The Canadian government will host the Eighth Defense Ministerial
of the Americas (DMA) September 2-6 at Banff in the scenic Canadian
Rockies. The purpose of the meeting is the promotion of regional
defense and security cooperation in the Americas and the
strengthening of ties among 34 invited nations. It is a ministerial
event in search of a diplomatic and strategic meaning-and at
present lacking both.
Harbinger of Security Cooperation
The first DMA took place in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1995. It
began as a defense and security counterpart for the 1994 Miami
Summit of the Americas. The U.S. launched the DMA in the proximate
aftermath of the Cold War at a time when the U.S. and Latin America
appeared to be moving with unity of purpose toward strengthening
democracy, expanding free trade, guaranteeing basic human rights,
and deepening defense reform and security cooperation.
An underlying assumption of this DMA process was that as the
world's sole superpower, the U.S. was uniquely positioned to mentor
the Hemisphere's armed forces as they set out to discover new roles
and relationships in an altered geopolitical environment. The
threat posed by the Soviet Union and its proxies had vanished, and
Cuba had sunken into nasty but largely isolated dotage.
Among the fundamental "Williamsburg principles" were calls for
defending democracy, broadening civilian control over the military,
increasing transparency in defense matters, and enhancing
confidence-building among nations. These were to become benchmarks
for building a better, more unified, and safer Americas. The DMA
was also seen as a forum for encouraging non-traditional roles for
militaries and strategies to meet emerging transnational
History Returns to Latin America
While its principles remain sound, the DMA today has lost
cohesion and much of its rationale for convening. Latin America,
thanks to Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez and his
Bolivarian Revolution, is engaged in its own version of "the return
to history," to quote conservative strategic thinker Robert
Signs of this return include a mixture of ethno- and
resource-nationalism coupled with a reappearance of
Péronist-style populism in Venezuela and elsewhere. For the
fervent U.S.-bashers in Latin America, Chávez is the new
Fidel Castro, a David striking out at the imperial U.S.
Thus far 2008 has proven divisive for hemispheric security. It
has been marked by Colombia's crisis with Ecuador and Venezuela
after the March 1 attack on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) camp in Ecuador, resulting in threats of war and a
display of readiness by President Chávez to back the
narco-terrorism of the FARC against a democratically elected
It has also witnessed the emergence of an exclusionary South
American security body (UNASUR). Although Brazil and Venezuela are
the project's main promoters and all 12 South American nations have
signed on, members 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 has aligned with Russia and extended
an invitation for Russia to again project military power into the
Not all blame accrues to Chávez. Washington also retains
the ability to inflict serious wounds to our hemispheric
relationships. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, former
Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda points to
legislative diluting of the anti-drug program for Mexico (known as
the Merida Initiative), the U.S. refusal to drop a
54-cents-per-gallon tariff on Brazil's sugar cane-based ethanol,
and the sidelining of the Colombia free trade agreement as acts of
parochialism that trouble our closest hemispheric partners.
A Minimal Agenda
Canada, the DMA's host, wants to play a constructive defense and
security role in the Hemisphere. The Canadians are working hard on
an agenda focused on less divisive topics such as responding to
natural disasters, security cooperation for international events
like 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 ideological fissures.
The DMA, like the larger Summit of the Americas process and the
vision of a Free Trade Area of the Americas, is floundering.
It has fallen victim to ideological, social, and geopolitical rifts
that are sundering the former hope for democratic unity in the
Americas. The Williamsburg principles mean little to the
exclusionary brand of Bolivarian nationalism and
The need for security cooperation remains manifest in the
Americas. Criminal organizations, gangs, trafficking organizations
and residual insurgencies require serious, concerted action.
Citizen security and fighting domestic and international crime are
central concerns for all of the Americas. 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
In the U.S., professional soldiers and diplomats remain
committed to perpetuating process and the pleasing fiction of
hemispheric unity and the imaginary workings of multilateral,
inter-American security institutions. Some are patient enough to
await prodigal Venezuela's return to the democratic fold. Sadly,
that wait may be longer than anyone desires.
Back to Basics
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.
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, at The Heritage Foundation. He was assisted
in the preparation of this Web Memo by Roman Ortiz, Coordinator for
Security and Defense Studies at the Ideas for Peace Foundation in
Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams
(New York: Knopf, 2008).
Jorge G. Castañeda, "Morning in Latin America: The Chance
for a New Beginning," Foreign Affairs, September/October
2008, pp. 136-137.
Roberts, "Rethinking the Summit of the Americas and Advancing Free
Trade in Latin America," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder
No. 2170, August 8, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/static/reportimages/AA7E5B3E80DCFD51480E2DA7AB2ACF9E.pdf.
See also Thomas A. Shannon and Ambassador Hector Morales, "Summit
Promotes Security, Democracy, Prosperity," The Miami Herald,
August 20, 2008, at http://www.state.gov/p/wha/rls/rm/2008/q3/108657.htm
(August 27, 2008).