A Year after the Inuit re-assert their sovereignty, Washington takes their side and in so doing, snubs its closest ally.
Less than a year ago – on April 28, 2009 – a delegation of Inuit leaders from Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Russia unveiled the Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Arctic Sovereignty in Tromsø, Norway, where the Arctic Council was meeting. This historic declaration represented the Inuit response to their exclusion eleven months earlier at the May 2008 Ilulissat Summit of Arctic foreign policy chiefs.
Fast forward another eleven months, and the Inuit have now received a surprise endorsement from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who on March 29th attended a meeting in Ottawa of the same Arctic rim states that came together in May 2008 at Ilulissat – Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway and Russia – to continue their discussion of environmental and economic issues related to the thawing Arctic. But instead of re-affirming the primacy of the Arctic rim states or renewing their pledge to adhere to international law as they did in Ilulissat in 2008, Hillary surprised her Canadian hosts by scolding Ottawa for its continued exclusion of not only the non-coastal Arctic states of Sweden and Finland and sub-arctic Iceland, but also the non-state Inuit.
Diplomatically, this was as huge a win for the Inuit as it was an embarrassment for our closest neighbor, largest trading partner, leading supplier of oil, dedicated coalition partner in the bloody war on terror, and – at least until now – loyal ally to the north.
Headlines quickly went viral as news of her undiplomatic rebuke spread around the world. In “Clinton rebukes Canada at Arctic meeting,” Washington Post reporter Mary Beth Sheridan observed, “It was supposed to be a meeting of polar pals. But a high-level session on the dramatic changes in the Arctic turned chilly Monday, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rapped Canada for leaving out several players.” And Canadian Press reported in “Clinton’s Arctic comments cheer Inuit,” that “Inuit groups are declaring victory and Arctic experts are warning that Canada’s approach to the North will have to change after remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. ‘I can only express my support for her comments and her views,’ said Duane Smith, head of the Canadian branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.” Even Al Jazeera noted “the meeting between Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway and the U.S. on Monday was overshadowed by the exclusion of three other countries with Arctic territories and representatives of indigenous nations.”
Last year’s Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Arctic Sovereignty updated Inuit policy on sovereignty for contemporary times, responding not only to new pressures of the changing climate but to the continued diplomatic exclusion of Inuit as experienced at Ilulissat the year before. While members of the Arctic Council, an international advisory body, the Inuit have long been denied a seat at the table when it comes to military, strategic, and diplomatic affairs, which have long been viewed as affairs of high state. The Inuit nonetheless have endeavored to shape policies in the Far North that affect issues relating to military, security, and diplomatic issues, and during the Cold War lobbied strenuously to denuclearize the Arctic basin and to help unify East and West through northern displays of collaboration and cooperation.
Hillary’s unexpected embrace of the Inuit interest, and her very public rebuke of America’s closest neighbor and loyal wartime coalition partner whose losses in Afghanistan, on a proportional basis, have greatly exceeded America’s own, was surreal. So what was Hillary thinking? Perhaps her intent was to dramatically show her support for the Inuit, and for their central place in the emergent Arctic order – and thus to unite, and not further divide, the North. After all, she more than most senior diplomats understands that it really does “take a village” to heal the world.
Her dramatic, if unexpected, defense of Inuit rights was thus a very public affirmation by America’s top diplomat of the importance of the very multilateralism embraced by the Obama administration, as articulated in America’s new Arctic policy, first promulgated by the Bush administration in its final days but which had an echo of the Obama Doctrine pre-woven into its text, respecting all sovereign levels, not just high state but also local village and tribe as well. And it presented an olive branch to the Inuit, who have been locked in a protracted cold war with the EU over the Inuit right to hunt, trap, and trade in marine mammal products as they have done for millennia. This has resulted in a very strange diplomatic tension between the Inuit and the very European states whose own fur-trading empires led to the colonization of North America in centuries past.
During February's meeting of G7 finance ministers in Iqaluit, Nunavut leaders generously hosted their international visitors with a feast of northern cuisine, included a staple of their subsistence diet: seal meat. But as Andrew Clark reported in The Guardian, “None of the visiting ministers chose to attend a feast on Saturday night, laid on by the local Inuit community, at which raw seal was on the menu. Canadian finance chief Jim Flaherty was left to chow down on some seal meat alone.” The refusal of the European G7 finance ministers to dine with the Inuit, and their very undiplomatic decision to disrespect Inuit hospitality in Nunavut's capital city, was certainly not Europe's best moment. The Inuit may be few in number, but they control many local economic and political levers, and their interests are now fully backed by Ottawa – their partner in land claims, self-government, and northern development. Resolving lingering tensions between Europe and the Inuit is a necessary step to ensure the tranquility of the Far North, and the Inuit are demanding a seat at any table where their future and the future of their homeland, is being negotiated.
This was recognized by Hillary, and though she rebuked Ottawa for its exclusion of the Inuit, the European states seem to be a more worthy target of her diplomatic tongue-lashing – as Canada, more than any Arctic nation, has welcomed its indigenous peoples into a participatory political life with not only open hearts and minds, but with a rare commitment to devolving governmental power to the people of the North. And so Hillary’s sharp words may have been aimed at the wrong target. After all, it was Ottawa that elected to hold the G7 finance meeting in Iqaluit this past winter, hoping to foster a reconciliation of the Inuit and the Europeans.
But with Hillary now warmly embracing the Inuit point of view, and calling upon the other nations along the Arctic coast to do the same, we can expect to see increasing Inuit participation at future meetings on Arctic issues, and decreasing exclusion of the indigenous perspective going forward. And while that will not necessarily restore formal sovereignty to the Inuit, it will at least provide reassurance that their interests and values now have a place at the table – at least on Hillary’s watch.
And that, as U.S. Vice President Biden might more colorfully say, is a very big deal, indeed.
Barry Zellen is the author of three books on Inuit politics and history, including the recently released Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic (Praeger 2009). He directs the Arctic Security Project at the Naval Postgraduate School.
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