Congress has been holding hearings in consideration of a new commander for the US Southern Command, (Southcom). The man under consideration for the job Marine Corps Lieutenant General John F. Kelly testified at his confirmation hearings on the challenges facing Southcom last week.
General Kelly specified, drug trafficking and the “spreading, growing sophistication of transnational organized crime syndicates,” as acute problems facing Southcom. He also mentioned cyber security, US energy security, natural disasters and humanitarian crises as challenges for the US military in Latin America and the Caribbean, the geographic region associated with Southcom.
General Kelly asserted that these challenges present Southcom, and through it, the entire US defense establishment the opportunity to engage with and cooperate with our hemispheric sister republics.
In further testimony, General Kelly stated that the drug problem, seen from a Latin perspective, is primarily one of the almost insatiable US demand for imports of illicit drugs. Similarly, the money from the drug trade provides the wherewithal for much of the corruption plaguing the nations of the Caribbean and Latin America.
General Kelly’s testimony is fraught with history and sociological implications that his testimony did not deal with. What is the reaction among the Latin and Caribbean national leaders at the news of a USMC general being named to command Southcom? The USMC is the force with which the US has intervened in hemispheric neighbors’ internal affairs scores of times.
But more importantly, what does Southcom hold for the future in inter-American relations? Over the past fifty years the population of Latin America has grown much faster than that of Anglo-America. This shift has created a demographic situation in which the Latin population is now much larger and much younger than that of the US.
In recent years, demographers have noted a trend toward much lower fertility in nearly all areas of Latin America. The next decade could be one of dynamic economic growth and rising living standards for many in the region.
The US press tends to focus on the Middle East and China as the great strategic challenges facing the US super power in the next decade. There are reasons to doubt this.
As incomes in China rise, and as different regions of that country engage the outside world with differing intensity the centripetal forces in Chinese society will grow. Those, with the demographic challenges arising from China’s one child policy and rapidly aging population indicate China will be less and less a player on the international stage as the Chinese government struggles to keep control domestically.
The expectation of a rising Middle Eastern challenge almost defies logic. No Middle Eastern country is poised to be more than a regional power. They do not threaten vital or strategic US interests. Although the region is volatile, there is reason to think that an emphasis on internal development arising form the current liberalization could make it less so. Also, if current projections of US domestic fuel production pan out, that, with an alternative energy program could lower US demand for middle eastern oil, leaving us less engaged there.
The slowing population growth; the rise and continuation of leftist governments providing more expression of widespread popular demand for better living standards; and the vast untapped potential of their human and natural resources make Latin America seem a likely region for emergence as a global financial, diplomatic and economic colossus.
It is therefore vitally important that US policy be disengaged from authoritarian governing cliques, that demilitarization and peaceful development be prioritized and that the US respond to potential challenges from Latin countries in ways that increase economic opportunity, political freedom and prosperity in both regions.
US -Mexico relations are of first importance. The US must diminish the demand for illicit narcotics that has fueled the narco wars and destabilized much of Mexico’s north. Decriminalization, addiction treatment and regulation of currently criminalized illicit drugs are probably the policy initiatives required in the US to address Mexico’s drug cartels. Taking the drug business out of the hands of the cartels will be a difficult and potentially very violent process, but leaving it in their hands assures that they will continue to have access to the vast amounts of funds needed to overpower and corrupt civil government in Mexico and increasingly in the US, too.
Brazil is the only Latin country with the size, population and resources to enter into the first rank of global powers. Throughout its history Brazil has invested only enough resources in its military to assure control of its territory. This has resulted in juntoism and in long periods of repressive domestic conditions there.
Presently Brazil is a member of the BRIC (Brazil, India, China, Russia) and is seen by most observers as one of the most vibrant and dynamic economic players in the world. With the country’s vast size, natural resources and large population Brazil has advantages that give it, perhaps the most growth potential of the BRIC.
The challenge to the US is to devise joint means to assure Brazilian military security in ways that do not overburden or impinge the national pride of either country. Arms sales and sales of other high end equipment such as aircraft or medical devices seem a part of US-Brazil trade in the future. The US should begin to court Brazil and develop mutually advantageous development plans that do not overshadow or threaten the other Latin countries.
Colombia, where Southcom has invested considerable resources in battling insurgencies such as the FARC, (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia), has a large profile in the Southcom view of the world. It is highly likely that Southcom will continue to pursue such efforts, especially if the situation with Mexico’s drug cartels continues to deteriorate. One might argue the wisdom of continuing such missions, but weighed against the option of the Latin countries developing military capabilities and threatening each other with it, Southcom involvement probably remains the best course. The US and Latin publics must remain attentive to these efforts to prevent atrocities and misconduct to the greatest extent possible.
President Obama was called back to Washington from a Latin American tour last June to deal with the Congress and the debt limit crisis. Latin America looms too large on the horizon and is too important for our future for us to allow such parochial considerations to curtail another such trip.
To prepare for the future, the US should revise its export strategy with view of competing successful in Latin economies. The US should encourage and provide financial support for students and citizens to travel in Latin America learn the languages and establish person to person relationships. The US should do all it can to encourage Latin American tourism, investment and business to come here.
The days of Southcom being our chief agent in Latin America must come to an end. Instead, the US should devise and implement foreign policy that places Latin America high on our list of priorities and that optimizes, trade, travel and sustainable and appropriate development throughout the hemisphere.