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An “Integrated” U.S./Canadian Border

What will happen on the border – and to North American cooperation?

On Feb. 4, U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a joint declaration describing a new effort to enhance security along the longest undefended border in the world, while streamlining the flow of goods and people across it.

It was an event that caused barely a ripple in the United States – but the Canadian press was all over it, with charges that Harper was surrendering Canadian sovereignty. The vagueness of the approach outlined in the declaration, along with the timing of the announcement, is explained by Christopher Sands, senior fellow and U.S./Canada specialist at the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization: “Part of the reason we had this Feb. 4 meeting, which I think was a little premature, was that the [Canadian] opposition had gotten wind of the negotiations and started to try to raise a stink with the public … I think Harper needed to put something out there so that people would understand what he was doing was pretty modest.”

Though modest, the measures outlined in the joint declaration are intriguing, and they include:

  • the announcement that the two countries “intend to pursue a perimeter approach to security” – tracking potential threats to North America while eliminating obstacles that slow commerce between the two countries – who send more than a billion dollars’ worth of trade back and forth every day;
  • the future creation of an “integrated Canada-United States entry-exit system” in which “documented entry into one country serves to verify exit from the other country.” In other words, where travelers now stop at two border stations and swipe their passports, they will someday stop and swipe once, a circumstance enabled by: the development of “joint facilities and programs” – both on the border and abroad, at overseas ports – in which Americans and Canadians work side-by-side to assess and prevent threats to their shared North American homeland from cargo and passengers;
  • greater information sharing among law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identify potential terrorists and criminals; and
  • organizing “binational port of entry committees” that will coordinate the work of establishing, maintaining, and enhancing joint efforts, including management and infrastructure.

This last provision has long been advocated by Sands. In July 2009, in “Toward a New Frontier: Improving the U.S./Canada Border,” Sands argued for, among other things, a more decentralized approach to border management that would take regional concerns into account. Such differences are recognized, however vaguely, by the new joint declaration: “They are allowing for something that DHS had resisted,” Sands said, “which is port-specific consultation committees where, say, at the Port of Detroit or Blaine, Wash., the customs port director will be required now to have a standing committee.” Such a committee might include members of the business community, immigrant rights advocates, environmentalists, local law enforcement, state transportation officials, and others.

Greater security, along with more streamlined border management, will be a welcome development for both nations, but it’s impossible to predict the outcome. Neither government announced a timeline for implementing the provisions, and the only concrete step taken so far has been the announcement of a Regulatory Cooperation Council composed of senior federal trade officials.

The pact’s relatively quiet reception in the United States is curious, given that its expressed principles are similar to those of a previous – and now officially dead – collaborative effort, the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America. A trilateral U.S./Canadian/Mexican dialogue launched in 2005, the SPP folded under charges – interestingly, from the political left in Canada and Mexico, and from the right in the United States – that it was laying the groundwork for merging the three countries into a “North American Union” similar to the European Union.

Despite the apparent lack of interest in the new joint agreement so far, Sands sees two bigger-picture concerns for the future of North American security and trade negotiations, both of them rooted in a new bilateral approach that conspicuously places Mexico outside the “perimeter” defined by the United States and Canada. “It dropped Mexico out of the discussion but also dropped out Congress, Parliament and various civil society groups,” he said. “It’s just federal-to-federal” – a precedent, possibly, for a backlash as powerful as that encountered by the SPP.

Bilateral negotiations, Sands pointed out, are inherently less efficient than negotiations that have broader appeal, such as OECD, NATO, or G20 agreements. “It makes sense to build broader coalitions,” Sands said. “The business community will back that, because the closer a standard is to being widely accepted, the better it is for business, because then they don’t have to work to multiple standards.”

The bilateral approach is also more likely to become adversarial, with a strong nation pushing its own domestic agenda against its smaller partner. Again, this is not a political problem for the White House, but it’s also not a process that promises much in the way of innovation. “From an efficiency point of view it makes sense to go global; from a political point of view, it may make sense to go domestic,” said Sands. “These bilateral processes don’t necessarily have either working for them – in fact, I think they’re working against them. So they may end up stalling as a result.”


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...