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This week's trilateral summit in Texas has rekindled discussion on the need for a North American security strategy. Such a strategy, its supporters contend, would provide a common border to repel terrorists and other criminals and leverage the combined political, economic and security instruments of the United States, Canada and Mexico. This is a laudable goal and timely discussion given the upcoming meeting, but let's not overlook the actions that have already been taken between the U.S. and Canada as we seek to strengthen the relationship between all three countries. In many respects, the Canadian-U.S. efforts serve as a roadmap to a future North American security strategy.

Though co-operation on security issues has taken on a new fervour in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. and Canada have a long history of co-operating on security matters. Since as early as the 1940 Permanent Joint Board on Defense, and more recent bilateral agreements, such as the 2001 Smart Border Accord, it's clear our countries place a high value on working together. Implicit in these agreements is that thinking about security on the 49th parallel is not enough; potential vulnerabilities inside each country must be addressed and each nation's collective expertise, experience and technology must be leveraged to effectively safeguard North America.

The recent task force report Creating a North American Community sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations echoes discussion on the need for co-operation among the three countries to enhance security. The report provided in part, recommendations for the three countries to have a common "security zone" by 2010. Whether such a proposal has merits (or more directly, if such a zone is politically or economically feasible), what is clear is that major strides have already been made by the three countries with a vision of North American -- not piecemeal -- security.

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To this end, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Paul Martin announced the New Partnership in North America last November, which strives to increase co-operation among the countries on security issues. Given our shared democratic beliefs and congruent borders, it should come as no surprise that our two countries would work together for a common security strategy. Indeed, Canada and the U.S. already have several successful programs, which should be built upon for the future.

Our two governments are working together to screen goods and people overseas before they arrive in our mainland by jointly deploying our border security officials to foreign countries. Screening and stopping potentially dangerous cargo and individuals overseas is far preferred to bringing this danger to our shores.

Co-operation between the U.S. and Canada on law enforcement matters has already demonstrated great successes. A binational, multiagency program, the Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs), shares intelligence and resources between our two countries to halt criminal and terrorist movements. There are now 23 IBETs operating in 15 strategic geographic regions along the land border, which identify, investigate and interdict criminal and terrorist-related persons and goods. In the past year alone, the IBETs thwarted 45 cases that could have jeopardized North America's security.

Our governments too are working to streamline the passage of preapproved low-risk people and vehicles across the points of entry between our countries. And thanks to programs such as US-VISIT and the National Targeting Center, verification of travellers to and from the United States can be done with biometrics. In April, Canada and the U.S. will collaborate for the largest counterterrorism exercise ever conducted in North America.

These efforts should serve as a springboard to future successes, as Canada and the U.S. join with Mexico for a North American security strategy. Mexico, with its unique concerns and needs, has shown its willingness to work with its northern neighbours and must be engaged as an equal partner.

As the leaders prepare to meet this week, they must not fall victim to the desire of some for a comprehensive trinational security plan inked in the near term. They should calibrate their expectations to a reasonable level for the upcoming summit, with an objective toward a commitment to build, step-by-step, a united vision for the security of North America. This may be one of the most complex plans developed, and will undoubtedly require not only the leaders' signatures, but their commitment to energize their governments' bureaucracies at home. Debate and deliberation should be brought to each country's citizens; patience will be in high demand. But given the potential security payoff for building on our joint efforts, the need to press forward is clear.

Frank J. Cilluffo, former special assistant to the President for Homeland Security, is now director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute.

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