In February, President Obama and Prime Minister Harper announced the formation of a bilateral working group to explore ways to deepen cooperation pertaining to border security and public safety. The objective is a co-called continental security perimeter – a thinning of the border between both countries through greater information sharing and policy coordination and ultimately more integrated action.
While an affront to traditional notions of national sovereignty, such a direction is by and large incremental, building on not only bilateral and continental free-trade agreements but also the now defunct North American Security and Prosperity Partnership forged in the aftermath of 9/11. While this latter initiative was trilateral and encompassed Mexico, the joint Obama-Harper declaration of February is an acknowledgment that each of the U.S. mainland borders warrants a unique approach in light of distinct contexts and challenges. Such bilateralism is evidently favoured by Canadian officials, according to WikiLeaks.
For Canada, then, such a political dialogue with the Obama administration should be welcomed since the de facto reality since 2001 has been constant pressure on Canadian authorities to pacify American concerns over the risks of an undefended and seemingly porous border. With our economic livelihood tied to access to the U.S. marketplace, and in light of the previous administration’s “with us or against us” mentality to anyone else, Canada’s leverage in devising bilateral strategies has been feeble.
Instead, there have been unrelenting demands for information and assistance and, at times, the results have been terribly destructive – just ask Maher Arar. The O’Connor Inquiry examining his ordeal revealed a policy vacuum with regards to bilateral information flows and recommended new oversight and openness as a result. While some RCMP reforms are seemingly in the works, the overall national security apparatus remains by and large shrouded in secrecy.
And therein lies the Achilles heel for Canada – namely the secretive nature of our domestic governance and how this invariably invites suspicion and concern toward any attempt to devise a continental framework for more shared and integrative security.
The stakes are especially high in the cyber world where clearly more continental (and international) collaboration is required. Whereas the Obama administration as sought to draw attention to the cyber security agenda with a major policy review devoted to risks and responses and the appointment of a senior official within the White House responsible for coordinating government wide efforts, the Harper government has by and large remained silent even within the national domain, save for a paltry $90 million of rehashed initiatives announced this past October.
In a manner akin to climate change policy, the Canadian government has seemed largely content to remain on the sidelines, biding time and following the American lead. Accordingly, much as with 9/11, the risk is that when a cyber crisis of one sort or another does unfold in the U.S., reactionary winds from the south will largely dictate consequences and responses here. Perversely, this country may well owe a debt of gratitude to cyber hackers who infiltrated government computer systems this past winter, thereby drawing some political attention to an otherwise dormant subject area in our democratic chambers.
Behind the scenes, militarily and in the realm of national security, continental interoperability is now an imperative. It is not acknowledged as such publicly, but rather pursued subversively. Unlike the American political system’s checks and balances through Congressional, bipartisan oversight, the reflexes of the Canadian Westminster model are defensive and insular (witness the handling of the Afghan detainee documents and the absence of any non-partisan political mechanism to examine the aforementioned cyber security threat).
New variables in the continental equation are an American president who is unusually popular in Canada and seemingly committed to multilateralism (at least in so far as a U.S. leader can be, especially now with a Republican controlled House of Representatives) and more government openness both offline and online. There may well be an opportunity to forge a new approach to bilateral dialogue and collaboration that is less about back room negotiations and secret briefings and more about a meaningful political interface involving elected officials and the citizenries on both sides of the border.
In the absence of this sort of innovation, the results are predictable enough: a stale, artificial and unhelpful debate in this country framed as black and white by nationalistic and integrationist camps, while the important work of interoperable security and defence mechanisms continues in the shadows, largely beyond the purview of our own democratic accountability structures except when things go awry.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).