Wrangling in the West: A Political-Military Approach to Great Power Competition in Latin America
By: Peter Kouretsos and Josh Chang
An extra DDG in the Caribbean isn’t going to help the US compete better in SOUTHCOM AOR. Many of the best policy options are outside the sole purview of the military.
In a great power competition, most of the United States’ policy attention has focused on East Asia and Eastern Europe. However, the incoming Biden administration should remember George Orwell’s refrain: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” In front of the nose of U.S. leaders is an overlooked fact: a secure, peaceful, and prosperous Western Hemisphere has allowed the U.S. to confidently pursue its national interests abroad. It is imperative for the next administration to factor Latin America more greatly into U.S. strategy.
China, Russia, and Iran are making various advances in front of Washington’s nose. China is growing its investments in the region as an extension of its Belt and Road Initiative. Russia is cementing its ties with anti-U.S. states such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have harnessed illicit networks in the region to finance their operations in the Middle East. For a region so geographically distant from these countries, each competitor has invested significant resources to create conditions that could challenge U.S. interests and hemispheric security. The U.S. will need to compete with these opponents in this arena now if it wishes to maintain its position as the economic, diplomatic, and security partner of choice into the future. An active defense of the U.S. position would also be a broader defense of the shared values, interests, and prosperity that have united the Western Hemisphere.
Attacking Adversarial Asymmetry
Russia, China, and Iran do not have to project extensive military power in the region to compete with Washington. They can challenge it through asymmetric, non-military means to put cumulative pressure on the U.S. and its friends during crises in other theaters. China has constructed a military-administered space facility in Argentina of unknown purposes, is competing to develop the region’s telecommunications architecture, and is operating ports on both sides of the Panama Canal, a strategic waterway for the global economy and the movement of U.S. military forces. Russia continues to provide critical military support to the Maduro regime in Venezuela and has trained more than half of the region’s security services in counterterrorism and counter-narcotics operations. It has also established RT en Español as one of its major information dissemination networks in the region. Iranian-backed Hezbollah has expanded from the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil to Venezuela, where it is able to launder its money for global operations.
While many of these challenges are primarily economic and political, the strategic implications and the potential for them to grow into something more is significant. In a potential crisis elsewhere, each of these powers can use these different assets to collect intelligence, influence decision-making, and monitor and interdict forces. Sustained refugee outflows in Venezuela could destabilize the Hemisphere. More serious is the possibility that a regime like Maduro’s receives Iranian missiles or more substantial Russian or Chinese military support, creating an A2/AD zone in the southern Caribbean. Economic pressure and news outlets spreading misinformation could undermine coalition-building. Ships may not be able to transit key waterways or resupply from ports. The fusion of these economic, diplomatic, informational, and criminal instruments of statecraft with select military tools presents a hybrid challenge to U.S. and partner interests. One concrete example is China’s role as a leading trade partner and investor in the region, using its economic relationships to uphold anti-U.S. governments and influence local decision-making on behalf of Beijing’s interests. China has aggressively leveraged its economic influence to deprive Taiwan of its remaining diplomatic partners, with nine of the island’s fifteen remaining diplomatic allies located in the Americas. If Beijing seeks to further weaken Taiwan, it can escalate its pressure campaign in this hemisphere and whittle down this list even further in combination with other forms of military and political pressure in the Taiwan Strait. It’s a reminder that what happens in the Western Hemisphere can also profoundly affect developments elsewhere in the world.
Washington has many economic and political tools it should leverage to tackle these challenges. But the Pentagon has a role to play, too. Some of DoD’s greatest long-term assets to combat these threats are its professional military education programs, advisory and assistance initiatives, and joint exercises. The U.S. should accelerate this people-to-people approach, giving its regional partners the tools they need to professionalize their militaries and shape the next generation of leaders. Initiatives such as the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan are already in the process of equipping and training 1,300 security personnel across Central America, highlighting efforts to nurture future regional stability. Frameworks for cooperation around regional issues like maritime security and counter-IUU fishing should also be strengthened, such as recent U.S. Coast Guard efforts to help Ecuador secure its EEZ. The Pentagon can also expand opportunities to develop and test new operational concepts and new units in a lower-risk coalition environment. The U.S. has already dispatched a Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) to Colombia to assist the government with critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance gaps, making it the first time Washington has deployed such a unit to Latin America. SOUTHCOM has also positioned itself as the COCOM of choice for experimentation; many technologies have been demonstrated first in SOUTHCOM and then moved to other theaters for other military applications. DoD is also carrying out additional engagements through its science divisions, which are cooperating with regional researchers to fund and develop innovation in advanced technology. These measures represent unique and less conventional means of countering extra-hemispheric actors in the region. Any success or failures here could provide important lessons for how the U.S. competes in other areas of the world.
A little bit more attention will go a long way
Renewed attention in Latin America does not have to be expensive, and the military plays an important supporting role to the mostly non-military lines of effort outlined in the most recent strategic framework. The Pentagon is currently reviewing the geographic combatant commands and preparing to adjust resources to meet DOD’s priorities. SOUTHCOM, which covers most of Latin America, does not have to demand a greater share of guided-missile destroyers or brigade combat teams. But the Pentagon should make sure its mixture of military advisory programs, civil affairs efforts, and other “soft” initiatives strengthen institutions in the region and fend off adversarial influence. By dedicating these resources in this manner, Washington can signal its commitment to the region, defend the hemisphere’s shared values and interests, and compete effectively with near-peer adversaries abroad.