Small Wars Journal

Don’t Cut Aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala

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Don’t Cut Aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala

Stephen B. Young

President Trump has ordered the termination of aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  This is idiocy and only makes sense in a fairy tale world of willful make-believe.

It may not be charitable to say, but Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are more or less “failed states”. Conditions of gang-based insurgency have overtaken them. The national state in each territory is ineffective in many fundamental respects.

State authority to receive legal acknowledgement from other states under international law must demonstrate effective control over a territory.  A national state must, in the words of the great German student of power and authority Max Weber, firmly hold a monopoly of violence in the territory and subject that monopoly to moral legitimacy.

The Westphalian system of nation-states (starting with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Catholic / Protestant religious wars in Europe) is the basis for international law and inter-state relations. It presumes the reality of national authorities holding the requisite monopoly of violence.  “Failed States” do not meet the Westphalian criteria for recognition as a peer with nations that do meet such criteria for effectiveness in the ability to rule.

Insurgencies and small wars define “failed” and ‘failing” states. Wherever they can sustain themselves, the territory which they contest fails to meet Westphalian standards of nation-statehood. The political mission of such militant opposition to national public authority is to eliminate the sovereign government as a legal and political reality.

The objective of counter-insurgency is eliminating insurgent rival power centers within a country and transforming its central government into a de facto as well as de jure national administration.  Successful counter-insurgency produces a qualified Westphalian state under international law.

Where there is growing or wide-spread insurgency, a small war underway, or massive disobedience of national police authority, there is not a modern, effective nation state. Consider Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Myanmar, Somalia, and large areas of Western Africa.  Large scale terrorism which has outgrown normal policing efforts is very often the front end of an insurgency.

While the terminology is repugnant to many who prefer to live in an ideal Westphalian world order, “nation-building” is at the heart of counter-insurgency. And “nation-building” takes money. Aid for “nation-building” is in the highest national security interest of the United States. We just have to learn how to do it well.

To treat Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras as Westphalian states where the national government has real authority is to ignore reality. 

Those countries need “nation-building” in order to become Westphalian states capable of enforcing border control and providing sufficient public security and economic development so that their people are happy and content to live out their lives in their local communities under a viable and just national state political system.

Cutting our aid to them and so undermining their efforts at “nation-building” is just stupid.



About the Author(s)

Stephen B. Young served with the CORDS program in the Republic of Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 as a Deputy District Advisor in Vinh Long province and as Chief, Village Government Branch. Young's service with CORDS was recognized by President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and CIA Director William Colby. A fluent speaker of Vietnamese he has written on human rights in traditional Vietnam, Vietnamese legal history, Vietnamese nationalism, and with his wife translated Duong Thu Huong's novel The Zenith into English. Young is a graduate with honors of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is a former Assistant Dean of the Harvard Law School and Dean and Professor of Law at the Hamline University School of Law. He is Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table and the author of Moral Capitalism and The Road to Moral Capitalism. His most recent book is The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972.


In much the same way that the problems emanating from the Greater Middle East (ex: terrorism) are viewed today as being much less threatening than before (for example, in comparison to other threats) -- and/or as generally being "un-fixable" (at least by we North Americans) -- 

Likewise are the problems emanating from Central America -- and other areas having so-called weak, failed and/or failing states -- also viewed today in this same manner.   

Thus, instead of the U.S. taking on "nation-building" projects in these areas of the world, we have decided, instead, to -- re: the problems emanating from so-called weak, failed and/or failing states --

a.  Simply do "maintenance" there instead.  Herein, whenever possible,

b.  Relying significantly on our partners, in these regions and others, to do much of this such "maintenance" work for us. 

(This such approach being consistent with President Trump's abandonment of our long-standing goal of transforming the outlying states and societies of the world more along modern western lines, and his embrace -- in the place of same -- of such ideas as political, economic, social and value "diversity" and "sovereignty" instead?


“Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity, and peace, for themselves and for the world.”

“We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”

“Strong sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.”


Excerpt from President Trump speech to U.N. General Assembly 19 September 2017.)

The problem with this such approach, however, may be as identified by LTG McMaster in the second, third and fourth of his "Four Fallacies of Future War:" 


We might call the second fallacy the zero-dark-thirty fallacy.  The zero-dark-thirty fallacy, like the vampire fallacy, elevates an important military capability, raiding, to the level of a defense strategy.  The US capability to conduct raids against networked terrorist organizations is portrayed as a substitute for rather than a compliment to conventional Joint Force capabilities.  Raids, because they are operations of short duration, limited purpose and planned withdrawal, are often unable to effect the human and political drivers of armed conflict or make progress toward achieving sustainable outcomes consistent with vital interests. 

Third, the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fallacy may require a little explanation for those of younger generations.  In the 1960s on Sunday nights, families with young children gathered to watch two television shows, the Wonderful World of Disney and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  The host for Wild Kingdom was Marlin Perkins.  Marlin Perkins would introduce the topic of the show, often a dangerous animal, and provide commentary throughout.  But Mr. Perkins would rarely place himself in a dangerous situation.  He usually left close contact with the wildlife to his assistant, Jim Fowler.  Under the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fallacy, the US assumes the role of Marlin Perkins and relies on proxy forces in the role of Jim Fowler to do the fighting on land.  While it is hard to imagine future operations that will not require US forces to operate with multiple partners, primary reliance on proxies is often problematic due to issues involving capability as well as willingness to act consistent with U.S. interests.  The political and human dimensions of war often create what economists and political scientists call principal-actor problems.

Finally, the RSVP fallacy solves the problem of future war by opting out of armed conflict, or certain forms of armed conflict.  The problem is that this fallacy does not give due consideration to enemies in wars or adversaries in between wars.  As Leon Trotsky said, “you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.”  If the U.S. does not possess ready Joint Forces capable of operating in sufficient scale and ample duration to win, adversaries are likely to become emboldened and deterrence is likely to fail.  As President George Washington said, “to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” 


Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Based on LTG McMaster's thoughts above, the idea that we can get away without doing "nation-building" today -- in the Greater Middle East, Central America and/or elsewhere -- this may be a "pipe-dream?" (An unattainable or fanciful hope or scheme.  A fantasy, false hope, illusion, delusion, daydream, unrealizable dream.)  One which simply:

a.  "Passes the buck," 

b.  "Kicks the can down the road."  And, thus, 

c.  Makes the possibility of even more aggravated problems/increased threats -- now or down the road a bit -- nearly "guaranteed?"