The Paradox of South American Integration: The Founding of a Defense Council

This past March 10, all 12 members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) dispatched their respective defense ministers to Santiago, Chile for the first meeting of the recently-formed South American Defense Council (SADC).

– UNASUR spawns an offspring
– Internal squabbles overshadow inaugural meeting of Defense Council
– US-Russian attempts to infiltrate exclusively South American body

This past March 10, all 12 members of the Union of South
American Nations (UNASUR) dispatched their respective defense ministers
to Santiago, Chile for the first meeting of the recently-formed South
American Defense Council (SADC). Heralded as a "historic event" by
Chilean defense minister and SADC president pro tempore José
Goñi, the summit was intended to create cooperative, coordinated and
concrete military ties as well as promote transparency regarding each
member state's defense expenditures. The initiative also
proposed to foster mutual confidence amongst the region's historically
antagonistic military establishments. The convened ministers promised
collaboration on overseas and continental peace keeping operations,
regional natural disaster recovery missions and humanitarian relief
actions. Surprisingly absent from the SADC's agenda was the question of
illegal drug and arms trafficking that routinely dominates the
continent's security compulsions, making for headlines throughout Latin
America. These, however, at least according to Goñi, are considered "a
police matter, not a military concern."

Environment Set for SADC Meeting
As the ministers from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile,
Ecuador, Guyana, Surinam, Paraguay, Perú, Uruguay and Venezuela
descended upon Santiago, several underlying narratives preceded the
Council's inaugural conference. For example, Colombia and Venezuela
resumed their barely restrained bellicose posturing against one
another, while the arms race between Chile and Peru continued to simmer.

The attention of external actors also contributed to providing an
action-packed backdrop for the SADC meeting. US dabbling in the region,
in the form of the June 2008 deployment of its Navy's reconstituted
Fourth Fleet, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Admiral
Mullen's recent tour of key US-allied countries, has been a significant
feature in the lead-up to the summit. Moscow's request for official
observer status has also enhanced the perception that outside forces
are increasingly attempting to gain influence in the supposedly
exclusively South American UNASUR.

From Tensions to a Tentative Peace
The March 2008 clandestine incursion by the Colombian Army into
Ecuadoran territory resulted in the death of the FARC's second in
command, Raul Reyes, alongside 20 other guerillas. Immediately after, a
tense diplomatic standoff took place between Colombia's President
Uribe, and Ecuador's President Correa alongside his ally, Venezuela's
Chávez, united in their convictions that the Colombian army's actions
were a brash violation of Ecuador's sovereignty. Both Venezuela and
Ecuador immediately cut all diplomatic ties with Colombia, claiming
that Bogotá was a proxy of Washington. After an intensive, if brief,
dialogue, and near universal condemnation of Colombia's actions,
Caracas and Bogotá made up, but the deep enmity between Ecuador and
Colombia continues to smolder. At the November 2008 Rio Group, the
three leaders shook hands, but the bad blood remains.

President Lula da Silva saw in this ongoing confrontation an
opportunity to collaborate with all of the UNASUR member states in
order to create a defensive entity that would cultivate regional peace
by promoting conflict resolution methods by means of a
military-to-military communication networks. The intention of the SADC
is not only to promote peace in the region, but also to bolster the
credibility of the still nascent UNASUR. Although considered by some
critics as a Latin American NATO, the SADC does not intend, at the
present time, to form a regional security force or amass an
international army. According to Brazilian Minister Nelson Jobim, the
SADC is meant to serve as an internal conflict resolution platform as
well as a medium to encourage multilateral defensive collaborations and
consensus building.

At the beginning of the Santiago summit, the ministers issued a
joint statement, which declared that the Council was aimed at creating
a "mechanism of integration, dialogue and cooperation" among Latin
American countries. The ministers announced their intention to
strengthen military cooperation, coordinate humanitarian interventions
in the event of natural disasters, and reduce the asymmetry of military
spending among the member countries. They stressed that it is time to
provide a space for direct multilateral dialogue on military issues in
order to increase transparency and smooth out historical conflicts.
Goñi told El Pais on March 8 that the aim was to avoid direct
clashes by "inserting the discussions in the multilateral frame." He
also added that the SADC must quickly find "an action plan" in order to
reduce national disagreements with one another. However, the SADC is
not aimed at taking positions on internal affairs, and as a result,
crucial issues like drug trafficking are designated to be a police
concern and thus will not fall under the Council's competence. Although
a condemnation against belligerent non-state actors was made, a clear
reference to the FARC, this limited mandate will prevent the SDC from
taking any significant actions in this respect.

Pleasantries Amongst Hostilities
The initial harmony of the meeting was soon shattered by bellicose
rhetoric from elsewhere in South America. While each nation's defense
minister was meeting in Santiago, the leaders of several countries were
leveling strongly-worded statements that threatened to undermine the
SADC's purpose. A year after the Colombian military intervention in
Ecuador, its defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, declared on March 8
that it would be "self-defense to chase terrorists, inside or outside
of own territory." Santos' remarks drew an instantaneous response from
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who retorted that he did not want to
believe that "Colombia would have the idea to do in Venezuela what it
did in Ecuador," and that he "would have no option but call the Sukoï"
to fly over its neighbor (referring to its recently purchased Russian
fighter jets). Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa increased the tension
by telling El Comercio
that it was "not an offense to be friends with the FARC." This clash,
the very type of verbal attack that the Council seeks to avoid,
monopolized talks on March 9, until President Uribe somewhat dampened
matters by condemning his minister's statements and calling for mutual
cooperation between the countries.

However, diplomatic grievances did not end there; the meeting was
seemingly riven by national resentments. The historical rivalry between
Chile and Peru surfaced anew, as Minister Goñi publically accused Lima
of opacity for failing to announce its recent expenditures. "We have
known about it by reading newspapers," professed Goñi. The Peruvian
Minister of Defense, José Bellina, argued that there was no reason to
make the figures public as long as the recent investments were part of
an "arsenal renovation." That same day, a third controversy took over
the discussion as the representatives from Argentina, Uruguay and Chile
brought up the espionage affair involving an Argentine citizen, accused
by Montevideo of hacking into and using the email addresses of several
politicians and dignitaries from the various countries.

The Return of the Cold War?
Beyond regional clashes, the summit attracted the attention of two
significant outside players, in the form of the US and Russia. The
Pentagon sent JCS Chairmen Admiral Mullen to Chile, Colombia and
Brazil, the week prior. His visit seems to illustrate an increasing US
interest in Latin America after a significant stretch of indifference
during the Bush years. Moreover, the erstwhile mothballed Fourth Fleet
returned to Latin America in June 2008, after a hiatus of 50 years,
creating an uproar of criticism from a number of Latin American
countries. The rift which Washington has instigated in the region now
promises to make it even harder for the SADC to reach any level of
meaningful consensus on defense policy. It is, however, important to
note that one of the few significant points of consensus within the
SADC has been a common condemnation of the US embargo on Cuba as
Minister Jobim asserted that, "the relationship with Cuba is a core
condition for a change in US-Latin America relations."

Previous public US military-to-military dialogues with Latin America
had been forums for advocacy regarding accountability and restraint
after the abuses committed during the region's "dirty wars" in the name
of the Cold War. However, it was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,
who shifted the tone whereby Latin American military institutions were
forced to face their abhorrent records, to a reality where they were
looked upon by the Pentagon as an ally to reflect Washington's War on
Terror. At the 2004 Defense Ministerial of the Americas held in Quito,
Ecuador, Rumsfeld urged Latin America military leaders to crack down on
"the asymmetric threats we face require that all elements of state and
society work together," seemingly advocating a merger of the military
and police forces to form one cohesive security apparatus- a
historically fateful decision for Latin America to have to make.

Furthermore, Russia, which is currently pursuing an ambitious
program of diplomacy in Latin America, asked for a seat at the SADC as
an observer, harkening back to the bad old days of the Cold War. While
Moscow's request was not granted, these Russian and US maneuvers
illustrate the importance that is already being given to the SADC by
external powers and represent a concerted attempt on the part of
outside actors to wield influence in an exclusively South American

The countries of UNASUR must treat such incursions in their
continental dealings with suspicion. A driving force behind the group's
formation was a concern with developing a uniquely South American
approach in the face of an unattractive US vision based on its impunity
for regional affairs. Thus, to allow Russia and the US to become
entwined at this juncture-through the mechanism of "observer status,"
would invariably damage UNASUR's ability to achieve any meaningful
continental integration, and turn the body instead into another
potential battleground, and divisive tool, for these Cold War foes.
SADC officials should resist permitting observer status to exist in its
deliberations. The OAS sufficiently serves the purpose of allowing for
the transmission of the influence of extra-regional countries.

Mixed Prospects for Progress
For the SADC to even begin to realize many of its ambitious aims, it
will have to overcome a series of significant hurdles. South America is
fraught with historical animosity, and the Council has come into being
at a time when these fissures are ever more evident. Despite ostensibly
being designed to mend the continent's fractured relations, its ability
to do so will be hindered by the very divisions it intends to resolve.

While it may have provided the impetus for the formation of the
SADC, the diplomatic spat between Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador has
the potential to be one of the biggest thorns in the side of this
attempt at regional defense cooperation; likewise, the historical
mistrust between Chile and Peru, predictably continues to smolder.
Remarks made before and during the meeting clearly demonstrated that
the attention some of the region's leadership is concentrated firmly on
entrenched bilateral quarrels.

Latin American countries' military spending increased by 25 percent
in 2008 compared to the previous year, and by 91 percent over the past
three years. Colombia and Venezuela, whose respective outlays on
defense rose by 13 and 29 percent in 2008, account for a sizeable
proportion of this spending, and are locked in what could well be
described as an arms race. Brazil, the main engine of regional
integration and home to a sizeable defense industry, is also the
biggest military power in South America. According to the International
Institute on Strategic Studies, its annual defense budget rose by 32
percent in 2008 to $27.5 billion, the twelfth largest in the world.
These statistics are not convincingly illustrative of a region inclined
toward peaceful exercises and collaborative conflict resolution.

Moreover, evidence from elsewhere in the world points strongly
towards what could be the futility of UNASUR's attempts at defense
integration. The European Union, whose members first developed economic
cooperation, before establishing a political and monetary union, has
still, after more than 50 years, failed to negotiate a common defense
policy, despite its largely peaceful internal relations.

While the SADC's agenda contains a number of useful points, and
offers some positive prospects for fruitful collaboration – especially
in relatively uncontroversial areas like natural disaster management,
joint humanitarian operations and conflict resolution – it fails to
address what is undoubtedly the most pressing regional issue, violent
transnational drug trafficking rings, and in doing so, limits its
relevance. Early signs indicate that the Council's mission could turn
out to be a confused one; ministers used the Santiago summit for such
diversified purposes as to condemn the U.S.' embargo on Cuba and air
decades-old grievances, eclipsing at an early stage the goals they
professed to be addressing.

Consequently, the group's set of aspirations look far too ambitious
to be realized at least in the near future. There are undoubtedly some
prospects for progress that have the potential to further integrate the
region. However, a common regional defense policy will be difficult to
put together. Moreover, if the highly vocal bickering continues to
characterize the SADC, the Council will likely descend into little more
than a talking shop with severely limited clout.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associates Tomás Ayuso, Romain Le Cour Grandmaison and Guy Hursthouse