Building a better border in the age of Trump

by Brian Bow

September 21, 2017

After 9/11, the U.S. was preoccupied with securing its borders — and Canada was desperate to hold on to the trade and investments benefits of the Canada-U.S. and NAFTA trade agreements.

The two governments (then working with Mexico as a trilateral partner) reconciled these different priorities by framing their talks as an effort to build a shared regional “perimeter,” with close cooperation to eliminate security threats from within or without that space, and more efficient internal borders to keep people and products moving inside the integrated regional economy.

The “perimeter” concept, already fading in the Obama era, has dropped out of sight under Trump. Given the way Trump and his team feel about border security — and the way Canadians feel about Trump — that’s probably a good thing.

But both governments have good reasons to keep working on the underlying issues. For now, the language and imagery of the perimeter needs to be set aside, and the long, slow process of policy coordination needs to move along quietly, through a process that’s low-key but transparent.

Faced with Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to international institutions, it’s not surprising that the Trudeau government has begun to think seriously about how to adapt to a “post-American” global order in terms that echo the “third debate” strategy of the early 1970s. But there is also a recognition that geography is destiny — so, at least in the short run, Canada has no choice but to try to hold on to the market access that it bought and paid for in the free trade agreements.

There’s some risk that the overall importance of the NAFTA framework, and the intensity of the lobbying on lumber and dairy, will get Ottawa fixated on trade alone. That would be a mistake, because — as urgent as some of these trade disputes are — Canada’s economic prospects still depend on an efficient border, and that in turn depends on the effectiveness of cross-security cooperation.

Basic frameworks have been worked out to manage most of the issues from the original perimeter talks, but there are still a lot of financial commitments to be followed through on, and a lot of legal and procedural details to be worked out.

Preclearance of travellers was nominally resolved by a 2015 agreement, but there is still a lot of work to be done on working out what counts as “reasonable delay” and the circumstances under which one country’s officers can over-ride the other’s. Trusted-trader programs have been set up, but they are still paralyzed by a Catch-22: Stakeholder buy-in is needed to justify funding, and funding to create tangible advantages is needed to get stakeholder buy-in.

Both governments have committed to spend more on infrastructure, but it’s not clear how much of that will go to unclogging overloaded border crossings. Both sides need to push through with funding national infrastructure banks, setting up public-private partnerships and coordinating to make sure that the security and efficiency of borders is a key priority. Cross-border law enforcement cooperation needs to adapt to changing forms of organized crime, especially with respect to drug trafficking. Research, information-sharing and enforcement efforts need to expand to include “new” drug markets (e.g., synthetics, opioids) that are still poorly understood and seem likely to cause new forms of social damage.

The problem isn’t just that Trump and his core supporters are so intensely skeptical about immigration, free trade and international agreements. It’s also difficult to figure out who Canadian negotiators can talk to about these issues; the White House is way behind on making executive appointments and seems to be constantly embroiled in a never-ending circus sideshow of political scandals triggered by the president himself.

Thus, many have argued that Ottawa’s best bet is to go around the White House, following what Max Fisher recently called the “donut” strategy: engaging with other players such as relevant bureaucratic agencies, members of Congress, state and local governments, and private groups whose interests line up with Canada’s.

This isn’t really a new approach; it’s something Canada has been doing successfully since the 1980s. But it does seem to be working and it’s probably the only thing that Canada can do in pushing forward with a post-perimeter trade-and-security agenda.

Ultimately, however, any deals that are worked out will have to be approved by the White House. Just as with the NAFTA renegotiations, this might not be as difficult as expected. Trump’s team is desperate to find tangible foreign policy successes and has shown that it cares more about declaring victory than it does about long-term policy effects.

Canadian negotiators should expect Trump to frame any result as an act of dominance and that likely would trigger Canadian anxieties about national sovereignty. Ottawa will therefore have to think both about trying to negotiate a good deal and about carefully stage-managing both process and outcome to resonate with domestic audiences on both sides of the border.

Brian Bow is an associate professor of political science and director of the Centre for the Study of Security and Development (CSSD) at Dalhousie University, editor in chief of International Journal and a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci


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