Thursday, December 12, 2013

Exceeding My Expertise in the Cold

On a very cold day in Ottawa (subzero in all measures except Kelvin), it is probably appropriate that I got sucked into a discussion about the Arctic.  I got into a twitter conversation with @rolandparis* about the latest Canadian efforts up north.
*  The funny thing is that Roland is the bigger fan of IOs and of norms and of international law and I am the committed skeptic.  Holy role reversals, Batman!

That is, Canada, as other Arctic nations are doing so, are submitting claims to a UN organization.  The key basis for claims to territory up north is whether one's continental shelf extends--so one needs scientists to get data and draw up maps.  Canada's initial effort did not include the North Pole, which either has symbolic value due to Santa's presence or has material value as there is much oil and other stuff under the Arctic Ocean.  Anyhow, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the scientists to go back to the drawing board until they come up with results that allow Canada to claim the north pole.

My basic contention is this: by doing so, Harper has undermined the legitimacy of Canada's claims.  Why?  Because it is known to all that the non-politically driven work of the scientists was not good enough for Harper.  He has now asked them to work backwards from the endpoint--that Canada will claim the North Pole, so figure out some measures/data that support this conclusion.  This reminds me of a mantra I heard in the Pentagon--that intel should drive policy.  The original sin of Iraq was that policy drove intel.  That what we "knew" was driven by the desired outcome.  It is one thing for a journal or press to ask for a revise and resubmit to get a scientist to improve the quality of their work.  It is another thing entirely for politicians to do so--they are not looking for the best science but the science that is best for them.

Any observer of this will question the science behind Canada's revised bid because it is clearly being driven by an outcome that Harper has in mind, rather than what the geography will tell us.  I contend this is a big problem for Canada: countries that are smaller should support legal frameworks that provide them with fair decision-making procedures, such as those based on semi-objective science.  Stronger countries should prefer processes that rely on bargaining since stronger countries have more means with which to bargain--not just coercion via standing military forces but also a wide array of economic and other assets that one can play linkage politics with.  Canada is not unarmed in this--it can try to bargain with its oil riches and whatever else, but it is almost always going to be in a position of weakness relative to the US or Russia.  Sorry, but that is just the reality.

This whole debate makes me uncomfortable because I tend to be skeptical about international organizations and international law.*  But one thing I do get is this: international law is usually on the side of Canada when it has a conflict with the US or with Russia (except for that whole problem of wanting to regulate the northwest passage--law of the sea is on the US side on that one). 
* I am also uncomfortable because this stuff is way out of my expertise--law, arctic, etc.
I am not surprised that Harper is acting in this way, but I am rarely surprised when politicians do that which makes sense from short term domestic interests but is bad for the long term interests of the country.  Hence the title for my second book--For Kin or Country.

No comments: