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A Lack of Coordination: The U.S., Canada and the Threat of Maritime Attacks

Despite the increased coordination in Canada-U.S. border security since 9/11, Aaron Willschick argues that the two countries are still far apart when it comes to the perceived risk to their maritime borders.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, border security between Canada and the United States has become a much greater concern for both nations. Because of the many waterways that they share, the interest of border security between the two neighbouring nations extends far beyond land. As a result of the difficulty of monitoring and regulating activities in the great lakes and other regions, maritime border security remains a significant challenge for policymakers to deal with.

Despite the increased cooperation between the two countries since 9/11, recent reports and assessments suggest that there may still be significant obstacles remaining to getting on the same page when it comes to maritime border security. A recent report published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released this past fall calculated that there is a low risk of terrorism against North American shipping, ports and along shared waterways. The report goes on to state that maritime attacks by al-Qaeda or its affiliates are rare and have only occurred in the Middle East and East Asia. Carrying out attacks in North America given the high level of marine transport system governance and law enforcement creates a less permissive maritime environment, according to the report.

This U.S. government report stands in stark contrast to an assessment handed down by Defence Research and Development Canada last January. This review concluded that the threat to Canada’s maritime borders has increased. It came to this conclusion by an analysis of the terror risk posed by millions of small boats in high-traffic border regions such as the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, and against targets such as bridges and nuclear power plants. The Canadian report concluded that Canada has no coherent strategy for dealing with this growing national security threat in high-traffic border regions.

When comparing the two reports, the results are rather perplexing. The sharp differences in the assessments are alarming given the increased cooperation between Canada and the U.S. on border issues and the fact that they share so many expansive waterways. It is also surprising given the high level technological coordination that the governments have begun using to monitor activities over the waters. Radar systems are now being used over the Great Lakes to track hundreds of ships and boats at once, as well as analyzing the behavior of those vessels and to alert law enforcement officials to anything considered suspicious. Such a system flags any encounter between ships, such as if one boat leaves the Canadian side of the border while another leaves the American side and both meet in the middle of Lake Ontario.

With so much coordination between governments, technological resources dedicated directly to monitoring and acknowledgement of the issue of maritime security, how could the two countries’ reports come to such different conclusions?

The difference in reports suggests that there is a clear lack of awareness and coordination regarding maritime security. It suggests that Canada and the U.S. need to collaborate better on the issue and there needs to be a greater acknowledgement of maritime security as an inter-state, cross-border concern. The only avenue to improving the security of waterways is through working closely with neighbouring nations through a close exchange of information, ideas and best practices. With maritime security being a key component of its security doctrine, NATO could play a vital role in facilitating cooperation between countries. It could provide the forum for not only acknowledging maritime security’s importance, but it could be the forum where a clear exchange of ideas and practices occurs.

If Canada and the United States are going to come to such opposing conclusions from their own government reports, then perhaps a NATO-led evaluation could yield a more uniform approach. With NATO no longer as active as it once was as a military organization, functioning as a strong forum for collaboration between members on specific security concerns such as maritime security seems like an ideal role for the Alliance to play. Utilizing the advantages of working through NATO would be highly beneficial in this instance, especially with such an ever-present security concern that is likely to become even more prevalent over time.

Aaron Willschick
Aaron Willschick is a graduate from the MA program in European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He also holds an MA degree in political science from York University and a BaH from York University’s Glendon College. His research interests include the European Union, European security and defense policy, NATO enlargement to Eastern Europe and democratization. He has extensive experience in policy and research, having worked as a trade assistant at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto and a research assistant to well-known Canadian author Anna Porter and York University political science professor Heather MacRae. Contact Information: Email: awillschick@rogers.com