The Melting Arctic Heats Up the Question of Who Governs the Northwest Passage

Aug 7, 2019 | 11:00 GMT

A project manager for the Arctic Research Foundation on April 9, 2015, walks past snowmobiles used by Canadian troops deployed to the territory of Nunavut to demonstrate Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

A project manager for the Arctic Research Foundation walks past snowmobiles used by Canadian troops employed to the territory of Nunavut. Canada uses polar patrols to demonstrate its sovereignty in the Arctic.

(PAUL WATSON/Toronto Star via Getty Images)


  • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently seemed to ratchet up an old dispute between the United States and Canada over sovereignty and the Northwest Passage.
  • The United States rejects Canada's claim that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway, holding instead that the passage is an international waterway that should not be subject to Canadian jurisdiction.
  • In 1988, the United States and Canada agreed to find a pragmatic solution to governing the Northwest Passage. But 30 years ago, the far-north shipping lane was largely an academic matter; not so today.
  • Ultimately, U.S. concerns about Russian and Chinese ambitions in the Arctic will prove greater than worries about Canadian sovereignty claims, and Washington and Ottawa will maintain the useful compromise of the 1980s to protect their intertwined interests.

In a rapidly changing climate, it is likely that recent U.S. attacks on Canadian claims of sovereignty in the far north are intended to remind Ottawa that the status quo depends on Washington's goodwill. But while the United States may be interested, in the short term, in jostling with Canadian sovereignty claims, perhaps to strengthen its hand in any potential dispute over resources, its apparent long-term geopolitical interests -- particularly the defense of the North American continent -- remain intertwined with Ottawa's....

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