U.S.-Canada Relations at 200: Symbiosis for the 21st century

Aug 22, 2012

     It is only fitting that in the 200th year since the War of 1812, Canada and the United States have begun to implement another landmark agreement. Cooperation in international politics hardly elicits as much media attention as conflict, yet after two centuries of historic peace on the border, Canada and the United States continue to quietly enhance bilateral cooperation. The Beyond the Border Action Plan will potentially cut some of the red tape that hampers cross-border trade. Canada will also further increase border security and work more closely with the United States to address threats to the continent.

     On July 9, 2012, the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute hosted two seasoned public servants to discuss the progress made since President Obama and Prime Minister Harper announced the plan in December of 2011. David Moloney, a senior advisor in the Privy Council and Alan Bersin, Assistant Secretary and Chief Diplomatic Officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, both discussed various elements of the nascent agreement. Moloney focused on the micro-elements of the plan: reducing transactional costs, eliminating unnecessary cargo stops, and maintaining strict deadlines to ensure that progress on deliverables is made. Bersin highlighted the agreement’s critical macro-elements, from the need to compete with Asia to threats of global terrorism that both countries face. This cooperation on domestic security, Bersin argued, falls into a broader pattern of agreement from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to the mutual security interests that have arisen since 9/11.

     Both panelists raised the issue of terrorism as not just a separate threat to each country, but a continental threat shared by both countries. More so than elsewhere, security and commerce are linked for Canada and the United States. The 9/11 attacks and each subsequent threat—from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the “Underwear Bomber”) to Faizal Shahzad (Times Square Bomber)—adversely affected the economy of both countries, and Bersin rightly noted that Abdulmutallab was in Canadian airspace when he attempted to detonate the bomb in his undergarments. With more than $1 billion in trade conducted every day and in effect a trillion dollar bilateral relationship, joint preventive measures to combat terrorism are a prerequisite to a vibrant, 21st century economy on both sides of the border. The solution presented by the plan is integrated law enforcement: detecting threats early and addressing them efficiently. If history is any indicator, Canada and the United States have been remarkably successful—perhaps the most successful of any two sovereign states—in implementing programs to combat security threats. This collaborative history—NATO, NORAD, and on the economic front, NAFTA—evinces the inextricable economic and security ties which bind the two states.

     Connected to this notion of perimeter security is the goal of economic efficiency. While Bersin rightly alluded to the Cold War and the historic successful cooperation between Canada and the United States, today’s world is far different. Primary security threats to the continent are now non-state actors, and the primary economic competitors are now Asian economies. India, China, and a multitude of East Asian countries have been growing at exponential rates. Neither Canada nor the United States can compete with a rising Asia unless economic inefficiencies are eliminated. Double-checking cargo, for example, adds additional costs and time to the delivery of goods, which makes both economies less competitive globally. The Canada-U.S. relationship, steeped in history and culture, has at its heart the border: rooting out issues there, which the Beyond the Border Action Plan seeks to do, will allow for more efficient economies and more secure societies. In an era of BRICS, ASEAN, and emerging markets, collective and collaborative defense and growth on the North American continent will not be a luxury but a strategic necessity. Beyond the Border is the first step towards realizing this necessity and implementing changes.

     While it has now been two centuries since shots were fired across the border, there remains much more work to do to ensure a secure yet open border. As we enter an era where global interconnectedness, trade, and threats will only intensify, we no longer need the Canada-U.S. relationship of the past. We need to construct—and emphasize—a Canada-U.S. symbiosis. A revitalized Canada-U.S. relationship starts with cargo, but it ends with China. No longer can security come at the expense of efficient commerce, nor can commerce relegate security concerns. The two countries must work together to find continental solutions to what are in effect global problems. Considering our history, it is quite likely that both countries will accomplish this and more. 

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