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72nd Annual Summer Conference, August 7–10, 2003

Whose Border Is It, Anyway?
Re-thinking North America’s Defences, from Smart Borders to Smart Missiles

By Stephen Handelman

“We cannot accept unpaid the sheltering protection of another state.”
— Stephen Leacock, 1909

Two years after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, North America is a profoundly divided continent. Canada, Mexico and the United States have achieved a level of security cooperation that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but the lingering sense of vulnerability in the region’s most powerful nation continues to influence and in some cases distort the politics of the region. The solidarity and common vision that accompanied the signing of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement have been undermined by the opposition of America’s northern and southern neighbors to its war in Iraq. Moreover, Washington’s troubled and potentially long-term occupation of that faraway Middle Eastern country raises doubts about whether it can sustain the momentum (or interest) for the broadened hemisphere partnership promised at the outset of George W. Bush’s presidency. Meanwhile, although the huge trade flows that made the region an engine of world prosperity in the 1990s have resumed, trade and social policy conflicts have sharpened as economic uncertainties have begun to eat away at consumer and investor confidence. With increasingly divergent views on foreign and economic affairs, on security threats, and on their obligations to each other, the three nations have rarely been so far apart.

The Canada-U.S. relationship, in particular, has arguably suffered the most bruising blows. The sophisticated social, economic and political linkages across the 49th Parallel made it easier for Canadians to move towards the new security condominium demanded by Washington. If nothing else, the deepening integration of the two economies (and the common vulnerabilities arising from that integration) made such a partnership a matter of obvious self-interest for both countries. But Canadian suspicion of American policies, coupled with American resentment of Canadian “softness” in foreign and military policy, has diminished the possibilities for a genuine political dialogue that would rise above technical discussions over border controls and customs harmonisation. Such a dialogue is even more crucial now as the two countries move from tackling border security to the thornier issue of continental defence.

The framework for dialogue is certainly there. North America changed shape on December 12, 2001. On that date, Canada’s then-Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley and Gov. Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who had become director of the new U.S. Office of Homeland Security, met in Ottawa to give their governments’ formal approval to a 30-point “Smart Border Action Plan” hurriedly worked out by officials of both countries in the aftermath of the attacks that had taken place, almost to the day, three months earlier. A similar (though considerably less ambitious) agreement was signed between the U.S. and Mexico on March 22, 2002. Both plans were in some ways an extension of the NAFTA agreement, in that they created a system of cooperative vigilance at the borders which would enable the benefits of the trade pact to continue. The 30 points of the Canada-U.S. plan, which would later be expanded to cover other forms of commercial and agricultural trade, included measures for joint policing and customs inspection that would incorporate the latest innovations in scanning technology and data sharing. But the agenda, in Canada’s case at least, was about far more than the border. Manley and Ridge declared their aim was to create a “zone of confidence” in which citizens of both countries could continue to trade and interact inside a new protective security shield.

It may have sounded modest, but this was a transforming proposal. Whether the “zone” was rhetorical or physical, it replaced the classic North American notion of a border with two sides, each one operated separately by the authorities of each country, with the emerging concept of a jointly monitored, though still-undefined, space bounded by North America’s territorial perimeter. Manley, for domestic political reasons, shied away from the “P-word,” but as officials of both countries began working on the details, it was clear that the long-discussed American concept of “homeland defence” had been subtly enlarged to include the perimeters of the continent. Over the next year and a half, a Privy Council steering group run by Manley (now Deputy Prime Minister) along with a new cabinet committee on security began fleshing out with their U.S. counterparts what was in fact a fundamental change in thinking about North America. Canadian and U.S. customs inspectors began working for the first time in each other’s ports; intelligence and law-enforcement agencies in both countries stepped up joint data-swapping arrangements; and, as Canadian and U.S. visa officers worked together outside North America in places from London to Hong Kong, the two countries began discussing ways of harmonizing their visa policies. Considering the usual pace of diplomacy, the speed of the work was nothing short of remarkable. But in fact the new approach to transnational security was based on activities that had already quietly begun in the mid-1990s, with the formation of groups like the Canada United States Partnership (CUSP) and Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETS). What motivated the thinking at the time was economic necessity. The increasingly fluid personal and commercial interactions fueled by NAFTA created a level of mutual dependence which the existing binational architecture was incapable of managing. To take one example: voice and data transmissions between the U.S. and Canada grew from 2 billion minutes in 1986 to 6.3 billion minutes in 1996, and a telephone call between Montreal and Vancouver is now as likely to go through the U.S. as through Canada. Who bears responsibility for a breakdown? Meanwhile, much of the U.S. defense communications network depends on the proper working of Canadian energy systems. Hundreds of officials on both sides of the border now meet regularly to manage what have become core bi-national issues ranging from food safety and pesticide standards to clean-air regulations. The Sept. 11 attacks merely made the need for a new approach explicit. With security fears threatening to shut down trade, Manley and Ridge succeeded in changing the philosophical baseline for cooperation. “Public security and economic security are mutually enforcing,” they said in their joint statement on Dec. 12. As a concept that challenged traditional notions of sovereignty, trade and security in both countries, it set out a roadmap for 21st century governance in North America.

Yet paradoxically neither government seems ready to address the larger questions the new (and so far successful) regime has raised. Just what does the Zone of Confidence consist of? What belongs in it? What doesn’t? And, perhaps most significant of all, how do civilian homeland security and military defence mesh inside this new perimeter approach? Merely asking the questions illustrates why the current distrust among all three partners in North America couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment.

Some of the roots of the distrust pre-date the Sept. 11 attacks. A wary chill between Ottawa and the new administration set in soon after the 2000 presidential elections. Trade issues were left to fester, as the White House increasingly turned its attention to Mexico. But Mexico’s hopes of achieving a long-sought agreement with the U.S. on migration policies at the southern border were dashed when the post-Sept. 11 administration elevated security and anti-terrorism to the top of its domestic agenda. Both Mexico and Canada found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with American homeland security prerogatives. In hemisphere forums, they pointedly insisted (along with other members of the Organization of American States) that threats to the security of the continent required addressing “economic, social, health, and environmental aspects” through multinational institutions as well as by unilateral military means. Differences over Iraq further exacerbated the situation, and figures in both countries who had been in the forefront of the incipient continental agenda paid a political price. Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda left office, and Canada’s Manley found himself isolated inside his own Liberal political caucus. Although the rhetoric of sympathy and trinational solidarity was still strong, the three North American partners retreated into traditional insular poses.

But tradition also offers a way of disentangling the issues. The American preoccupation with enlarging its security perimeter is not new. In asserting the inviolability of the continent against European intervention in 1823, President James Monroe established a concept of national security that extended well beyond the borders of the young American republic. As the Monroe doctrine became an axiom of U.S. relations with the hemisphere, it provoked particular hostility in the south where it was seen as an excuse for intervention. Skepticism in Canada was expressed differently. In a landmark 1909 essay, Stephen Leacock said it was “absurd” to imagine Canadians could rely on Washington to defend themselves against foreign aggression without paying a price. Making the argument for establishing the Royal Canadian Navy, he declared “we cannot accept unpaid the sheltering protection of another state.” As Leacock pointed out, the only security threat Canada now represented to the U.S. was as a possible wedge to pull it into an unwanted European war. In 1938, as war clouds loomed, Leacock proved prescient – but not quite in the way he imagined. President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Kingston, Ont. and promised Prime Minister Mackenzie King that the U.S. “would not stand idly by” if Canada were endangered. A few days later, King responded in kind, pledging to do nothing to jeopardize the U.S. With the outbreak of war, Canada-U.S. cooperation to jointly defend the continent became a central pillar of the binational relationship. The result of what some analysts labeled the “Kingston Dispensation” was that the physical security of Canada and the U.S. became intertwined. The essence of the agreement, which defined North America as a single defence unit for the first time, was simple:

"Each country understood that it had a neighborly obligation to the other, not only to refrain from any activities that might imperil the security of the other, but also to demonstrate nearly as much solicitude for the other’s physical security needs as for its own.”

And, as Leacock might not have expected, such protection came at a price Canada proved willing to pay. The new homeland defense doctrine became the foundation of the 1958 NORAD agreement for the common air defence of North America, and it remains the centrepiece of U.S.-Canada military cooperation (along with some 400 separate treaties and military exchange agreements). “Our relationship is built on the commitment that Canada must never be a source of insecurity to the U.S.,” Gen. Ray Henault, the new Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, still felt able to say in June, 2003.

The challenge now is whether a single defense unit on the continent can encompass both traditional military threats and non-conventional ones, while preserving the autonomy of its members. The “Y2K” alert in the millennium year of 2000 offered an early public taste of how that could be achieved. Defence officials, civilian authorities and private sector groups from all three countries managed to work together in planning how to cope with the impact in North America of the predicted global computer meltdown. The catastrophe never occurred of course, but the military-civilian networks created at the time persist. At the same time, fears of openly involving the military in civilian defense issues (and legal barriers to that involvement in the U.S) have kept these networks ostensibly outside the civilian “Zone of Confidence.” On the surface, there are good reasons to do so. Civil-defense, public order and economic security encompass different “chains of command” – involving states and provinces, customs inspection agencies, police agencies and intelligence authorities. Nevertheless, the post-Sept. 11 security language used by both military and civilian personnel is increasingly the same, as they explore new concepts of the electronic age like “domain awareness” and “data fusion.”

In some cases the boundaries are already becoming blurred. Take for instance the developing security regime addressing North America’s maritime boundaries. In December, 2002, the newly-formed Canadian Interdepartmental Maritime Security Working Group developed a plan to protect Canada’s 250 ports and $110 billion a year- maritime trade (much of which heads to US). Based on the idea of concentric circles, starting with a local port and extending to international waters, it sets out a protocol for joint U.S.-Canadian monitoring of vessels approaching North American waters. Joint targeting teams comprising a fluctuating list of agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard, Revenue Canada, RCMP and Canadian Coast Guard officers share information and monitoring. A new High-Frequency Surface Wave Radar capable of detecting vessels as far as 170 miles offshore has been installed in Vancouver and Halifax, and will soon be extended to 25 sites on all three Canadian coasts. Although this is regarded as a “civilian” operation for monitoring private shipping, its military nature is unquestionable.

But where does the information go, and how will it be acted upon? The U.S. and Canadian navies are uniquely inter-operable, with compatible communications, methodologies and munitions that have enabled them to operate together in overseas theatres. But unlike the combined air force arrangements under NORAD, there are no arrangements for joint threat prevention in North American waters. Similarly there is no formal role for Canadian Forces reserves, which are highly trained for civil defence emergencies, in operating across the border. In many ways, Canadian Forces are better suited for quick-response actions on North American soil than their American counterparts, and there are fewer interagency conflicts to slow up the chain of command. The U.S. has moved to combat its own deficiencies in this area by forming a new homeland command (NORTHCOM) which was then logically tied to the existing continental defence structures of NORAD. (The NORAD commander is also the designated chief of NORTHCOM). This has posed both a challenge and an opportunity to Canadian civil defence and military structures. Was this a step to a broader defence pact, or merely the modernisation of existing continental arrangements? After some delay, Canada agreed to participate in a new Canada-U.S. Planning group, based at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, aimed at working out some of these issues. (The group’s chairman is the NORAD deputy commander, a Canadian). So far, Canadians have rejected U.S. hints that it would like to extend NORAD defences to land and sea forces as well. Critics of the plan in Canada say it will make Canadians subordinate to American planning and command authorities. To make matters worse, dealing with this issue has been further complicated by U.S. plans to establish ballistic missile defence as part of NORAD’s responsibilities.

The command issues work both ways. On Sept. 11, NORAD technicians spotted a suspicious airplane approaching Canada from the east. Since the closest Canadian fighters were based some distance away at Inuvik, U.S. planes were ordered into the air to intercept it. The decision whether to shoot the plane down was, however, up to Canada’s Prime Minister. Luckily, no decision proved necessary. But who was taking orders from whom?

More trenchant critics worry that participation in Ballistic Missile Defence will make Canada a participant against its will in U.S. military policies which it opposes, such as the weaponisation of space. Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy has been the most vocal proponent of this argument. “What I object to is the slippery slope of integration….in the name of battling terrorism, which step by step leads to a loss of choice.” This is a powerful objection, if only because the question of how homeland defense will be integrated with national policy-making bodies in both countries has been left to stagnate by the lack of real dialogue. On May 29, 2003, Canadian Defence Minister John McCallum announced the government would enter discussions with the U.S on space defences, but resentment and fear remains high, as critics on both sides of the border claim that a Canadian decision to stay out of the U.S. homeland security plan will cause a fatal breakdown in U.S.-Canadian security arrangements. “For the first time,” warns Dwight Mason, former U.S. co-chair of the Permanent Joint Defense Board, “Canada would have excluded itself entirely from an important aspect of North American defense and….the tradition of partnership would be greatly weakened.”

Whether this is true or not, what does seem clear is that the U.S. regards Canada’s token participation in its missile defense plan (Ottawa is not being asked to provide any money or bases) as the entry price for a voice in the new continental defences. Considering the U.S. own strategic interest in strengthening the Zone of Confidence, this may be self-defeating. In the long run, missile defence is only one element of homeland security – and not necessarily the most important one. Currently, the most viable “military” threats to the North American infrastructure are more low-tech: a cruise missile aimed at a North American city launched from a boat outside territorial waters; a biological weapon or pathogen smuggled across the border, a radiological “dirty bomb” stuck in a container heading for a North American port. All the same, accepting the U.S. plan makes eminent sense on the grounds that Canada will gain greater manoeuvering room for defining the Zone of Confidence.

Canada isn’t the only partner confronting the challenge of balancing shared sovereignty with mutual defence. U.S. anxiety to limit foreign participation in its chain of command is well-known. (Witness the effort in the U.S. to downplay the fact that a Canadian NORAD general was on duty the morning of Sept. 11). But to achieve the security it considers necessary in North America, the U.S., too, will have to make compromises – just as it did in the preparations for Y2K, by accepting broader definitions of security threats that incorporate the concerns of transnational or non-American civilian networks that help keep the North American system operating. “It is self-defeating for the U.S. to embrace security measures that end up isolating it from those networks,” observes U.S. Council on Foreign Relations expert Stephen Flynn. And a new government in Ottawa might be willing to meet Washington on those grounds: Liberal Party frontrunner Paul Martin Jr. has pledged to create a new Cabinet committee responsible for coordinating transnational military and civilian security matters.

In the end, there’s not much alternative for any of the partners except to figure out how to work together. This spring, there were renewed debates about the future of Canadian foreign and military policy, centred on whether Canada is “disappearing” on the international stage. But it’s hard to disappear in North America. As regional economic and military security continues to remain at the top of the continent’s agenda, there are few issues not connected to the “Zone.” Canada, Mexico and the United States should consider themselves equal partners in the dialogue required to protect the institutions and resource flows already reshaping North America. It is a tragic paradox that the greatest potential threat to North American security today may be the inability of all three countries to bridge their resentments, misconceptions and fears in a way that which would make such a dialogue possible.

Stephen Handelman, author and journalist, writes the biweekly TIME Canada column “49th Parallel” and is a frequent commentator on North American and international affairs .