And What About That Other (Northern) Border?

in Foreign Policy by

In case you haven’t been listening to the news (me neither), the United States shares the longest international border in the world. It stretches 5,525 miles (8,891 kilometers) long and stretches from the Atlantic all the way to the mighty Pacific. The boundary moves through rivers, lakes, towns, and villages, over majestic country-side and rugged mountain peaks to separate our two countries. The border was established through war and peace and from difficult and tenuous negotiations first with Great Britain and then with the territorial government of Canada.

A picture of a segment of the US-Canada border. Note the lack of wall, access roads, watch posts, border crossings, surveillance points, or any signs of a border at all, with the exception of an obvious gap in the tree line extending from ocean to ocean.

Perhaps you were thinking I was instead referring to the US-Mexico border, itself 1,989 miles (3,201 kilometers) long and stretching from the Gulf of Mexico and Rio Grande to San Diego bay off California, but no, I wasn’t. The border between the United States and Canada also has the added distinction of being the most undefended border in the world. From Point Roberts in Washington to the disputed island of Campobello in the Bay of Fundy and all the way through the border with Alaska, the US-Canadian border carries with it none of the security detail, the technological sophistication, or the political concerns of our Mexican border to the south.

A photo of the US-Mexican border, with its stark contrast to the US-Canada border above. In addition to the “No-Man’s Land” and detention center on the US side (on the left), note the thirty-foot fence, paved access road, and surveillance cameras both on the secondary wall (not straight) and telephone poles strung along the line (ahead of the wall).

In fact, with the exception of a twenty-foot (six meters—hey, it’s Canada!) clearing between the United States and Canada at the border that stretches from coast to coast, one would never guess that one is approaching or crossing a border between the fifteenth largest and the largest economies in the world. A joint US-Canadian Commission is largely responsible for maintaining the border as well as mediating all disputes between the two countries, but for the most part the two nations share this border with little concern over immigration, trade, drugs, terrorism, or other issues that affect most other bordering countries. The same could not be said of the border some two thousand miles to the south.

And the question that should be on everyone’s mind (and I do mean everyone) is just why that is? Why do I suspect that with an annual operating budget of $13.5 billion (that’s right: BILLION, in cold hard tax dollars) for customs and border protection, most of it is going to one border and not the other. Why is it that no joint arbitration committee exists between the Mexico and the United States (well, not before, anyway)? And why don’t we hear anything about the need for more border control and protection with our friends to the north?

A basic lesson we can learn from this is that borders—or the apparent lack of them—says as much about the border erectors as they do about those whom the border is meant to keep out. Perhaps that’s why some of the most inspiring rhetoric Americans can still recite speak of tearing down barriers, whether figuratively (“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln) to even literally (“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate, tear down this wall!” Ronald Reagan). Strange isn’t it that this rhetoric speaks to one of our borders and not the other.

Although the US-Mexico border does actually extend twelve nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) out to sea, the actual border “fence” extends one hundred feet beyond the break line of the waves in Baja California. Now a secondary “no man’s land” fence is being installed one hundred feet north of the border along this section of the line, as seen in the foreground here. No such border extender or “no man’s land” exists with the Canadian frontier.


A study in contrasts between the two borders. “We always think of borders as something that separates two peoples, but of course they unite them. It’s something you have in common, literally.” Don Winslow. Perhaps some more than others.

Perhaps that’s the point. Although we have shared a long and fraught relationship with both the people of Canada (we’ve invaded them four times! 1767, 1778, 1812, and 1846) and Mexico (only three times! 1828, 1846, and 1912), we’ve never seemed to treat them the same (well, except for the invading part), despite our shared history, geography, and, indeed, people and culture. And despite the fact that Mexico contributes more land (literally the entire western third of our nation, seven states in all!), more of its people (in a 2009 study 1,062,640 Canadian Americans vs. 11.4 to 22.3 million Mexican Americans), and perhaps more of its treasure, we still don’t have the relationship and thus the border with our southern neighbor that we should.

There is one thing that is clear from all of this: we need to change our relationship between our two countries. By the election, that has already been arranged. Unfortunately, though, it’s probably not in the direction you (or I) think it should be going. But as the French (that is, Canadians) would say, “C’est la vie.”

Javier Anderson considers himself a person of action. Whenever he's not in class (to become an engineer) he's either busy with a good book or working with his hands on something, be it his growing collection of stamps, communicating to the world via his Ham Radio, or thinking of the vexing problems of the day. His belief in the importance of civic engagement and participation are rooted from his diverse and loving family as well as his deep appreciation of history. Besides spending hours staring at spreadsheets and baseball games, Javier is also a person of what Theodore Roosevelt liked to call, "the strenuous life" and engages in all manner of sports to the fullest (three broken bones!). Imparting a sense of wonder and amazement about life is definitely his life's work!

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