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Trilateral Dialogue is Worth the Effort

Christopher Sands & Greg Anderson

March of this year marked the third anniversary of the launch of the North American Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). When Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Presidents George Bush and Felipe Calderon gather in New Orleans on Monday and Tuesday, they will have plenty to talk about.

A weakening American economy, the anti-trade rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign, and of course the omnipresent issues swirling around border security will be front and centre in New Orleans.

In one way or another, each of the initiatives announced at New Orleans will be cast as addressing this thicket of problems. Yet, there is a more fundamental question that will hang over New Orleans: is the SPP the right vehicle for negotiating North America? We believe the answer is yes.

The SPP is not without flaws.

Yet, those who attack the SPP because they see in it an attempt to undermine sovereignty by foisting superhighways or deep integration on unsuspecting citizens are missing some of its most important strengths and weaknesses.

Launched at Waco, Texas, in March 2005, the SPP emerged as a practical effort to deal with post-9/11 North American realities that have united security and economics. Irreconcilable or not, a workable means of managing these imperatives was necessary. By the time of the Waco leaders’ summit, Canada, the United States and Mexico had already begun to address this mixture of issues with the conclusion of the two Smart Border agreements in late 2001 (Canada-U.S.) and early 2002 (Mexico-U.S.). Yet more was needed.

During the 1990s, a growing list of irritants that had either been left out of the NAFTA or weren’t making progress within its structure were getting little traction politically. As the potential for security to trump economic concerns after 9/11 became obvious, the need to talk about these issues trilaterally seemed obvious, too. Yet what emerged out of Waco was an unruly agenda of more than 300 items. The SPP created a technocratic process wherein experts in the respective bureaucracies would find ways of reconciling the twin imperatives of economic openness and security. Yet, with no overarching legislative authority to support the SPP agenda, progress was both limited and uneven.

By the time of the Cancun summit in 2006, the unruly agenda, coupled with a trilateral process very different from that undertaken during the NAFTA negotiations, prompted the business community to seek a role in focusing the agenda. Hence, at Cancun, the leaders endorsed the creation of the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC) and charged it with helping the three governments focus the SPP agenda. Yet, by the time the NACC was created, civil society in all three countries had begun to take notice and also wanted in. While the creation of the NACC was seen as necessary for agenda-focusing, it unnecessarily fuelled suspicions on the part of civil society about the transparency of an unfamiliar negotiation process.

As embattled as the SPP has become, it also has important merits that should be built upon and improved as a model for negotiating North America. New legislation in all three countries expanding the co-ordinative and oversight capacities of national legislatures would be helpful. But legislative oversight of the SPP already exists. If agreement is reached on an SPP agenda item, any required legislative changes would be subject to normal legislative input procedures in each country.

Yet, this is where the SPP’s utility is also most pronounced. The 300-plus SPP agenda items is daunting and has erroneously given rise to all manner of conspiracy. Yet, few items, even when combined, rise very high in terms of national importance. In other words, no one is going to fight an election over small regulatory changes. The nature of the North American agenda is that much of what remains is small and technical.

These are issues that ought to reasonably be dealt with by technocratic problem solvers and those stakeholders with focused interest in them.

The most important aspects of the SPP process worth preserving stem from a simple observation: If not the SPP, what? Unlike the NAFTA, the SPP actually requires the leaders to meet annually to talk about North America. By itself, the importance of annual leaders’ meetings for agenda setting and renewing momentum on important economic and security matters in North America cannot be understated. Even when progress on the SPP agenda is uneven among the three countries, the process is useful because it has pushed the respective bureaucracies toward greater understanding of one another’s positions on parts of the agenda.

Finally, we view the SPP as possibly gaining its footing after a bit of a shaky start. The focusing exercise initiated at Cancun led to an important shift adopted in August 2007 at the last leaders’ summit in Montebello, Que. Instead of confronting an unruly agenda of 300 items, the SPP agenda has been progressively distilled into a series of broad themes focused on enhancing North American competitiveness, food safety, sustainable energy and environmental initiatives, smart and secure borders, and emergency management and preparedness. It is unlikely that the three leaders will embrace the particular priorities advanced by the NACC at Montebello. This development should undermine critics who see the SPP as primarily beholden to business interests.

We like this process because of its agenda-setting qualities and its usefulness in facilitating the exchange of information. The SPP is a different process for a different period and set of priorities than existed during the NAFTA debate. With each leaders’ summit, priorities are reaffirmed and set, motivating cabinet level work on specifics that may appear piecemeal, even ineffectual.

While the SPP agenda looks ambitious, another reason we like it is precisely because its structure and ambition are modest. The SPP does not contemplate the “big idea” or deep integration, as many of its critics fear. Instead, the SPP respects the sovereign policy prerogatives of all three countries and will generate harmonization only where it is genuinely desirable.

At its heart, the SPP is merely an elaborate structure to ensure dialogue and better co-ordination among federal counterparts in all three countries. We think it necessary to continue this kind of trilateral dialogue, and that it survive the anti-NAFTA rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign.

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