Originally published Sunday, December 25, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Guest columnist

New U.S.-Canada border deal makes improvements, suggests other opportunities

Guest columnist Donald Alper notes that the new U.S.-Canada border deal will improve border security and crossings. But he also argues that the deal suggests that there are other opportunities to improve relations between Canada and the U.S. that will bode well for the Pacific Northwest.

Special to The Times

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PRESIDENT Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed a deal Dec. 8 that stakes out a menu of changes that will improve the border.

The Beyond the Border action plan has several provisions that will directly benefit our region. Amtrak southbound trains will be faster and more reliable because security inspections will take place in Vancouver rather than at the border in Blaine.

Lanes and booths that can accommodate NEXUS travelers will be expanded at some or all of the four main crossings in Whatcom County. The U.S.-Canadian joint program allows prescreened, approved travelers faster passage. Business travel will be made easier by incorporating business "expedited crossing" documentation into NEXUS. Truck congestion will be eased by streamlining the processing of documents by customs and other government agencies.

The agreement also deserves praise for strengthening partnerships and cooperation with Canadians. For example, cross-border policing activities, which have been a hallmark of this region, will be further advanced by creating integrated cross-border law-enforcement teams.

The rolling out of the Obama-Harper plan has, at least for the time being, brought needed attention to lingering border problems that have become a drag on boosting trade and simplifying travel.

Fixing problems is what this deal is about. But, is this not also an opportunity to envision what else could be done? What could be accomplished in this dynamic region if our energies and resources were focused at least as much on leveraging the assets of this border region as they are on managing border problems? Consider some possibilities:

An Innovation Gateway. Border policy could be made to serve, not hamper, the development of cross-border clusters of new-economy industries such as renewable energy, film and visual media, biotech, and transportation and logistics. Border policy should be designed to enhance the assets of geographic proximity, quality of the region's urban areas and cultural diversity that play a key role in economic growth.

A Knowledge Polygon. The border is key to imagining potential synergies among the major Washington and British Columbia universities geographically located in a rough polygon within 100 miles of the Canada-U.S. border. Border regulations could be tweaked to ensure easy circulation of professors, researchers and students throughout the Knowledge Polygon. This could be the first step toward a Washington-BC University Institute for pooling intellectual resources to support innovation and investigation on how the region as a whole can confront global challenges.

World Class Destination Tourism. The region's natural beauty coupled with world-class water and mountain recreation and cultural richness deriving from our multicultural populations makes the area exceptional for tourism. Already developed "two-nation vacation" ideas such as one-region rail and ferry passes could be revived. Offshore tourism to the region — especially from Asia — could be greatly enhanced by offering "two-nation visas" for travel in both countries.

A Well Institutionalized Washington-British Columbia Cross Border Forum. To their credit, Gov. Chris Gregoire, former Premier Gordon Campbell and now Premier Christy Clarke have established regular annual joint Cabinet meetings since 2005. This important institution should be even more formalized with agendas linking the critical issues of border mobility with economic renewal and environmental well being.

Do the Regional to Do the Global. A dynamic cross-border region with 21st-century borders would be a springboard for expanding exports, attracting talented immigrants, modeling environmental policy for global emulation and enhancing internationalization of the region's universities.

Although incremental and modest, the new border plan is an important step forward in improving the border. Moving border functions away from (beyond) the border is important to improving efficiency and security. At the same time, Beyond the Border metaphorically should tempt us to think creatively beyond the current border. Such a border of the future must be efficient and crime-resistant; but it also should be woven into the fabric of state, regional and national development.

Donald Alper is professor of political science and director of the Center for Canadian-American Studies and the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University


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