Perimeter Security: SPP, Take Two

I’m in the midst of trying to finish my latest dissertation draft and get our house ready to go on the market – if anyone is interested in owning the former Ottawa residence of one of the creators of Coronation Street (for real), drop me a line – so I don’t have as much time as I’d like to comment on Friday’s Canada-U.S. declaration, “Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness.” But given that my dissertation is all about North American governance, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least note that this agreement has the potential to radically reform North American relations.

A few preliminary notes:

1. In effect, this Declaration represents the streamlining of the ill-fated Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP). The dozens of working groups have been replaced by one (the Beyond the Border Working Group) and the laundry list of SPP projects has been pared down significantly.

Oh, and Mexico’s out entirely – how’s that for streamlining? From a regional-governance perspective, Mexico’s exclusion from this process is quite important: it suggests that “North America,” defined as Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, is at a crossroads. It could either represent a return to the pre-NAFTA world in which “North America” referred to Canada and the United States or, if Mexico and the United States reach a similar agreement, it would drive another stake into the notion that the three countries have a “trilaterial” relationship, rather than a “double-bilateral” one focused on the United States.

Either way, expect Canada to pay even less attention to Mexico than it has over the past decade.

2. Keep your eye on how the Working Group recommends that “threats” be identified and defined. My wife has been working on the issue of threat identification for the past several years (she just started a PhD on it too – can’t have too many doctors in the family), so I’m very conscious that threat identification is a political exercise. Issues, actions and people that are seen as “threats” vary over time and by country. Threat definition is not something that has ever, ever been left to policy wonks.

To see what I mean, ask yourself how the two countries might rank such possible threats as marijuana and the gun trade, and how they might differ on invasive body scanning at airports. Oh, and don’t forget about Cuba.

3. If you’re expecting this deal to finally guarantee Canada secure access to the U.S. market – and that’s what this deal is all about – I’d temper your hopes. The main threat to Canada’s access to the U.S. market is not U.S. perceptions that Canada is weak on terrorism (even though the 9/11 terrorists did not come through Canada), but that the two countries still have two separate systems of government, and that’s not going to change any time soon.

Congress still runs the show in the United States, as does Parliament in Canada. That’s all well and good, but it also means that there’s nothing stopping Congress from raising protectionist barriers to combat “foreign” threats (think softwood lumber) or raising barriers to entry (think Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative) when “domestic” interests are threatened. This Declaration does nothing to change this state of affairs.

Making predictions is a mug’s game, but I’d wager good money that the next time a 9/11-level cataclysm hits the United States, and whether or not Canadian policies actually contributed to the problem, all the people who supported a perimeter security concept as a way to guarantee Canadian access to the U.S. market (your Wendy Dobsons, your Michael Harts, your Derek Burneys) will be calling for even greater changes in order to finally – finally! – secure our access to the U.S. market.

Of course, that’s what the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was supposed to do. And NAFTA. And the SPP. And now this Declaration. Each approach repeats the mistake of the last: refusing to take seriously how the persistence of national governments affects the attempted creation of a single economic space. All the security-economic tradeoffs in the world can’t get around the fact that Congress and Parliament continue to make laws for their respective countries. And when push comes to shove, Congress will side with their constituents.

Oh, and given that security policies can never guarantee 100% security, there is a non-zero possibility of terrorists attacking the United States via Canada, even with a security perimeter. In that case, you can bet that this Declaration would do absolutely nothing to protect Canada, and we’d be back to square zero, having traded the ability to control our own borders for the illusion of U.S. market access.

4. Given my pessimism that these changes will do little to guarantee Canadian access to the U.S. market in the long term, especially in the event of a possible Canada-linked terrorist attack, I’ll be evaluating each proposal on their own merits. Finally fixing the Windsor-Detroit border crossing would be a good thing, for instance. Sharing information with the United States on how many times I enter and exit Canada, not so much. And there’s much, much more in there.

The key point, however, is that all of these issues are inherently political, and anyone who says that they’re not is either being disingenuous or should know better. Given that perimeter security is a U.S. demand, I’d be surprised if the United States adopted Canadian policies, rather than the other way around. Then again, it’s early days, and I’ve been wrong before.

5. And hey! I managed to discuss the Declaration without once using the word “sovereignty.” My one wish for the upcoming debate over perimeter security is that our politicians and journalists treat their constituents and readers with respect and actually discuss the content of the Declaration: who will be making decisions? What will they be deciding? Like “piracy” in the copyright debate, “sovereignty” is a loaded word that actually tells us very little about what’s actually going on.

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