Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness — a hasty first look

Feb 7th, 2011 | By | Category: In Brief

Prime Minister Harper and President Obama in Washington, February 4, 2011.

Anyone who has perused the primary sources for the Canada-US trade agreements of the past quarter century will not be surprised to discover that the separate documents released by the “Prime Minister of Canada” and the “White House” this past Friday, February 4, 2011 are identical, with one recurrent exception.

The Canadian version of “Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness,” eg, begins with “Canada and the United States are staunch allies, vital economic partners, and steadfast friends,” while the American version says: “The United States and Canada are staunch allies, vital economic partners, and steadfast friends.” Similarly, in the Canadian version the first sentence of the fourth paragraph reads: “Canada and the United States share a long history of cooperation in defending our values and freedoms.” The American version, on the other hand, runs: “The United States and Canada share a long history of cooperation in defending our values and freedoms.” Etc, etc, etc.

The partnership in question, that is to say, is officially known as “Canada and the United States” in Canada, and “the United States and Canada” in the (much more populous to say nothing of still powerful) USA.  And that, you might guess, is one of the various ways in which we the very much junior partners insist on asserting our continued separate sovereignty.

In the eyes of the wider global village Canada may just be an increasingly integrated appendage to the United States. But in our own eyes we remain the first among two equal partners. (And if you live in the USA, you may well say “dream on great white north,” but so what, etc, etc, etc again. We do after all, eg, still have a better — and less expensive — health care system, from the standpoint of the great majority in our own “free and democratic society.”)

Rolling out the red carpet for visiting Canadian PM in Washington, February 4. A great day for Canada ... maybe?

The almost schizophrenic challenge of working so intimately together, while retaining each partner’s separate sovereignty, is nonetheless almost humorously clear in the last four paragraphs of the preamble to the first “Principles” section of the February 4, 2011 document:

“We intend to work together to engage with all levels of government and with communities, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector, as well as with our citizens, on innovative approaches to security and competitiveness … We value and respect our separate constitutional and legal frameworks that protect privacy, civil liberties, and human rights and provide for appropriate recourse and redress … We recognize the sovereign right of each country to act independently in its own interest and in accordance with its laws … We expect to work together with third countries and with international organizations, and intend to facilitate security sector reform and capacity building around the globe, to enhance standards that contribute to our overall security.”

1. Key Areas of Cooperation …

Anyone who was hoping that this February 4, 2011 document would at last make very clear just what this latest round of Canada-US discussions on trade and related economic (and other) issues is all about will almost certainly be disappointed.

Prime Minister and President hold a joint press conference on February 4.

“Beyond the Border: a shared vision for perimeter security and economic competitiveness … A declaration by the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the United States of America” (or, if you prefer: a “Declaration by President Obama and Prime Minister Harper of Canada”) is replete with essentially vague allusions to certain broad subjects on which further discussion will take place.

In the more specific part of the first section on “Principles” four “Key Areas of Cooperation” are outlined at somewhat greater length, but still in a rather general way: (1) “Addressing Threats Early” ; (2) “Trade Facilitation, Economic Growth, and Jobs” ; (3) “Integrated Cross-border Law Enforcement” ; and (4) “Critical Infrastructure and Cybersecurity.”

Item (1) here begins with: “Collaborating to address threats before they reach our shores, we expect to develop a common understanding of the threat environment through improved intelligence and information sharing, as well as joint threat assessments to support informed risk management decisions.”

Mmmm … you might ask yourself. Just what does this actually mean? But you won’t have any much clearer answer by the time you reach the last paragraph on this key area, which explains how: “We intend to work together to promote the principles of human rights, privacy, and civil liberties as essential to the rule of law and effective management of our perimeter.”

Ambassador Gary Doer greets Prime Minister Stephen Harper as he arrives in Washington, February 4, 2011. One virtue of having a Canadian ambassador to the United States is that at least someone will be on hand to greet visiting Canadian prime ministers.

The verbiage offered under the other three “Key Areas of Cooperation” is equally mysterious, as it were. Eg: “We will strive to ensure that our border crossings have the capacity to support the volume of commercial and passenger traffic inherent to economic growth and job creation on both sides of the border.”

And: “We intend to improve the sharing among our law enforcement agencies of relevant information to better identify serious offenders and violent criminals on both sides of the border.”

And then, finally: “We intend to work together to defend and protect our use of air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace, and enhance the security of our integrated transportation and communications networks.”

2. Implementation and Oversight …

It may also be illuminating that the second major section of the document, on “Implementation and Oversight” is much shorter than the first, and certainly no more revealing.

Prime Minister Harper and President Obama share a quiet moment in Oval Office, watched over by Abraham Lincoln.

It consists in its entirety of four brief paragraphs, which can be reproduced in full without taking up any great amount of space here (and, because this is a Canadian site, I am using the sovereign Canadian version of course):

“Canada and the United States intend to establish a Beyond the Border Working Group (BBWG) composed of representatives from the appropriate departments and offices of our respective federal governments.

“Responsibility for ensuring inter-agency coordination will rest with the Prime Minister and the President and their respective officials.

“We intend for the BBWG to report to their respective Leaders in the coming months, and after a period of consultation, with a joint Plan of Action to realize the goals of this declaration, that would, where appropriate, rely upon existing bilateral border-related groups, for implementation.

“The BBWG will report on the implementation of this declaration to Leaders on an annual basis. The mandate of the BBWG will be reviewed after three years.”

3. What each of the Prime Minister and the President may or may not have to gain …

The two leaders discus “Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness” with their various relevant officials — at least some of whom will probably be serving on the Beyond the Border Working Group (BBWG).

Note esp. the second paragraph in the Implementation and Oversight section: “Responsibility for ensuring inter-agency coordination will rest with the Prime Minister and the President and their respective officials.”

This suggests that whatever detailed proposals or “joint Plan of Action” the members of the BBWG come up with, when they “report to their respective Leaders in the coming months” or “on an annual basis,” will be implemented by the executive branches of each government, without recourse to fresh legislation.

This is no doubt a good or at least necessary thing, since neither Prime Minister Harper nor President Obama currently commands a legislative majority. (Well, they both do command majorities in their respective Senates, even if PM Harper’s has been obtained strictly by a near-orgy of patronage appointments. But that is not enough to secure the passage of fresh legislation.)

Reliance on strictly executive branch implementation may or may not suggest one of two things. Either what the new BBWG comes up with is unlikely to be of any great consequence. Or in both countries the capacity of executive branches to govern without recourse to democratic legislative majorities has reached alarming proportions.

(Although the second prospect is quite arguably less alarming in the USA today, because at least President Obama — unlike Prime Minister Harper — has been elected by a democratic majority of the American people in his own right. Prime Minister Harper is merely the leader of the party that managed to secure 37.7% of the Canada-wide popular vote in the last election.)

The prospect that what the new BBWG comes up with is unlikely to be of any great consequence could also be said to raise the prospect that the entire exercise is just a piece of political window dressing — as opposed to a cynical attempt to sneak some sea-change in the relationship between Canada and the United States under some disingenuous and unaccountable bureaucratic table. And insofar as this interpretation makes any sense (which may or may not be the case when the details are finally clear, of course), it raises the question of what does each of the “respective Leaders” gain?

The answer here is easy enough to see in Prime Minister Harper’s case. President Obama remains very popular in Canada. For Prime Minister Harper to be seen to be getting along so well with him is electoral gold dust.

At the Washington meeting this past Friday, February 4, 2011: “Off the top, Obama called Harper ‘Stephen’ — not Steve, as George W. Bush once did in the same setting. Obama referred to Harper’s garage-band rendition of the Rolling Stones which he understood was a hit on YouTube … For his part, Harper began by saying: ‘Thank you, Barack, for your friendship, both personal and professional.’” (Just think how footage of all this could look in a Conservative TV commercial during a spring election campaign?)

It is similarly not impossible to imagine how being seen to get on well with a Conservative prime minister of Canada could at least slightly boost President Obama’s image with the bipartisan independent US voters he seems so determined to woo back into his fold at this critical juncture in his political career.

Of course, hardly anyone in the United States pays any serious attention to Canada. But still, what has the president got to lose? And for a brief Friday afternoon in the middle of winter, he may even gain a little of something he wants.

4. Implications for federal election fever in Canada

Canadian ambassador to the United States Gary Doer appears to have made a remark that President Obama finds amusing in this photo, at February 4 Oval Office gathering?

The official photos of the February 4 meetings in Washington show Prime Minister Harper and President Obama dressed in virtually identical Leaders’ uniforms: black suits, white shirts, and wine-coloured ties (or some might say rust or even some shade of red?).

You can’t help but wonder whether this dress code was planned. The thought also occurs that it is meant to symbolize some new era of still greater harmonization in US and Canadian public policies, to boost trade and economic growth — but of course this is just too absurd to be true. (Or is it?)

The photos on the Prime Minister of Canada website also show Mr. Harper being greeted at the Washington airport by the current Canadian ambassador to the United States, former Manitoba NDP premier Gary Doer. Ambassador Doer is featured as well in photos of the prime minister and the president in the Oval Office, surrounded by assorted supporting officials from both countries.

This, you might think, could be equally impressive in a Conservative TV commercial during a spring election campaign. Stephen Harper may be a red-meat conservative (even a neo-con, whatever that may mean, if anything nowadays?). But he is a Canadian too. And he has appointed a New Democrat to represent the country in Washington — and Mr. Doer seems quite happy in his new job, etc, etc, etc …

Symbolism of this order could make you wonder as well about some otherwise intriguing remarks by Chantal Hébert in her Toronto Star column today, provocatively headlined “Perimeter issue could split Liberals.”

Ms. Hébert concludes with: “While the perimeter concept has met with decisively mixed reviews within the Liberal party, there is essentially no audience for it with Layton’s NDP … The optics of giving Harper a pass on the next budget so that he can then move on to complete the biggest leap towards increased Canada-US integration in more than two decades will be a hard sell for many of the party’s core constituencies … It may now take more than a bouquet of fig leaves for Layton to justify extending the life of the minority Parliament next month” (when the rubber will finally hit the road on the next budget).

At the same time, some will say, does the document “Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness” really point towards “the biggest leap towards increased Canada-US integration in more than two decades”? Or is it just another Harperite trick? Or is Craig Oliver at CTV onto something, when he says: “The question in my mind this week is this: Is Harper hoping to repeat the success Brian Mulroney had in making closer integration with the Americans a winning election ballot question, whatever the Conservatives may say about not wanting one.”

And yet again, as Chantal Hébert aptly points out: “Historically, increased integration with the United States has always been a live rail in Canadian politics. In spite of the original intentions of its crafters, Brian Mulroney’s free trade agreement with the United States resulted in a rare plebiscite-style federal election in 1988 … While Mulroney’s Conservatives prevailed (with strong Quebec support), a clear majority of Canadians then voted for parties that opposed the free trade agreement negotiated by his government.”

(In 1988 the Mulroney Conservatives, thanks to the peculiarities of our current electoral system, won some 57% of the seats in the Canadian House of Commons with only 43% of the Canada-wide popular vote. These kinds of numbers, however, appear to mark the absolute height of current Harper Conservative ambitions, regardless of their democratic frailties in legitimizing “increased Canada-US integration.”)

From another angle again, the very best argument against PM Harper’s “Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness” concept, in a spring election or anywhere else, may have been hinted at broadly in Thomas Walkom’s Toronto Star column this past Saturday, provocatively headlined “PM’s border scheme mired in past.”

Ambassador Doer escorts Prime Minister Harper along red carpet (accompanied by US Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall).

Mr. Walkom’s exact argument — that “as economist Jeff Rubin and others have pointed out, in a world of permanently high oil prices” the logic behind the kind of “long-distance, integrated production” that the February 4 Canada-US document is presumably designed to help facilitate “is destined to become a thing of the past” — may be something on which the jury is still out, in some degree. But there are more than a few related reasons to wonder about just how big a practical problem really lies at bottom of the “Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness” concept, in the early 21st century global village.

The Harper government cheerleader L Ian Macdonald, in his Montreal Gazette column today, may have inadvertently raised the most provocative question, when he wrote: “On a per capita basis, the Canadian economy created nearly 20 times as many new jobs as the US in January … That’s not a bragging number, but one to worry about.”  Exactly. And why is it again that it is so important to be even more closely integrated with the troubled US economy right now — especially when any such integration inevitably will pose at least some risk to Canadian sovereignty, regardless of how many times Harper government spokespeople say it won’t?

Randall White is the author of a number of books on Canadian history and politics, including Fur Trade to Free Trade: Putting the Canada US Trade Agreement in Historical Perspective.

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  1. wow! what’s happening now?

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