September 4, 2008

September 4, 2008 | Commentary on Latin America, Immigration

The Eighth Defense Ministerial of the Americas End of the Line?

From September 2 to 6, 2008, the Canadian government will host the 8th Defense Ministerial of the Americas (DMA) at scenic Banff in the Canadian Rockies.  The purpose of the ministerial broadly defined is to promote regional defense and security cooperation and strengthen ties between 34 participating nations of the Americas.

The first DMA in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1995 was a security follow-on to 1994 Miami Summit of the Americas. It began in the aftermath of the Cold War when the U.S. and Latin America appeared moving with unity of purpose toward strengthened democracy, freer trade, and deeper security reform and cooperation.

An underlying assumption of the first DMA was that the U.S. as the world's sole superpower was uniquely positioned to help guide the Hemisphere's militaries to find new roles and relationships. The basic Williamsburg principles - defense of democracy; civilian control of the military, transparency, and confidence-building - were to become benchmarks for the future. The DMA was to become a forum for encouraging non-traditional roles for militaries and strategies to meet emerging transnational threats.

While its principles remain sound, the DMA today has lost cohesion and much of its rationale for existence.

Thus far 2008 has been a particularly divisive year for Hemispheric security. It has been marked by Colombia's dispute with Ecuador and Venezuela following the March 1 attack on the FARC camp in Ecuador and the readiness of President Hugo Chávez to throw support behind the FARC against a democratically-elected government.

It has also witnessed the emergence of an exclusionary, South American security body (UNASUR). Although Brazil and Venezuela are the project's main promoters, they maintain contradictory views about the new body's goals and implementation mechanisms. It is also worth noting that this regional security architecture is meant to be a Latin American-only club, thereby excluding the U.S., despite its undeniable role as an essential contributor to hemispheric security and stability. Under such conditions, UNASUR is bound to fail. Most recently Chávez's alignment with Russian, post-Cold War revisionism and his open invitation for Russia to again project military power into the Western Hemisphere is troubling. Such negative developments cannot be easily plastered over at the DMA.

The Ministerial's Canadian hosts are demonstrating a readiness to play an active and positive role in the Western Hemisphere. The Canadians are working hard to develop a meeting agenda focused on less divisive themes such as responses to natural disaster; security cooperation to protect major events such as the 2007 Cricket World Cup, and developing peacekeeping capacity and expertise. Optimists still see the possibility of institutionalization and follow-up to advance cooperative security that will make countries actually work together.  Yet, these positive attitudes will not heal deep fissures.

The DMAs, like the larger Summit of the Americas process, is floundering. It is falling victim to ideological and geopolitical divisions that are sundering the former democratic unity of the Americas. The Williamsburg principles mean little to the exclusionary brand of Bolivarian nationalism and anti-imperialism. Hollow events accomplish little other than a cosmetic show of false unity.

The need for security cooperation remains manifest in the Americas. Criminal organizations, gangs, trafficking organizations and guerrilla groups require serious, concerted action. The threat of global terrorism to the Hemisphere is genuine, as evidenced by the increased presence and activities of Islamic radical groups in areas such as the tri-border region between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

In the United States and elsewhere professional soldiers and diplomats remain committed to perpetuating process and the pleasing fiction of Hemispheric unity and working inter-American security institutions. Some are patient enough to await prodigal Venezuela's return to the democratic fold.

For the foreseeable future, the working lines of hemispheric security cooperation will run primarily like the spokes of a wheel from North America to nations ready for serious-minded, professional interaction and genuine cooperation. Under this model, effective partnerships will be possible only if they are based on a set of shared values such as liberal democracy and free markets. In said cases, defense cooperation can take the form of either bilateral or multi-country arrangements, but it requires actual friends and genuine partners, like the U.S. and Colombia, ready to tackle tough challenges such as counter-terrorism, anti-drug actions, or international peacekeeping.

Ministerial success at Banff would be a good step in the right direction. However, given the Hemisphere's present strategic situation, that is almost impossible. Therefore, expectations and resources would be better invested in working more closely with friends and real partners than in staging short-lived shotgun weddings at scenic Canadian resorts.

Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and James M. Roberts is Research Fellow for Economic Freedom and Growth in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ray Walser, Ph.D. Senior Policy Analyst
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Latin America, Immigration

First appeared in the Latin Business Chronicle