Beyond the Border is too timid

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Ten months after announcing a new commitment to enhance security while thinning the border and expediting trade and travel, U.S. President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper released the Beyond the Border Action Plan early in December.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/12/2011 (3887 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ten months after announcing a new commitment to enhance security while thinning the border and expediting trade and travel, U.S. President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper released the Beyond the Border Action Plan early in December.

The key areas of co-operation laid out in the plan would create new integrated programs to enhance security (by addressing threats early, improving cross-border law enforcement and developing new infrastructure and cyber-security capacities) and to facilitate trade, economic growth and job creation (by improving border management).

At the same time, the two leaders directed the creation of a United States-Canada Regulatory Co-operation Council (RCC) to increase regulatory transparency and co-ordination between the two countries.

The measures announced in the action plan are totally appropriate and unexceptional. They have been on the table for years and could (and should) have been put in place long ago.

Similarly, the RCC mandate is familiar to anyone who has followed suggestions for regulatory harmonization made since NAFTA was first signed. Still, they can reverse the trend toward thickening the border that began following 9/11.

The action plan generated a burst of interest north of the border and some predictable complaints Canada’s sovereignty was being eroded.

What happened in the United States?

Basically nothing. Barely a word. One article, written by a well-known Canada watcher, appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. There was nothing in the Times, the Journal, the Post or USA Today.

Is this good news? Bad news?

On the positive side, Beyond the Border has not become an issue in the Republican candidate road show. One can easily imagine it could have become one, with border-rabid moat diggers calling out Obama on opening our longest (OMG, undefended!!!) border to who knows what kind of threats and dangers.

The Canadian side stick-handled the Beyond the Borders process carefully, avoiding the more contentious ideas that were initially discussed (the original North American security perimeter, for example) and focusing on well-established links among government agencies.

But there are negatives as well.

Low-balling these matters and redefining goals as a series of fairly modest discrete steps meant a whole raft of key issues were side-stepped, such as changes in cabotage rules, national preference policies (“Buy American”) and the Jones Act. These are potential game-changers and would have a deep impact on continental economic collaboration.

Enhancing the resilience of our infrastructure is an admirable goal, but beyond this, we need to be thinking about building a new infrastructure of highways, rails, pipelines and electric systems adequate for the global competition of the 21st century. There is no broader vision in the Beyond the Border program beyond incremental improvements in cross-border co-operation.

Moreover, in taking this approach, the action plan process fails to educate wider publics about essential nature of the bilateral relationship — in simple terms that we do not sell things to each other but rather, make them together.

We are not just talking about borders between sovereign nations. We are talking about deeply integrated production and distribution systems and high levels of interdependence. So far, however, we have failed to create informed constituencies and build support for cross-border collaboration. Instead, there has been little information — and often widespread misinformation — about developments in North America.

To compete in the emerging global economy, we need to think in terms of big ideas — about free trade in freight transportation, a North American energy strategy and a North American infrastructure strategy.

Have steps been taken to create the political will to do this? Is there a political strategy here?

Keeping heads down, under the legislative radar, is an attractive but dangerous approach. On one side, it fails to mobilize key constituencies and to build alliances in state and metropolitan governments, among economic stakeholders and opinion leaders. On the other, stealth is a serious problem. If we act like conspirators, we will surely be suspected of conspiracy.

Where do things go now? The action plan has been introduced at a terrible moment in the U.S., given the hyper-extended election cycle and the politicization of everything government touches (we are dealing with senior legislators who are quarreling about using “greener” plastic cutlery in the Congressional cafeteria — the great “fork fracas”).

If Ottawa had pushed this early in the Obama administration, it would probably have been well-received in Washington and could have led to a major step forward in making North America work better.

Facing major funding cuts, creating new medium-level administrative entities will not be high on U.S. agency agendas. So anything that involves expenditure or more than modest changes in procedure that might attract Congressional attention will go by the board. It is hard to see Obama or any senior administration official standing up for the Beyond the Borders project for the next year. And you can bet the first time this becomes a visible political issue, U.S. support will vanish like smoke.

Forecast: At best useful but modest incremental changes in border management.

Stephen Blank is a senior fellow, Macdonald-Laurier Institute and Center for North American Studies, American University Roosevelt Island, New York City.

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