TCS Daily

How to Lose Friends and Influence Nobody

By Ziba Norman - October 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Recently there has been high level chatter about curtailing the existing United States Visa Waiver Program (VWP); it extends to nationals of some 27 countries, which include the UK, Spain, Germany, and Japan, and has existed since 1986. Under the current scheme, the right to enter the US is granted (at port of entry) for a period of 90 days, for business or tourism purposes, to nationals of participating countries, upon production of a valid passport.

Since 1986, countries have applied to be included in the VWP, some of the notable additions to which were Singapore in 1999 and Slovenia in 1997. It has proved to be a popular program, with many more wishing to take part, and has also served as a badge of honor, with those included considering themselves first-class friends with an open door to the US. There may even be less tangible, though very important benefits, as it raises confidence and marks these countries out as stable nations -- always a welcome stamp for investors, both corporate and individual.

Unfortunately those countries that are not part of this open access arrangement, especially those that consider themselves to be good, loyal US allies, understandably feel aggrieved. This can raise the temperature in diplomatic settings, to an extent that is otherwise out of proportion to the benefits the VWP might have for a country seeking to join. A consistent failure to extend the program to a certain country, such as Poland, can leave its nationals and government questioning the US's commitment, and even result in a loss of popular support for US policy abroad. These are factors that must be reckoned with. The reasoning behind this often amounts to little more than: if we can't jump on an airplane to go to a trade conference with our colleagues in the US, why do we bother to support their aims, especially when some US objectives are unpopular and require robust friendship, such as the decision to send troops into Iraq?

There are a variety of criteria to be met if a country is to join the A-list of America's trusted friends. Patterns of visa and passport fraud are analyzed, terrorism threats both within the VWP country and outside it are evaluated and certain requirements as to quality of passport documentation must be met. More recently participating countries have been required to include biometric data on new passports issued, though these post-9/11 requirements have not as yet been met by all the countries participating.

Further, just because a country is placed on this A-list does not guarantee it will remain there indefinitely. The US attorney general has the right to revoke the VWP if any of a number of situations arise within a participating country, most importantly 1) the overthrow of a democratically elected government; 2) a breakdown of law and order extending to a significant proportion of the country; 3) a major economic crisis, that might result in a flood of immigrants seeking to enter the US and remain beyond their 90-day limit.

Participating countries are subject to review. During the last few years Belgium's VWP status was reviewed as a result of theft of a large number of blank passports, which might easily have found their way on to the black market. And while Belgium has remained part of the VWP, Argentina's participation was immediately curtailed in the aftermath of an economic crisis.

The program was, of course, adopted to encourage cross-border business and facilitate international travel. In recent years, some 13 million visitors have entered the US each year under the program, bringing with them all the economic benefits that accompany a large number of visitors. In addition to these direct benefits, the VWP also served to free-up State Department resources that might otherwise be mired in the process of vetting very low-risk applicants seeking to visit the US. Since 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has become responsible for making policy and defining the criteria for participation in the VWP, while the State Department handles implementation.

But, since the DHS has become responsible for the policy-making aspect of the VWP in the aftermath of 9/11, the emphasis has changed. With Europe being increasingly seen as a hub of terrorist activity, and the identification of many Al Qaeda operatives as nationals of countries currently enjoying the benefits of the VWP, there has understandably been a call to re-assess existing arrangements.

The argument is that there is an easy point of entry to the States for hostile elements who are nationals of the VWP countries. Security is paramount, but knee-jerk reactions as to how best to ensure that our borders are safe and secure may be damaging. It is generally believed that by issuing visas greater control is maintained over who enters the country and that this by definition equals greater security. It seems, however, we have overlooked the importance of remaining tight with our friends abroad, and not simply as a PR exercise for the US, but also if we are to gain maximum influence and increase the flow of vital information in the long-term, both essential to contain and stop the spread of terrorist threats.

The argument that limiting access to the VWP, and perhaps even revoking existing arrangements, assumes that by increasing the State Department's control over foreigners seeking entry we can make the US safer, and less prone to infiltration by terrorist operatives. The exact opposite, I would argue, is the case.

By extending the VWP the US increases its influence and its input into the standard of documentation required of participating countries, thus encouraging good practice around the world; as a by-product fraud and corruption are less likely. Through these administrative mechanisms, the US State Department, at this vital stage, will have critical input into procedures used within participating countries. It is also likely that by maintaining these arrangements with VWP countries a greater flow of information results and this too can lead to greater security.

And lastly, if western values and culture (arguably, one of Al Qaeda's main targets) are to be promoted, then the creation of a Fortress America is the least desirable of all aims in the long term. A charge should be led for fresh thinking on this subject, with emphasis on the many desirable benefits of the VWP, and not simply a re-hash of the predictable view that "more visas equals greater control over internal security," a case which is clearly unproven. We can be just as safe, and perhaps safer, if we widen and deepen our existing influence abroad through this program. Let's get more of our friends abroad on the list.

Ziba Norman is founder and director of the Transatlantic Institute, a newly established educational charity based in London. She is also a member of the editorial board of Prospect Magazine, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Her articles have previously appeared in the Observer, Prospect Magazine, and the RSA Journal


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