Beyond the Border and Canada’s National Interest

The announcement of the Canada-US border deal undoubtedly represents a move closer to the United States; however, it is a step in the right direction for Canada in realizing its geopolitical destiny in the 21st century world.

Beyond the Border

Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to Washington D.C. on December 7 for talks with President Obama.  The key component of the visit was the announcement of the Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness. Central to this agreement is the harmonization of various security standards, screening, information sharing and a process to standardize certain regulations.  Shipped goods can now be screened at the port of entry and continue through to their destination without facing subsequent screening.   Other notable features of the plan include the expansion of the trusted traveler Nexus border card program and a “trusted shipper” program.  Over $1 billion will also be spent to upgrade customs screening facilities at the border.

Canadian and American business organizations have been decrying the border thickening that took place after 9/11.  In 2001, the United States moved away from primarily promoting neoliberal economic values around the world through trade and into a new security-conscious policy focus.  On top of more inspections of goods at border crossings, Canadian traders faced higher fees and significant infrastructure challenges.

An Archaic Outlook

Permacritics like Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians will, of course, decry the deal as further concessions to our more powerful neighbour to the south and the erosion of Canadian sovereignty.  The same arguments that were used against the Canada-US FTA, NAFTA, and the WTO will be rehashed and re-branded for a younger audience in an attempt to impede this deal.  Diatribes regarding Beyond the Border’s propensity to hamper Canadian health and environmental regulations will be wheeled out and critiques of the American justice system will be used in a style of nationalism that can only be termed Romantic Trudeau-esque.   To proponents of this view the essence of Canadian nationalism is the total ability of the government to legislate away international opportunity and kill jobs with a regulatory arsenal of weapons. This view may sound appealing to Canadians with a misdirected nationalist spirit; however, it totally ignores 21st century reality.

Not far enough… yet

Beyond the Border is in the Canadian national interest.  If it can be faulted, it should be for not going far enough or not dealing with the really meaty issues in Canada-US relations.  Major hurdles include the expansion of Windsor-Detroit trade links through which 25% of all trade passes and other transportation infrastructure problems that impede trade through other critical routes.  Other thorny issues include the talk of an eventual move to a common immigration and refugee policy.

Global Trends and Local Roots

The 1990s and early 21st century has seen a deepening of regional interdependence and a realization that cooperation will drive nations further than parochial nationalism.  NAFTA, Mercosur, and the European Union are recent examples of deepening trade and regulatory ties in an attempt to normalize trade and reflect a growing pro-trade consensus.  Although talk of a fully integrated North American economic space or a Fortress North America has subsided since the early 2000s, Canadian policymakers must recognize Canada’s place in a converging world.   That place will always be close to the United States.  Canada-U.S. cooperation extends far beyond this initiative:  NAFTA, Keystone XL, NORAD are only a few areas in which Canada and the U.S. work in partnership to achieve strategic ends.  The need to keep U.S. politicians happy by lobbying and allaying security fears will help Canada avoid embarrassments like the recent traveler fee imposed by the Obama Administration or the rerouting of the Keystone XL project.  Appreciating the importance of U.S. relations should not hamper Canada’s efforts to create trade and security partnerships elsewhere, but must ground Canada firmly in North American soil.


Canada cannot wish away her place in the world.  In reality, Canada is blessed with one of the greatest geographic locations in the world and will become a major player in the 21st century because of that location if it is properly leveraged.  To do so Canadians need to consider three factors which must inform the national interest calculus: first, Canada is full of resources the world wants and increasingly needs; second, Canada is at the head of an almost-totally democratic Americas region; and third, Canada is an Arctic nation, a Pacific nation and an Atlantic nation.  Leveraging these providential gifts, to paraphrase the Former PM of Australia John Howard, should be paramount to Canada acting in her national interest.  Canadian strategists must take all of these factors into consideration. Ignoring one or all of them is to be done at the nation’s peril.

In so far as Canada is geographically proximate to the United States, Canada is also culturally proximate to the United States.  The largest peaceful and undefended border in the world is made safe not only by great friendship between Canada and the U.S., but also by the fact both nations share nearly identical values, a common system of law and commitment to liberalism as the United States, too, is an offshoot of the British North American legacy.  The peaceful border and the shared history as nations of immigrants helps stabilize a relationship and provides the fertile soil for the massive trading relationship between Canada and the US.

A Strategy for Canada

In conclusion, Beyond the Border represents a much-needed step in fostering Canada’s relationship with the United States and promoting the national interest.  If Canada is to dominate in the 21st century it must leverage all its assets: its resource riches, its proximity to the United States and the wider continent, and the fact it is a nation with three coasts and three outlooks.  Expanding trade with other regions of the world and becoming closer to the United States are not mutually exclusive; instead, Canada must realize its geostrategic place in the world and then build out from its strong North American foundation.