Recently, the U.S. Senate confirmed Ralph Basham as new commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in a little-noticed vote that is nonetheless of enormous importance for the future conduct of the global war on terrorism.
Winning this long war is all about spreading our networks, legal rule sets and transparency. By extending America's trade connectivity, we shrink those areas of the developing world that are effectively disconnected from the global economy, and by doing that, we reduce the operating domain of transnational terrorists who thrive best in poorly governed regions.
With today's information technology, any network is only as secure as every other network to which it's connected. Firewalls become less crucial than software security because more and more applications are run over the Internet. Everything's connected, so security becomes a universal dynamic, not something you "catch at the border."
The same holds true for nations increasingly intertwined with one another in globalization. We can't wait for trade and people to show up at our border to start the screening process. We need those databases built at the point of embarkation - not debarkation.
Moreover, America needs real-time access to those data flows, giving us the ability to track trade the world over, logically sharing that data with all our partners so as to provide everyone the greatest transparency possible. That way, the alleged trade-off between security and efficiency is obliterated, as America, along with other nations, begins to manage the global supply/trade/travel chain more like a Dell or Wal-Mart than our current antiquated system allows.
But here's the problem: Most lawmakers look at the CBP as the manager of our illegal immigrant flow and little else. Plus, whenever the question arises of putting any faith in foreigners regarding our border security (e.g., the ill-fated Dubai ports deal), Congress errs on the side of knee-jerk paranoia.
Ask yourself: Is the answer to America's security having more customs agents on our border with Canada than we did during the prohibition era or erecting some Berlin Wall on the Rio Grande - complete with National Guard troops? Or do you think it more logically involves CBP getting into the business of spreading the monitoring technology America so desperately needs to keep itself secure in a world of terrorists, pandemics and illicit flows of people and goods?
I say, put away the paper forms and pull out your container scanner.
America should be in the business of giving away the technology and templates that enable our less developed trading partners to wire up their own version of CBP agencies into a global trade-tracking network. That's what the new World Customs Organization aspires to be, but so far it's just a piece of paper that some 170 countries have signed, a short step up from the old World Customs Union born in the aftermath of World War II.
What the WCO should become is a dynamic trade-management network that allows all members to track everything and everyone both in-bound and out-bound. It needs to provide any country the ability to instantly repopulate the global rule set every time some smuggler pulls off a new trick, in effect sending out the security patch to all the other nodes like some anti-virus computer update.
To achieve that sort of vision, CPB must become a serious player in both our overseas national security strategy and - believe it or not - our foreign aid program.
Globalization's historic expansion around the planet is picking up speed, generating the "flat world" competition that Thomas Friedman describes. As foreign countries and their companies increasingly replicate the sort of hyper-efficient global distribution platforms pioneered by America's best-known corporations, the volume of global transactions will keep booming, in turn raising the complexity of managing our borders.
Better for America to take the lead in building up the WCO's information networks and associated rule sets than waiting on the rest of the world to decide by committee. The more aggressively we champion this global network, the better we can shape its operations to reflect our private-sector companies' market needs.
When it comes to writing rules, the power of the first draft is enormous. Congress needs to make sure that Basham and the CBP are suitably empowered to promote America's security and trade interests globally in the years ahead.