There is a curious geometry to U.S. foreign policy and strategy at the outset of a new decade. Washington relates in different ways with countries to the United States’ north and south than to its east and west, and it wields different implements of statecraft to advance its purposes. Military and naval might predominate in the North Atlantic and western Pacific, where U.S. leaders have long seen compelling commercial and strategic interests in managing events in the rimlands of Western Europe and East Asia. Law enforcement and diplomacy predominate in the Arctic Ocean and Latin America, where scourges such as gunrunning, the drug trade, and human trafficking abound and traditional military challenges will be a problem for the future—if they ever metastasize at all.
The functions entrusted to seagoing U.S. forces, then, depend in part on which point of the compass they face. The U.S. Navy concerns itself chiefly with theaters far to the east and west, while the U.S. Coast Guard oversees close-in theaters to the north and south with support from the Navy. Last year, for example, a littoral combat ship helped police the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico for drug traffickers. To oversimplify a trifle: In U.S. foreign policy, military affairs are horizontal, while constabulary affairs are vertical.
It was not always thus. The United States has perennial interests to its south, and there was formerly a military hue to its strategy there. Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan obsessed over naval defense in the Caribbean and Gulf in particular. These waters would comprise the United States’ outlet to the Pacific Ocean once the Panama Canal opened in 1915, and Roosevelt and Mahan feared imperial navies from Europe would ensconce themselves there—posing a threat to U.S. mercantile and naval shipping bound to or from the Pacific Ocean. Safeguarding this nautical shortcut commanded surpassing value for statesmen of a geopolitical bent.
The region’s military character persisted through the world wars and Cold War. In 1991, however, the end of superpower strife demoted the Caribbean—and indeed Latin America as a whole—on the list of U.S. priorities. There is no gainsaying the region’s importance, yet U.S. foreign policy treats it as a secondary theater and apportions resources accordingly. U.S. Southern Command is famously the leanest of the U.S. geographic combatant commands in resource terms.
It is hard to see how priorities will change unless antagonists like China or Russia make serious mischief there.
From a North American vantage point, 2019 seemed to pass quietly for Latin American navies. Few if any events at sea made headlines, and what news there was had an upbeat cast. The Chilean Navy, for example, had command of the maritime component of the 2018 Rim of the Pacific exercise, the first Latin American armada to do so. Chile followed up on RimPac in July 2019 by hosting the Pacific phase of UNITAS, a six-decade-old multinational exercise. UNITAS LX Pacific brought together naval forces from a dozen countries. Ten warships took part. And in 2020, the Chilean Navy reportedly will dispatch a frigate on escort duty with a U.S. naval task force bound for the western Pacific.
Brazil, a heavyweight by demographic and economic measures, also is determined to make itself a naval power of note. In August, the Brazilian Navy hosted UNITAS Atlantic and UNITAS Amphib 2019, maneuvers that brought together 14 ships, a submarine, and aircraft from 13 countries. The amphibious phase was especially noteworthy. Coalition forces simulated delivering seaborne humanitarian assistance to residents of Marambaia Island, off Rio de Janeiro state. The exercise reflected both Brazilian and Latin American interests not in naval battles but in constabulary efforts—law enforcement, humanitarian and disaster relief, and so forth—which occupy pride of place on regional governments’ lists of priorities.
If the news out of Latin America was encouraging early in the year, by autumn, 2019 the region was again experiencing turbulence. Domestic politics explains why. Internal politics deteriorated throughout South America, and protests convulsed several countries including Brazil and Chile. Countries and sea services turned inward as protesters went on the march. What happens at home, after all, prevails over external initiatives such as working with foreign sea services to quell high-seas lawbreaking. Naval leaders refocused on internal security, as armed forces do when trouble wracks the home front.
Navies found themselves sidelined in domestic affairs as the upheaval raged. They fretted for their prospects in the competition for resources with domestic security agencies, fellow military services, and other national priorities. Naval leaders refocused on internal security, as armed forces do when trouble wracks the home front. Latin American participation in future multinational undertakings is now in question. U.S. mariners may find their southern partners hunkering down because of political tumult. Navies and coast guards may stay close to home to the detriment of cooperation on law enforcement, combined naval maneuvers, and other efforts of mutual interest.
That outsiders see little drama in daily headlines, then, does not mean tranquility prevails—let alone that U.S.-Latin American collaborations at sea will continue their welcome upswing of recent years. It is doubtful Washington will divert naval forces from the Atlantic or Pacific, where great power competitors lurk, to the sultry climes to the United States’ south. If not—and if Latin America remains in turmoil—then the battle against maritime lawbreaking could sputter in the coming months and years. And U.S. interests with it.
Dr. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.