’s Arctic.  Continue reading...



Ernie Regehr, O.C. is Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence at The Simons Foundation, and Research Fellow at the Centre for Peace Advancement, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.