Latin Amer­i­can Engage­ment Requires New Think­ing, Mullen Says

By Jim Gara­mone
Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice

U.S. mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary engage­ment in Latin Amer­i­ca will require a change in think­ing and in the cul­ture with­in the armed ser­vices, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said yes­ter­day.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen spoke with Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice on his way here dur­ing a trip that also has tak­en him to Brazil and Chile and will include vis­its to Colom­bia and Mex­i­co.

In Brazil and Chile, the chair­man empha­sized that the Unit­ed States has to rid itself of the ves­tiges of the Cold War to be effec­tive in deal­ing with Latin Amer­i­ca. He said Amer­i­cans have been accus­tomed to look­ing east and west rather than north and south. To change that think­ing, he added, mil­i­tary plan­ners first must admit that’s what they do.

“I grew up in a polar­ized world that was basi­cal­ly East-West. That’s the Cold War,” Mullen said. “Here it is 20 years lat­er, and we’re still break­ing out of that.” The Cold War dom­i­nat­ed U.S. mil­i­tary think­ing for gen­er­a­tions, the chair­man added, and mil­i­tary plan­ners still look to Europe and Asia before look­ing to Latin Amer­i­ca.

The need for the Unit­ed States to focus on Latin Amer­i­ca is obvi­ous, Mullen said. South Amer­i­ca is the Unit­ed States’ largest trad­ing part­ner. Brazil, alone, is the fifth-largest coun­try and 10th-largest econ­o­my in the world.

Latin Amer­i­ca does have prob­lems, the admi­ral said. The main threat to the region is nar­co-traf­fick­ing and the insid­i­ous prob­lem of drug mon­ey. But chal­lenges also exist with migra­tion, ungoverned spaces, eco­nom­ic inequities and cor­rup­tion. The U.S. gov­ern­ment must engage with the lead­ers of Latin Amer­i­ca across the spec­trum, and mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary rela­tion­ships can be the cat­a­lyst for much of this engage­ment, Mullen said.

The chair­man also said he wants to cap­i­tal­ize on the ties between the Unit­ed States and the var­i­ous coun­tries of the region.

“When you look at the per­cent­age of His­pan­ics in the Unit­ed States and the His­pan­ic con­ti­nent of Latin Amer­i­ca, there is a great nat­ur­al affin­i­ty that draws our peo­ples’ togeth­er,” he explained. “I just think there are tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ties and real­ly impor­tant imper­a­tives for our future.”

U.S. South­ern Com­mand is an impor­tant part of this engage­ment with Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean nations. Mullen said the com­mand — based in Mia­mi — is doing well with lim­it­ed resources to lis­ten to and engage with lead­ers in the region.

“There’s a whole range of aspects that go with engage­ment,” he said. “It’s eco­nom­ics, it’s edu­ca­tion, it’s secu­ri­ty, it’s cli­mate [and] envi­ron­ment that are glob­al­ly chal­lenges. Doing this con­sis­tent­ly is key to progress.”

The glob­al finan­cial cri­sis presents more prob­lems, Mullen said. The U.S. mil­i­tary will feel the effects of this cri­sis and must be care­ful with how pro­grams are cut.

“There are some rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive invest­ments on the ’soft-pow­er’ side that have huge lever­age,” he said. “So engage­ment invest­ments on the mil­i­tary side — exer­cis­es, exchanges, mil­i­tary edu­ca­tion, staff trips, all the things we do — even in a time of finan­cial cri­sis, we need to be thought­ful about cut­ting those.”

The chair­man said he views engage­ment as a long-term invest­ment. Cut­ting those pro­grams might mean a short-term finan­cial gain, he said, but could end up cost­ing more in the long run.

“I think that’s where lead­ers must be real­ly thought­ful about how we adjust to finan­cial increased bud­get pres­sures,” he said.

Engage­ment requires tan­gi­ble “deliv­er­ables” – equip­ment, train­ing, exer­cis­es and exchanges, Mullen said. He used U.S. mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary rela­tions with Chile as an exam­ple.

“There have been plen­ty of deliv­er­ables with Chile over the years,” he said. “The total has pro­duced a real­ly sol­id rela­tion­ship. Chile’s mil­i­tary is much more inter­op­er­a­ble with us than oth­er part­ners.” The same process must hap­pen with oth­er nations in the region, he added.

“One of the mes­sages I took from meet­ing with my coun­ter­part in Brazil is we must make sure we have a list like that and that we work it very hard,” the chair­man said. “There has been great improve­ment in that in the last few years, and they are excit­ed about that. There are great oppor­tu­ni­ties. We have to have a good pace and rhythm with Brazil, which is such an impor­tant part of South Amer­i­ca and wants to be a good part­ner with the Unit­ed States.”

The bot­tom line in U.S. engage­ment with coun­tries in the region is the secu­ri­ty risks the area presents, Mullen said.

“This real­ly is a glob­al risk,” he said, “and I think engage­ment and atten­tion does an awful lot to mit­i­gate and reduce that risk so we don’t get into a big cri­sis.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)