David Jones on SPP – Hill Times

Written by  //  August 22, 2007  //  David/Terry Jones, Politics  //  No comments

What Nobody Cares to Hear and Rarely Bothers to
Report Is the Thoroughly Mundane Nature of the SPP

by DAVID JONES

The Aug. 20 to 21 Montebello summit was most important for being held. Although there are real problems confronting the North American continent, from drug wars to border security to managing free trade, there is no “crisis” in the trilateral relationship. It is, after all, the end of August. Even bureaucrats would have preferred to be on vacation. For two days of meetings, one can assume that battalions of officials in Washington, Ottawa, and Mexico City were in preparation frenzy for a month. So should an already postponed meeting (reportedly planned for March) have been kicked further downstream? The short answer is, no.
Bilaterally, the media reports/suggests that PM Harper and President Bush discussed secure border requirements, the NATO effort in Afghanistan (and its national implications), and Canadian sovereignty versus international waters for the Arctic’s Northwest Passage. Worthy and serious, but not seminal topics. (Naturally, the media would not mention problems resolved, e.g., softwood lumber and mad cows, but were happy to tweak the PM for not pushing for transfer of Omar Kadhr from Gitmo to Canada.)
However, meetings at this level, even “tend to the weeding” garden variety sessions, are key to the trilateral-continental relationship. The complex of issues facing the continent as it enters the 21st century requires regular review and examination within institutions that will outlive administrations and leaders. This is particularly true of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) launched by President Bush in 2005 with PM Martin and Mexican President Fox.
The current leaders, in effect, head minority governments. In summer 2008, the United States will be in the throes of an election, and it is unclear whether the Bush administration would want to provide Democrats with easy picking opportunities to belabor free trade. Or whether the next president will follow the “not invented here” maxim and scrap the SPP for something of his or her own invention. So further institutionalizing the SPP had a value above the content of a trilateral discussion.
Normally, a “three amigos” meeting would get page A-10, ho-hum coverage. But this meeting, perhaps because of its August silly season timing, appears to have attracted a higher quota of the black helicopters-hovering-below-the-horizon/grassy knoll conspiracy types. Thus for the team on the left, Canada’s precious bodily fluids are going to be sold en masse to rapacious southerners. And for the team on the right, the SPP will open the borders to howling waves of illegals coming north and/or demented cows coming south. And both sides foresaw extraterrestrials using laser beams to carve a four-football-field wide superhighway from the Rio Grande to an Arctic port.
What nobody cares to hear and rarely bothers to report is the thoroughly mundane nature of the SPP. Launched in 2005 at the Waco summit, it is a dull, work-a-day organization more exciting to those excited about proper placement of punctuation than to those envisioning a unified North America. Notwithstanding the serious nature of specific initiatives ranging from “a healthier North America” (in the prosperity basket) to “real time information sharing” (under security), the agendas are focused on wonkish technical topics. Much of the work reflects left-overs from NAFTA working groups and implementing action.
Along similar lines is the work of the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC). Started in January 2006 primarily by private sector interests from all three countries, they were scheduled to report at Montebello on 15 priorities such as simplified rules of origin, taxes on cross-border interest payments, a coordinated intellectual property rights strategy, and a North American strategy to tackle counterfeiting and piracy.
These issues are not the warp and woof of a continental, borderless customs union with a seamless security perimeter, but rather the concerns of that jelly bean producer beset by conflicting packaging demands. Nevertheless, in the effort to promote efficiency in addressing such topics, the SPP/NACC sacrificed transparency. To those on the “outside”—Congressional staff, nongovernmental organizations, media—anything being done without them sitting at the negotiating table is suspect.
Although designed to operate within existing executive branch administrative authority, some members of Congress concluded the SPP was an effort to end-run Congressional oversight. And for the spectrum of anti-trade/anti-globalism NGOs, any conglomeration of businessmen would be nefarious by definition.
Thus as the leaders slipped away—Calderón to review the devastation from Hurricane Dean; Bush to review the devastation from Hurricane Iraq; and Harper to anticipate the devastation from another round of Parliamentary politics—they left stacks of briefing books and new lists of “to do” secondary issues for the next gathering of the amigos.
David Jones is a former political counsellor who worked at the U.S. Embassy from 1992-96 in Ottawa. [email protected]


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