A Trilateral Mishmash


The Globe and Mail
February 26, 2007

Canadian, U.S. and Mexican government ministers met Friday in Ottawa to discuss the trilateral Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). The SPP has been making news lately, but for all the wrong reasons. Conspiracy theorists are claiming that it is a secret plan for continental integration.

The irony is that an overarching plan — secret or otherwise — is precisely what the SPP lacks. It is little more than a hodgepodge of bilateral and trilateral working groups on issues such as border security, food safety, migratory birds, and so on. Most of these groups existed long before the SPP was announced in 2005.

When the SPP was created, the groups were organized into two broad clusters — security and prosperity — and a new mechanism was created to oversee their activities. The goal was to nudge their work forward by requiring them to deliver semi-annual progress reports to ministers from all three countries.

These reports, thick as the Halifax phone book, are mind-numbing lists of mostly piddling initiatives. Readers will learn, for example, that Canada and the U.S. may soon recognize each other's laboratory tests on “flow measurements for sulphur emissions of fuel oil.” Alas, talks on developing a common set of wash-care symbols for clothing are reportedly behind schedule.

Scattered among these initiatives is a handful with real political significance, including the introduction of “biometric identifiers” for travel documents and “data exchanges” on high-risk travellers. Such proposals have rightly sparked public debate in Canada. But whatever one thinks of them, most were known and publicized before the SPP was launched. The fact that all these initiatives are now tracked in a public document makes it transparent — not secretive — if one wishes to find out what the three governments are doing.

But some people don't see it that way. The SPP has become the bête noire of talk shows and patriotic blogs in the United States. The SPP, some argue, is actually a covert scheme to create a “North American union,” threatening the sovereignty and even the continued existence of the U.S. as an independent nation. Canada, the U.S. and Mexico will become a “single country with a single currency and a single superhighway system,” says one popular website.

Rumours about a NAFTA superhighway are particularly bizarre. “It will be four football fields wide, off limits to most Americans, and run by foreign companies,” the site proclaims. In fact, there is a non-profit group seeking better north-south highways to facilitate trade in North America, but it is a non-governmental organization. The group's website displays a fancy map with bold arrows transecting the continent, which is apparently enough to fuel the fantasy of a transportation takeover.

If such musings found expression only in remote corners of cyberspace, few would care. But, last September, four U.S. congressmen, including presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo of Colorado, introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives calling on the U.S. not to “engage in the construction of a NAFTA Superhighway System” and not to “enter into a North American Union with Mexico and Canada.” Conspiracy theorists now cite this resolution as further evidence of the nefarious purposes of the SPP, thus completing the circle of misinformation.

Criticism of the SPP in Canada is considerably saner, but some commentators express similar fears about covert plans for integration. According to the Council of Canadians, “cross-border committees and working groups are going ahead to harmonize all aspects of North American life, and it's happening by stealth.” The nationalist Canadian Action Party says that Ottawa is using the SPP to negotiate “deep integration” with the U.S. Its website displays the same map of the alleged NAFTA superhighway that appears on right-wing U.S. blogs, without explaining its source or context.

The SPP is not a secret plan for continental integration. I know because I was part of the Privy Council Office team that put the SPP together in 2005. All the elements of the SPP were publicly reported — and, to my knowledge, they still are.

If there is any problem with the SPP, it is not secrecy, but the fact that it is a mishmash of disconnected and mostly trivial initiatives, lacking any organizing vision or direction. A grocery list does not make a meal. And it is unlikely that nine senior ministers from three countries will continue making time for semi-annual meetings if their main task is to bless a grocery list.

Just listen to the statement issued after Friday's meeting. Ministers tasked their officials with “revitalizing and streamlining their work plans to ensure that initiatives are more focused and results-oriented.” Translation: Would somebody please figure out what we are trying to accomplish here?

Yes, bilateral and trilateral working groups are useful. They foster an environment in which bureaucrats from all three countries can deal with issues before they become irritants. And it makes good sense to plan for emergencies such as avian flu, and to facilitate the movement of people and goods between our countries.

But we also face bigger questions about Canada's place in North America, and North America's place in the world. How will we manage the unfinished business of NAFTA, including the United States' continued and capricious use of trade remedies? What kind of North America do we want to be living in 10, 15 or 20 years from now?

It is in Canada's interest to address these questions — internally, and in conjunction with our NAFTA partners — so that we can define our own future rather than passively being defined by it. Articulating such a vision within Canada would allow us to approach our partners more strategically. And doing so at the trilateral level, hard as this may be, would permit the three governments to pursue a high-level agenda with a few clear priorities.

Then, maybe, the SPP would be worth the fuss — but for all the right reasons.

Roland Paris is associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa and author of At War's End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict. He was a foreign policy adviser in the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Privy Council Office from 2003 to 2005.