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opinion

The Maple Leaf and U.S. flag are seen at the Nexus border office at Pearson airport in Toronto on Sept. 17, 2007.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

We read with interest last week's article in The Globe and Mail by our friends, the five former Canadian ambassadors to Washington, most of whom we had the honour to work with during our service in Canada. Their cogent thoughts on the future of the Canada-U.S. dynamic inspired us to write a few of ours.

When reading accounts of politics in the U.S., it would be easy to conclude that Democrats and Republicans agree on nothing. At least when it comes to Canada, these two Democrats and two Republicans are exceptions.

The four of us, appointed by two different U.S. presidents from different political parties, served our country as ambassadors in Canada through most of the past two decades. Each of us separately and all of us collectively recognize the unique nature of our country's relationship with Canada.

It has become axiomatic to recite the panoply of values, principles and goals we share, not to mention the geography that John Kennedy so famously referenced. It is simply beyond debate that Canada and the U.S. share the most unique and extensive bonds of any two nations on Earth, a fact that people on both sides of the border all too often ignore or take for granted.

In 1988, our respective national leaders negotiated a landmark free-trade agreement that made a step change in the way we live and do business with each other. But that agreement and the NAFTA deal that followed were intended as steps along a policy path, not a destination. Each of us in our time worked with our Canadian counterparts to improve that fundamental framework in incremental ways. Whether an open skies agreement, a pre-clearance agreement, a smart border accord or a softwood lumber deal, specific initiatives were implemented resulting in tangible, constructive progress.

In the ensuing years, however, the challenges and opportunities have not remained static. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, presented new security concerns in a stark and tragic fashion. The inefficiencies and inconveniences confronting Canadians and Americans have increased as our continent and our world have evolved and become more complex. There are few who believe that the policies that frame how we live and work together in North America have kept up. It has become clear that incremental fixes are no longer sufficient and that a bigger vision is required. Those who have served in our embassy in Ottawa or Canada's in Washington have heard over and over from our respective citizens the refrain - why can't we do better? At times in the past, one partner or the other was prepared to take up the challenge of advancing new policies to recognize this evolution, but never both a the same time. As they say, it takes two to tango.

Recent reports indicate that our two governments and our two national leaders may be preparing a 21st-century dance using the same sheet of music. While we are no longer privy to confidential information, we are enormously encouraged by the prospect that our two countries may now be ready to implement comprehensive policy changes to enhance our mutual interests. The concept of handling primary security challenges at our continental border in order to streamline and simplify commercial and personal activity makes a lot of sense. Joint action to secure our shared continent, after all, since the NORAD agreement more than 50 years ago, is not a novel concept.

We have no doubt that any agreement will respect the territorial and cultural integrity of each country, as well as their political sovereignty. Those principles need not be eroded to make it easier to secure our continent from external threat, to facilitate the innocent travel of Canadians to Florida and Americans to Lake Louise, to sell the same box of cereal in Fort Erie that is sold in Buffalo and to move goods back and forth across our border that we make together throughout North America.

If we work together to enforce our common security initiatives, the 49th parallel can return to more of its historic role as a boundary, not a barrier. As a consequence, Canadians and Americans can be more secure and more prosperous with less hassle. These are principles on which Americans and Canadians, of all political stripes, can agree.

So the four of us join together to applaud what appears to be real progress in defining a new model for our North American framework. It seems that our respective leaders are hearing the refrain and are focused on the vision. It has been said that leaders campaign in poetry and govern in prose. The four of us, who hold Canada, Canadians and our shared history in such high esteem, are excited by the poetry we hear about innovation in our special relationship. We trust that the prose yet to be seen will effectuate another landmark step forward in our historic partnership.

Gordon Giffin, Paul Cellucci, James Blanchard and David Wilkins are former U.S. ambassadors to Ottawa.