Arctic Absence

Image by Coral_Brunner via iStockImages / Getty

This guest column is written by recurring “Securities” guest star Michael Magnani. Michael is a Political Risk Researcher based in NYC and graduated from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs with a concentration in Transnational Security. His past columns were Principal Problems, Loose BRICS and Powerful Productivity.

In 1611, English explorer Henry Hudson became the first European to cast his eyes upon the massive bay that now bears his name. He was searching for a Northwest Passage to Asia, a search that failed after he was set adrift by his mutinous crew and lost at sea. Even if he had continued his voyage though, he would have realized the passage was frozen over. There would be no shortcut between Europe and Asia through North America.

That is, until now. Due to climate change, the Northwest Passage has melted into a reality, opening up a critical shipping lane that has become a critical strategic crossroads for the Global North. Canada, whose Arctic coastline is second only to Russia’s in length, has become a linchpin in the region through organizations such as the Arctic Council.

Or at least it should be.

Canada’s position in the Arctic, much like its geopolitical position in the rest of the world, is unnecessarily diminished and subsidiary to that of the United States. A recent piece for The Financial Times lays it out in bare terms: 

Jonathan Berkshire Miller, an Indo-Pacific expert at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute think-tank in Ottawa, says that successive governments have tended to treat foreign policy as a “luxury item” and have left it to the Americans to “step up to the plate”, or the Japanese and Australians in the Indo-Pacific. “We’ve had this complacency on foreign security issues for several years,” says Berkshire Miller.

For years, Canada reasonably considered itself geographically impenetrable, surrounded by three oceans (one frozen) while its closest ally — the United States — guarded the south. A ‘fireproof house’ was how politician Raoul Dandurand described Canada’s fortunate locale a century ago (an historical irony given this past summer’s record-breaking wildfires that scorched 18.4 million hectares).

Canada’s insulation allowed it to focus on economic growth over the global defense environment, eventually becoming the ninth largest economy in the world. A highly globalized and developed economy, Canadian industries such as energy and mining are world-leading, and Canada is richly abundant in oil, comprising the world’s fourth-largest proven reserves according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The country is also a global leader in education, healthcare and quality of life.

When it did engage with international security, diplomacy from afar has been Canada’s main commitment, with the country a member of tangibly important international organizations such as the G7 and NATO, alongside large, regional trade pacts such as the USMCA and the CPTTP. The country is also a key member of the world’s largest intelligence group, the Five Eyes. For this ‘fireproof house,’ the fires were always far away.

Even when they weren't though, America’s defense assets would pick up the slack. In February, an American F-22 shot down an object thought to be a Chinese spy balloon (it turned out it wasn’t) over the Yukon in the Canadian Arctic at the behest of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Technically, that’s how NORAD, the joint operational command for North America staffed by both Americans and Canadians, is designed to be used. America’s president and Canada’s prime minister can order and utilize military assets from either nation. But in reality, does that really diminish the headline of ‘American Jet Defends Canadian Airspace?’

Canada’s ‘fireproof house’ has become increasingly untenable. As Danny wrote about in “Securities” a few weeks back in "Extraordinary Extraterritoriality,” Canada has suffered from overt Chinese and Indian interference in its domestic affairs, with the Chinese accused of conducting influence operations in recent Canadian federal and provincial elections while India is accused of assassinating a Canadian citizen (in a parallel action, the United States recently indicted an Indian national attempting a similar assassination in the U.S.)

Those sovereignty slights have weakened Canada’s presumed invulnerability, but the melting of the Arctic’s ice cap has dissolved it entirely. Canada is now nestled next to a revisionist Russia, which is bulking up its presence in the Arctic by reopening previously shuttered Soviet bases while also modernizing its navy and undertaking military drills in the region. Eight of Russia’s eleven submarines carrying long-range nuclear weapons are thought to be based in the Arctic.

On top of this, China’s interest in the Arctic has grown considerably as economic and geopolitical advantages grow out of the melting of the ice cap. They now consider themselves a ‘near-Arctic state’ and are attempting to stake their own claim in the region.

NATO, in turn, is severely lagging behind these two in its investment in the Arctic. This is largely the fault of the NATO member who has the largest coastline in the region: Canada. Instead of proactively investing in its security as the Arctic melted, Canada’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP has largely stagnated since the first reopening of a Soviet-era base in the Arctic in 2005.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Trudeau announced that Canada would boost defense spending toward that magical benchmark of 2% of GDP. So far, there’s been no plan of action on how the country will change its fiscal calculus, when it might do so, or even to what areas these phantom funds would be allocated to. As a matter of fact, Trudeau told NATO officials that Canada will never meet the 2% target, according to The Discord Leaks earlier this year. That isn’t surprising since it is in line with successive governments from both of the main political parties who have avoided upping defense while Canadians worry about the affordability of housing and the quality of healthcare.

Recent Canadian dealmaking, such as the purchase of F-35s to replace its aging CF-18 fleet, are a welcome surprise after years of debate. But it shouldn’t stop there. A country surrounded by three oceans that seeks to be a key player in each should also invest in vessels that enhance its blue-water capabilities, such as submarines.

Canada can no longer sit back and hope geopolitics pass it by. A major player on the global stage both diplomatically and economically, it must become one militarily. Countries such as Russia, China and India have recently run amok over Canada’s sovereignty, largely because they rightly calculated Canada wouldn’t do much beyond a verbal condemnation.

Canada should be able to deploy assets to numerous theaters, chief among them the ever-expanding Arctic region, in support of its own and global defense and security goals. In “Loose BRICS,” I highlighted the seriousness of NATO’s collective defense by noting how Canada led the deployment of a forward operating presence in Latvia since 2014, alongside NATO’s Eastern Front. This was a good start, but where from there?

After all, Canada is a country that has a rich history of being a major player in global security. The history of both World Wars is not complete without mentioning the heroics of Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge in 1917 or the landings at Juno Beach in 1944, and more recent deployments to Afghanistan show Canada still stands to play a critical role in global security. It’s time for this ‘fireproof house’ to buy the extinguishers it needs to protect itself.

Podcast: The Consciousness Winter with Erik Hoel

Podcast artwork design by Chris Gates using DALL-E.
Podcast artwork design by Chris Gates using DALL-E.

What is consciousness? It’s a debate that has been at the center of philosophical arguments for millennia, touching on the meaning of existence, sensing, perception, mind versus matter, and so many more fundamental topics. All of that work has crescendoed in importance over the past few years as artificial intelligence has reached ever more sophisticated levels. Where does AI cross over from intelligent to conscious? And does that even matter?

Just as we need more theories of consciousness though, we are suddenly stumbling upon a “consciousness winter”, or so explains our special guest today Erik Hoel, the writer of the excellent newsletter The Intrinsic Perspective. Erik argues that scientists need to develop a grand theory around consciousness, but have been relegated to mundane questions in the subsystems of our brains instead. Unsurprisingly, we have had little to no progress on a theory of consciousness.

Erik and I, along with Lux’s managing partner Josh Wolfe and scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman, talk about the consciousness winter, the divide between intelligence and consciousness, free will versus destiny, and finally, integrated information theory, and its place as a stepping stone to a deeper theory of the brain. This is part one of a two-part interview, so let’s get started.

🔊 Listen to the podcast here

Lux Recommends

  • Sam recommends Jaime Green’s piece in The Atlantic on “An Existential Problem in the Search for Alien Life.” “The search for extraterrestrial life is not the kind that is likely to yield an aha moment—not in the sense that, with the tools currently available, scientists are going to look at data brought in from the cosmos and instantly declare, “Yes, this is life.” There are too many technical hurdles, too many variables that will need time to be sorted out. And even accounting for those issues, another obstacle exists—an enduring puzzle that tests the limits of science. The fact is, we still don’t know what life is.”
  • I’ve been enjoying Jake Berman’s new book, The Lost Subways of North America, a retrospective on the extensive subway and train systems in cities as far flung as Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Vancouver and Rochester. It reminds me of exhibitions like SPUR’s Unbuilt SF, which show alternative visions of cities that either came and left, or were never built in the first place.
  • Sam recommends a new working paper on Arxiv on using AI to simulate how countries fall into world wars. “These findings highlight the deterministic nature of conflict within a given set of circumstances, yet also point to the potential of strategic modifications in national policies or relations as a means to alter these seemingly predestined outcomes.”
  • I enjoyed Ben Lerner’s new memoir essay in Harper’s on the meaning of memory and narrative when critical sources like Wikipedia can be rewritten and become self-referential. “I added Teddy Roosevelt to the list of bocce enthusiasts on the ‘bocce’ main page. Soon this fact appeared on the home page of the United States Bocce Federation. Then I could use that home page as the source for the claim on Wikipedia. Such edits were somewhere between childish pranks and tiny terrorist attacks on the historical record. All of these examples are fake, but can stand for the ones I made, the bedbugs I released into the linguistic furniture. It was my first attempt at writing fiction.”
  • Finally, Apple TV+ is presenting Come From Away, a Broadway musical about the small town on Newfoundland, Canada that hosted dozens of flights and their thousands of passengers during the 9/11 terrorist attacks when America shut down its airspace. It’s an earnest performance on the spontaneous humanity and connections that appear when far-flung people come together in times of danger.

That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.