As 2001 began, and a new American administration prepared to take up office in the White House, there was much talk of a fresh focus on Latin America – a greater partnership among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and more investment in hemispheric relations. Almost a decade later, and we are once again hearing of a renewed focus – in 2008 the Canadian government announced it was developing an “Americas Strategy,” and the Obama administration has shown signs of a different approach in its words and actions leading up to and during the recent fifth Summit of the Americas. This June, during the fourth annual Kingston Conference on International Security, military leaders, government officials and academics will debate the impact of those “lost years” and what security challenges now face North America.

Dr. Max G. Manwaring is a research professor of military strategy with the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He spoke with associate editor Chris Thatcher.

What are the consequences of the U.S. shift of attention away from Latin America after 9/11?

In my view, there are at least five consequences of the U.S. neglect of Latin America. First, the U.S. lost influence in the region as a result of being distracted by other priorities. Second, that loss of influence produced a vacuum that is being filled by political groups and leaders hostile to the U.S., to democracy, and to market reform. Third, as a result of the first two consequences, political-economic-social instability is increasing and inhibiting development. Fourth, the expansion of general instability in the region is eroding existing political systems and economies, and the prosperity that has been achieved over the past several years. Fifth, increasing instability in the Western Hemisphere – and the resultant lessening of buying power – is negatively affecting the health of the U.S. economy, and the concomitant U.S. ability to exercise its influence in the global security arena.

How have security issues in the hemisphere changed over the past decade?

This is a very good and important question, and requires much more than an acknowledgement of change. The traditional legal concept of threat to national security and sovereignty involves the protection of national territory and population against recognizable external military aggression. Thus, the traditional level of security analysis tends to define national security in narrow nation-state and military terms. A more realistic contemporary security dialogue is beginning to focus on enhancing real and popular perceptions of relative stability and well-being, which tend to refer to the use of a variety of means – only one of which is military – in the pursuit of national stability, well-being, and effective sovereignty. In these terms, adversaries and motives have changed. But, at base, the enemy now becomes the state or non-state actor that plans and implements the kind of violence and/or destruction – wherever a country has interests – that threatens national well-being and exploits the root causes of instability.

Security, then, becomes an all-inclusive circular process of interdependent relationships among personal and collective security, political-economic-social development, peace, democracy and effective sovereignty. Three issues must be emphasized: first, security is too broad and too important to pass off to either the police or the military; second, effective/meaningful security, well-being, and sovereignty are broad national and transnational problems and must be addressed in an unified and legitimizing manner by all the instruments of state power (e.g., political, psychological, moral, economic, informational, and military); and third, security in its broader context becomes a transnational problem and requires transnational approaches. Thus, security must also be addressed by all the instruments at the disposal of a country’s international partners, and legitimizing international organizations. Lastly, it must be emphasized that the concept of security now includes – first and foremost – the imperative of addressing the “root causes” (poverty and inequality) of internal and external instability and violence.

Many traditional security threats/concerns have not gone away. Thus, in addition to the state and non-state actors that perpetrate traditional threats to national well-being, there are actors (including pirates) that exploit long-standing territorial, resource, boundary, and irredentist disputes, and attempt to deny, control or exploit access to sea lanes of communications and global choke points. Moreover, there are state and non-state actors that generate non-traditional threats that destabilize and progressively weaken targeted governments. The intent is to eventually take control of or depose that regime.

If all this were not enough, there are a few more security threats that must be considered. Cyber war, biological-chemical war, and natural disasters immediately come to mind. Cyber war and biological war can be more devastating than bombers, tanks, and artillery. A state or non-state actor (including teenage “hackers”) can easily shut down electrical grids, communications and banking systems, and gas and oil pipelines – a city, a region or a country can be devastated in a matter of seconds. You might ask any Estonian about that. Additionally, natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis and pandemics can also debilitate in a matter of minutes.

Given the lack of attention and the current economic downturn, does North America have a credibility gap that it must overcome with Latin American leaders?

Yes. In the past U.S. opinion-leaders and decision and policy makers assumed they knew what Latin America needed and how to do it better than anyone else. At the same time, the U.S. tended to be a good partner only when it was clearly obvious that it needed Latin American cooperation for one thing or another. Then, of course, there has been the U.S. “holier than thou” approach to human rights and general morality. The recent administration’s handling of accused terrorists was not exemplary, and in my opinion, destroyed whatever credibility it might have had not only in Latin America but also in much of the rest of the world.

Now, more than ever before, the U.S. must understand and respect the space and dignity of those with whom it must cooperate. Long-term cooperation can be based only on complete honesty and activities that serve the interests of others, as well as those of the U.S.

What role is China playing in Latin America?

China’s interest in Latin America is significant and expanding. The region has become an important source of raw materials and foodstuffs for China. And, in that connection, China’s other imports and exports from and to Latin America and the Caribbean have grown considerably over the past ten years. Some Latin American expectations are high. Some Latin American leaders look to China as an economic and political alternative to perceived U.S. hegemony. Some Latin Americans look to China for major investments in roads, ports, and other infrastructure. Some Latin American leaders look to China for trade in high-tech products, and scientific and cultural cooperation. And, going back to the idea of China as an economic and political alternative to the U.S., some leaders look to China for mutual support in international organizations, and in military-to-military collaboration.

In any event, China is still a long way from threatening or even competing effectively with the U.S. in Latin America. To be sure, China is pragmatically seeking economic and political advantages in the region, but – in my opinion – China does not now represent a security risk to the U.S. or other Western interests in the hemisphere. One should be watchful, but unalarmed.

Do the U.S. and Canada need a common security approach?

I think so. It is only rational. Just as the European Union is beginning to realize, Canada and the U.S. have internal and external interests that require not just a strategic relationship, but also a common approach to the broad definition of security. In my view, it is time for the U.S. and Canada to do what the E.U. has already done. That is, invest in the well-being of North America in order to raise living standards, create jobs, and rationalize immigration, border, and counter-narcotics policies. The intent would be to institutionalize and maximize the competitive advantage that a multilateral labor force, and multilateral resources and markets represent. Spain, with all its problems, is a case in point. The E.U. has facilitated and financed Spain’s transformation from an undeveloped and authoritarian country to an industrialized market economy and parliamentary democracy, and has generated a relatively comfortable standard of living for the Spanish people. At the same time, that transformation brought Spanish “guest workers” in Europe back to Spain. A similar story could be told about Mexico in the future.

How does a “whole-of-government” approach apply to security issues here?

The main current in the Latin American threat environment is not a traditional security (i.e., defense against external nation-state aggression) problem. Rather, a dynamic and complex mix of non-state actors (e.g., populists and neo-populists, new socialists, political insurgents, transnational criminal organizations, drug cartels, small private military organizations, enforcer gangs, mercenaries, other paramilitary “self defense” organizations, etc.) are actively involved in internal disruption and destabilization efforts that challenge the national security and effective sovereignty of virtually every nation-state in the region, every day of the year. The primary objective of these “new” players in the Western Hemisphere security arena is to attain a level of freedom of movement and action that allows the achievement of radical political, commercial, and/or other motives. This defines insurgency: coercing fundamental change of a given political-economic-social system to neutralize, control or depose it. This also defines war: compelling an adversary to accede to an aggressor’s policy objectives. All this requires more than law enforcement or military solutions. The ability to deal effectively with contemporary insurgency or war threats is multi-level and multi-lateral, and requires political, psychological, moral, informational, economic, and social efforts – as well as police and military efforts. Thus, the full human and physical resources of a nation-state and its international partners are required to achieve the individual and collective well-being that leads to sustained societal peace with justice.

What of the old and new Left in Latin America?

This is a question for someone who likes to have fun with words. It seems to me that there are in fact two Lefts in Latin America today. One is modern, open-minded, reformist, internationalist, and cognizant of past mistakes and abuses. The other “Left” is populist and neo-populist, hyper-nationalist, strident, and often violent. This Left stems from the revolutionary hard-core of the past. For this group, Che Guevara still lives. Ironically, this group refers to itself as the “new Left” or “new Socialists”, and many have adopted the old Bolivarian dream of an anti-Yankee Latin America. Thus, the “new Left” is really the old unrepentant revolutionary core that is interested in generating rapid and radical political change. The “old Left” is the moderates who appear to be working on the basis of lessons learned from the progressive European experience over the years since World War II.

Does the “new Left” represent legitimate security concerns for North America?

In my opinion, the moderates (old Left) offer precisely what is needed in Latin America. If Brazil, Chile, or Uruguay is any kind of example, this Left’s path is the way out of underdevelopment, poverty, inequality, and authoritarianism. On the other hand, the “new Left” tends to generate instability, insecurity, violence, and authoritarian remedies to the political-economic-social problems of Latin America. Thus, in my view, those who purposely generate instability, insecurity, and violence to destroy the “old” to build a “new” political-economic-social order do, in fact, represent legitimate security concerns for the entire hemisphere. Those individuals are no respecters of national boundaries; they create and exacerbate transnational problems that require transnational solutions.

Can much of the tension stemming from contemporary security concerns be addressed through regional organizations?

I would say that the Organization of American States (OAS) has very usefully helped several member countries resolve territorial and boundary problems over the years. Then, in 2002, the OAS General Secretariat assigned professional staffing to coordinate cooperation in other, more contemporary, hemispheric security matters. Today, the OAS Secretariat for Multi-dimensional Security brings together the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism (CKTE), the Inter-American Drug Abuse Commission (CICAD), the Inter-American Convention against the Illicit Manufacturing and trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials (CIFTA), as well as multilateral efforts against transnational crime.

These efforts have been complemented by specific OAS Conventions against terrorism, drugs, and transnational criminal activity, and in favor of democracy. These conventions are useful in providing legal frameworks from which the nation-states of the hemisphere can modernize legal codes to better deal with contemporary security issues. Unfortunately, however, much of all this depends on positive action by member nations, and has failed to become operational reality. In my opinion, much remains to be done in the hemisphere to realize the unquestioned benefits of substantive security cooperation.

The views expressed are those of Dr. Max G. Manwaring and do not reflect policies or positions of the Strategic Studies Institute, the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


An interview with Dr. Max Manwaring