North American Infrastructure Security: Post-9/11 goals far from reached

Regional cooperation is necessary to avoid past investments going to waste and to protect citizens from security threats, argues Brian Bow.
By: /
October 23, 2014
Associate Professor of Political Science at Dalhousie University

This piece is part of a series looking at the importance of regional policy cooperation in light of this month’s North American Competitiveness and Innovation Conference — NACIC 2014 — held Oct. 30-31 in Toronto. Earlier this month, Duncan Wood explored the opening of Mexico’s energy sector and Raul Pacheco-Vega called for regional leadership on environmental policy. An earlier version of this particular piece was published with the Wilson Centre’s Mexico Institute.

After 9/11, as part of its enormous effort to strengthen “homeland security,” the U.S. government renewed its commitment to protect America’s critical infrastructure — highways, airports, rail lines, pipelines, electrical grids, water systems, etc. — against terrorism, sabotage, natural disasters, or technical failures. Recognizing the interconnectedness of these systems across national boundaries, U.S. planners pledged to work closely with their Canadian and Mexican counterparts to develop strategies and capabilities to anticipate, prevent, and respond to disruptions.

These efforts are starting to show some tangible results, and policy-makers may be tempted to coast on their momentum. Inter-agency and cross-border working groups have successfully dismantled legal and practical obstacles to cross-border cooperation during an emergency, developed frameworks for cataloguing infrastructure risks in some areas, and are working on joint emergency response plans. And political leaders have pledged to pursue ambitious new infrastructure spending programs. These developments do represent meaningful progress, but they also highlight how far short we have fallen from the ambitious goals set after 9/11.

Early critics of the working group process complained that it amounted to “making plans to make plans,” and that is about as far as things have gone so far. At the national level, inter-agency coordination carries on, but has not yet made much progress in breaking down policy silos built around particular industries and sectors. Obama’s national infrastructure-building plan is paralyzed by partisan gridlock, Harper’s plan is stretched over 10 years with most spending deferred until later, and Peña-Nieto’s plan is stuffed with things that have nothing to do with infrastructure.

Regional coordination seems to have stalled since the cancellation of the Security and Prosperity Partnership in 2009, and now follows behind national efforts, rather than leading them. U.S. and Mexican planners have been touting new border infrastructure building, but these are old, long-delayed investments, and there actually hasn’t been much coordination. The U.S. and Canada have engaged in meaningful coordination — as outlined in the 2010 Canada-US bilateral “action plan”— but it has been focused almost entirely on routine information-sharing and coordinated emergency response. Obviously, it is important that governments are prepared to respond effectively to disruptions that have already taken place; but that in itself is not enough.

The goal after 9/11 was — and our goal today should still be — to have the capacity to anticipate, deter, prevent, and mitigate future critical infrastructure disruptions. This is much more difficult, politically, because it involves analysis of extremely complex phenomena, sharing of proprietary information, and — most importantly — costly, long-term investments to monitor infrastructure, “harden” computer controls, and create system redundancies. How are standards to be set, and how is compliance by private owners to be secured: through information-sharing, tax incentives, or regulation? State and provincial governments are at the frontline in managing many of the relevant industries; how are their policies to be brought into alignment with national and regional commitments?

We need a new round of debate on these questions, and a new sense of political momentum. To that end, the three lead agencies — the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Public Safety Canada, and Mexico’s Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (CISEN) — should create a trilateral expert panel to develop a strategic framework for long-term regional planning, mapping out a set of goals, timetables, and spending commitments. This panel would be charged with working out a three-year strategy to get past the current impasse, with particular attention to reinventing the working relationship between public- and private-sector players.

In the mid-2000s, significant effort was made to raise awareness and provide technical background to key audiences such as legislators, sub-federal government officials, the media, and academics. As part of a broader campaign to gather broad support for critical infrastructure investment, these public outreach efforts should be renewed, through the initiation of a series of expert presentations designed to play up the connections between critical infrastructure and other ongoing policy choices (e.g., counterterrorism, stimulus spending, cybersecurity).

To move the debate to the next level, private infrastructure owners will have to feel like they have a stake in the process and its success. An effective framework will most likely involve some combination of tax incentives and new regulations, but it should also involve an effort to transform industry leaders’ sense of their own obligations as managers of resources and systems which are so vital to national security and public welfare. Government and industry leaders should therefore be actively seeking to promote critical infrastructure security as an important “corporate social responsibility” for North American business.

National programs are vitally important, but they cannot be successful unless they are embedded in regional coordination. The most obvious and important reason is of course the interdependence of national infrastructure systems, particularly in sectors such as electricity, banking and finance, and telecommunications. Less obvious, but equally important, is the catalytic effect that regional (or bilateral) talks can have on national policy development, spurring bureaucrats and technical experts to innovate, and sustaining political momentum against legislative, bureaucratic, or local political spoilers. It will obviously be difficult to gather political support for such an initiative with elections on their way, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to avoid having past investments go to waste, prevent costly disruptions to our economy, and protect citizens from harm.