The Paradox of South American Integration: The Founding of a Defense Council

By: COHA Research Associates Tomás Ayuso, Romain Le Cour Grandmaison and Guy Hursthouse

- UNASUR spawns an offspring
- Internal squabbles overshadow inaugural meeting of Defense Council
- US-Russian attempts to infiltrate exclusively South American body

This past March 10, all 12 members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) dispatched their respective defense ministers to Santiago, Chile for the first meeting of the recently-formed South American Defense Council (SADC). Heralded as a “historic event” by Chilean defense minister and SADC president pro tempore José Goñi, the summit was intended to create cooperative, coordinated and concrete military ties as well as promote transparency regarding each member state’s defense expenditures. The initiative also proposed to foster mutual confidence amongst the region’s historically antagonistic military establishments. The convened ministers promised collaboration on overseas and continental peace keeping operations, regional natural disaster recovery missions and humanitarian relief actions. Surprisingly absent from the SADC’s agenda was the question of illegal drug and arms trafficking that routinely dominates the continent’s security compulsions, making for headlines throughout Latin America. These, however, at least according to Goñi, are considered “a police matter, not a military concern.”

Environment Set for SADC Meeting
As the ministers from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Surinam, Paraguay, Perú, Uruguay and Venezuela descended upon Santiago, several underlying narratives preceded the Council’s inaugural conference. For example, Colombia and Venezuela resumed their barely restrained bellicose posturing against one another, while the arms race between Chile and Peru continued to simmer.

The attention of external actors also contributed to providing an action-packed backdrop for the SADC meeting. US dabbling in the region, in the form of the June 2008 deployment of its Navy’s reconstituted Fourth Fleet, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Admiral Mullen’s recent tour of key US-allied countries, has been a significant feature in the lead-up to the summit. Moscow’s request for official observer status has also enhanced the perception that outside forces are increasingly attempting to gain influence in the supposedly exclusively South American UNASUR.

From Tensions to a Tentative Peace
The March 2008 clandestine incursion by the Colombian Army into Ecuadoran territory resulted in the death of the FARC’s second in command, Raul Reyes, alongside 20 other guerillas. Immediately after, a tense diplomatic standoff took place between Colombia’s President Uribe, and Ecuador’s President Correa alongside his ally, Venezuela’s Chávez, united in their convictions that the Colombian army’s actions were a brash violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty. Both Venezuela and Ecuador immediately cut all diplomatic ties with Colombia, claiming that Bogotá was a proxy of Washington. After an intensive, if brief, dialogue, and near universal condemnation of Colombia’s actions, Caracas and Bogotá made up, but the deep enmity between Ecuador and Colombia continues to smolder. At the November 2008 Rio Group, the three leaders shook hands, but the bad blood remains.

President Lula da Silva saw in this ongoing confrontation an opportunity to collaborate with all of the UNASUR member states in order to create a defensive entity that would cultivate regional peace by promoting conflict resolution methods by means of a military-to-military communication networks. The intention of the SADC is not only to promote peace in the region, but also to bolster the credibility of the still nascent UNASUR. Although considered by some critics as a Latin American NATO, the SADC does not intend, at the present time, to form a regional security force or amass an international army. According to Brazilian Minister Nelson Jobim, the SADC is meant to serve as an internal conflict resolution platform as well as a medium to encourage multilateral defensive collaborations and consensus building.

At the beginning of the Santiago summit, the ministers issued a joint statement, which declared that the Council was aimed at creating a “mechanism of integration, dialogue and cooperation” among Latin American countries. The ministers announced their intention to strengthen military cooperation, coordinate humanitarian interventions in the event of natural disasters, and reduce the asymmetry of military spending among the member countries. They stressed that it is time to provide a space for direct multilateral dialogue on military issues in order to increase transparency and smooth out historical conflicts. Goñi told El Pais on March 8 that the aim was to avoid direct clashes by “inserting the discussions in the multilateral frame.” He also added that the SADC must quickly find “an action plan” in order to reduce national disagreements with one another. However, the SADC is not aimed at taking positions on internal affairs, and as a result, crucial issues like drug trafficking are designated to be a police concern and thus will not fall under the Council’s competence. Although a condemnation against belligerent non-state actors was made, a clear reference to the FARC, this limited mandate will prevent the SDC from taking any significant actions in this respect.

Pleasantries Amongst Hostilities
The initial harmony of the meeting was soon shattered by bellicose rhetoric from elsewhere in South America. While each nation’s defense minister was meeting in Santiago, the leaders of several countries were leveling strongly-worded statements that threatened to undermine the SADC’s purpose. A year after the Colombian military intervention in Ecuador, its defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, declared on March 8 that it would be “self-defense to chase terrorists, inside or outside of own territory.” Santos’ remarks drew an instantaneous response from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who retorted that he did not want to believe that “Colombia would have the idea to do in Venezuela what it did in Ecuador,” and that he “would have no option but call the Sukoï” to fly over its neighbor (referring to its recently purchased Russian fighter jets). Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa increased the tension by telling El Comercio that it was “not an offense to be friends with the FARC.” This clash, the very type of verbal attack that the Council seeks to avoid, monopolized talks on March 9, until President Uribe somewhat dampened matters by condemning his minister’s statements and calling for mutual cooperation between the countries.

However, diplomatic grievances did not end there; the meeting was seemingly riven by national resentments. The historical rivalry between Chile and Peru surfaced anew, as Minister Goñi publically accused Lima of opacity for failing to announce its recent expenditures. “We have known about it by reading newspapers,” professed Goñi. The Peruvian Minister of Defense, José Bellina, argued that there was no reason to make the figures public as long as the recent investments were part of an “arsenal renovation.” That same day, a third controversy took over the discussion as the representatives from Argentina, Uruguay and Chile brought up the espionage affair involving an Argentine citizen, accused by Montevideo of hacking into and using the email addresses of several politicians and dignitaries from the various countries.

The Return of the Cold War?
Beyond regional clashes, the summit attracted the attention of two significant outside players, in the form of the US and Russia. The Pentagon sent JCS Chairmen Admiral Mullen to Chile, Colombia and Brazil, the week prior. His visit seems to illustrate an increasing US interest in Latin America after a significant stretch of indifference during the Bush years. Moreover, the erstwhile mothballed Fourth Fleet returned to Latin America in June 2008, after a hiatus of 50 years, creating an uproar of criticism from a number of Latin American countries. The rift which Washington has instigated in the region now promises to make it even harder for the SADC to reach any level of meaningful consensus on defense policy. It is, however, important to note that one of the few significant points of consensus within the SADC has been a common condemnation of the US embargo on Cuba as Minister Jobim asserted that, “the relationship with Cuba is a core condition for a change in US-Latin America relations.”

Previous public US military-to-military dialogues with Latin America had been forums for advocacy regarding accountability and restraint after the abuses committed during the region’s “dirty wars” in the name of the Cold War. However, it was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who shifted the tone whereby Latin American military institutions were forced to face their abhorrent records, to a reality where they were looked upon by the Pentagon as an ally to reflect Washington’s War on Terror. At the 2004 Defense Ministerial of the Americas held in Quito, Ecuador, Rumsfeld urged Latin America military leaders to crack down on “the asymmetric threats we face require that all elements of state and society work together,” seemingly advocating a merger of the military and police forces to form one cohesive security apparatus— a historically fateful decision for Latin America to have to make.

Furthermore, Russia, which is currently pursuing an ambitious program of diplomacy in Latin America, asked for a seat at the SADC as an observer, harkening back to the bad old days of the Cold War. While Moscow’s request was not granted, these Russian and US maneuvers illustrate the importance that is already being given to the SADC by external powers and represent a concerted attempt on the part of outside actors to wield influence in an exclusively South American venue.

The countries of UNASUR must treat such incursions in their continental dealings with suspicion. A driving force behind the group’s formation was a concern with developing a uniquely South American approach in the face of an unattractive US vision based on its impunity for regional affairs. Thus, to allow Russia and the US to become entwined at this juncture—through the mechanism of “observer status,” would invariably damage UNASUR’s ability to achieve any meaningful continental integration, and turn the body instead into another potential battleground, and divisive tool, for these Cold War foes. SADC officials should resist permitting observer status to exist in its deliberations. The OAS sufficiently serves the purpose of allowing for the transmission of the influence of extra-regional countries.

Mixed Prospects for Progress
For the SADC to even begin to realize many of its ambitious aims, it will have to overcome a series of significant hurdles. South America is fraught with historical animosity, and the Council has come into being at a time when these fissures are ever more evident. Despite ostensibly being designed to mend the continent’s fractured relations, its ability to do so will be hindered by the very divisions it intends to resolve.

While it may have provided the impetus for the formation of the SADC, the diplomatic spat between Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador has the potential to be one of the biggest thorns in the side of this attempt at regional defense cooperation; likewise, the historical mistrust between Chile and Peru, predictably continues to smolder. Remarks made before and during the meeting clearly demonstrated that the attention some of the region’s leadership is concentrated firmly on entrenched bilateral quarrels.

Latin American countries’ military spending increased by 25 percent in 2008 compared to the previous year, and by 91 percent over the past three years. Colombia and Venezuela, whose respective outlays on defense rose by 13 and 29 percent in 2008, account for a sizeable proportion of this spending, and are locked in what could well be described as an arms race. Brazil, the main engine of regional integration and home to a sizeable defense industry, is also the biggest military power in South America. According to the International Institute on Strategic Studies, its annual defense budget rose by 32 percent in 2008 to $27.5 billion, the twelfth largest in the world. These statistics are not convincingly illustrative of a region inclined toward peaceful exercises and collaborative conflict resolution.

Moreover, evidence from elsewhere in the world points strongly towards what could be the futility of UNASUR’s attempts at defense integration. The European Union, whose members first developed economic cooperation, before establishing a political and monetary union, has still, after more than 50 years, failed to negotiate a common defense policy, despite its largely peaceful internal relations.

While the SADC’s agenda contains a number of useful points, and offers some positive prospects for fruitful collaboration – especially in relatively uncontroversial areas like natural disaster management, joint humanitarian operations and conflict resolution – it fails to address what is undoubtedly the most pressing regional issue, violent transnational drug trafficking rings, and in doing so, limits its relevance. Early signs indicate that the Council’s mission could turn out to be a confused one; ministers used the Santiago summit for such diversified purposes as to condemn the U.S.’ embargo on Cuba and air decades-old grievances, eclipsing at an early stage the goals they professed to be addressing.

Consequently, the group’s set of aspirations look far too ambitious to be realized at least in the near future. There are undoubtedly some prospects for progress that have the potential to further integrate the region. However, a common regional defense policy will be difficult to put together. Moreover, if the highly vocal bickering continues to characterize the SADC, the Council will likely descend into little more than a talking shop with severely limited clout.