Latin America and Learning from NATO’s Experience

Dr Celia Szusterman, Director, The Institute for Statecraft's Latin America Programme. - 20/12/2012

Background

Despite the fact that the region is becoming a more important player on the world stage, Latin America is currently outside NATO’s area of interest. However, quite a few NATO countries have a serious involvement in Latin America and, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, events in Latin America may have an impact well beyond the Western hemisphere. The European Union is already seriously engaged in the region, as is China. Indeed, in some spheres China is more engaged in Latin America than in Africa.

However, Latin America’s progress is hampered by a range of security problems, in no small measure due to the fact that the region suffers from a lack of the kind of institutions and conflict-solving mechanisms that have allowed NATO  member states and partner countries to talk to one another and work together to solve problems. Whilst there is no question of NATO troops ever being involved in Latin America, this does not mean that there is no role for NATO to play in the region.

 One of the incidental consequences of NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan has been to fix in peoples’ minds that NATO is a military organisation. But in essence, NATO is a political organisation whose unique tool is its military capability. It is all too easy to forget about the core policy instruments that allow NATO to function and to use its military and other tools effectively. It is these political tools that Latin America arguably needs at the moment.

 What NATO did over the years of the Cold War is well expressed in the variations on the interpretation of its acronym: No Action Talk Only. But talking is far better than fighting and NATO has always done a superb job of getting potentially conflictive nations to talk instead of going to war. NATO’s extensive formal and informal mechanisms were evolved during the Cold War for addressing crucial national security issues arising between member nations with different and opposing views of their respective national interests. It was quickly understood that compromise in questions of fundamental importance to national security and national interests only builds up problems for the future. Consequently, NATO wisely evolved its mechanisms for consensus building, accepting the limitations of this approach and the investment of time and effort needed to achieve success. This is why NATO has succeeded where other alliances have failed. 

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO’s consensus-building mechanisms have proven to be highly effective tools to defuse conflicts between members of the Alliance’s partnership programmes. NATO’s mechanisms for dialogue in the Middle East, such as the Istanbul Cooperation Agreement, provide fora in which nations can explore their differences in a structured framework with the gentle support and tutelage of member nations when needed. NATO’s mechanisms to help partner nations reform their armed forces and national security establishments and develop good, safe, civil-military relationships, greatly speeded up the transformation of many Central European countries from totalitarian states to democracies. NATO and NATO member nations’ participation in defence and national security educational and training activities with extended partner countries also establish effective confidence-building measures between regional rivals. NATO mechanisms encourage the sharing of experience between member nations and partners on the safe and effective employment of national armed forces in tasks which improve internal security. A case in point is the British Army’s highly successful model of engagement with young people, frequently from ethnic minorities, who are particularly at risk of incitement to crime, violent extremism or terrorism. 

One of NATO’s lessons highly relevant to Latin America is that an army can play an important role in democratic state-building. The military training and education programmes of NATO member nations in many developing countries not only make a significant contribution to regional stability and democratisation, but also give the army a new purpose beyond its traditional role of “kinetic” operations. Another relevant model is the NATO committee structure for intelligence sharing, which is an excellent mechanism for building bilateral and multi-lateral trust transparently.  NATO’s military staff structure, training programmes and standardised procedures provide an interface between national armed forces built on radically different lines to allow them to talk to one another and work together effectively without any notion of enforcing a particular model, as the Soviet Army model was forced upon Warsaw Pact countries. NATO’s recent expansion of its interests into wider national security issues have given it a valuable expertise on issues such as counter-terrorism, energy security and cyber warfare which it is ready and willing to share.

This is the NATO experience that Latin American countries need. Interesting though NATO’s new counter-insurgency or counter IED techniques may be to Latin American military men, it is the political mechanisms that need to be emulated by Latin American countries. It would not be unreasonable to ask NATO and NATO member nations to help establish comparable mechanisms for conflict resolution in the comparatively new regional organisations such as UNASUR. Most nations do not want other people to push in and try to solve their problems for them. But many nations would appreciate discreet, sensitive, back-seat offers to help and support them in dealing with long-standing, intractable disputes. In offering to share its experience, NATO would not need to take responsibility for these problems in any way, and this would overcome the potential objections of both NATO member nations who do not want to be asked to spread resources further, and those of nationalists and people from the political left who would not want to see NATO involved in the region. NATO’s willingness to share its experience, at the same time avoiding direct involvement, would allay these fears. 

Current NATO partnership programmes engage a complex network of almost 40 countries.   Their focus, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was on democratisation and civilian control of the armed forces.  In the last few years, NATO’s more informal “Partners across the Globe” (PAG) have included countries as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mongolia, Pakistan and South Korea.  Those countries that now want to become NATO partners must be committed to confront the challenges posed by the 21st century threats, from terrorism to cyber-security, from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to piracy. The Strategic Concept approved in Lisbon in 2010 recognises that conflicts in areas outside NATO zones of concern can in fact pose a direct threat to the security of its member countries. To this end, the Alliance has been seeking closer links with Asian countries, such as India and China.

But when, in May 2012, NATO convened a meeting in Chicago of member, partner and associate countries, there was not one Latin American country amongst them.  There have been, true, a few bilateral engagements. Colombia took part in a meeting about drug-trafficking, while a partnership with Brazil is being sought in areas such as cyber-security. But these meetings are insufficient and have done nothing to enable Latin American countries to learn from NATO how to build the political mechanisms for conflict prevention and resolution that the region so badly needs.

Patterns of inter-state conflict

In Latin America, unclear borders established during the post-Independence redrawing of frontiers led to a type of conflict that, a century and a half later, became too frequent in post-colonial Africa, or which, more recently, followed the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.  Border disputes dating back to post-colonial times continue to cause extreme friction. Confrontations between Venezuela and Colombia, Venezuela and Guyana, Perú and Ecuador, not to mention the more than a century-long dispute between Bolivia and Chile over the former’s lack of access to the Pacific, show no signs of resolution. The notion that the protection of national sovereignty is the highest priority continues to provoke interstate conflict, e.g. between Colombia and Ecuador in 2008, and Nicaragua and Costa Rica in 2010.

Although Latin America has been quick to resort to international law, when rulings of international courts, such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, have gone against the interests of a particular state, that state has had no qualms in ignoring them.   Examples include: Argentina in its dispute with Uruguay over the establishment of a papermill on their shared frontier (the Uruguay River); Colombia over its disputed maritime sovereignty with Nicaragua, and; Perú and Chile over their maritime dispute.  The increased US military presence in the region in the 1960s (fighting communist guerrilla insurgencies) did something to help reduce tensions between states. But by the beginning of the 1980s, the series of existing bilateral and multilateral security agreements between Washington DC and most Latin American countries had expired. The US disengagement continued until, today, there is virtually no US military presence anywhere in Latin America except Columbia and Guantanamo, and the US naval base, albeit operated by Honduran troops, in the area of the Mosquito Coast, where lawlessness is rife.  Ironically, during this time raw nationalism has been on the increase.

The situation began to improve somewhat in the 1990s with the establishment of Mercosur, the ”Common Market” set up between of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay with Chile and Bolivia as associates. The member countries are committed to solve any disputes via diplomatic means. Considering that, until the 90s, the militaries of Chile, Brazil and Argentina saw each other as enemies, this is a considerable achievement.  Moreover, a “democratic clause” in the Asunción Treaty, which gave birth to Mercosur in 1991, states that member countries would only be able to remain as part of Mercosur as long as they remained democratic. 

However, despite this regional framework for economic cooperation, “democratic governments […] have not established a democratic process of decision-making, particularly where security issues are concerned” . Furthermore, the absence of adequate democratic civilian control over the military in several countries of the region could “potentially undermine the consolidation of democracy in Latin America”. This is exactly the kind of situation where the NATO political mechanisms discussed above could be of assistance.  The north of the region is more challenging from a security and democracy perspective. Venezuela and Ecuador remain suspicious of US involvement in Colombia, while at the same time they have not been prepared to help their neighbour with its own internal security problems, allowing FARC guerrillas to establish havens across the borders. These countries too, despite their mistrust of NATO, would have a lot to gain from adopting Alliance mechanisms and processes.

Because Mercosur has not addressed the fundamental security issues it is not evolving and growing and may even be in danger of decline. Protectionist trade policies adopted recently by Argentina, and to a lesser extent, by Brazil, have strained relations. Economic integration and increasingly regionalisation, as in seen in the creation of UNASUR – the Union of South American Nations, have added a new dimension to Argentina’s claim over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. Argentina uses the UNASUR annual summit conferences to exert pressure on the United Kingdom to undertake negotiations for the transfer of sovereignty without reference to the wishes of the population of the Islands . But UNASUR also has no adequate political mechanisms on the NATO model to address such security disputes, and is most certainly another worthy candidate for the introduction of such political tools for regional conflict prevention and resolution.

New security challenges are a further reason to follow NATO’s example. In the 1960s state weakness justified the need for US military intervention and reinforced the internal security role of local armies, to the detriment of democracy. Today, there is a danger that new security challenges (organised crime, drug trafficking, illegal migration, the spilling of domestic instability across borders) might do the same unless steps are taken to confront these challenges in a different way. Although social violence has deep historical roots in countries like Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia, it is relatively new in countries like Argentina and Chile.  But it is Central America where the new security challenges related to organised crime are most serious. Experts believe that the transit route for up to 90% of all South American produced cocaine destined for the US market goes through this region.  This has turned it, and especially Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, into the area with the highest peacetime murder rates in the world. The increase in violence has overwhelmed the police forces in the area, many of them accused of involvement in arms and drug trafficking.  NATO-style political mechanisms are urgently needed to improve the regional security collaboration without which these threats will multiply.

The US security engagement in Latin America

The steady security disengagement of the US from Latin America makes adoption of NATO- style political mechanisms more urgent. Since the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, the United States has adopted a policy of what might best be called “benign neglect” towards the region, focusing mostly on helping Colombia defeat both the drug cartels and the armed groups (FARC and ELN) that have destabilised the country for more than half a century. Contributing to the diminishing role of the US in the region is the anti-US rhetoric of populist leaders such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia.   Given the sheer asymmetry between the US and the countries south of the Rio Grande, and a tradition throughout the twentieth century of overt or covert intervention  in the region, Latin American countries could never in the past ignore their northern neighbour. This is no longer the case. 

The US has responded to requests for help from the governments of the region through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), but the bulk of the expenditure goes on equipment and training.   Experts agree that the security problem needs to be tackled on several fronts in order to improve governance, strengthen institutions and contribute to capacity-building in most state institutions, ranging from education, youth employment opportunities, reform of the judiciary, the police and the armed forces.

An assessment of selected key countries in the region

The countries of Latin America offer different opportunities for the employment of NATO-style political mechanisms and procedures. But all would benefit from these mechanisms in some measure. The true allies of the US in the region are Colombia, Chile and Mexico, while Brazil has sought, and to a certain extent has succeeded in establishing, a relationship on a more equal footing. These countries would perhaps be the easiest in which to develop such mechanisms first.

Brazil’s influence and importance in the region is obvious, even if its government is reluctant to assume a clear leadership.  Brazilian defence expenditure, which increased 30 per cent in the last decade, accounts for 55 per cent of all military spending in the region and 2.3 per cent of the global spending on defence.  Besides its continuous leadership of UN forces in Haiti, Brazil has also inaugurated a Centre for Cyber Defence. However, any expression of NATO interest in the country is unlikely to be reciprocated at first.  

Argentina needs the NATO-style political mechanisms more than most countries of the region – but is unlikely to avail herself of any opportunity as long as President Kirchner is in power. When in the 1990s President Menem of Argentina took the decision actively to engage the country in international organisations, going as far as sending a tug-boat to the Gulf at the time of Desert Storm, as well as leaving the Non-Aligned Movement as a signal to the US of Argentina’s commitment to the Western alliance, the US rewarded Argentina by naming her the first extra-NATO strategic ally in the Western hemisphere. Argentina’s current President has squandered this legacy and today Argentina is on the road to economic ruin and serious societal problems. Relations with neighbouring states are deteriorating. Interestingly, China is paying serious attention to Argentina and investing heavily in the country.

Colombia, regarded as almost a “failed state” a decade ago, is now facing the real possibility of a lasting peace with FARC.  Plan Colombia, launched by President Clinton in the 1990s, was ostensibly a programme to combat drug trafficking. Its real concern, the violent activities of the FARC and ELN guerrillas, had to be couched in “War on Drugs” terms to satisfy US Congress concerns about human rights abuses.  Many voices in the region were raised against the militarisation of the campaign against Colombian guerrillas. However, the success of Plan Colombia can be gauged not just by the fall in acts of violence, but by the announcement of peace talks which started in Norway and are continuing in Cuba.   By 2012 Colombia had become the third largest economy in the region (after Brazil and Mexico, and overtaking Argentina), with extraordinary levels of foreign direct investment. Together with Turkey, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Africa, Colombia is seen as the second generation of successful emerging countries (after the original BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India and China).  Colombia has become an “exporter of security assistance” in Central America.  Colombia could make perhaps the best use of NATO-style mechanisms to advance regional security.

Cuba and Venezuela have established the closest relationship in the whole hemisphere.  Cuba was interested in securing the survival of its regime as well as obtaining economic advantages, while on its part Hugo Chávez sought in the Castro brothers a source of inspiration for his so-called “Bolivarian Revolution”.  There is little hope of this relationship extending to other countries in the region, and it is doubtful that it will survive the life of both the octogenarian Castro brothers and the terminally ill Chávez.  Prevailing ideas of democracy, development, defence and foreign affairs in the region clash with the obscure aims of “Socialism of the 21st Century” as proclaimed by Venezuela’s leader.  As with Argentina, these countries are unlikely to want to learn lessons from NATO.

Chinese Interest in the Region

Venezuela was responsible for introducing non-hemispheric actors in the region.  It has signed “strategic alliances” with Iran and China.   China became a serious player in Latin America at the beginning of the 21st century. Chinese demand for minerals and raw materials was a major contribution in pulling some South American economies from the doldrums that the crisis originating in 1998 had thrown them into. US commentators have written in alarmist terms about China’s intentions beyond the commercial sphere. Although nothing can be said with absolute certainty about the strategic views of the Chinese Communist party, direct investment in mines and oil exploration and drilling, as well as interest in buying farmland in the Argentine pampas, would reveal a strategy that goes beyond the mere trade links or securing backing for the “one China policy” (which most countries in the region have now adopted).   

Although to claim that the Chinese are seeking to establish a strategic beachhead may be far-fetched, it would be extremely naïve to ignore China’s continuing interest in building alliances with militaries in the region (Cuba and Venezuela are the obvious cases).   It must be remembered that originally Hugo Chávez, and now his allies in the ALBA alliance (Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador), are ideologically anti-US, and denunciation of the US is a pivotal aspect of their nationalist rhetoric.  Taking a page from traditional US strategy, Chinese military activities in the region fall in five categories: humanitarian, peacekeeping, military exchanges, arms sales and donations, and technology transfers. Senior defence officials from Latin America have started to visit China routinely, and Chinese officials have reciprocated with high-level visits to Latin America.  Consistent  with the relatively small military budgets that countries of the region have, Latin American defence spending is forecast to grow from $63 billion in 2011 to $65 billion by 2014, with a mere 20 per cent being available for procurement and the bulk going to personnel costs. Only three countries (Chile, Brazil and Venezuela) can afford equipment modernization.    

In the past decade, China has sold $58 million worth of Karakorum jets to Bolivia and over $150 million in air surveillance systems to Venezuela, and has donated to Bolivia, Guyana, Colombia, and Peru military materiel such as uniforms, trucks, jeeps, field kitchens, engineering supplies, tents, gloves, and hats.   In 2008 Venezuela paid a Chinese company, Great Wall Industries Corporation (GWIC), US$ 406 million to develop and launch a satellite, the Simón Bolívar. Similarly, Bolivia contracted with the GWIC to build the Tupac Katari satellite and launch it in 2013, at a cost of $300 million, of which $295 million would be financed by the China Development Bank.  Paying for such prestige projects will contribute considerably to enhancing the role and image of China in Latin American public opinion.

Conclusion

Against this strategic background, NATO has something to offer that could significantly benefit Latin American countries and advance western interests in the region. Its experience in successful political confidence-building measures and co-operation could be of help to defuse and reduce many of the existing conflicts, confrontations and tensions. Any such developments would be strategically benign for the West, and the US should see it as in its interest to support them, since it would help supplement and reinforce the failing US involvement. The process can be started through collaborative academic programmes set up jointly between Think Tanks in NATO countries and Latin American countries. There is a need, in some countries more pressing than in others, to redefine the role of the militaries along the lines of civilian control and engagement in strengthening states in their developmental and democratic capacities.

Bibliography

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This publication is supported by NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division.