WASHINGTON– The United States, Canada and Mexico must establish security to realize their full potential, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. “We cannot achieve resilience or reach our full potential without security,” he told the audience at the fourth North American Forum here. “This is tremendously important, given the kind of threats the North American continent faces at the dawn of the 21st century.”

While the “openness” of the nations, which share nearly 7,500 miles of border and together constitute the world’s largest free-trade zone, is a celebrated feature of the multilateral relationship, Gates said, it also makes them vulnerable to security threats.

“Nourishing these relationships is our mutual respect for and interest in free markets, democratic practices, and the rule of law,” he said. “But what we celebrate as North Americans — the very openness of our three societies — is also, perhaps, our biggest vulnerability.”

Providing a safe environment for the entire hemisphere is a collective responsibility, the secretary said. He urged officials to capitalize on security and defense interests shared by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, without infringing upon each country’s sovereignty.

Gates praised the new Canada-U.S. Civil Assistance Plan, which provides a framework for emergency planning and response to natural and man-made disasters. The plan, which will enable Canada and U.S. militaries to support the armed forces of the other country during a civil emergency, is “a step in the right direction,” he added.

The secretary recommended the contiguous countries also focus on expanding the Security and Prosperity Partnership, and continue improving cooperation on counter-narcotics.

Gates outlined several threats stemming from the continent’s open societies, including widely available Internet access that connects transnational gangs and supplies operational information to the illegal arms and drug trades.

“In too many instances, these groups are better financed and equipped than some elements of our three governments assigned to combat them,” he said. “Freedom of movement allows a nexus between narco-traffickers and terrorists, a security concern made more alarming by weapons of mass destruction.”

Drug runners employ low-flying airplanes to transport contraband, and also are building homemade, semi-submersible vessels that are hard to detect on the open seas. “If they can transport drugs, imagine what else they could carry,” Gates said.

In recent years, the United States has made important changes to combat such threats, such as the creation of U.S. Northern Command and Department of Homeland Security. In addition, Gates said, government at the federal, state, and local levels has put more effort into protecting America’s resources, infrastructure and citizens.

“We also have greater cooperation and integration between military and civilian authorities, to include, for example, stronger ties between the National Guard, the state governors, and the federal government,” Gates said.

But the secretary warned against nearsighted analyses of threats to the continent that consider only domestic security issues.

“When it comes to transnational threats, the ‘far fight’ is in many ways inseparable from ‘near fight,’” he said. “What happens in the streets of a distant capital in Asia or Africa can affect citizens in Mexico City, Ottawa and Washington, D.C.”

Gates praised Canada for its steadfast contribution to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, where nearly 3,000 Canadian troops are deployed. Eighty-five members of Canada’s military have died in Afghanistan, he added.

“The role of Afghanistan in the 9/11 attacks reminds us that this is no hypothetical scenario. We fight there now and in other distant lands to prevent another attack here at home,” he said.

Gates said interactions between the United States and Mexico are few and far between. He said that in the future, he hopes to see more interaction and cooperation between the armed forces of Mexico and those of the United States, where some 30 million Americans list their ancestry as Mexican.

“Close to home, both in and out of government,” Gates said, “we are looking to strengthen existing ties and forge new ones with our neighbors to the north and south.”

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