What border-security agreements can and can’t deliver

According to the Globe and Mail, Canada and the United States have reached an agreement on that border-security deal they announced back in February. Interesting that the agreement will likely be announced almost 10 years to the day that the United States floated, and Jean Chrétien’s Liberals rejected, a “perimeter security” proposal in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now it looks like we have one. Wonder if anything in it’ll need Congressional approval?

The story, which relies on anonymous sources, doesn’t contain any other details. At all. So let’s use this opportunity to set out some criteria to judge the final agreement, shall we?

I’ll be watching to see if Canadian and American officials overpromise on what this accord can do. While it may be good (or bad) on its merits, the one thing it won’t do is bring any long-term certainty to the Canada-U.S. economic relationship.

A pessimist’s reading of recent Canada-U.S. history would note that the relationship is marked with agreements that were supposed to deliver long-term security of market access. The 1988 Free Trade Agreement. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. The 2001 Smart Border Accord. Each of these has proven not to be up to the task of securing Canadian access to the U.S. market. The first FTA was challenged by the United States’ desire to do a trade deal with Mexico, NAFTA-led integration was no match for the U.S. security panic post-9/11, and the Smart Border Accord was not able to mitigate continued U.S. border-security fears.

See the thread running through each of these? No, it’s not that the United States is run by fiends who want to steal Canadians’ precious bodily fluids. It’s that the United States and Canada are sovereign countries with different political systems. So long as the two countries have separate political systems, the United States will always place its own interest first. That’s kind of obvious, I know, but it bears repeating.

If that interest is perceived to be threatened (like, say, if a terrorist comes over the Canada-U.S. border), no agreement in the world will protect Canada. We’ll be back to square one, negotiating a deal that will finally (finally!) guarantee Canadian access to the U.S. market.

The basic point is that anyone who claims that this latest agreement will provide a long-term framework for secure Canada-U.S. commercial relations doesn’t know their history.

This is not to say that Canada should never conclude a security agreement with the United States. The Smart Border Accord, for example, was a pretty nifty piece of statecraft on Canada’s part, as it basically implemented a bunch of policies Canada had wanted for a long time, but which the United States had never bothered to take seriously.

Rather, it’s an argument, which I first made back in February, that the agreement should be evaluated on its own merits. This  requires considering the specifics and deciding whether they make sense and whether, overall, the good outweighs the bad.

So, you ask questions like: do specific provisions increase security? How do they affect Canadians’ Charter rights, and things like right to privacy? How will they actually improve the smooth-functioning of the border? And so on.

An agreement where specific good rules outweighs the bad is a good agreement. I think that’s fair. But I’d be leery about balancing the bad in the agreement against a claim that it secures Canadian access to the U.S. market. As I noted back in February:

All the security-economic tradeoffs in the world can’t get around the fact that Congress and Parliament continue to make laws for their respective countries. And when push comes to shove, Congress will side with their constituents.

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