Far from having achieved a singular Latin American model, the Western Hemisphere´s defense landscape is characterized by heterogeneous defense strategies, a reality that's unlikely to change in the near future. Largely, this stems from the region’s unique lack of primary threats, but presents challenges in dealing with shared threats.
While politics — including elections in Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Mexico this year — and the global geopolitical context can and do impact decisions, the economic outlook generally remains stable in the region, which should allow countries to better tackle their defense and security priorities.
To address possibly the most salient continental threat, the Inter-American Defense Board, or IADB, through its foundation (the IADF), is preparing the Western Hemisphere's first Cyber Defense Conference in Colombia in May 2019. As the region’s only panhemispheric defense organization, it is the most appropriate forum to address the region’s collective challenges.
Most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have a keen interest in cyber, and many have committed to improving their cyber infrastructure, though most remain at the incipient stages of developing their cyber strategies and command centers. Recently, the U.S. Department of Defense signed cyber agreements in Argentina and Chile, and it has a long-standing agreement with Colombia, which includes cyber. NATO has also taken notice of the region, recruiting Colombia as its first Latin American global partner, with interests converging around cyber, maritime security and organized crime. The region is ready for improved cooperation with a multitude of allied actors.
It appears clear that the DoD’s and NATO’s objectives in the Americas will continue to converge around cyber defense. To better address this pressing challenge, the IADB’s Cyber Defense Conference will encourage analytical and technical exchanges and promote trusted partnerships by providing high-level officials and officers from across the continent with a forum to discuss cyber strategies and the corresponding technical issues. Ultimately, this will serve to strengthen the region’s cyber defense capabilities.
Though cyber remains one of the most pressing matters for Latin American and Caribbean countries, the international security environment remains focused on threats from other regions, which has given rise to increased influence from global competitors in the Americas. To redress this, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis traveled to Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia in 2018 to affirm the United States’ commitment to the Western Hemisphere on cyber defense, military education and training, and improved military-to-military relationships.
In addition to cybersecurity, many countries share specific challenges in addressing border security and natural disasters. Strengthening maritime and terrestrial border security is essential to enhancing regional security in the Western Hemisphere. Billions of dollars are spent annually on monitoring and controlling borders, though effectively addressing the issue requires a concerted strategy, joint civilian and military cooperation, and a legal framework to coordinate interagency cooperation.
Vulnerable geographic regions, such as the Amazon or Central America, pose especially complex security challenges that can include: transnational and transregional threat networks, migration and corruption. Border security is a multifaceted issue and we will likely continue to see efforts and resources directed at attempting to address this ongoing challenge.
The Latin American and Caribbean region also remains extremely vulnerable to natural disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, floods and volcanic eruptions, among others. Extreme weather patterns are expected to continue, and the need for international cooperation and response is vividly apparent. The U.S. and global actors are committed to supporting Latin America and the Caribbean with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts throughout the region. At the core of the IADB’s efforts is strengthening civil-military relations. The IADB has an important role to play in emergency preparedness, resiliency and response, both within and among militaries.
Latin America and the Caribbean have never mattered more for the U.S. and its global partners. This year saw a renewed commitment from the U.S. and NATO in the Americas, and in the near term we will likely witness a similar pattern of engagement. In a world that is constantly being reshaped politically alongside ever-evolving defense priorities, the IADB and the IADF will remain at the forefront of the region’s most important challenges and will continue to serve as the nexus for defense cooperation in the Americas.
Brig. Gen. S.M. Lacroix is the director general of the Secretariat of the Inter-American Defense Board.