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Inside the Push to Promote Security and Prosperity in North America

Richard Weitz

On Feb. 23, senior officials from Canada, Mexico, and the United States met to discuss ways to counter cross-border security threats while enhancing continental commerce as part of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP). U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay, and Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa also made further preparations for a third summit among their heads of government later this year.

Since the SPP began in March 2005, its core implementation element has consisted of trilateral working groups. Those engaged in the “Security Dialogue” address such issues as common transnational threats, developing integrated emergency-response strategies, and facilitating the secure shipment of goods. The working groups associated with the “Prosperity Dialogue” pursue such objectives as harmonizing business and trade regulations, encouraging cooperation among partner companies, and expanding cooperation on environmental, energy and health issues.

Certain figures make evident the importance of the SPP. Trade between the United States and both Canada and Mexico has steadily risen during the past twelve years. Legal cross-border trade between Mexico and the United States amounted to almost $225 billion in 2004, nearly double the 1998 figure. In the north, Canada remains the largest export market for U.S. goods—making up a larger market than Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and China combined.

Enhancing cooperation on energy will advance both the security and the prosperity objectives of the partnership. Continued economic prosperity requires reliable energy supplies. The three governments have been working to create stable energy markets, increase energy efficiency, and improve the technology and infrastructure related to the acquisition, transportation, and security of their energy resources.

Some elements related to the security dimension of the SPP are making less progress. According to the SPP 2006 Report to Leaders, many of the planned initiatives are lagging behind with regards to Mexico. These efforts include implementing improved screening technology, harmonizing travel security practices, and expanding information sharing.

Above all, illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border remains a problem.

To address it, on Jan. 23, the Bush administration launched its controversial Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), the crux of which requires all airline passengers, including U.S. citizens, traveling between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda to carry a valid passport or other accepted travel document. The introduction of this rule puts to an end the longstanding practice of allowing many Americans to reenter the United States with just a driver’s license, birth certificate, or other form of U.S. government-issued identification.

While U.S. authorities plan to extend the WHTI requirements to land and sea travelers no later than June 1, 2009, they are presently developing a wallet-sized “passport card” for use by land and sea travelers as an alternative to the traditional passport book. The envisaged People Access Security Service (PASS) card will use Radio Frequency Identification technology to transmit information to an electronic reader in its vicinity. Its designers hope that the convenience and low cost of a credit card-size travel document will lead to its widespread use.

A concern is that the WHTI will promote U.S. security at the expense of North American prosperity. The three North American countries are each others’ top trading partners, exchanging goods and services worth nearly $1 trillion annually. Although the WHTI applies throughout the Western Hemisphere, it will most affect the flow of people and goods between Canada and the United States since travel across this border has traditionally been more open than across the U.S.-Mexican border or through other entry points into the United States.

Canadian authorities have expressed unease about the WHTI. In a January 2006 speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington, Stockwell Day, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, characterized it as a “shock to our collective system” that presented major challenges to Canada’s economy. Since fewer than 30% of American and only some 40% of Canadian citizens currently hold passports, many businesses fear sharp decreases in cross-border travel and tourism. They also fear that the enhanced border- security measures will disrupt the flow of goods and services across the Canada-U.S. border, which regularly exceeds $1 billion daily.

Influential people in the United States have expressed similar concerns about the potential personal, diplomatic, and especially economic costs of the WHTI. Members of Congress from border regions have been particularly vocal about its potential impediments to tourists and retailers, and American civil liberty groups have raised doubts about the ability of WHTI-linked databases to protect personal information.

U.S. authorities have deflected immediate concerns about the program by not fully enforcing it. Thus far, U.S. border officers are continuing the pre-WHTI practice of allowing travelers to and from Canada and Mexico without passports to cross U.S. borders by using other documents to confirm their identity.

In the long-term, the success of the WHTI will require developing secure but easy-to-use travel documents that permit border officers to identify suspect travelers without disrupting most trade and tourism. US-VISIT, e-Passports, and other recent innovations have already demonstrated how technology can work unobtrusively to enhance security without undue impediment. The invention of a secure and inexpensive wallet-size PASS card could simplify travel procedures for millions of frequent and spontaneous cross-border travelers. Taken as a whole, these new technologies should, with proper consideration for privacy and other areas of concern, help achieve the vision embodied in the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America.

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