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The Contours of Global Security: Border Lines, Critical Regions

As debate rages in Washington over President Trump’s characterization of the situation at the southern U.S. border as a national security emergency, the risks and stakes in several hot-spot regions around the world are far less open to question. Leading Wilson Center experts surveyed the state of affairs at North America’s borders and in areas experiencing acute security crises, from Venezuela to North Korea to Syria.

Date & Time

Mar. 26, 2019
1:30pm – 3:45pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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As debate rages in Washington over President Trump’s characterization of the situation at the southern U.S. border as a national security emergency, the risks and stakes in several hot-spot regions around the world are far less open to question.

Leading Wilson Center experts surveyed the state of affairs at North America’s borders and in areas experiencing acute security crises, from Venezuela to North Korea to Syria.

Selected Quotes 

Panel 1:
Laura Dawson
  • “In Canada, there’s very little appetite among the populous for renewed big cooperation projects with the United States. It’s just bad politics. No conservative, no liberal is going to agree to a new project, and so they’re going to continue with some of the under-the-radar, incremental projects. Some of them are very good; we just finished passing our entry-exit information-sharing program, so now we know not only who’s coming into our country, but who’s leaving our country… But in this uncertain time, with so many new threats, we really need to renew our cooperation and renew our commitment to each other.”  
  • “Canada is the largest export market for the United States. Canada buys more products from the United States than China, Japan, and many parts of the European Union combined. Canada is also the second largest source of tourists for the United States after Mexico… So, we’re embedded and integrated and cooperating, and making sure that northern buffer works very, very well to protect the U.S. homeland.”
Rachel Schmidtke
  • “Migrants themselves are not a threat to our nation’s security, but the growing number of migrants arriving threatens to overwhelm the capacity of our institutions and systems. They are not evolved to meet the demographic changes. So, we’ve got to find a way to move beyond the political rhetoric and some of the short-term strategies to look toward solutions that respect sovereignty and rule of law, of course, but don’t eschew our international responsibility of providing safe haven to those who are fleeing legitimate harm.”   
  • "Having some sort of maybe employment-based VISA program in Mexico –  there aren’t that many legal options for Central American migrants to actually come and stay and work in Mexico and have access to job opportunities that are not infringing upon Mexican citizens’ ability to also have competitive jobs. So, I think being more targeted and thinking of legal channels for migrants to stay in Mexico would be some solutions to get pressure off of the border itself and work with Mexico."
Duncan Wood
  • “In 2014, Mexico began to develop something called Plan Frontera Sur, which was their southern border plan – not the U.S. southern border, but Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize. The Plan Frontera Sur was to begin to build up facilities at Mexico’s southern border to control flows of people, but it was also designed to be part of the strategy against organized crime, and also to make sure that there was a better capacity for gathering data at Mexico’s southern border… It’s incomplete, it’s far from perfect, but it’s a very, very big step in the right direction.”
  • “We see how fentanyl and precursor chemicals come into Mexico and they find their way north, predominantly up into California. And we see that this is a very, very real threat. This is something where the United States needs Mexico’s cooperation, and up until recently, Mexico has really not been taking on enough of the responsibility to address the fentanyl crisis in the United States – but it’s an issue which is being discussed right now.”
Panel 2:
Cynthia Arnson
  • “These are countries that already face difficulties with unemployment, underemployment, informality, poverty, the poor quality of the health and education system, and other public services. How they are expected to absorb these refugees [from Venezuela] – which they have done with enormous generosity and grace over these last years, because Venezuela, for many years, was a place where other people went for political refuge – it’s simply not sustainable… My concern over the medium term is that this is going to dramatically change the politics in the region and lead to greater xenophobia.” 
  • “I think that, as the sanctions really bite and make it much more difficult for Maduro to share the spoils of government with the top levels of the military hierarchy, there needs to be the flexibility to talk to people, to provide off ramps, to say not everybody who [doesn’t] join in support of a democratic transition will wind up behind bars or in a super-max in the United States. Those kinds of compromises are almost heresy, given the depredations of this government, but I think may become, at some point, an option that we need to pursue.”
Jean Lee
  • “I think we are, understandably, one month after Hanoi, in a kind of face-saving, cooling-off period. But what we are doing now is waiting to see if we are going to get back – are these two negotiating teams going to get back to diplomacy quite quickly, or are we going to head toward another resumption of provocation? The North Koreans know that the best way to get attention, if you’re not at the top of the foreign-policy radar, is a provocation.” 
  • “North Korea is, actually, in a very desperate situation. That will also help you understand just how valuable the nuclear program is. [Kim Jong Un] is not going to give that up easily. He is going to sell pieces of it off at a very high price. So, we have to be realistic about what that nuclear program means for him, his own stability, his country’s future… and take that into consideration as we negotiate with him and try to figure out how to make the world a safer place. I’m perhaps not quite as pessimistic as some of my fellow analysts will be because I do understand just how desperate the North Koreans are.”
Robin Wright
  • “What do you do with [former ISIS fighters]? Governments don’t have the evidence to try a lot of these people, and if they did take them and put them in their prisons, the great fear is they’d infect the prisons in their home country. So what happens to this enormous post-ISIS phenomenon? In many ways, the biggest challenge for the winners is dealing with the losers, and making sure they don’t regroup, revive, [and] come back in a new form of ISIS – which almost everyone predicts that they will.”
  • “The fact is, the United States is now withdrawing [from Syria]. In many ways, we are abandoning a force that has been incredibly successful, has stuck with us, and we were the ones who asked them to wage this war, to go beyond their own little turf, to go deep inside Syria to retake a third of the country – and they succeeded. Every time we ask for something, they did it, and now we are walking away.”



1:30-2:30 pm: Borders as a National Security Crisis        
  • Laura Dawson

    • Director, Canada Institute, Wilson Center
  • Rachel Schmidtke
    • Program Associate, Migration Policy, Mexico Institute, Wilson Center
  • Duncan Wood
    • Director, Mexico Institute, Wilson Center
  • Moderator, The Honorable Earl Anthony Wayne, Public Policy Fellow; Advisory Board Co-chair, Mexico Institute, Wilson Center
2:45-3:45 pm: Hot-Spot Security Round-Up
  • Venezuela: Cynthia J. Arnson

    • Director, Latin American Program, Wilson Center
  • North Korea: Jean H. Lee
    • Director, Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy, Wilson Center
  • Iran and Syria: Robin Wright
    • USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow
  • Moderator: John Milewski, Director of Digital Programming, Wilson Center

Hosted By

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy

The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond.  Read more

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more

Canada Institute

The mission of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute is to raise the level of knowledge of Canada in the United States, particularly within the Washington, DC policy community.  Research projects, initiatives, podcasts, and publications cover contemporary Canada, US-Canadian relations, North American political economy, and Canada's global role as it intersects with US national interests.  Read more

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