Unquestionably, great-power competition is unfolding in the Western Hemisphere. Consider the number of bilateral agreements between China and Panama, illegal fishing in the eastern Pacific and southern Atlantic Oceans, a secretive military installation in Argentina, and Russia’s role in Venezuela. In light of this, the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) refocuses the United States on competition, underscoring the growing challenges with a rising China and aggressive Russia. But in Latin America, the Department of Defense must be cautious in hyper-focusing on extra-hemispheric adversaries at the expense of domestic considerations facing countries throughout the region. Competition can and should look different there than it might elsewhere. Indeed, DoD can best compete with extra-hemispheric actors by assisting partner nations to insulate themselves from external influence, strengthen defense institutions, and enable security forces to consolidate gains and assist civil authorities.

In much of Latin America, weak political institutions are a longstanding problem. Today, they struggle with the compounding effects of COVID-19, lackluster economic performance, and enduring social challenges. In an attempt to confront these challenges, DoD is doing what it does best: reverting to methods it used in the last era of great-power competition in Latin America. However, policymakers and DoD senior leaders should heed the cautionary tale of the historical results in Latin America of a hyper-focus on external actors; there are no military solutions to competition occurring throughout Latin America. Military assistance provided with the intent of out-competing extra-hemispheric actors indicates a lack of understanding of the challenges our partners face internally and politically. More importantly, it risks the impression that our allies in the Western Hemisphere are on the sidelines of a greater conflict when in fact the shared challenges to security are often our best target for aid. This becomes clear with an examination of the history of military aid in Latin America, its origins and modifications, and its role in the Cold War. To be sure, there is a role for DoD to play in competing with extra-hemispheric actors in the region. But, it must account for unique local and regional conditions—too literal an interpretation of the NDS risks leading to poor implementation of military assistance and negatively contributing to the security environment.

Guns and Money: A Dangerous Precedent

Historically, the relationship between the United States and Latin America has been tumultuous, characterized by incessant interventions since the mid-nineteenth century, which continuously undermined the maturation of political institutions and hindered social change. By the early twentieth century, however, positive change was tangible as President Franklin D. Roosevelt continued the implementation of the Good Neighbor Policy. Even on the eve of World War II, Roosevelt sought to repair the US reputation with its neighbors and re-establish ties throughout the hemisphere. The war, however, would create conditions that would challenge the Good Neighbor Policy deep into the twentieth century.

Modern military assistance traces its roots to the Lend-Lease Act passed in 1941. Formerly titled as “An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States,” the act afforded the Roosevelt administration the legal means to support the Allies as the rising threat of Nazi Germany loomed over Europe. The administration had to push for the Lend-Lease Act by characterizing it as an effort to “promote the defense of the United States and for other purposes” to garner enough support in Congress to pass it. Specific to Latin America, aid initially supported anti-submarine efforts in the Atlantic and Caribbean and aimed at keeping the Panama Canal secure. As the war progressed, it was evident that many Latin America countries could not generate the military power to contribute to the war effort, with the exception of Brazil and Mexico. Ultimately, though, a common theme emerged. Under-developed military institutions, fledgling economic performance, and a low risk of conventional attacks meant limited Lend-Lease support to Latin America. It was simply enough that the United States would maintain primacy within the hemisphere.

While the Western Hemisphere remained insulated from conventional attacks, it was not immune to the ideological undercurrents emanating from Europe. After the war, the Truman Doctrine emerged alongside the Marshall Plan, allowing an increase in military and economic aid to friendly governments in their internal fights against communism. The Marshall Plan, though, was limited to Europe, while the subsequent Mutual Defense Assistance Act enabled military aid on a wider scale. However, it was soon evident that this act was limited in its application and that US foreign aid must align with all forms of assistance. The result was the Mutual Security Act of 1951. Central to the spirit of the legislation was the concept of hemispheric defense, and it created the Mutual Security Agency to synchronize military and economic programs to assist poorer countries to protect against external threats.

For a decade, the Mutual Security Act guided military assistance programs throughout the hemisphere. However, the threat of communism did not recede. In 1954, the United States was culpable in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government under the justification of defeating communist subversion. In 1959, Fidel Castro and his guerrillas achieved victory over the Batista regime in Cuba and by 1963, transformed their 26th of July Movement into the Communist Party of Cuba and aligned with the Soviet Union. For the Latin American republics, US intervention loomed over the promise of hemispheric cooperation to defeat external threats and the ideals of communism appealed to social forces unsatisfied with the status quo of US regional hegemony—the Monroe Doctrine reincarnate. While the world entered the Cold War, US foreign policy in Latin America slowly transformed, and so too did military assistance.

The Arc of Competition is Enduring—and So is Memory in Latin America

Competition is not a new concept in the Western Hemisphere. The US policy of containment during the Cold War can be traced back to American diplomat George Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” wherein he advocated for such a policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. In his biography of the man who shaped US Cold War policy, John Lewis Gaddis notes that one of the pillars of Kennan’s thinking was that “the domestic character of a government was less important than its international behavior”—an idea that was manifested in the US policy in Latin America of supporting authoritarian regimes that opposed communism. Kennan, long a Europe-focused diplomat with little experience in Latin America, completed a visit to familiarize himself with the region in 1950. On March 29, Kennan reported to the secretary of state that “our relationship to Latin America occupies a vitally important place in our effort to achieve . . . a system of international relationships, political and economic . . . qualified to serve as a rebuttal of the Russian challenge to our right to exist as a great and leading world power.” In other words, in Kennan’s view, the perceived need to out-compete extra-hemispheric, communist influence became so critical that the United States ignored domestic conditions that drove governments towards policies viewed, at the time, as leftist. The anti-communist fervor had cast a strong shadow on any political view associated, rightly or wrongly, with the left.

The policy of containing an ideology did not fit well with the framework of the Mutual Security Act to defeat “external” threats and did not produce the desired results in Latin America. The Eisenhower administration grew increasingly frustrated with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their response to the rising influence of communism in Latin America. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles continually urged DoD to provide modern weapons and ammunition to the states vulnerable to the communist threat. More importantly, and in an uncanny similarity to today, the DoD officers assigned throughout these countries assessed that the militaries in Latin America were not developed enough to absorb modern weapons and equipment. They also found that existing US law did not provide them the means to provide such weapons in order to counter internal or subversive threats. In other words, the purpose of military aid during this time was to support hemispheric defense, but no degree of military assistance would help Latin American countries mobilize for war against the Soviet Union.

Consequently, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and DoD as a whole, received a reprieve in 1961 when the Foreign Assistance Act replaced the Mutual Security Act. The new law, intended to “promote the foreign policy, security, and general welfare of the United States by assisting the peoples of the world in their efforts toward internal and external security,” separated military aid and economic aid, with the newly formed United States Agency for International Development in charge of economic assistance. This gave DoD greater oversight of implementing military aid, albeit in support of State Department foreign policy objectives. Now the problem was clear: subversive elements within Latin American states threatened pro-US governments and presented a risk to US primacy in the Western Hemisphere. This created an even greater problem: DoD turned toward arming host nation militaries to defeat communists, irrespective of the social and economic forces working against the host governments.

Relearning Lessons

As early as 1957, nearly a decade into the first concrete efforts to build partner nation capacity in Greece, Turkey, and Southeast Asia, Congress was already becoming concerned about the many disparate aid programs, conflicting objectives, and high financial cost. In 1958, President Eisenhower took Congress’s concerns to heart and convened a committee to study the scope and scale of the US military assistance program. In his letter of instruction to the committee, led by William Henry Draper, Jr., Eisenhower wrote, “What is needed from your committee is a forthright evaluation of the extent to which future military assistance can, by strengthening our friends and allies, advance U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.”

The committee’s 1959 report is extensive and stands the test of time very well. Notably, the committee identified a that a key component of effective execution of the military assistance program was a clearer delineation between the roles of the State and Defense Departments. Specifically, the report said:

The Committee recommends acceptance of the following two basic concepts:

(1) The strengthening of the position of the State Department on the policy level of military assistance planning and an increased assurance of the conformity of the Military Assistance Program to foreign policy and to related assistance programs.

(2) The focussing of responsibility on the Department of Defense for planning, programming and execution of military assistance within the framework of policy guidance laid down in the National Security Council and by the Department of State.”

In 1959, Eisenhower’s commission recognized that any effective efforts in security assistance to counter malign influence must align with foreign policy and adjust for the political realities of each region. Some of the recommendations, written more than sixty years ago, remain strikingly relevant today. The contemporary approach to security sector assistance codified in policy under the Obama administration was set forth in Presidential Policy Directive 23 in 2013. That directive highlighted a number of policy and planning factors for security sector assistance, two of the most important factors being regionally based planning and interagency coordination.

Clearly, there is a role for military assistance in great-power competition. But, a strategy to compete must account for regional factors that relate to democratic participation, economic advancement, and social change. The question of focus is important, as is alignment with the foreign policy goals of the State Department. While a strong relationship between the State and Defense Departments continues to exist with military assistance, it is critical that DoD avoids becoming too distracted by the notion of competition occurring on global scale and insufficiently attuned to the consequences of domestic factors throughout Latin America. In the end, defenders of the NDS must understand that successful competition will vary from region to region and the threat will appear differently. So too should DoD’s response.

DoD cannot repeat the same mistakes made in Latin America during the Cold War. Prior to 1961, the concept of hemispheric defense dominated military assistance. US support to many of the Cold War–era authoritarian regimes, such as those of the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, continue to influence many of the geopolitical dynamics in the region even today. As the Soviet Union sought to export an ideology that would undermine US influence in the region, the cornerstone of US foreign policy became containment and focusing on internal, subversive forces. The United States armed governments in the region to defeat these subversive threats in an effort to out-compete the Soviet Union’s ideology. Today, to best compete with extra-hemispheric actors, DoD must focus on strengthening internal defense institutions, insulating partner nations from predatory diplomacy and malicious economic incentives, and ensuring security forces are best postured to enable legitimate governments and strengthen civil society.

The lesson here, that of strategic alignment, has its roots at the beginning of modern security cooperation and DoD cannot became lost in a sea of threats applying the same hammer that may be effective in other parts of the world. Today’s challenges in Latin America have remarkably strong echoes in history, as policymakers ask DoD to counter Chinese and Russian influence. Yet, powerful social and economic factors continue to challenge governments throughout the region, and real structural changes are required to address those challenges. Rule of law, social equality, and a strong civil society are more vital to any strategy to compete with foreign influence than the scale of military aid. During the Cold War, strong social forces, compounded by weak economic structures, created the conditions for increased communist influence. No amount of military aid was going to change those facts. The same may be true for this new era of competition.

Ryan Kertis is a US Army foreign area officer with regional concentration in Latin America. He holds a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from Stanford University and a Master of Arts in Diplomacy from Norwich University. He previously served in the Security Cooperation Office in Santiago, Chile.

Chris Bernotavicius is an active-duty commander in the US Navy and a foreign area officer specializing in Latin America. He is a graduate of US Army ILE at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and holds a Master of Science in International Relations from Troy University and a Master of Science in Applied Mathematics from the Naval Postgraduate School.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, United States Southern Command, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Sgt. Andrea Salgado-Rivera, US Army