Calling for the creation of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Arctic is not alarmist, says an academic report as foreign ministers of the world's Arctic nations prepare for a summit in Canada later this month.
While the threat of nuclear-weapon use in the Arctic may be nebulous now, the ground should be prepared for potential future confrontations over competing claims for sovereignty, power and resources in the region, say co-authors Michael Wallace and Steven Staples.
They also say the move would be a prudent step to safeguard the Arctic environment against nuclear accidents.
"By acting now we can probably save ourselves a lot of angst down the road," Staples said in an interview Tuesday. "As countries try to stake their claims in the Arctic and on the resources, let's do this in a blueprint way -- in a co-ordinated way -- and avoid a mad scramble that could lead to an accident."
Wallace, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, and Steven Staples, president of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, are executive members of the Canadian Pugwash Group -- a think-tank dedicated to the prevention and resolution of armed conflict.
The authors endorse a piecemeal approach that would start with a unilateral declaration by Canada that the Northwest Passage is a nuclear-weapons-free zone, which could be expanded as others are invited to join. However, while Canada claims sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, the United States asserts the body is international waters.
The authors say creation of the world's seventh official nuclear-free zone would be "daunting" as military competition is on the rise in the Arctic, deepening a Cold War legacy of "cat and mouse" games by Russian and American nuclear-powered submarines capable of carrying nuclear missiles.
Another major obstacle is the core military doctrine of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which counts the potential use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent that is essential to preserve peace.
All Arctic states except Russia are members of NATO. And the other Arctic states -- Canada, Denmark, Iceland and Norway -- are all close allies of the United States.
Also, the U.S. will not sign any treaty creating a nuclear-free zone if it disturbs existing security arrangements or interferes with self-defence guarantees in the United Nations charter.
"But despite all of these daunting obstacles, we should not give up before even getting started," says the report, entitled Ridding the Arctic of Nuclear Weapons, A Task Long Overdue.
Staples said Canada is already investing in a Northern watch program to monitor submarines in the Arctic. "What's the point of monitoring it if we're not going to have any kind of policy about what happens up there?"