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Shouts and whispers at the Defense Ministerial of the Americas

Nobody should have been surprised when Bolivian President Evo Morales opened the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas (CDMA) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on Nov. 22 with a one-hour stem-winder against the United States. Given his commitment to leftist populism, it would have been out of character for him to ignore his radical support ...

AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images
AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images
AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images

Nobody should have been surprised when Bolivian President Evo Morales opened the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas (CDMA) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on Nov. 22 with a one-hour stem-winder against the United States. Given his commitment to leftist populism, it would have been out of character for him to ignore his radical support base or sponsors in Cuba and Venezuela. Still, the conference was not a disaster.

In the end, ministers agreed to support a system of tracking expenditures on conventional arms in both the United Nations and the Organization of American States, to develop cooperative mechanisms to speed military aid to civil authorities in disaster response, and strengthen civilian competency in managing defense ministries. Moreover, they declined to approve Bolivia's motions condemning the United States.

Despite opportunities for incendiary rhetoric, such meetings let senior leaders talk one-on-one with counterparts about issues of mutual interest. Often, the most useful gatherings are not the droning plenaries filled with long speeches, but pull-asides outside the main hall in which decision-makers share private concerns. Since so many of these can't possibly take place through individual travels to Washington or in foreign capitals, it makes sense to take advantage of the proximity that a summit brings.

Nobody should have been surprised when Bolivian President Evo Morales opened the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas (CDMA) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on Nov. 22 with a one-hour stem-winder against the United States. Given his commitment to leftist populism, it would have been out of character for him to ignore his radical support base or sponsors in Cuba and Venezuela. Still, the conference was not a disaster.

In the end, ministers agreed to support a system of tracking expenditures on conventional arms in both the United Nations and the Organization of American States, to develop cooperative mechanisms to speed military aid to civil authorities in disaster response, and strengthen civilian competency in managing defense ministries. Moreover, they declined to approve Bolivia’s motions condemning the United States.

Despite opportunities for incendiary rhetoric, such meetings let senior leaders talk one-on-one with counterparts about issues of mutual interest. Often, the most useful gatherings are not the droning plenaries filled with long speeches, but pull-asides outside the main hall in which decision-makers share private concerns. Since so many of these can’t possibly take place through individual travels to Washington or in foreign capitals, it makes sense to take advantage of the proximity that a summit brings.

In unscripted encounters, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates undoubtedly got ear loads on a variety of sensitive topics. He also had several chances to urge agreement on matters important to the United States: counternarcotics, curbing unnecessary weapons purchases, boosting cooperation in disaster response, and strengthening the competency of civilians now working in most of the hemisphere’s defense ministries — much of which made it into the final declaration.

On all sides, participants had time to meet on specific bilateral matters, or to debate such topics as defense spending, donor-recipient relationships, and whether defense and public security missions should be combined or exist as separate functions. These conversations aid mutual awareness and often influence policy-making in neighboring capitals.

What to make of the hosts? Bolivia volunteered to hold an upcoming CDMA during the 2006 ministerial in Managua, and delegations at the eighth conference in Banff, Canada accepted its offer. Shortly thereafter, Morales cooled relations with the United States and set the stage for a tense summit by arbitrarily ejecting U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg. Still, Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra reportedly said that Bolivia wanted to improve security ties with the United States in the run-up to this year’s meeting.

Thinking otherwise, President Morales began by charging that Washington had instigated coups in Bolivia, Venezuela, Honduras, and Ecuador. He called a U.S. congressman critical of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez an assassin and stated that Latin America didn’t need economic aid if it involved the kind of market reforms advocated by the International Monetary Fund.

Vice President Alvaro García Linera closed the conference calling for the creation of a unified Latin American state from Mexico to Argentina to blunt the influence of Canada and the United States, as well as the establishment of a Latin American military school and separate military doctrine — presumably reflecting Venezuelan and Cuban models.

If creating a ruckus defines success, Morales won — judging by all of the column inches devoted to his remarks. But his was a political rant that didn’t match the conference purpose, the demeanor of many of the Bolivian organizers, or the viewpoints of all participants. His one substantive input, on eliminating bank secrecy laws to target narcotics-related money laundering, failed to move.

García’s statements suggested a cultural confrontation not terribly relevant to the region’s more democratic governments in this era of global interdependence. They seemed uninformed given that most countries have military or police schools that already partner with neighbors and extra-hemispheric players in offering and receiving exchanges and assistance. Nor did they square with U.S. policy encouraging Latin American allies to develop leadership and self-sufficiency in security matters.

Perhaps 15 years ago, the creators of the CDMA process may have contemplated a forum that might include testy members and even hosts whose inputs would be contentious. After all, dissent helps guard against complacency and can focus participants on tasks at hand. And so it may have been that while shouts made headlines, quiet discussions were able to move the agenda forward.

Defense ministers who gathered in Santa Cruz this past week should feel proud they opted for cooperation over division. The citizens of their countries are better off for it.

Stephen Johnson is a senior advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute. He was the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2007 to 2009.

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