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The Great Wall of the United States

Author: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow
October 4, 2008
The Globe and Mail

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Stephen Harper has said that, if he is re-elected, he wants a "fresh start" with the new U.S. administration on dealing with the border, to see if ways can be found to reassure the Americans on security while easing restrictions that are causing costly delays for Canada.

John McCain, who made the unusual gesture of delivering a campaign speech in Ottawa in June, said he recognizes that the backups caused by new security measures "can pose a serious impediment to trade." Barack Obama has wanted nothing to do with Canada since a Canadian official embarrassed him by leaking one of his adviser's private reassurances over NAFTA, but he too is likely to be sympathetic to the Canadian concerns.

There is little reason, however, to think that dealing with border issues will be any easier after the elections in both countries; indeed, it is likely to become harder.

Canada and the United States long defined what it meant to have an open border. The orange cones that were placed at night across rural border crossings from Vermont to B.C. symbolized an extraordinary level of trust, rarely achieved by two neighbouring nations. That trust permitted ever deeper, and in some ways riskier, economic ties, from an automobile industry that grew up in virtual disregard of the border to a free-trade agreement that set rules since imitated on a global scale.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, we no longer live in a high-trust world. In the eyes of many Americans, 9/11 was a failure not of its foreign and military policies, or even of its intelligence agencies, but rather of its open borders. In seven years, the United States has doubled the number of its Border Patrol agents and tripled its enforcement expenditures and it is now deporting more than 250,000 illegal immigrants a year, all in the elusive quest for border security. On the Canadian border, it's known as "thickening"; on the Mexican border, it comes closer to warfare.

In the months after 9/11, some in the Bush administration turned to Canada in the hopes of building what they called "the border of the future"-one that would be open to trade and tourism but impervious to terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. The virtual shutdown of the border after the terrorist attacks had been disastrous for the auto industry and the regions that relied on it, and both Ottawa and Washington were determined to prevent anything similar in the future. Tom Ridge, the White House homeland-security czar, had grown up on the shores of Lake Ontario and, as a former Pennsylvania governor, he understood the value of trade with Canada.

The result was the 2001 Smart Border accords, a laundry list of measures that was a remarkably cool-headed, sophisticated response to the trauma of 9/11. Its architects on both sides of the border believed two seemingly contradictory things: that the safeguards against terrorists crossing the border had to be maximized, but that barriers to legitimate cross-border traffic must be minimized for the prosperity of both countries. The way to do so was to "manage risk." By using modern information technologies and co-operating closely, the two governments would be better armed to recognize threats to security. Low-risk traffic-the commercial truck filled with auto parts or the nurse crossing daily from Windsor to Detroit-would be sped through, saving precious inspection resources that could instead be devoted to more suspicious targets.

SQUARING THE CIRCLE

That model was, and remains, the only way to square the circle of security and commerce, but the Smart Border Declaration has never quite delivered on its promise. There are many reasons why; most have to do with lack of trust. One promising idea, for instance, was to begin moving inspection facilities away from the bridges and other chokepoints. NEXUS and FAST lanes are a fine thing, but not if the backups are so long that preferred travellers must wait in line just to reach them. Ottawa had offered land inside Canada for U.S. "preclearance" facilities. But after more than two years, negotiations fell apart last year, although the Harper government was willing to take the politically risky step of allowing U.S. Customs inspectors to carry guns on Canadian soil. Washington, though, wanted its agents to have full powers under U.S. law to take fingerprints and make arrests inside Canada, a concession no sovereign country could offer. So we are left with the crowded bridges.

The new U.S. identification requirements under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative make considerable sense from a security perspective. It's hard to manage risk if you're not sure that someone crossing the border is who he says he is. But Canada's concerns over the implementation of WHTI have largely been ignored. And more is coming; the Department of Homeland Security is moving ahead to implement a law that will not only require Canadians and others to identify themselves every time they enter the United States, but every time they leave, too. The hope is that by embedding fingerprints and other personal data in remotely readable travel documents, these new security mandates will produce only minimal additional delays, but the technological complexities are immense. The only silver lining in the recession that is now likely to hit both countries is that cross-border traffic will fall further, allowing border inspectors some breathing room to work the bugs out of these new systems.

Canada has certainly tried hard to accommodate U.S. security concerns-probably too hard. After 9/11, for instance, Ottawa agreed to co-ordinate its policies on refugees with Washington. Canada has always been more generous than its neighbour in admitting refugees, but to assuage concerns that this could be a loophole for terrorists, Canada has since 2004 refused to consider refugee applications from anyone who originally lands in the United States. This decision has condemned many to languish for months in American prisons, due to new U.S. policies under which most refugee seekers, and their families, are incarcerated while their claims are considered.

QUEST FOR PERFECTION

But the measures the Washington is taking to harden its border have little to do with what Canada has or has not done to shore up it defences against terrorists. Canada is facing a tamer version of the same thinking that is leading the United States to build hundreds of miles of steel barriers on its Mexican border. It is the quest for perfect security.

Alongside the risk managers surrounding Mr. Ridge, there was a different, and more powerful, faction in the Bush administration that was convinced that protection from terrorist attacks would come only once the United States had taken total control over its borders. In part, the terrorism rationale was hijacked by those in the administration and Congress whose real aim was to crack down on illegal immigrants, but it had a certain logic: If illegal migrants can find holes in the border, how can Americans be sure that terrorists will not do the same? Turning that reasoning into reality, however, would be an unprecedented feat, especially for a big, rich country that attracts large numbers of immigrants. One former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security told me: "In the history of the world, nobody's ever secured borders. The Great Wall of China didn't work. It's never worked, and we are trying to do it." Despite the inauspicious historical record, he was supremely confident that his country would succeed.

It won't, and at some point Washington will need to reconsider, but a chorus of "we told you so" from north of the border will not be terribly persuasive. Instead, the next Canadian government will have to sit down with the next U.S. administration and gently try to nudge it back to the spirit of the Smart Border accords. Ottawa will have to try to persuade the new White House to separate the northern border issues of security versus commerce from the far more complicated southern border stew of drugs, gangs, corruption and illegal immigration. They will have to point out that a modern, global economy cannot function without a high degree of trust.

It will be a hard sell. The American public is scared, feeling betrayed over 9/11, over Katrina, over Iraq, over an economy that has delivered little to its middle classes, and now over a massive bailout of Wall Street financiers that will not save the homes or jobs of ordinary people. They are desperately seeking security, in whatever guise it is offered. At other such times in its history, the United States has turned inward, not recognizing that its openness is its greatest strength. Canadians, too, are less than likely to be in a generous mood after their election, as the economic downdraft from the United States will again raise long-standing questions about whether Canada's economic fortunes should be tied quite so tightly to its southern neighbour.

But making some effort to rebuild the waning trust is critical for both countries. The two nations have a long history of showing others what it means to co-operate across borders. The obstacles to doing so today are perhaps greater than they have ever been, but the stakes are higher as well. We know what the alternative is, and good fences do not make good neighbours.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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