Arctic Chiefs of Defence Staff Conference - An Opportunity to Formalize Arctic Security

By Olin Strader Canadaʼs hosting of the Arctic Chiefs of Defence Staff (CHOD) at Goose Bay, April 12-13, is an auspicious occasion in the evolution of 21st century Polar Affairs. Itʼs a step toward asserting Canadian leadership as Prime Minister Harperʼs government is set to assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2013. Canada has a number of interests that are served by promoting such a forum. Canada, next to the Russian Federation, has the largest claim to Arctic territory and the second most to safeguard. Canada has several Arctic territorial disputes it wants to resolve with the United States and Denmark, two NATO allies. Canada is also the only nation with an indigenous population that compromises a territory on a vector to become a co-sovereign province. 

Furthermore, Canada, Russia and Denmark are all set to submit their seabed claims to the International Seabed Authority. Establishing dialogue and trust among the CHODs could prevent misunderstandings resulting from competing seabed claims. But beyond hosting the meeting Canada could achieve something even more lasting. How well this meeting goes may determine the future of this body. The question is, what should we expect from this inaugural Arctic CHODʼs Conference?

General Walter Natynczykʼs spokesperson has suggested the agenda will include search and rescue, northern environmental challenges and military-aboriginal relations. Ironically, these issues parallel the current agenda of the Arctic Council, the body Canadaʼs government played a leading role in creating. It stands to reason that Canada recognizes an opportunity to create an Arctic security forum. By creating sufficient consensus among Arctic CHODs, General Natynczyk could create something that endures, something that will contribute to a peaceful opening of the Arctic and cement cooperative security relationships among the Arctic eight. 

To ensure this forum endures, a declaration of security cooperation should be agreed upon by the Arctic CHODs that outlines foundational principles, an overarching purpose and objectives, and agrees to the maintenance of a dialogue through recurrent meetings. This will require CHODs to engage their governments beforehand so they can provide substance to a potential declaration. Hopefully, Arctic Defence staffs see the opportunities in the same light and will prepare their CHODs appropriately.

Beyond a formal declaration, and outside the confines of regularly agreed CHODs meetings, a more robust dialogue should be opened between staffs designed to hammer out the more mundane, but critically important details such as meeting frequency, guidelines for hosting, secretarial responsibilities, a chair rotation schedule, instruments for recording decisions, means of communication, etc. But there will be more substantial issues that must be addressed in later CHOD forums. 

For example, what will the relationship be both now and in the future between the CHODs forum and the Arctic Council member states, the Permanent Participants and Observers? What are the identifiable threats to Arctic states mutual interests and how might they be cooperatively and constructively countered? How can Arctic states better cooperate, be it through exercises, combined operations, communications, exchanges, information sharing and other such cooperative mechanisms? What should the role of indigenous populations and Coast Guards be in Arctic security? More specifically what should be the role of Coast Guard Commandants in the CHODʼs forum? Furthermore, what should be the limitations of the forum? For instance, what should be the limits of the relationship with other international organizations like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? Ultimately the work of the combined staffs should generate a draft security agreement that can be approved by Arctic states, with the goal being inauguration of enduring Arctic cooperative security.

Canadaʼs initiative to host a CHODs conference represents a hope for a new chapter in Arctic security. A chapter defined by security cooperation based on mutual interests. The world will be watching this meeting. If Canadaʼs role in the formation of the Arctic Council is any indicator this CHODs forum should not disappoint.