Alan Bersin, who serves as Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Policy, gave a presentation at the Department of Political Science as part of the Northeastern University Department of Political Science’s series “Controversial Issues in Security Studies,”. Colloquially termed the “border czar” while serving as the special representative for border affairs in the Obama administration, Bersin provided a very notable, credible voice in the realm of border security and policy.
Secretary Bersin’s perspective on the current challenges to border security was surprisingly multifaceted. Bersin first traced the origins of modern political borders to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Cognizant of the difficulty of adapting a border system that originates with a medieval European treaty, Bersin talked at length about the need to modernize the lines of defense. In particular, the idea of a strong border as the first line of defense is inaccurate in the modern world. Particularly with regard to air-travel, not dealing with a threat until it reaches the border is a failure on the part of the security apparatus. This led to a concept that he described as an “inherent transnationality” to border protection. Using Northwest Airlines Flight 253 (the “underwear bomber” incident) as a case study, Secretary Bersin highlighted the need for a security framework that allowed for suspects to be detained not upon arrival as is consistent with a historical view of borders, but before their international departure. Specifically, Bersin advocated a policy of international cooperation that would allow for an international assessment of threats in real time. As the Chief Diplomatic Officer of the Department of Homeland Security, he was quick to highlight the need for international cooperation to deal with the complexity of modern security issues. International terrorism provided the basis for the majority of the discussion, but allusions were made to other complex, modern issues of security such as cyber security.
Bersin closed out his discussion of border policy by noting the drastic divide between the policies being advocated by himself and the policies that were prominent in media headlines from the second Republican presidential debate. While the entirety of the Secretary’s presentation was focused on the adaption of the idea of borders and border security policy to the fast-paced, modern world, the ideas being advocated by prominent presidential candidates are very much a harkening back to antiquated conceptions of borders and how states interact. Assistant Secretary Bersin neglected to continue the politically charged discussion of partisan policy ideas, allowing the audience to infer the implications of the current political reality for themselves.