Neglecting our Neighbors

In March, President George W. Bush, President Vicente Fox of Mexico and Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada signed the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America. In fact, security cooperation among the three countries had been greatly accelerated since the 9/11 attacks, so the "partnership" added little to what was already being done in the hemisphere as a whole.

Despite this activity, a variety of obstacles, including organizational, political and strategic ones, inhibits the pursuit of hemispheric security. The most significant challenge is the lack of an operational definition of security common to at least the most important countries of the region. From the American perspective, issues of "hemispheric security" arise from situations in this hemisphere involving real or potential threats to the security of the United States. As the region's overwhelmingly dominant power, these criteria have become the de facto definition of security for the entire hemisphere. Though threats to the national security of other countries in the region may well be regarded as challenges for the United States, they are not addressed militarily if they are not seen as threatening the security of the United States itself. This approach is inadequate to deal with the types of threats now facing the hemisphere. The question for policymakers is: How should hemispheric security be defined, and by whom?

The Inter-American System

The inter-American system has evolved over the past 120 years. It began as a manifestation of the shift from British to American hegemony in the hemisphere and has gradually become a system of inter-related institutions and procedures covering different functional areas. In doing so it has remained a system that operates in a largely informal manner, despite its institutionalization, particularly in the form of the Organization of American States (OAS). Hemispheric cooperation is achieved, when it is achieved at all, more through discussion among the member countries than through formal procedures, which in turn are often used post facto to ratify decisions already taken. As such, it does not operate like the European Union or NATO. Curiously, as the global hegemonic position of the United States has increased, its attention to and control over the Western Hemisphere has decreased. Currently, all countries in the hemisphere participate in the system, with the exception of Cuba, excluded because of its attempts during the 1960s to overthrow other governments in the region.

The inter-American system traces its origins back to 1890 and the formation of the Pan-American Union. From its inception, the system had two principal focuses--trade and the peaceful settlement of disputes. To address the latter concern, the Treaty to Avoid or Prevent Conflicts Between the American States, also known as the Gondra Treaty, was signed in 1923. This would be the first of many. The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance of 1947 (the Rio Treaty) was the first inter-American agreement to specifically address questions of regional and collective security. It was ratified by all the then-members of the system and was invoked a number of times in the 1950s and 1960s. The treaty subsequently fell into disuse because the formal conditions for its invocation stopped happening, most importantly the "unprovoked armed attack by a State against the territory of another State."

Another attempt was made in September 2001 with the signing of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The operative section of the charter is Chapter IV, which provides that if the democratic process is interrupted in any member state, various steps may be taken, including exclusion of the offending government from participation in the inter-American system itself. But the charter is a declaration, not a treaty subject to ratification. The history of the Western Hemisphere shows that it is difficult to get a sufficient number of ratifications for treaties to come into effect. As a result, when conflicts are resolved, resolution tends to take place through informal mechanisms adopted on an ad hoc basis to confront threats to member states and their democratic institutions.

The results have been mixed. In Ecuador, Paraguay and Guatemala, initially successful coups were reversed by the diplomatic interventions of major countries such as the United States, Brazil and Argentina. The Fujimori "self-coup" in Peru was addressed by the United States and others by demanding that Fujimori call new elections, which he did. Unfortunately, he was re-elected, and the intervening countries and the OAS were not successful in inducing him to reverse his unconstitutional dismissal of the legislature and the supreme court. The undermining of democracy by an elected government continues to constitute a difficult dilemma, as Venezuela currently demonstrates, especially when the offending government constitutes no overt threat to another country. The inter-American system is still searching for an effective method to protect democracy, as well as to react against violent threats from the outside.