The 20th Annual Maritime Security Conference*

[* Moderator’s Note:  This article was originally published in the Summer 2009 (Vol. 5, No. 3) issue of Canadian Naval Review.]

This year marked the 20th Annual Maritime Security Conference organized by the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. The conference was titled “Interoperability: Achieving Maritime Security under the North American Free Trade Agreement.” This event on 11-12 June 2009 was attended by over 100 participants including academics and practitioners from a wide variety of Canadian, American and Mexican institutions such as universities, NORAD, Coast Guard and the private sector. The discussions explored common concerns and suggested alternatives to address regional security issues. This is a summary of the panels and discussions.

One of the main challenges in the current political and economic climate is developing practical policy solutions to maritime security issues. What may appear a practical initiative on paper may in fact cause tensions and disagreements when implemented. The challenge for maritime security in 2009 is establishing a workable relationship among Canada, the United States and Mexico, while realizing that each country has its own national interests. Finding the right balance to enable collective and collaborative working arrangements remains the key issue.

The goal of the conference was to investigate the prospects for interoperability by examining three themes:

  • the differences in perspectives among the three NAFTA countries;
  • where institutional alignment exists and where there are differences; and
  • possible alternatives and best practices for achieving effective cooperative arrangements.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is an economic agreement among the three countries but within an increasingly globalized world, it is not just trade that crosses and erodes borders. There are other less benign forces crossing borders, making collaborative approaches to security vital for international cooperation and trade. The need to establish a workable and comprehensive approach to security was iterated by all of the panellists. The issues were explored through seven thematic panels that covered borders, crime, transportation, security forces, technology, climate change and energy security.

Economic growth is the main determinant of the rise of new players in the international arena. As a result, a new transnational agenda is required to manage potential threats, including terrorism. One of the main recurring themes of the conference related to the unpredictability of the strategic environment. With the increase in economic interdependence and potential conflicts emerging from religious and ethnic tensions, the competition for resources is both complicated and heightened. This has also been influenced by problems with information sharing between neighbouring states.

The security issues of the past have evolved into new areas including oceanic competition for resources made accessible by changing technologies, resource pressures and the effect of climate change. It was noted by the majority of panellists that all of these issues affect the three NAFTA countries. Generally, access to the oceans and ensuring maritime security is critical to the future development of all three North American economies. Increased interoperability is needed through a ‘comprehensive’ approach which includes the participation of many actors including governments, civil society and the private sector. Establishing greater prospects for multilateralism through a networked society will help to promote more workable and pragmatic security arrangements. It was noted, however, that multilateral approaches can sometimes actually impede the process since there are differing roles and functions between some agencies – for example, the Canadian and US coast guards. This is where greater institutional alignment is needed. In general, it became clear that a more universal approach to security of the continent is vital.

Border security was a topic of interest in that it affects all three countries simultaneously. Issues pertaining to illegal immigration and drug trafficking continue to be major security threats and, as a result, new biometric scanning is being developed and employed. With respect to cargo handling and shipping, the concern is containers being tampered with or used by terrorists. It was suggested that a more rigorous scanning system needs to be developed to deal with the vast number of containers entering North American ports. Other participants objected, noting that such scanning systems would not be productive. However, for security purposes it was stressed that some form of device is required and should be further researched.

Crime continues to be a driving force in maritime security. Because of the large North American landmass, moving illegal substances or persons is difficult to counter effectively. This directly affects trade since speed and efficiency in the movement of goods are the crux of the economic prosperity of any industrialized state. As such, establishing comprehensive regional and trans-jurisdictional approaches for corridor control are necessary to counter serious issues such as the illegal drug cartels. In addition, there needs to be a sustained dialogue on shared interests including air traffic, interior patrolling and the sharing of information and intelligence.

Transportation and security topics were linked to the tension between security and efficiency. Because trade is such a vital economic component – about 90% of global trade travels by sea – an approach that can account for different priorities of the partnering countries is essential for sustained cooperation. Problems associated with transportation and security are directly related to competing policy priorities of the various bureaucracies. Security planning must include all players and avoid a ‘top-down’ approach that is not reflective of the current realities on the ground. The Vancouver 2010 Olympics provide a good example of Canada and the United States working cooperatively. An example of competing policy priorities is the Great Lakes Region where one-sixth of the total trade between Canada and the USA occurs. Developing the institutional capacity to establish workable security arrangements is imperative for protecting this region. The introduction of bilateral agreements with respect to transportation and security is a possible alternative to unilateral decision-making. A very successful trial period for the ‘Ship Rider Agreement’ indicates that significant increases in the efficiency of the joint security system can be achieved without sacrificing national sovereignty.

New technological advances are opening opportunities for cooperative security solutions. This is particularly evident in the Arctic region. From the Canadian perspective, enabling an effective monitoring system is necessary for situational awareness. The Arctic presents major challenges due to the lack of collective decision-making capabilities by the involved actors. Technological initiatives – such as a Microspace program by COM DEV Canada called ‘Exact Earth’ which can collect data from space – will have an impact on continental security. The program enhances communications with ships at sea and provides radar imaging that facilitates vessel detection more quickly than the current mechanisms. This will help to track vessels arriving at North American ports and enhance maritime defence. Solutions require blending technical and regulatory frameworks but this can only be accomplished with effective working groups that are empowered and motivated to ensure policy implementation and evaluation.

The two final topics of debate pertained to climate change and energy security. Climate change is most evident when examining the melting of the polar ice caps, but it also has profound effects on the rise in sea levels, changes in precipitation patterns, ocean circulation systems, and wildlife migratory patterns. The financial and social implications are high and a global approach to cope with these natural changes appears necessary. In terms of energy security, there were concerns about the inadequacy of the supply. The search for alternative energy sources has become a growing phenomenon, with the introduction of biofuels being only one example. Oil still remains the driver of the global economy and its volatile prices affect current consumption levels. It was suggested that a systematic approach would help diminish the demand for this important resource, and thus avoid conflict over oil with emerging economies such as China and India.

From the panels and the discussions, it is clear that the greatest challenge to achieving interoperability in the field of maritime security is information sharing among the three NAFTA countries. Even though we live in a globalized world that is supposed to be interconnected and interdependent, countries still hold their information close to their chests to ensure their national state security issues are protected and upheld. There is also a lack of institutional capacity to manage issues and ensure security in North America. Competing policy priorities continue to hamper progress on collaborative strategies – establishing cooperative and collaborative security agreements remains the most pressing challenge. However, it is unclear whether this will occur, even with countries like Canada, Mexico and the United States that share similar security agendas.

NAFTA was designed as a free trade agreement, so pushing for a security dimension may not be the best way forward. Perhaps developing a new and pragmatic arrangement on security is what is needed. We seem, once again, to have arrived at an impasse between theory and practice. Ideas are only useful if they can be applied to establish cooperative agreements among the NAFTA partners. This will be the challenge in the future.

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