Perimeter Security in North America: Mexico's Latest, Greatest Rejection and the Emergence of a Two-Speed Region

Feb 22, 2011

Duncan Wood

Office of the Simon Chair

The recent talks between the United States and Canada over perimeter security and the potential extension of NORAD to include the integration of land and sea forces mark a brave step forward for security in the region. The proposed deal not only moves Canadian and U.S. security paradigms closer together, it marks a definitive step towards a two-speed approach to integration in North America.

This is quite a remarkable turnaround from the situation in 2007, when Mexico temporarily held a privileged position in the North American triangle, comfortably working with the United States to allow implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), a border control strategy that Canada vigorously opposed, alienating U.S. decision-makers in the process. The fact that Mexico is being left out of this deal reflects a number of factors, some of which are due to the obvious differences in development from its NAFTA partners, others that reflect the decreasing interest in the broader North American integration project on the part of Canada and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

1. Level of development: The first factor that must be mentioned is the distinctly different levels of development in the three NAFTA countries. Mexico’s relative underdevelopment means that designing a trilateral perimeter security agreement that adapted to the needs of both the U.S. northern and southern neighbors would be extremely difficult. Mexico, it can be argued convincingly, lacks the immigration, intelligence and border control services sophistication necessary to be able to collaborate in a project defining common standards in the three states.

2. The immigration issue: Whereas Canada has been able to reassure the United States that the northern border is relatively immune to large-scale movements of people, the sheer scale of Mexican migration, legal and otherwise, would make the concept of perimeter security problematical to say the least. Any agreement that included Mexico would necessarily contemplate stricter controls on the U.S. southern border than in the north. Furthermore, the massive movement of undocumented migrants across the 2,000 mile border is seen by many in the United States as a threat to national security, weakening Mexico’s security reputation still further.

3. The Mexican military: Despite the fact that in recent years the Mexican military and their U.S. counterparts have come a long way in improving mutual understanding (highlighted best of all by their close collaboration in Northern Command or NORCOM),  the long-standing suspicion in the Mexican army of cooperation with the United States greatly complicates all discussions of long-term projects. Although the Mexican navy is much more willing to countenance information and intelligence sharing with the United States, it is the army that remains dominant in military decision-making in Mexico. Collaboration between Mexico and Canada in military affairs is even rarer; though friendly relations exist, there is nothing approaching mutual understanding.

4. Mexico’s worsening security situation: Although the United States is actively engaging Mexico on issues on internal security relating to the country’s war on the drug cartels, the repeated questioning by authorities in the United States of the Mexican state’s stability and even viability (the U.S. military suggesting that Mexico may become a failed state, for example), suggests that the United States is not ready to contemplate a wider-ranging security deal with its southern neighbor.

5. Mexico’s southern border: Often described as the “soft-underbelly” of North America, Mexico’s border with Guatemala and Belize is so porous as to make it impossible to contemplate its inclusion as part of the North American perimeter. The threat of illegal migration, gang violence and drug-cartel activity flowing from Central America through Mexico and into the United States has pushed the United States to assist Mexico in recent years in the strengthening of its border controls. The reality is that this has had little impact, and the near-1000 mile southern border remains largely under-resourced and unmanageable.

6. Canada’s reluctance to bring in Mexico: Despite the five reasons cited above, it is still possible that a more inclusive, albeit weaker, version of perimeter security could have been negotiated by the three NAFTA states. Canada has made it clear for many years now, however, that it does not want Mexico included on any talks relating to borders. The long-standing Canadian fear that negotiations over the U.S.-Canada border might be contaminated by Mexico’s very different situation has led Canadian policy makers to push for the bilateral option in all security matters. Despite the fact that the Canadian government talks of strategic partnership in its relations with Mexico, the truth is that it views security cooperation in the region as a zero-sum game. What Mexico might gain from being included would represent a loss for Canada. Should a trilateral deal go wrong, it would threaten Canada’s good standing in the United States, ultimately threatening the prime directive of Canadian relations with the United States, namely “keep the border open”.

What, then, does the perimeter security deal mean for the future of North American relations? I would venture that it marks the official beginning of a two-speed reality in the NAFTA region, with Mexico very much moving on the slower track. Canada will benefit from its deal with the United States through closer ties, hoping that the impact will be similar to that seen under the North American Air Defense (NORAD) deal.  Mexico will remain on the outside, having to content itself with the NAFTA as it stands, and with trying to extract as much goodwill and understanding out of the Mérida Initiative as possible. A North American partnership of three bilateral relationships of varying degrees of trust has been the emerging reality for a while now. The successful negotiation of a bilateral perimeter security deal marks its coming of age.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

*Originally published by the Canadian International Council