Sidelining the Generals

Latin American defense ministers, mostly civilians, move toward wider cooperation on security issues. LATIN AMERICA

HOSTED by US Secretary of Defense William Perry in Williamsburg, Va., defense ministers from throughout the Americas met this week - for the first time ever - to discuss regional security themes.

That all the governments of the hemisphere (aside from Cuba, of course) can now be assembled for an exchange on these sensitive themes underscores the progress made toward increased cooperation and trust in inter-American relations. That the participating ministers were mostly civilians suggests a remarkable advance in democratic practice; previously all such discussions were left to military officers.

That some key issues had to be kept off the agenda, however, reflects continuing difficulties in civil-military relations in many Latin American nations and the formidable obstacles to collective security arrangements.

Dramatic changes have taken place in the military security climate of the Americas in the past half-dozen years. With the cold war over, no one claims that US national security is linked to internal developments in Latin American or Caribbean countries. The nations of the region no longer have even the semblance of a common enemy - and most of them have no enemy at all.

Guerrillas remain active in less than a handful of countries; nowhere do they seriously challenge government authority. With some troublesome exceptions (most notably, Peru-Ecuador), progress has been made in resolving traditional border conflicts. Although new security threats are emerging - drug trafficking and criminal violence, terrorism, migration, and environmental degradation, for example - the military may not have much of a role in confronting these threats.

The most crucial change, however, has been Latin America's impressive turn toward democracy. It was not long ago that military dictatorship was the most common form of government in the region. Today, nearly every country is ruled by a democratically elected civilian to whom the armed forces are constitutionally subordinate - although, admittedly, they do not always act that way. With their traditional roles losing relevance and budgets declining in most places, what are the proper missions and responsibilities for Latin America's armies?

The Williamsburg meeting grappled with many aspects of that question. The defense ministers discussed ways to reduce security risks between neighboring states, focusing on confidence-building measures and military information exchanges. They explored how armed forces could cooperate internationally - for example in peacekeeping - demining operations, disaster relief, and regional anti-drug campaigns. Most significantly, participants exchanged views on several themes long considered the sovereign business of each country - military training, budgets, recruitment, personnel and force structure, and the like.

This was a valuable exercise, and it should be sustained. Next time, the goals and agenda should be more ambitious, however. First, discussions of civil-military relations and the missions of armed forces in the Americas should explicitly be aimed at formulating regionwide norms - on questions ranging from mechanisms for assuring civilian control to the size, training, budgets, and weaponry of security forces. Governments and armies will not immediately adopt the resulting guidelines; indeed, they will be fiercely resisted in many countries. Over time, however, agreement on basic norms can lead to converging security practices.

Second, it is time to review all regional military treaties and institutions established during the cold war. Lacking any well-defined purposes, they need either to be recast or dismantled. The Inter-American Defense Board was founded in 1942 to coordinate hemispheric defense. Its mission is now obscure. The Inter-American Defense College trains US and Latin American officers, but no one is questioning whether such training is needed anymore.

There are, in addition, a number of strictly military-to-military programs that exclude civilian participation: the Conference of American Armies, which assembles commanding officers for strategy discussions; the similar Conference of Air Force Chiefs; and the UNITAS joint naval exercises. It is disturbing that none of these programs was on the agenda for review.

Finally, the Organization of American States (OAS) should have a leading role in future meetings on regional security. Keeping the OAS at the margins of security matters (in essence, leaving them to defense establishments) is a mistake. It undermines the organization's authority to carry out its primary responsibility for conflict resolution and the defense of democracy. Today, these are the hemisphere's most important security aims.

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