Neglecting our Neighbors

June 1, 2005 Tags: Islamism

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.

The Rio Treaty, on the other hand, is a true collective-security arrangement, allowing for the use of force against the aggressor, if necessary. But it recently suffered a serious setback. During a visit to Washington in September 2001, Fox declared that in the opinion of the Mexican government, the Rio Treaty was obsolete and should be scrapped. Four days later, the treaty was invoked by Brazil following the 9/11 attacks. Nevertheless, Mexico formally renounced the treaty one year later, preferring instead to negotiate bilateral agreements with the United States at the agency level. Furthermore, none of the countries of the Caribbean or Central or South America that became independent after 1947 has ratified the treaty, nor has Canada, although all of them supported its invocation in 2001. Though the treaty is still in force among the remaining ratifying powers, the Mexican defection has clearly weakened its effectiveness.

Hemispheric Security

The national interests of the countries of the hemisphere, their histories, languages, ethnic backgrounds and other factors are often disparate. That they share a concern about their national security is beyond question. That they share an interest in, or even an understanding of what is meant by, hemispheric security is less obvious.

The hemisphere's common problems--often referred to as "new threats"--are many and complex. They include narcotrafficking, money laundering, gun-running, people-smuggling and terrorism. Guerrilla warfare and banditry are also on the list, although they are not exactly new to the hemisphere. Organized crime syndicates and guerrilla movements (which often overlap), are responsible for the bulk of these activities and operate more or less with impunity in many areas. These groups, and the problems they cause, are especially difficult to confront because of the number of lawless areas, failed states and criminal states--what I would call "incubators of instability."

There are many areas in the hemisphere where the writ of the formal government simply does not run, including: the triple frontier region between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina; Leticia and Maicao in Colombia, in addition to the areas controlled by armed insurgent groups like the FARC and the ELN; the Darien region of Panama; and much of Chiapas in Mexico. In some cases, such regions are run by organized criminal groups, in others by guerrilla organizations--but often by both groups working together. Paraguay, Suriname and parts of Brazil have all at times been criminal states or regions--that is, areas where the government functions but substantially in collaboration with criminal groups. Haiti, meanwhile, is a clear example of a failed state--and those elements of the government that do function are often involved in criminal activities. All of these regions and countries are incubators of all or some of the new threats to hemispheric security and have a symbiotic relationship with each other, such as the financing by drug dealers, money launderers and arms smugglers of guerrilla bands, terrorists and insurgents, which in turn may offer protection to the former, in many cases aided and abetted by corrupt public officials.

Despite the fact that the hemisphere faces this formidable set of security challenges, it must face them without the desirable degree of unity of purpose. Indeed, in many cases not only is there a lack of will, but often security cooperation is actively undermined by corrupt governments, institutions and officials.

Take, for example, the question of surveillance. Presently, surveillance systems are entirely inadequate for identifying and monitoring the movements of illegal drugs, arms, persons and financial resources. Without major improvements in surveillance, progress will be impossible. Men and materiel move almost without hindrance between Colombia, Panama and Venezuela. A similar lack of control exists in many of the regions along Brazil's borders with Paraguay and Bolivia, as well as between the Central American countries.

Brazil has found a solution. Its System for the Vigilance of the Amazon (SIVAM), recently inaugurated along the northern border, utilizes aerial and satellite surveillance and has proven to be extremely effective, resulting in a substantial reduction in criminal activity. Brazil has shared the information gained with its neighbors to good effect. The key is to encourage similar systems in other countries--no small task, to be sure. The system is expensive and will require cooperation and information-sharing. Indeed, the U.S.-Mexican border provides an example of how not to approach the problem. Although the United States offered to install an extensive radar net in Mexico, the Mexican government insisted on controlling it and having the ability to deny the information gathered to the U.S. government. As a result, the system remains unbuilt.

If security cooperation is to be effective in the 21st century, traditional concepts of sovereignty cannot be sustained without substantial modification. Cross-border operations involving the security forces of various countries are absolutely essential. Before interstate compacts inside the United States changed in the 1930s, local police forces were stymied if criminals were able to cross state lines. The same problem cannot be allowed to prevent effective action against terrorist forces across national boundaries.

All of this underscores the necessity of U.S. leadership and the active and effective collaboration of the other major powers in the region, including Canada, Brazil and Mexico, which is too often lacking. In an effort to deal with this phenomenon, the Declaration on Security adopted at the special OAS conference in Mexico City in October 2003 covers all the old and new issues and mandates reconsideration of the Rio Treaty and the American Treaty of Pacific Settlement (the Pact of Bogota). Unfortunately, although it is too early to tell what the practical effect of this declaration may be, the lack of enforcement mechanisms is not encouraging.

The global scope of U.S. responsibilities and capabilities since the end of the Cold War notwithstanding, U.S. dominance of the Western Hemisphere has paradoxically decreased. As a result, reflexive anti-Americanism has surged in Latin America, including in some of the most important and influential countries, such as Venezuela and Argentina. New hemispheric security practices must therefore be revised by building security collaboration gradually and incrementally, rather than through grand gestures and summit meetings. Such collaboration need not be expensive and is best approached through agreements at the operational level. The United States and Canada have provided important technical assistance and training for security forces in the hemisphere, such as U.S. aid and training for the Colombian military and police.

The use of the armed forces in internal security is a controversial issue, especially in those Latin American countries where in the past the military has intervened by force in the political process. The solution is professionalization: Soldiers and other members of the law enforcement community must be trained and certified for their jobs--and appropriately compensated. Consideration should be given to the establishment of security academies at a national and perhaps also regional or hemispheric level, covering more than the traditional police-school curriculum in order to produce officers capable of dealing with these new threats. Encouragement should be provided for the recruitment and training of civilian security specialists as well.

Members of the armed forces must receive training in law enforcement, security operations, terrorist tactics, and biological and chemical warfare. Equipment used by the security forces must be adjusted accordingly. Acquisition of expensive and unnecessary toys such as jet fighters, major surface vessels, submarines and main battle tanks should no longer be made. Naval training, equipment and operations should more closely resemble those of a coast guard than is common for a traditional navy.

Countries have made progress in this area, but there is still room for improvement, particularly with regard to addressing corruption within security forces and the judiciary. Corruption cannot effectively be curbed through punitive measures alone, since such measures often have to be applied by the very people most subject to the temptations of corruption. Only if punishments are combined with positive financial incentives is there any chance of success. Monetary rewards for police, judges, prosecutors and military officers must be increased, and special rewards offered for successful operations. After such measures are taken, however, punishment of those still engaging in corruption must be severe.

The Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America emphasizes many of these issues and ratifies much of what has been done. At the operational level, cooperation and coordination of activities are good. At the political level, there are serious problems, especially since some of the countries of the hemisphere have installed governments that are less than friendly to the United States.

U.S. leadership will be sorely tested by these factors, and Washington may have to settle for incremental progress, often through bilateral agreements among agencies and departments of government, rather than hemisphere-wide agreements among states. The effort has been hampered further by the Bush Administration's (understandable) emphasis on other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. Partially as a result, the manning of positions of importance in hemispheric affairs was lethargic and subject to congressional obstructionism, despite the fact that our two immediate neighbors are our largest and second-largest trading and investment partners. Much more attention is required on the part of both the administration and Congress. We must never lose sight of the fact that the Western Hemisphere is where we live. It is our home. If we don't pay close attention to security in our own home, who will?

Essay Types: Essay