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Trilateral Security Cooperation in North America

Vice Admiral A.B. Donaldson spoke at a conference hosted by the Canada Institute, Mexico Institute, and the Virginia Military Institute. The conference explored trilateral efforts in the spheres of national security and military, public security and police, and public safety and health cooperation.

Date & Time

Mar. 12, 2010
7:00am – 3:00pm

Trilateral Security Cooperation in North America

Security cooperation in North America improves our capacity to respond to a variety of shared issues, said Vice Admiral A.B. Donaldson, commander of Canada Command at a conference hosted by the Canada Institute, Mexico Institute, and the Virginia Military Institute. The program brought together leaders from the government, military, and academia in a timely, tri-national discussion of North American security cooperation. Three panels explored trilateral efforts in the spheres of national security and military cooperation, public security and police cooperation, and public safety and health cooperation. A keynote luncheon featured David Heyman, assistant secretary for policy, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In an opening session, Guy Saint-Jacques, deputy head of mission for the Embassy of Canada, briefly addressed the topics of each panel, comparing and contrasting the bilateral and trilateral relationships. He noted the relevance and importance of the day's gathering in continuing the dialogue towards greater cooperation. We must cooperate, he said, in order to meet emerging challenges to our continental security. He also noted that there are detractors to trilateralism who have concerns about sovereignty or the dominance of unique bilateral relationships in North America. Nonetheless, trilateral cooperation fits into Canada's vision of the world which is inherently multilateral but prioritizes and respects national sovereignty first.

National Security and Military Cooperation

It is the United States' military policy to "lead from the middle" in North American security, said General Gene Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command. Renuart discussed the U.S. policy of creating interagency and international partners to fulfill Northern Command's mission to protect America's homeland. The United States and Mexico are experiencing the closest military-to-military cooperation in their relationship's history as a result of the Mérida Initiative, which confronts the shared problems of drug trafficking and organized crime while respecting and protecting the sovereignty of Mexico.

Renuart also pointed out that Mexico is an active partner with the Joint Interagency Task Force South, a multiagency joint task force of the U.S. armed forces with country partnerships designed to fight the flow of illicit goods in the Caribbean and Central America. These international cooperation mechanisms have promoted the sharing of best practices on a regular basis and shifted integration from ad-hoc to formal. Additionally, the United States has been working closely with the Mexican armed forces to stem illicit traffic of weapons and funds into Mexico.

Speaking about U.S.-Canada military cooperation, Renuart restated the historic level of Canada-U.S. cooperation that is based on two primary institutions: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Renuart highlighted Canada-U.S. cooperation to foster greater integration between Canada Command, NORAD, and Northern Command as a prime example of ongoing efforts to enhance the bilateral defense relationship.

General Renuart concluded his remarks by highlighting areas where further defense cooperation could take in North America. He said that the continuation and even expansion of the Mérida Initiative should be a critical goal for future administrations of the United States and Mexico. Results of the Initiative have been significant and the issues of organized crime and drug trafficking will continue to affect public security in all three countries of North America. Moreover, Canada and the United States should continue to seek opportunities to partner with Mexico to combat organized crime both internally in Mexico and further south in Central America. Renuart also stressed the importance of strengthening the U.S.-Canada military relationship with respect to their shared role and responsibility in securing the Arctic.

Vice Admiral A.B. Donaldson, commander of Canada Command, emphasized in his remarks that Canada Command and the greater Canadian national security strategy recognize that Canadian operations cannot be carried out in isolation; continued bilateral and trilateral cooperation is needed to address hemispheric security issues. Donaldson acknowledged that the Canada-U.S. bilateral security relationship is highly integrated with NORAD and represents the "crown-jewel" of a wide array of institutional linkages between the two countries. This well-established relationship and the corresponding presence of comprehensive and linked security systems were showcased recently at the Olympic Games in Vancouver.

The U.S.-Canada defense relationship is far more comprehensive than the Canada-Mexico relationship, which Donaldson characterized as gradually expanding. Though this latter bilateral relationship is relatively young, it is an important one to Canadian foreign policy. Right now there is a military training and cooperation program in place which has proven highly successful in formalizing military-to-military cooperation, noted Donaldson.

Additionally, Canada and Mexico recently established an annual political-military summit where high-level cabinet members and the heads of government of Canada and Mexico meet to discuss shared security problems. These meetings have encouraged a growing mutual trust and confidence between Canada and Mexico, which can only work to promote North American cooperation, he said. Canada also supports Mexico's fight against drug trafficking and organized crime and extends this concern into the Americas. Donaldson stated that Canada, the United States, and Mexico have a shared trilateral responsibility for the security in the Western Hemisphere. Canada has participated in military exercises in the Caribbean and recently hosted the defense ministers of the Americas in an international summit. The major question from the Canadian perspective on trilateral security is how to create a safer North America while respecting national sovereignty.

Vice Admiral Victor Uribe Arevalo, the Mexican naval attaché to the United States, discussed Mexico's role in international security and specifically highlighted the role of the Mexican navy in trilateral cooperation. Demonstrating the importance of naval cooperation, Uribe stated that the geostrategic position of Mexico is a product of its location between Central America and South America to the south and North America to the north, as well as its wealth of natural resources. This geostrategic position creates the potential for both security threats and great opportunities in the international community, and shapes Mexico's policy towards North American military cooperation.

Mexico is committed to defending its neighbors as a signatory of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty). The agreement states that an attack on an American country is an attack on all the hemispheric signatories. However, Uribe clarified that underdevelopment and poverty are the main enemies of Mexico and most of its southern neighbors. He prioritized other security threats, including organized crime, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, human trafficking, and terrorism.

With respect to trilateral cooperation, Uribe stressed that there are numerous threats to which a coordinated response is necessary. He said that Mexico is committed to cooperating on responses to natural disasters and threats to public health. Recent examples of such cooperation include the Pandemic Flu plan as well as the Mexican response to Hurricane Katrina and the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Uribe hailed the Mérida Initiative as an extraordinary bilateral initiative which must be maintained and expanded into the trilateral realm.

Brigadier General Benito Medina Herrera, director of military education and chancellor of the University of the Mexican Army and Air Force University, provided insights into North American security cooperation both bilaterally and trilaterally. He said that the increase in trilateral trade from NAFTA poses certain security implications, which the three countries must manage as shared challenges. Medina said that the Mérida Initiative has elevated cooperation and integration between the U.S. and Mexican militaries to a level where the two countries recognize their shared responsibility for combating organized crime and drug trafficking. The Initiative is at the heart of what Medina recognized as increasing cooperation and a relationship that is beneficial to both sides of the border. The Canada-Mexico relationship, though relatively new in comparison, shows promise with regular high-level meetings helping to sustain dialogue on important security issues and to share best practices.

Colonel Richard Downie, director of the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, aptly summarized the presentations as demonstrating historical highpoints in military-to-military relations. He posed the long-term question of whether or not this high level of military cooperation will help shape national policies towards a formalized trilateral forum, and concluded that in the short term, this level of cooperation should be utilized to address practical issues.

Public Security and Police Cooperation

Hugues Rousseau, minister-counsellor (political) from the Embassy of Canada, described several joint law enforcement activities in North America. Of note in the U.S.-Canada relationship, which includes 15 integrated border enforcement teams in 24 locations along the border, was the recently signed "Shiprider Agreement." The agreement allows marine vessels in shared waters to be crewed by RCMP and U.S. Coast Guard officials. It also enhances cooperative capacity of these marine protection crews, which was recently demonstrated during a successful pilot project that was conducted during the Vancouver Olympics. On the Canada-Mexico relationship, Rousseau highlighted Canadian participation in joint training programs of Mexican police officers; specifically, the RCMP holds a Canadian police college for mid-level and senior police executives from Mexico.

Alex Lee, director, Office of Mexico Affairs, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. Department of State, asserted that expanding upon bilateral relationships helps foster trilateral cooperation on security issues. In comparing the two bilateral law enforcement partnerships the United States has in North America, he called the relationship with Canada mature and established, and the relationship with Mexico dynamic and promising. He maintained that cooperation in the public safety realm between Canada and the United States was on "autopilot" and continues to deepen. With Mexico, the Mérida Initiative has accelerated the formalization of institutional cooperation between the countries. Lee concluded that there is potential in expanding trilateral cooperation upon the broad goals of the Mérida Initiative, and for all three countries to support judicial and law enforcement reform in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean at the request of those countries.

José Luis Calderón Arózqueta from the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico City discussed the current state of public security in Mexico and the necessity for trilateral cooperation with its northern neighbors. The recent crackdown on organized crime and drug trafficking spearheaded by President Felipe Calderón has essentially led to two phenomena: the geographic expansion of organized crime and the diversification of criminal activities. This has not been caused by a lack of enforcement by the police, asserted Calderón, but rather by problems of flawed governance. Furthermore, public perceptions of the police force are marred by corruption and distrust. Mexico is embarking on a full-scale professionalization of its police force and will benefit from the assistance of Canada and the United States, said Calderón.

Gerardo Rodríguez Sánchez Lara of the Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia noted the dominance of bilateral relationships in North American public security and police cooperation efforts. He said Mexico and the United States do not have the seamless "invisible cooperation" enjoyed by Canada and the United States, yet he also expressed hope that the Mérida Initiative would advance the goal of increased interoperability and intelligence-sharing with the United States.

Public Safety and Health Cooperation

"You can't have national security without health security; the two are inextricably intertwined," said Alexander Garza, assistant secretary for health affairs and chief medical officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Garza emphasized that biological and health threats, like the pandemic flu, for example, are very different than typical terrorist threats in that there is no single instance of attack and biological agents cross borders without detection. Cooperation, furthermore, is an essential practice in preparing for and fighting these unique hazards. The response to the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak was "a good exercise in how we can leverage our relationships in North America" to share information and collaborate on international travel. A response to pandemic influenza requires consideration of tough security questions such as closing the border or issuing travel advisories, all of which have an impact on international commerce. Thus, the participation of economic, security, and health officials in a cross-border conversation is vital. Garza concluded that the United States needs to continue to strengthen international health organizations and cooperate with its North American partners as much as possible to combine experiences in the sharing of best practices and apply them to emerging threats.

Rainer Engelhardt, assistant deputy minster, Infectious Disease and Emergency Preparedness Branch, Public Health Agency of Canada, re-emphasized Garza's point that threats to public health know no borders. Because of this indisputable fact, said Engelhardt, traditional challenges to trilateral cooperation may be more easily overcome when dealing with public health. A fairly significant part of the Public Health Agency of Canada participates in international cooperative activities, most notably, the Emergency Operations Centers which have Mexican and American employees on staff. Canada is highly responsive to and interactive with international organizations such as the Global Health Security Initiative. From a North American perspective, a declaration of mutual aid assistance has guided the three countries during such emergencies as Hurricane Katrina and the H1N1 influenza outbreak. One of the central priorities of the 2009 North American Leadership Summit was preparing for future pandemics by learning from experiences, building public health capacities, and promoting information sharing. The benefits of cooperation in public health, concluded Engelhardt, are increased preparedness and rapid response to emerging threats.

Ian Brodie of the Inter-American Development Bank insightfully noted that trilateral developments in the public health forum were different than the previous topics of defense and public security due to the fact that public health threats are rarely isolated to North America. The North American piece of public health is a small part of an international public health system that includes organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization which are well-developed and in tune to global health threats. Indeed, it seems that there are more North American manifestations of global health problems rather than solely North American problems.

The program also featured a keynote luncheon featuring David Heyman, assistant secretary for policy, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He noted that "North America is absolutely becoming more integrated," and that the three countries "share multiple common interests in security, prosperity, public safety, and in the resiliency of our communities." This increasing level of integration and international exchange, which involves countless spheres of policy and political and economic actors, has implications for security. Heyman framed his discussion of trilateral cooperation in North America by comparing it to the Department of Homeland Security itself which deals with a hybrid of domestic and international affairs. This hybrid, which the Department of Homeland Security calls "intermestic affairs," refers to the interconnected societies and economies of North America.

Though continuing to foster the trilateral relationship is extremely important, Heyman asserted that it is equally important to maintain strong bilateral relations each with Canada and Mexico to address issues unique to both countries.

By Alexander Kostura
David Biette, Director, Canada Institute

Hosted By

Canada Institute

Bound by common geopolitical interests and strong economic and cultural ties, Canada and the United States enjoy the world's most successful bilateral relationship. The Wilson Center's Canada Institute is the only public policy forum in the world dedicated to the full spectrum of Canada-U.S. issues. The Canada Institute is a global leader for policymakers, academics and business leaders to engage in non-partisan, informed dialogue about the current and future state of the relationship.     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


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