Amidst the collapse of the “socialist paradise” of Venezuela, expanding bloodshed in Nicaragua, refugees fleeing Central American gang extortion, the election of a leftist populist president in violence-torn Mexico, and Chinese and Russian advances across the region, I am repeatedly drawn to an important conclusion: The U.S. needs a strategic concept for what it is trying to achieve in Latin America and the Caribbean.
I am encouraged in that conclusion by my work as research professor at the U.S. Army War College, where we teach our military leaders the importance of strategic thinking.
Lest my assertion be misinterpreted, I have the greatest respect for the work of our Latin America-focused leadership at both DoD and the State Department, as well as the professional U.S. embassy teams and associated security cooperation offices across the region that work to translate US policy and strategy guidance into coherent country plans in the face of the invariable political and budgetary chaos. Yet as someone whose job, in part, is to think about what the U.S. is trying to achieve in Latin America and the Caribbean (and how), I worry that, in the process of responding to the region’s recurring crises, and in working to defend and implement our program line items, the U.S. government is less guided than it could be by a holistic concept of how to leverage the strengths and resources of our nation to advance U.S. strategic objectives.
During my 24-year career, first in the private sector, and now in government, my understanding of the challenges of the region have been shaped by my eclectic background and experiences, with my doctorate in political science, complemented by teaching and writing on regional security issues, but also years of leveraging systems thinking and modeling for engagements with Latin American and Caribbean security officials, in order to help them conceptualize and address the complex challenges facing their countries, from gangs and transnational criminal groups, to corruption, terrorism, and impaired development. Those experiences have convinced me that, while the challenges facing the region are many (and interrelated), the best orienting framework for developing, prioritizing, and coordinating initiatives to address them, is to focus on strengthening democratic governance.
For the purpose of this analysis, “governance” refers to the ability of the organization administering a territory to efficiently and effectively assemble and employ resources to address the legitimate objectives of that administration. Without making excessively ideological assertions about what government should do and how, this normally includes defending the territory against challenges from external threats, combatting crime and insecurity, maintaining justice and advancing prosperity. By including the qualifier “democratic,” I emphasize that the people within that territory must directly or indirectly control decisions about what government does and how. There are, of course, legitimate questions about who constitutes “the people,” who decide, whether some can have more influence than others, and the manner in which the people exercise that control, in order to consider the system “democratic,” but resolving such important questions is beyond the scope of this essay.
Virtually all of the strategic challenges to U.S. interests in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the impediments to the U.S. policy agenda there, relate directly or indirectly to weakness in democratic governance. The state’s difficulties in controlling the national territory, including its inability to bring those who violate laws to justice, enables the presence of threat networks on the territory, from terrorist entities such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to violent criminal organizations such as the Zetas, Sinaloa, Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) and other cartels in Mexico, the Gulf clan and other criminal bands (BACRIM) in Colombia, the First Capital Command (PCC) and Red Command (CV) in Brazil, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 street gangs in Central America, to smaller smuggling groups and other criminal intermediaries.
It is certainly legitimate to argue that the U.S. has contributed to the aforementioned problems (and thus to shortcomings in democratic governance), through its demand for drugs, easy access to arms, support for elites who violated the principles for which it was fighting, to name a few. Yet the casting of blame must not detract from diagnosing the problem and designing effective solutions.
Frustration among populations of the region with high levels of corruption in their governments, those governments’ inability to protect them against crime and violence, to administer equal justice for all, or to effectively use available resources to improve living standards, has historically helped populist leaders to mobilize the dissatisfied, in order to take power, then consolidate that power and pursue personal enrichment, with only timid resistance by citizens which have lost faith in democratic processes (until the gravity of their error becomes painfully apparent).
Compounding the destructive dynamic, it has been such populist regimes, including those of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (twice), which upon achieving power by capitalizing on such frustrations, have most egregiously opened the door to extra-hemispheric rivals of the U.S. such as China and Russia in the region. The success of those populists in using mobilization against bad governance to eliminate oversight mechanisms and checks on their own authority, in turn, has empowered them to sign deals that enrich them personally, while advancing the commercial and strategic interests of their extra-hemispheric partner, on terms detrimental to the country. Those bad deals, in turn, provide the populists with yet further resources to expand their power and undermine democratic governance within their neighbors, that could threaten their agenda.
If weak governance opens the door to destructive populism and the machinations of extra-hemispheric U.S. rivals in the region, working with partners in the region to strengthen democratic governance is arguably one of the wisest ways for the U.S. to combat the challenge. Given increasing integration of the region into the global economy and political system, attempts to prevent the states of Latin America and the Caribbean from engaging with actors such as Russia and China are almost certain to backfire. By contrast, helping to strengthen their institutions so that they can most effectively take advantage of the economic opportunities offered by extra-hemispheric partners may build goodwill with the U.S., while inoculating those countries, to some extent, against Russian and Chinese manipulation and exploitation.
In formulating effective strategies, democratic governance, its deterioration, and its corresponding strengthening must be understood in systemic terms. The interacting factors which erode democratic governance over time — criminal groups, corruption, impunity, violence, extreme economic hardship, and injustice, among others — are an infestation which reinforces itself by consuming and destroying its host.
Such maladies take hold in the territory through short-sighted policies, complimented by a lack of vigilance by those entrusted to govern it — progressively weakening the economy, civic culture, and the state, and creating reinforcing effects as the malady spreads. As corruption becomes widespread, the ability of institutions to combat it erodes, the options for resisting collaboration with the corrupt evaporate, the effectiveness of the state falls, crime, violence, and economic malaise spread, the investment environment worsens, the legitimate economy withers, and more people are pushed by both opportunity and necessity into the criminal economy.
While criminal and terrorist groups and maladies such as crime, violence, corruption, and poverty are the symptoms of such malaise, the underlying problem cannot be eliminated by the linear application of law enforcement, military force, nor charity and developmental programs. Mirroring how a military commander must think of employing a combined arms force as a battle unfolds, strengthening democratic government requires policymakers to actively manage the coordinated application of instruments across government, in a manner that adapts as the situation changes.
While there is no proven “recipe” to strengthen democratic governance, and while the considerations for advancing it go far beyond the scope of this essay, the U.S. has a range of powerful diplomatic, security, economic, and technical tools for doing so. While not all foreign engagement is equally effective, nor always well implemented, the tools available to U.S. policymakers are underappreciated by those who view foreign assistance as simple charity or the generation of goodwill. In the security assistance arena, U.S. support in areas such as biometrics, databases, financial and other intelligence can help authorities identify, build credible cases against, and respond to threat actors. Tools such as financial intelligence and support for regular confidence testing of personnel is also a powerful vehicle for identifying and rooting corrupt officials out of the legal system and other parts of government. U.S. training and education and strategic support programs are another useful element of capacity building in support of strengthening democratic governance.
Reversing the previously noted “downward spiral” of corruption and state incapacity, efforts to impose consequences and make wrongdoing harder to hide, collectively have a multiplier effect by deterring corruption more broadly by changing the calculations of the rest of the organization, that the perpetrators will be caught and punished. By decreasing the portion of people who can or dare to engage in corruption, in turn, such improvements make those organizations even more effective in rooting out the remaining wrongdoers in their midst.
In implementing programs for strengthening democratic governance and other foreign engagement at the country level, the State Department, by law, has the lead, with the U.S. ambassador (as the representative of the president to the country), responsible for coordinating the activities and resources from the multiple agencies of the U.S. government.
Given State Department leadership, however, there are multiple areas in which the U.S. military has, and should continue to play, a role as the instrument of choice for advancing the strategic objective of strong democratic governance in the region.
Where permitted by the host government and its laws, the U.S. military may, in conjunction with other organizations, contribute operational intelligence (and in special circumstances, direct action) against criminal and terrorist groups whose activities directly challenge that governance.
U.S. professional military education (PME) training programs, and the providing of equipment and other resources through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and financing (FMS) also strengthen governance by advancing the military as a key pillar of the security component of that governance.
The relationships that the U.S. military builds with counterparts of the host nation are further a key enabler of the fluid coordination between professionals which is necessary to combat transnational threats which themselves are not limited by international boundaries.
For my colleagues in the U.S. military who wrestle with the question of the utility of the U.S. military “instrument” in advancing strategic objectives in an arena whose last “war” between states occurred more than 23 years ago (the January-February 1995 Cenepa war between Peru and Ecuador), I argue that intelligence cooperation, PME, training, FMF/FMS, and relationship building are important, if understudied and undervalued contributions of the military in support of U.S. and regional strategic objectives. Reciprocally, the conduct of those same non-kinetic military activities by the Chinese, Russians, and other U.S. competitors in the region should be understood as serious strategic challenges, even if those actors are not establishing overt military bases and formal alliances in the region like the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.
The bottom line is that advancing “democratic governance” is a useful strategic concept for U.S. national security and other policymakers for formulating plans and programs, in prioritizing initiatives, and in coordinating them across the government and with international partners. Without clarity regarding what we are seeking to achieve, by contrast, the regional security environment devolves into responses to the invariable crises and advances of foreign actors.
Dr. Evan Ellis is Senior Non-Resident Fellow at CSIS, and Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies. His work focuses on security and defense issues, including transnational organized crime, populism, and the region’s relationships with China and other non-Western Hemisphere actors. Dr. Ellis has published over 210 works, including three books, and has presented his work in 26 countries across four continents. He has testified on multiple occasions regarding Latin America and the Caribbean before the U.S. Congress, and his work regularly appears in the media in both the U.S. and the region. Through his work, Dr. Ellis calls attention to the strategic importance of Latin America and the Caribbean for the United States through bonds of geography, commerce, and family, and how the prosperity and security of the U.S. are tied to that of its partners in the region. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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