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Security for whom, by whom, and with whom?

Date: June 2004


The discussion of security issues, at least since September 11, 2001, has fluctuated among three modalities: strategic/theoretical, tactical/technical and ideological/emotional. Little attention is paid to such fundamental considerations as definitions. In fact, there is no generally-accepted definition ofeven such a constantly-used concept as “national security.” The most common confusion is that of national security with national interest.

The difference is profound, however. Countries have many national interests: political, economic, diplomatic, social, environmental, cultural, etc., and pursue these interests through a variety of means: political, diplomatic, economic, informational and cultural. The concept of security however implies a threat to the integrity of the entity involved, be it a person, a family, an organization or a country. National security concerns are a subset of national interests and imply a threat to the security of the state. It is only these concerns that will be addressed not only by the means mentioned above, but also through subversion, military display and war.

In this paper I will argue that the pursuit of hemispheric security suffers from a variety of obstacles, including organizational, political and strategic. Most significant, however, is the lack of an operational definition of hemispheric security common to at least the most important countries of the region. US leadership will be sorely tested by these factors and may have to settle for incremental progress, often through bilateral agreements among agencies and departments of government, rather than hemisphere-wide agreements among states.

Collective Security

A security arrangement involving several countries is referred to as “collective” security. If such an arrangement is formed by a group of countries with widely divergent interests and no single dominant power the organization involved will be ineffective, as witness the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, the Arab League, etc. These organizations may well do useful work in areas other than security, but by the nature of their membership, they cannot operate effectively in the security field.

Alternatively, the organization may have a sharply-defined specific security objective common to all of its members. In recent history the premier organization of this type was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which operated very effectively until the above-mentioned “sharply defined specific security objective” disappeared as the happy result of victory in the Cold War. It is an open question whether NATO will continue to function with any degree of effectiveness now that the common element is gone.

There is a third category of collective security arrangements, those in which a group of countries are constrained to follow at least to a considerable extent the security definitions, methods, strategies and tactics set forth by one of them, the one that has the most resources of all kinds, especially military power, which overshadows any or even all of the other members of the organization. Such groupings may be more effective than the League, UN, OAU, etc., because there is, in fact, a common element involved, namely the existence of a dominant power, but that fact does not necessarily constitute an element of common interest to the remaining members, and may indeed be an element of discord.

The effectiveness of collective security in such cases is more than symbolic or fictional, but less than in the case of organizations with specific, common security interests.Such is the case with the Inter-American System, embodied in the Organization of American States (OAS).

The Inter-American System 

The Inter-American System traces its origins back to 1890, when the United States convened a meeting in Washington which led to the formation of The Pan American Union. From its inception the System had two principal foci – trade and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

With reference to the latter, the first treaty to actually come into force was the Treaty to Avoid or Prevent Conflicts Between the American States (Gondra Treaty) signed in 1923. From that time until now many treaties, conventions and declarations have been signed by the members of the Inter-American System, culminating in the adoption by unanimity of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in September of 2001. The operative section of the Charter is Chapter IV, which provides that if the democratic process is interrupted in any member state (as determined by the organs of the System) various steps may be taken including exclusion of the offending government from participation in the System itself.1

Much effective action has been taken, often informally, by the hemispheric system to confront threats to member states and their democratic institutions. Recent interventions in Ecuador, Paraguay and Guatemala have been successful. The Fujimori “self-coup” in Peru was addressed by the OAS and led to the president calling elections, but the organization was not successful in inducing him to reverse his unconstitutionaldismissal of congress and the supreme court.

The undermining of democracy by an elected government continues to constitute a difficult dilemma, as currently demonstrated in Venezuela, especially if the government involved constitutes no overt threat to another country. The Inter-American system is still searching for a fully-effective method to protect democracy as well as to react against violent threats from the outside.

The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty) of 1947 was the first inter-American agreement to specifically address questions of regional and collective security. It was ratified by all the then members of the System and was invoked a number of times in the 1950s and ’60s. Subsequently the treaty fell into disuse because the formal conditions for its invocation stopped happening, namely “…unprovoked armed attack by a State against the territory of another State….” (Article 9).

The Rio Treaty is a true collective security arrangement, providing for sanctions against the aggressor up to and including armed force (Article 8). The Rio Treaty and the Charter of the OAS (1948) effectively codified U.S. paramountcy in the hemisphere at the commencement of the Cold War (1947-1991).

Since the end of the Cold War numerous agreements have been adopted by the member states, mostly having to do with peaceful settlement of disputes, defense of democracy and specific situations, such as narcotrafficking, money laundering and terrorism, part of the familiar litany of “new threats” constantly referred to.

In September of 2001 president Vicente Fox of Mexico declared that in the opinion of the Mexican government the Rio Treaty was obsolete and should be scrapped. Four days later the treaty was invoked by Brazil as a consequence of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington September 11th. One year later Mexico formally renounced the treaty so that in accordance with the provisions of the treaty it will cease to apply to Mexico in September of 2004. Mexico prefers to negotiate bilateral agreements with the United States at the agency level as a substitute for treaty.

None of the countries of the Caribbean, Central or South America which became independent after 1947 has ratified the treaty, nor has Canada, although all these countries supported its invocation in 2001.2

Hemispheric Security 

The Western Hemisphere is made up to thirty-five sovereign states and a few territories still controlled by England, Holland and France. The national interests of the countries of the hemisphere, their histories, languages, ethnic backgrounds and other factors are disparate. That they share a concern about their national security is beyond question. That they share a commonality of interest or even an understanding of what is meant by hemispheric security is not so obvious.

This being the case, the operative question regarding hemispheric security is “How is it defined and by whom?”

This question would be impossible to answer in the Eastern Hemisphere, which is why no one refers to Eastern Hemisphere security. In the Western Hemisphere, however, there is, in fact, a reasonable (if not universally accepted) answer.

Security in the Western Hemisphere is defined by the United States, which defines it as situations involving real or potential threats occurring in this hemisphere to the national security of this country. Since the United States replaced Great Britain as paramount power in the Western Hemisphere between 1896 and 1904, there have been many such instances, most recently in Central America, Grenada, Panama and Colombia.

Threats to the national security of other hemispheric countries not seen as threatening the security of the US may well be regarded as challenges to the national interests of the United States but will not be addressed by violent means. The armed conflict between Peru and Ecuador was seen as such a case and dealt with accordingly.

The “new threats” mentioned above, including narcotrafficking, money laundering, gun running, people smuggling and terrorism, along with guerrilla warfare and banditry (which are not new in the hemisphere) are especially difficult to confront because of a phenomenon which we may call “incubators of instability.”

These consist of lawless areas, failed states and criminal states or regions. There are a number of areas in the hemisphere where the writ of the formal government simply does not run, such as the triple frontier region between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina; Leticia and Maicao in Colombia (in addition to the areas controlled by armed insurgent groups); the island of Margarita in Venezuela, the Darien region of Panama and much of Chiapas in Mexico.

Failed states are countries in which the government does not effectively function at all. Haiti falls into this category. Criminal states are those where the government functions, but substantially in collaboration with criminal groups engaging in the activities mentioned above—Paraguay, Suriname and parts of Brazil have all been in this category at times.

All these regions and countries are incubators of all or some of the new threats to hemispheric security, and have a symbiotic relationship with each other, such as the financing by drug dealers, money launderers and arms smugglers of guerrilla bands, terrorists and insurgents, which in turn may offer protection to the former, in many cases aided and abetted by corrupt public officials. The “Declaration on Security” adopted at the special OAS conference in Mexico City in October of 2003 covers all the old and new issues and mandates reconsideration of the Rio Treaty and the American Treaty of Pacific Settlement (Pact of Bogota). It is too early to tell what the practical effect of this declaration may be, but the lack of enforcement mechanisms indicates limited usefulness.


The hemisphere, thus, faces a formidable set of security challenges, and must face them without the desirable degree of unity of purpose. Indeed, in many cases not only is the necessary will missing but often security cooperation is actively undermined due to corrupt governments, institutions and officials. Nevertheless, what needs to be done is clear and equally clear is the necessity for U.S. leadership as well as the active and effective collaboration of the other major powers in the region, including Canada, Brazil and Mexico, which is too often lacking.

  • Corruption. As long as whole governments and many civil, police, judicial and military officials in other countries are in the pay of organized crime, efforts to improve hemispheric security will be seriously compromised.
  • Surveillance. At present surveillance systems are entirely inadequate to identify and monitor the movements of illegal drugs, arms, persons and financial resources. Without major improvements in surveillance important progress will be impossible.
  • Intelligence exchange. Exchange of intelligence among governments, government agencies, police and armed forces is inadequate, although some progress has been made recently.
  • Police-military relations. Confusion reigns supreme in this area. In some cases,such as Colombia, improvement has been manifest. In others, nothing has been done. It must also be said that there is considerable opposition to using the armed forces for police functions. Such a reaction is entirely understandable but under present circumstances unhelpful.
  • Cross-border operations. In the twenty-first century, with the globalization oforganized crime, traditional concepts of sovereignty must be modified if security operations are to be conducted effectively.3


In this short essay only a brief list of recommendations to address the challenges facing the security forces today can be presented:

  • Corruption cannot be effectively curbed through punitive measures alone, since such measures in many cases have to be applied by the very people most subject to the temptations of corruption.Only if combined with positive financial incentives is there any chance of success.Remuneration of police, judges, prosecutors, and military officers must be increased and special rewards offered for successful operations.After such measures are taken, however, punishment of those still engaging in corruption must be draconian.4
  • Systems of surveillance such as the SIVAM system recently inaugurated along Brazil’s northern border should be installed elsewhere in the continent. This will be expensive but necessary. Sharing of the information, however, is a sine qua non. For example, the Mexican government, while happy to accept radar installations from the United States, has insisted on sole control of the information resulting, so that nothing has been done.
  • Members of the armed forces must receive training in law enforcement, security operations, terrorist tactics and biological and chemical warfare. Equipment must be adjusted accordingly. This means that expensive and unnecessary toys such as jet fighters, major surface vessels, submarines and main battle tanks should no longer be acquired. In the case of the navies, training, equipment and operations should more closely resemble coast guard than traditional naval doctrine. 
  • The profession of security must be recognized in terms of its true value in the contemporary world and its practitioners given commensurate status and certification as professionals. Consideration should be given to the establishment ofsecurity academies covering more than the traditional police schools at a national and perhaps also regional or hemispheric level. Encouragement should be provided for the recruitment and training of civilian specialists in security as well.
  • Consideration should be given to the passage of a declaration (not a treaty) in the OAS on collective security updating the Rio Treaty and on pacific settlement to update the Pact of Bogota, to supplement the Democratic Charter and the Declaration on Security.
  • Attention and resources should be concentrated on sectoral agreements at the agency level in order to make steady progress on security matters. In this case the perfect is definitely the enemy of the attainable.


1The Charter is a declaration, not a treaty subject to ratification.The experience of the System is that it is difficult to get sufficient ratifications for treaties to come into effect.

2With the withdrawal (unless reversed) of one of the most important countries of the hemisphere, it must be assumed that the Rio Treaty will be rendered largely nugatory.

3Until the 1930s police authorities in the United States could not cross state lines in pursuit of criminals, effectively crippling law enforcement until corrected through adoption of the “hot pursuit” doctrine. 

4It must be said that the most immediately effective measure that could be taken to reduce corruption as well as the supply of financial resources to organized crime groups, guerrilla forces and terrorist organizations in the hemisphere would be to legalize the consumption of narcotic drugs, followed by its regulation and taxation, with proceeds used for education, research and treatment.In other words, treat these substances the way alcohol and nicotine are treated now. This is obvious, but it seems that reasonable, unemotional, discussion of this subject is still impossible.

The author is a Senior Fellow at the Potomac Foundation and an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of World Politics. The views expressed in this paper reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Potomac Foundation or the Institute of World Politics.