In what was heralded by The Globe and Mail as a North American game changer, Wednesday’s announcement by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the Canada-U.S. “Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness Action Plan” showed that the United States had scored a touchdown, that continentally trading corporations had made a few yards, but that the Canadian team had been forced time after time to punt the ball back into American hands.
Washington scored its touchdown by achieving its long-desired, and long-resisted, goal of “entry-exit,” which commits Ottawa to supply it with passport information on all travellers coming into the country from the United States.
Whether integrating all Canadians’ movements outside the country – including travel overseas – in U.S. intelligence and police data systems makes them feel more secure or more vulnerable to detention on the basis of mistaken information they can’t correct (as the Maher Arar case dramatized) is another matter.
The equivalent Canadian touchdown would have been an agreement to authorize and finance a second bridge at the Windsor-Detroit bottleneck, so commerce could flow smoothly. But Washington has been either unwilling or unable to prevail over domestic Michigan politics, where the businessman who owns the existing Ambassador Bridge has laboured furiously, generously and successfully to block any possible competition from a twinned bridge. As a result, all talk about infrastructure improvements to facilitate transborder commerce is just that: language promising action but without any specifically agreed-on projects, let alone the financial commitments from both governments to realize them.
The few yards gained by the business community are to be found in the pilot projects promised here (pre-clearance of containers reaching Prince Rupert from Asia) and there (pre-clearance of truckloads as they leave the factories of trusted manufacturers in Canada for U.S. destinations). How much these pilot projects facilitate cross-border trade remains to be seen.
How often the Canadian negotiators had to punt the ball back into their U.S. counterparts’ hands can be seen every time the agreements’ text reads “it is intended that.” This phrase is repeated so often that the putatively game-changing deal is actually revealed to be a pre-deal that envisages continuing negotiations to achieve agreements on a bewildering range of bilateral issues both small and large.
What’s surprising about this anti-climactic pair of documents is less the repetition of the rhetoric about “partnership” and “collaboration” that has been cut and pasted from the original “Stephen-Barack” encounter in February than how little there is to show for the 10 months of negotiations that ensued. The February announcement promised a joint plan of action. The December document tells us that a joint plan of action still has to be cobbled together.
Canadians could have been forgiven for thinking that the effort to construct a continental security perimeter meant ensuring the outer borders of Canada and Mexico would be as secure against possible U.S. enemies as the United States’ own land, air and sea borders, so Washington could return its northern and southern land borders to their pre-9/11, NAFTA-defined openness to the passage of goods and people.
Clearly, this vision is not being considered. What’s “intended” is easing U.S. border restrictions on certain categories of business travellers and easily verified merchandise. The result will be Washington’s having its cake and eating it, too. It will achieve a gated security community for North America while retaining the fortifications that the Department of Homeland Security has built up over the past decade for the territorial United States.
Mr. Harper claimed these wordy texts represented the biggest breakthrough in Canada-U.S. affairs since NAFTA, but it’s not. The real game changer took place 10 years ago, when Ottawa felt obliged to participate in supporting, through its own policy mimicry, the U.S. determination to transform itself into a security state. Rather than using Canada’s leverage as the United States’ most important foreign source of economic strength and military security, Ottawa has spent the past decade internalizing Washington’s self-wounding anti-terrorist obsession.
The real North American game changer occurred in December of 2001 with the Canada-U.S. Smart Border agreement. Wednesday’s deal just pushed the unfortunate process a few steps further.
Stephen Clarkson is a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto. His latest book, co-authored with Matto Mildenberger, is Dependent America? How Canada and Mexico Construct U.S. Power.