By Brian Lee Crowley, August 31, 2011 - My good friend Stephen Blank, one of the leading authorities on North American economic integration and co-operation, has written an excellent text about the rumoured coming announcement of a new Beyond the Borders proposal. This follows on the heels of the White House meeting a few months ago between President Obama and Prime Minister Harper where the two leaders undertook to make new progress on the vexatious issues of border management. Stephen kindly consented to our reproducing his piece on the MLI website. I was keen to do so because it properly raises the issue of the wavering commitment to much needed economic integration by political leaders on both sides of the border in the face of raucous but ill-informed claims of loss of sovereignty and the need for protectionism. You can read Stephen's call for political backbone below.

Will BTB be DOA?

By Stephen Blank, New York, August 24, 2011

It appears that a new Beyond the Borders poposal is in the works. The idea is fine, and long overdue. Border delay undermines production systems and is a major source of pollution and GHG emissions.  Much can be done to improve the situation without compromising security.

But one wonders about the tactics.

If Ottawa had advanced something like this soon after Obama was elected, it would probably have been well received in Washington. A proposal to restructure border management and perhaps move toward a continental security perimeter, now, no matter how obvious and intelligent in the real world, could not come at a worse time in the loony world of US politics. Will (could) President Obama in his present political mess embrace a proposal to make border crossings easier? If not the President, then who in the Administration would carry the banner? In the Senate? The House? Democrats are wobbly about anything smacking of free trade agreements.  Can anyone doubt that the Republican candidates (except perhaps Jon Huntsman) would go bananas over this? Can you see Rick Perry calling out Janet Napolitano as a traitor for "opening" the US border?

The only way to sell the BTB idea is to wrap it in the gown of job creation. Which, of course, it really is. But to understand this, how border facilitation would create jobs, one has to have some reasonable understanding of the nature of North America's cross border production and energy systems and the interdependence that underpins our economies. One has to get the idea that in many sectors of our economies, competitiveness is continental, not national.

Which leads to the second major issue, our continued failure to build informed and active constituencies for North America.  Just as the three national leaders signed the NAFTA agreement, the storm over globalization intensified and NAFTA was its lightning rod. Facing this tempest, all three were reluctant to push beyond the trade agreement. Any discussion of the future of "North America" was off the table. And remained off the table.

Moreover, movements of goods across the border increased, firms developed new cross border production and marketing systems, all with little government involvement. These developments reflected the liberal milieu of the period and the widespread view that NAFTA should not lead in a "European" direction. The counterpoint to NAFTA-1994 was Europe-1992, the creation of a single European market. Experience seemed to confirm that in the more entrepreneurial North American context, government involvement was unnecessary and that markets and individual firms could be relied upon to create necessary arrangements. As Bob Pastor wrote, the agreement "did not envisage any unified approach to extract NAFTA's promise, nor did it contemplate any common response to new
threats. NAFTA simply assumed that the peoples of North America would benefit from the magic of a free marketplace, and that the three governments would resolve old or new problems."  (Robert Pastor, Toward a North American Community: Lessons From The Old World For The New (Institute for International Economics, 2001), p. 2)

But by the late 1990s, problems were brewing up. The erosion of critical transportation and energy infrastructure due to aging and deferred maintenance, growing congestion at key choke points, inadequate border facilities and the failure to harmonize key regulations all stressed integrated production systems. Critical issues now demanded continental responses: How to build a freight transportation system for 21st century needs, the future North American energy mix, dealing with demographic change and population movements and policy on immigration and security collaboration to name only a few. Increasingly rapid technological change and economic uncertainty were changing the game on many of these issues.

And the bar was being raised. In the 1980s and '90s, North American systems had to be efficient. After 9-11, they had also to be secure, and since then, with rising environmental concerns, sustainable as well. Patching, mending and delaying were no longer sufficient responses to these issues.

But no mechanisms had been created to anticipate problems that might arise from deepening integration, from the impact of new technologies or from changes in the international economy, to suggest solutions, to push for decisions or to coordinate policies. No efforts were made to generate continent-wide data on these developments; no vehicles were put in place to educate publics or build informed constituencies; no reservoir of experience was been built up to guide responses. Instead, there was little information – and often widespread misinformation – about developments in North America.

Efforts to improve the system have continued, some – often at the state-province level – have been useful. But big push efforts – from the "Big Idea" to NAFTA II to SPP have all crashed. Indeed, none of them really got off the runway.

One clear reason is that the big picture proposals have been advanced in the dark, with little political preparation or cultivation. Initiatives like these – like the forthcoming BTB proposals – cannot be seen as a kind of classy offer made in a closed door trade negotiation.  Dealing here has to be seen rather as analogous to a political campaign. The aim cannot be to bring it in "under the radar." Instead, proponents have to see this as a substantial, multi-dimensioned effort to track and woo potential supporters (I would say mayors above all, who know where the jobs are), identify and confront opponents, build public confidence through the media and make clear what the benefits are going to be.

This can't be done on the QT: The only people who really watch this stuff are the Maude Barlow and Jerry Corsi types (and they are not the craziest of this bunch). Without sufficient prior cultivation and coalition building, these guys will suck up all the oxygen in the game, just as they did with the SPP.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps advance work has been done, building cross party groups in the House and Senate that will take the lead in supporting the program; creating a group of Governors and Mayors who will take the point in the public debate that is bound to go on. Journalists, perhaps, have been well briefed; researchers are ready with details and analysis. Perhaps proponents have grown more confident that informed public debate will convince the uncertain of the value of the plan. Hopefully they have taken a look in the mirror and have promised they will not cut and run when they feel the heat of outraged opposition to selling down our sovereignty, our security and God knows, our souls.

 

 

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