At a meeting today in Washington, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched a “Shared vision for perimeter security and economic competitiveness”. They announced that a group of senior government officials from both countries would form a “Beyond the Border Working Group.” The group will look for ways to streamline border security while creating a shared “perimeter security” around both countries. In addition, a Regulatory Cooperation Council will look for ways to coordinate and harmonize regulations in order to ease red tape for companies that do business in both countries.
After the leaders’ meeting, I spoke with U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, about what this all means.
Q – What does the Obama administration want out of these talks?
A – There are two things: And I think they are inseparable. One thing is we want to increase the flow of goods and people that don’t pose any risk to security and by doing so, make the lives or citizens easier and better. And we want to ensure that people on both sides of the border are safer.
Q – But more specifically, what are the top one or two outcomes the administration would like to see? Increased information sharing by Canada, for example? Or some particular pilot program? Or something else?
A – I’m not going to get into the tiny specifics or say which one is the single most important. But the thing that is very important is in the title – the perimeter approach. It means that we put less focus on the border itself – on the line along the 49th parallel or the geographic demarcation between the two countries – and try to move as much of what is done at the order away from the border as possible – not everything but as much as possible.
The reason it’s important is not so we can have another layer of security outside the border but so that when you move pressure away from the border to make it easier for people and goods that don’t post a security risk to move back and forth, and you can spend more time on people or goods that are the problem. This involves information sharing, shared infrastructure and common practices. But I think the key is to take some of the pressure off of the border.
Q – How committed is the Obama administration to making this happen?
A – We are very committed, very committed. You heard the president talk about the fact that this is a fundamental component of creating jobs. Our security is important factor as well. The fact of the matter is the administration is very committed. I can tell you on a personal level that the administration is very committed to this. This is just a vision. The president and prime minister understand that like any other vision it is only as good as can be by following through on it. I believe it is very important that Canadian and American people hold us responsible to follow through.
Q – Is there are specific timeline?
A – Our goal is to get this done as fast as we can get it done. There is not a specific deadline in it. I believe the agreement mentioned months. The plan is we are going to start working on this right away.
Q – Who is in charge?
A – We don’t have names yet, but it’s going to be run by senior people in the Privy Council Office and the National Security Council on the American side. It will include senior representatives from a variety of departments.
Q – Under the Bush administration, there was a process called the Security and Prosperity Partnership in which the three countries also tried to increase cooperation on border issues and harmonize regulations. It was criticized by some people for having nameless, faceless bureaucrats making decisions and costing the countries their sovereignty.
A – This has nothing to do with sovereignty. Canadians are going to make decisions about what happens in Canada and the Americans will decide what happens in the US. It just stands to reason that if we talk and coordinate and try to work together, it’s going to be better for both sides. There may be things we can work together on and some we can’t. We share values with Canadians to a greater extent than with any other country in the world. This is not about sovereignty. There is no issue, no question. It’s not just Canadians who worry about surrendering sovereignty Americans are worried too.
Q – Where did the initiative come from? Did Canada ask for this or the U.S.?
A – It arose quite frankly out of a series of discussions. It started out at lower levels and worked its way up. It didn’t start with a lightning bolt. We have been working co-operatively for hundreds of years, and especially since 9/11, on these issues and we have had some success – but the view from the leaders was we were not having enough success and needed to be better. Their view was best way to achieve that was through a very clear statement of the vision of the two leaders so that when we work our way down to individuals who have to execute on policy they understand where their leaders stand. The belief is that through this vision we’ll be able to make changes more quickly and more clearly.
Q – Which side did it come from? Did the Harper government ask for it or the Obama administration?
A – It just kind of happened that way. It was based on both sides talking. There was a convergence of views that the time was right. It wasn’t one side demanding it of the other.
Q – The Bush-era SPP process was criticized for consulting only with an advisory group of top CEOs of North American corporations. The business leaders had a formal role in advising the leaders, but no one else did – not NGOs, not other citizens. What mechanism will this process have for public consultation?
A – The intention is that we are going to solicit opinions from a variety of sources. The history of the Obama administration in this regard is pretty clear. I think if it’s going to work, we have to know that people from a variety of groups say.
Q – What will be the mechanism for those consultations?
A – I don’t think were quite there yet. That is part of what is going to have to be determined by the Beyond the Border Working Group and the Regulatory Cooperation Council.
Q – Earlier this week, the Government Accountability Office in Washington released a report that was interpreted as saying only 32 miles of the border are secure. What is your response to that report?
A – On the specifics, I can tell you we are always working to improve our procedures and some of the issues have already been addressed. The one other thing I say is that there was some suggestion that somehow Canadians ought to be required to get visas to come to US and I can assure that the Obama administration is not considering that.
Q – Now that the leaders have agreed on the vision, what is the next step?
A – The next step is this group is going to be formed soon. There is clearly urgency to that process. There have been discussions about the kinds of things we should be addressing. Hopefully we will start making progress and having things to report.
Q – Are you in the group?
A – I don’t know. It hasn’t been formed yet. I can tell you that I have a personal interest in this. I have been involved in this from day one and whether I am in the group or not, I intend to ensure that my voice is heard and that the group functions efficiently and effectively. I can assure you that I am not washing my hands of the process now that the prime minister and president have had their meeting.
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