Saturday, 29 October 2011

Arctic MacGuffin: Canadian Sovereignty in the North

Sovereignty is a nebulous concept. It's imprecise and its meaning is highly mutable. For the early theorists of the subject, like the Jean Bodin, "Sovereignty is the absolute and perpetual power of a commonwealth" (Bodin, 1). It was bound up with the state, often in the person of the king through monarchy. Over centuries that definition gave way as the authority of monarchs dissipated and sovereignty was relocated to the political body of a people. This major break came with the French Revolution in which the 'people' seized the locus of authority (at least in theory). By the 20th Century, theorists of sovereignty had moved beyond early definitions by exploring new terrain. For the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, "Sovereign is he who decided on the exception" (Schmitt, 5). Essentially whoever establishes the limits of law and decides when and where the line between normal and exceptional politics exists may be said to be sovereign. This definition again relocates the locus of sovereignty, extricating it from the people. These are themes taken up by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his reading of sovereignty (with help from Ardendt, Foucault and Schmitt) through the marginal Roman figure of homo sacer (sacred man).

These theoretical underpinnings, while interesting, tell us very little about how the idea of sovereignty has developed as a concept in Canada. In Canada it takes on a more practical form. Here sovereignty reverts in part back to its Medieval origins, although not entirely. Sovereignty is not about rulers or people, but about state power: the cold utilitarian conceptualization essentially boiled down to internal control of territory (with a monopoly on the 'legitimate' use of force) and external recognition. In essence, however, the Canadian variant takes on a distinctly Lockean character wherein use and improvement become the basis of ownership. Canada exerts sovereignty because of its mere presence, making use of the land (or ice) and conducting somewhat regular patrols. Plans to built permanent port facilities and maintain scientific research stations (perhaps the only use the Harper government has of scientists is as place holders) follow this logic of use. There is also an irony in that much of Canada's claim to sovereignty is, in fact, a piggybacking of the sovereignty of the Inuit community in the north. It is these settlements that provide perhaps the most substantial claim to territory in the north. The irony, however, is that this sovereignty is borrowed (or stolen).

There is a problem, however, in that while Canada is internationally recognized by other states as being the legitimate bearer of sovereignty for its given piece of territory, the extent and limits of that territory are not consistent with Canada's own claims. Russia is perhaps the most vocal in claiming large swaths of the arctic as its own. Scandinavian countries too lay claim to certain areas. The United States also claims ownership and sees arctic waters as international waters, free for traversing for trade and travel. The fate of much of these arctic waters ultimately rests with the United Nations and the interpretation of scientific and geological data submitted by claimant countries. The outcome of this is far from certain and serious questions remain. Chief among these is whether or not states that perceive themselves to be on the losing end abide by UN rulings. Will the United States, a country with ignoring international rulings that run counter to its interests (see its history at the WTO), relent on claims that the Arctic Ocean is an international passage way?

These states - especially Russia and the US - already maintain an expansive presence in the arctic, the Russians going so far as to plant a flag to lay claim to territory. Both have far greater capacities than Canada could ever hope to utilize, even if the RCN were to acquire the requisite nuclear submarines with the ability to submerge in frigid arctic waters or if the coast guard had a new fleet of ice breakers. The arctic is vast in scope and whatever patrols Canada can muster are unlikely to spot much. It amounts to looking for a specific drop of water in an ice cube.

There's another practical problem: the Russian and American fleets are not Spanish fisherman illegally fishing off the Grand Banks. Both are powerful maritime forces with extensive capabilities. The new (assuming they are build) F-35s may be able to spot foreign ships or planes, but that's about the limit of their actions. Would Canadian forces open fire on an American or Russian forces? No. Would they have any luck trying to outmaneuver American submarines? No. Would the mere presence of Canadian submarines in arctic waters detour an American or Russian presence? No. Moreover, what difference does it make? What is really at stake is not 'sovereignty', but resources. Whoever controls the territory controls the vast wealth of riches, from minerals to oil.

The discourse of 'arctic sovereignty' operates with a strange duality. It is a contradictory policy completely at odds with developments in Canada's south. While the Harper government pushes sovereignty in the north, it is systematically selling it in the rest of the country. Take for instance the secretive border deal between Harper and the Obama administration. The deal would create a so-called 'security perimeter' which essentially entails harmonization of a host of policies (largely to do with border policy and immigration) and a militarization of the border. Most importantly, these security previsions have a decidedly negative effect on the privacy of Canadians, essentially eroding the individual sovereignty of Canadian citizens to assuage a jittery paranoic neighbour. Add this to the host of other areas in which Canada has ceded sovereignty - military agreements with the United States through NORAD, the CUFTA and successor NAFTA, as well as various international financial agreements like the WTO (of which decisions are binding) - and the crusade for protect the country's sovereignty becomes suspect. It is an if Canada's sovereignty can be divided into segments, with parts prioritized and others traded for economic access and trade deals. Moreover, it underscores the inherent contradiction in our disposition to our American neighbour. Why is an American usurpation in the North unacceptable but something to be pursued with vigor in the south?

Appeals to the idea of the north remain powerful in this country, appeals that the Harper government has continually nurtured and used to its advantage. Canada is a 'northern people', even if the bulk of its population resides in geographically proximity to the United States. They remain powerful even when the urgency seems replaced. What's changed now that requires such attention when a lack of submarines in the past wasn't an impediment to sovereignty? (I suggest above that a desire for natural resources supports this drive).

Simply put, Canada's arctic sovereignty is a MacGuffin: a device or object that advances a plot. In film MacGuggins are common elements. They provide motivation for their characters and drive the story forward. MacGuffins figure centrally, for instance, in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. The object isn't important and could easily be replaced by something else, yet remains essential to get things moving. The Indiana Jones films also rely on these devices - the Ark of the Covenant, sacred stones, the Holy Grail and the idiotic Crystal Skull (but let's forget about that one). MacGuffins need not be seen, but merely hinted to, as in Pulp Fiction where the contends of the briefcase drive the events of the story but remain unknown to the audience.

What plot does arctic sovereignty drive? There are several possible overlapping motivations. First, there is a desire to expand Canada's control over the natural resources that are threatened by American, Russian and other claimants in the region. Untapped discoveries represent billions of dollars. It's basically a business move. The second is to justify the growth of the military and the procurement of new forces equipment. Each of the Conservative government's massive expenditure announcements - the fluidly priced F-35s, $35 billion in ship building - have been couched in the language of sovereignty, particularly in the north. They justify equipment that, in times of austerity and peace, are difficult to justify. This is also fitting as the claims to sovereignty are themselves fully militarized and prioritizes military means over appeals to the long history of the Inuit in the region or scientific claims. Third, these may be genuine - if hollow - appeals to patriotism. Finally, these claims are distractions from the real and pressing issues of the day and attempt to obscure the record of the government. They distract from the selling of Canadian sovereignty through trade and integration with the United States and ignore the negative effects these policies have on Canadians individually and as a collective. Arctic sovereignty, as such, is a useful plot device that justifies policy and allows the Tories to advance their agenda. It's an attempt to make palatable policies and actions which would otherwise be a hard sell otherwise. A 'true north strong and free' may be a nice, jingoistic slogan, but it hardly representative of the reality of Canada's sovereignty.

Impetus for today's blog:
Lorne Gunter "Mothball 'dud subs', buy nukes" National Post

Further Reading
Giorgio Agamben Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life
Gens Bartelson A Geneology of Sovereignty
Jean Bodin On Sovereignty
Shelagh D Grant Arctic Justice: On Trial for Murder in Pond Inlet, 1923
Shelagh D Grant Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America
John Locke, Second Treatise on Government
Carl Schmitt Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty

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