Home inFocus Latin America: Our Southern Neighbor (Winter 2021) A “Big Idea” for Latin America

A “Big Idea” for Latin America

Craig Deare Winter 2021
A U.S. Air Force Special Operations Forces Airman with Special Operations Command South and his Panamanian security force counterparts secure an airfield during an exercise in Colon, Panama. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Osvaldo Equite/U.S. Army)

As a new administration takes office, the time is ripe for new approaches to improve the quality of the security relationship the United States has with its counterparts throughout Latin America. U.S. foreign policy in general, and U.S. national security strategy in particular, does not routinely focus on the nations of Latin America, where threats are assumed to be less pressing than in other parts of the world. The national security interests of the United States were captured succinctly by the Project on National Security Reform: 

To maintain security from aggression against the nation by means of a national capacity to shape the strategic environment; to anticipate and prevent threats; to respond to attacks by defeating enemies; to recover from the effects of attack; and to sustain the costs of defense.

If these interests are at varying degrees of risk in other parts of the world, they are also under assault in Latin America. Obviously, this part of the world is an environment we should wish to shape; after all, we share the same neighborhood. It seems clear that anticipating and preventing threats in Latin America is both prudent and cost-effective. Consequence management after the fact will be far more expensive, and these problems are on our doorstep.

U.S. national security interests in Latin America are undermined by three key threats: transnational criminal organizations, which exploit weak levels of governance across the majority of countries in the region; extra-regional actors, who fill the vacuum created by U.S. distraction and inattention; and finally, a number of regional political actors embracing ideological positions opposed to open political systems and free markets, which undermines progress toward democratic governance and stability.

All are exacerbated by poor governance, endemic poverty, and an inconsistent level of U.S. interest in and commitment to our neighbors. They thrive in an environment where many national governments are ill-equipped to confront them. 

The Geographical Imperative

Though lack of capacity is not unique to Latin America, there is an important distinction: Latin America is the only region in the world where those adversely affected by violence and extreme poverty can walk to (and across) the U.S. border. It is also true that not all regional governments are incapable of handling these challenges – there are countries whose political systems have matured sufficiently to handle alternating political parties in power and maintain workable levels of governance.

At this juncture, the response required from the United States is not one requiring a dominant military component because the threats are not fundamentally military in nature – although there are elements and derivatives of a military tone. Rather, the combination of serious structural shortcomings and malign actors results in a toxic mixture that erodes effective governance throughout the region. 

Enduring Interests

U.S. national security interests in Latin America are enduring and transcend administrations and political parties; what varies over time are levels of attention paid to the region and the ways and means used to pursue the ends. The most current expression emphasizes “the security of our allies and partners, an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity, respect for universal values, and a rules-based international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.” It is not an exaggeration to state that all these interests are at risk throughout most of Latin America. The good news in this potentially depressing picture is that for the most part, the U.S. model is by far the most attractive model to emulate for the majority of the peoples of Latin America. Very few want to send their children to study in China, Russia, or Iran. The bad news is that the U.S. national security system is poorly structured to deal with the nature of the threats and challenges within Latin America. What is lacking is a coherent U.S. effort to actively promote that ideal-model type with willing partners in the region.

U.S. policymakers must recognize the limits of what can be done, and how much help is needed. Even if the United States had the resources and interest necessary to effect important and tangible change, the initiative to fundamentally upgrade their systems must rest with the countries in the region. Beyond that, given the underlying conditions seen throughout the region, the solutions are not exclusively, or even primarily, within the purview of the U.S. government to address. Real progress depends on more than a well-integrated, whole-of-government approach. What is truly needed includes our most productive elements (namely, the private sector) and beyond, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private charities, universities, religious orders – in a word, our civil society. Empowering someone to bring those sectors into the mix is a key element to future success.

If the interagency community is challenged to provide coherent solutions at the individual country level – and it is – the notion that it can do so region-wide is unrealistic. What is lacking in that regard is an overarching coordinating entity with authorities to direct the various key federal actors – Department of State/U.S. Agency for International Development, Department of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Treasury, and Commerce, among others. The Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council lacks the authority to effectively direct, control, or task these departments and other Cabinet-level agencies.

A Wholistic Approach

We need to move beyond the “Special Envoy for Latin America” and designate a serious regional expert heavyweight to lead a new team authorized and empowered to develop, coordinate, and lead policy for the region. The vision would entail going beyond the governmental sector serving as a “partner of choice,” to include a broader civil society–to–civil society engagement, encouraged and supported by the interagency entities of the U.S. Government. It would build upon an already existing proposal – that of the Integrated Regional Centers (IRC) suggested by the Project on National Security Reform:

Shift the existing system’s emphasis to the regional level with regional directors heading integrated regional centers, which act as interagency headquarters for national security policy… convening Cabinet members and integrated regional directors based on issues, not statutory membership. The departments and agencies support IRCs by providing capabilities. This option builds on the success of the regional military commands while correcting the current civil-military imbalance by providing a civilian counterpart to the regional commands; it allows Washington to focus on global and long-range policy and strategy; and it gives embassies clear authority to coordinate their country plans.

The IRC model is a necessary but insufficient first step in the right direction. This Big Idea would go beyond the IRC concept to give it the additional responsibility of also engaging more effectively with the “civil society” – universities, NGOs, churches, the private sector – to do those things not well suited to the government per se.

The idea is to work smarter, not necessarily harder or with more money. Resources will be required elsewhere in the world to confront the threat du jour and traditionally have not been available. But a truly comprehensive approach that includes nongovernmental actors, coordinated, synchronized, and supported by the U.S. government, would be a game changer. There are areas of concern with duplication of effort that would be deconflicted, as well as gaps and seams that could be recognized and addressed by an entity authorized and bestowed with available – but not coherently integrated – capabilities. The Latin American “Policy Director” would lead a team of regional- and country-specific as well as functional experts (economists, lawyers, judges, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, security and defense specialists, law enforcement officers, and so forth) to identify the key elements to assist in addressing essential developmental goals for the region.

Unrealistic, Too Bold & Unworkable?

A natural reaction to this proposal is that it is unrealistic, too bold, unworkable, or a combination of all three. Perhaps. But prolonging the status quo is demonstrably ineffective; after all, the status quo is what got us here. A system-wide reform effort is currently unlikely, but a pilot program in one specific part of the world might well succeed.

In the event that the Big Idea is too great a leap and simply too hard to pursue, there are other more limited – but still innovative – recommendations that could help in the near term. 

First, recognizing the real threat presented by transnational criminal organizations (TCO), as well as the fact that a number of different actors play a role in identifying the threat as well as dealing with it, a new administration might establish a joint interagency task force (JIATF) with the broad mandate to go after the TCO threat. The idea is to build upon the JIATF-South model, which integrates many of the interagency actors with the Department of Defense (DOD) and Coast Guard to conduct detection and monitoring operations regarding the interdiction of illicit trafficking and other narco-terrorist threats in support of national and partner nation security. This Joint Interagency Task Force–Transnational Criminal Organizations (JIATF-TCO) would incorporate law enforcement and intelligence agencies to fuse all available information to identify the gamut of bad actors involved in the broad range of criminal actors and activities. 

The other critical aspect is the action side of the equation. This JIATF-TCO would coordinate and execute the takedown of TCO groups and other criminal activities, both internationally and domestically. The notion of synchronizing policy, diplomacy, defense, intelligence, finance, law enforcement, and clandestine and covert action by one centralized and integrated entity is easier said than done but is essential to combating the ability of nonstate actors to exploit the gaps and seams in our current organizational construct. This organization should be led by a senior civilian with recognized gravitas and experience such as a former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), former FBI director, or retired combatant commander.


Beyond recognition by the State Department that greater Pentagon support is a positive thing, there are two structural changes that could also help. The first is the creation of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) for Western Hemisphere Affairs, elevating the seniority of the individual responsible for crafting policy for the region. There was a short period of time when this was in effect, when the ASD for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs played that role to a limited degree, complementing the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs as needed. During that time, both ASDs who held that office were hired first and foremost for their expertise in homeland defense issues. They were not Latin American specialists. But having an Assistant Secretary of Defense engaged with those details, playing an active role within both the interagency and senior regional counterparts, proved helpful.

The second and related idea is to consider consolidating the responsibilities for oversight of security cooperation and foreign military sales programs within the region under the supervision of a single geographic combatant commander. There are two basic options regarding how the Unified Command Plan should incorporate Mexico. One is to maintain the status quo with Mexico, Canada, and the Bahamas as part of U.S. Northern Command. The other alternative makes the case to include Mexico (and portions of the Caribbean region) within the purview of one geographic combatant command as the logical step to provide operational support to the policy shop in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Admiral James Stavridis has testified: 

Merge SOUTHCOM and NORTHCOM [U.S. Northern Command] into a single Americas Command. The artificial division of Mexico from SOUTHCOM hurts our unified purpose throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Making this one command… with a sub-unified command in Colorado Springs retaining NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] and air defense, would be efficient, save resources, and improve focus on the Americas.

I absolutely think we should merge NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM, not only for the efficiencies, but I think there are cultural connections, to get Canada and Mexico, two of the largest economies in the Americas, into the flow of our work to the south.

The proponents of the current configuration make the compelling point that the political, economic, social, and security entity that is North America should be conserved and strengthened. They argue that the defense of the United States demands having Canada and Mexico as special and unique partners as part of a dedicated defense structure. The downside of this option is that the status quo essentially places a wall around the United States, Canada, and Mexico, which may convey a message of writing off the rest of the hemisphere. It confers status upon Mexico as a key strategic partner, but at the cost of appearing to neglect the rest of our neighborhood. The notion of an Americas Command versus either the status quo or a Southern Command that includes Mexico recognizes that the neighborhood is important to the entire region (to include the United States and Canada) and implies an organizational structure sufficient to that task. The disadvantage, at least in the short term, could be a message received by Mexico that suggests the United States does not value the unique relationship that has developed since 2002. It is an important debate that merits serious consideration at the highest levels of DOD.

There are many other smaller details that could also contribute to improving the ways in which the U.S. Government pays attention to and interacts with the key actors in Latin America. But unless major initiatives are undertaken, the smaller moves are probably akin to simply rearranging the deck chairs – and there are icebergs ahead.

Craig Deare, Ph.D., is Professor and Department Chair of Strategic Initiatives and Leadership at The National Defense University.