Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, commander of SOUTHCOM, took part in a Commander Series event hosted by the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security July 13, 2016. The admiral discussed the command's strategy in Latin America and the Caribbean.
TIDD: Thank you, Wes, for the kind introduction, and for the invitation to join you all this afternoon. I was lucky enough to serve as a federal executive fellow at the Atlantic Council many years ago. Then and now, this group shapes the national conversation about our future, our prosperity, and our security. So it’s great to be back here, and I look forward to our conversation.
I’ve been asked to talk about U.S.Southern Command’s strategic approach to Latin America and the Caribbean. I think it’s important to note this approach is not taking place in isolation. As Secretary Carter and Chairman Dunford have noted, we’re in the middle of a strategic transition that touches every corner of the globe. Today’s security environment is profoundly different from those of previous generations. Uncertainty, unpredictability, and transregional linkages are the defining characteristics of the world today. That is true for the Asia-Pacific region, for Europe...and truer for the Western Hemisphere. Proximity and shared borders add another dimension to an already complex environment.
So when we think about Latin America, we have to first recognize there’s no longer any such thing as a ‘regional’ challenge (if there ever was one)…from the activities of China and Russia…to the illicit flows of drugs, weapons, and people…to natural disasters and humanitarian crises, the challenges we confront in this part of the world have one thing in common: they are transregional. They cross borders and boundaries. They affect not just this hemisphere, but the rest of our world. And, as you’d expect, events occurring in other parts of the world impact us here, as well.
At USSOUTHCOM, we’re thinking hard about this and what it means for our approach. So this afternoon I’d like to offer you some reflections based on my first six months in command, and I’d like to share the framework through which we view our partnership with the region. This framework centers around maintaining our competitive advantage in the defense and security sectors; countering transnational threat networks; and rapid response.
As we developed our framework, I asked our team at USSOUTHCOM to help me think through three questions…questions whose answers will inform our strategy for engaging with this increasingly important region.
Here’s the first one: how should we view the activities of China, Russia, and Iran in the Western Hemisphere?
I get this question a lot, especially here in the beltway, but I’ve also been asked by several of our partners in the region.
There are two views. Some say these so-called ‘external actors’ don’t pose a significant challenge to U.S.interests in Latin America, at least in the near-term. Others worry we’re ceding ground in a global game of influence and leadership.
Here’s how I see it. What happens in Latin America or the Caribbean can’t be divorced from what’s happening in the rest of the world. If you care about China’s adherence to internationally accepted rules and norms, you may want to better understand their activities in this region. If you’re concerned about Russia’s conduct in eastern europe, you may want to pay attention to what they’re doing much closer to home. And if you worry about things like state sponsorship of terrorism, Iran’s involvement in the Western Hemisphere remains a matter of concern.
Regardless of which of these countries is doing the engaging, there is a set of collective expectations held by all of the nations in our shared home of the Americas. Any nation seeking to build regional relationships should respect the inter-american principles of peace, the rule of law, and transparency.
These aren’t just shared values; they’re codified in the organization of American states and inter-american democratic charters. And the truth is, nations like China, Russia, and Iran have a mixed track record -- at best -- on some of these issues. There are aspects of their approach to engagement that are concerning, especially if you care—like the United States does—about the importance of human rights, good governance, and a rules-based international order. Keep in mind there’s no Chinese, Russian, or Iranian equivalent of a Leahy law…no comparable congressional conditions on security assistance...little transparency when it comes to defense cooperation…and in the case of Russia, no qualms about spreading disinformation about the United States and our intentions in the region.
So it is important that we closely scrutinize, and clearly understand, the activities of these actors in the Western Hemisphere. But as I’ve been telling our team at U.S. Southern Command, we must view this as an opportunity…not just a challenge. To paraphrase Jeff Bezos, let’s let others focus on competing with us, while we stay focused on strengthening our partnerships in Latin America and the Caribbean.
At USSOUTHCOM, we’re challenging ourselves to take a hard look at:
· How we share information,
· How we create cross-functional teams,
· And, more importantly, how we earn the region’s trust …and how we keep it.
Last week, we invited our partner nation liaison officers to participate in our weekly operations and intelligence brief. Historically, this meeting - held at the Secret//noforn level - was closed to foreign audiences … even those serving at our headquarters. I’ve asked that we do a better job of empowering the team – including our partner nation liaison officers - with knowledge … knowledge that builds trust… knowledge that expands our friendly networks…knowledge that, when applied in a cohesive manner, will make us all more effective at defending our shared home.
We’re also exploring ways to offer our partners access to cutting-edge research, new technologies, and experimentation opportunities that will advance our collective efforts to confront complex security challenges. This brings me to our next question: how do we address those complex challenges? In Latin America and Caribbean, the overarching security challenge is a very big one indeed: the destabilizing operations, corruptive influence, and global reach of transnational threat networks.
That’s quite a mouthful….so let’s break it down. You want to transport cocaine and heroin from South America into every major global market? In our region, there’s a network for that. You want to smuggle weapons from the United States to the Caribbean and Mexico? We’ve got networks for that, too. You’ve illegally mined some gold—and in the process destroyed river ecosystems and deforested hundreds of acres of rainforest—and you want to sell it for several million dollars in the booming international gold market? We’ve got networks for that.
You want to traffic tens of thousands of women and children, many of whom wind up prisoners of the sex trade? We have, appallingly, all too many networks in this region for that. You need to move some people with known terrorist ties from the Middle East, up through south and then Central America, and over the U.S.-Mexico border? We’ve got networks for that, too.
You want to spread an extremist message in the Caribbean and recruit fighters for ISIL? We have a worrisome number of networks for that. You need to legitimize millions dollars in illicit profits every year? Well, you’re in luck; we have many networks for that, including sub-networks that specialize in laundering dirty money, exploiting free trade zones, and, in some cases, helping funnel cash to international terrorist organizations.
I could go on…but I think you get the picture.
To break this down a little further, the most sophisticated of these networks are marketing two things: first, a highly-efficient logistical infrastructure that spans the globe. These networks control the distribution hubs and smuggling routes that span the Western Hemisphere and lead into the United States, Europe, and Africa. They have enough capital to buy off judges, police officers, and entire villages to ensure freedom of movement.
And second, the most powerful networks offer what all powerful networks offer: a dense, web of social connections to facilitators, enablers, and supporters, here in the region and across the world. This can come in the form of corrupted local officials, unscrupulous accountants …and, in the case of extremist networks, ideologues and influencers who nurture the radicalization process and foster the spread of violent ideology.
So when we look at these myriad networks, it’s clear we need to look beyond just this section of the world…and beyond simply stopping drugs. That’s a big part of it, of course, not just for our public health but also for the financial blow it can deal to many of these organizations. But simply stopping the drugs is no longer enough.
So I’ve charged our USSOUTHCOM team to do everything we can to be better partners to our U.S. government colleagues, and be sure we are offering the best support possible to their efforts. As a few examples, we’re lending our capabilities to the multi-agency operation citadel, which is targeting human smuggling networks in the Americas. And just this week, we’re hosting an interagency cooperation workshop at our headquarters. We’ve encouraged representatives from across law enforcement, diplomatic, and development agencies to come together to learn more about what each of us is doing in Central America. We’ll exchange ideas and discuss our respective strengths, and our limitations.
This may surprise some of you, but we don’t often come together like this. We talk a lot about dismantling networks…but we almost never talk about building our own. If the result of this workshop is a new opportunity for USSOUTHCOM to support one of our interagency partners, that’s great…and if other agencies and departments find new ways to work together, that’s even better. Later this year, we hope to do the same thing with our partners in Latin America. And we’re all doing this for a simple reason: because we know none of us–no single department or agency, and no single nation—can do it alone…so if we’re serious about combating these networks, it will require all hands on deck.
That brings me to my final question: are we ready for what comes next? Are we at USSOUTHCOM prepared to respond to the inevitable natural disaster or epidemic that lies in wait, just around the corner? Are we prepared to play our role as part of our larger national security enterprise dedicated to disrupting, as Chairman Dunford puts it, transregional, multi-domain, and multi-functional threats?
At USSOUTHCOM, we’re training hard to get to ‘yes’.’ We’re honing our rapid response capabilities and improve interoperability among the forces that make up our hemisphere’s security enterprise. For example, a core element of our engagement strategy focuses on building partner nations’ military health system capabilities to better detect, prevent, and respond to regional health epidemics. We’re also conducting multi-national exercises like PANAMAX that’s about to kick off at the end of this month. We’ll test our collective ability to defend our region’s most vital strategic asset—the newly-expanded Panama Canal.
The most significant aspect about this year’s PANAMAX is not its size, focus, or longevity. It’s that for the first time ever, all of the multinational component commands will be led by our capable partners of Chile, Colombia, and Peru, with Brazil serving as the overall deputy multinational force commander.
Additionally, USSOUTHCOM is synchronizing a full range of efforts…in full partnership with fellow regional and functional combatant commanders…to be able to detect, illuminate, and when directed disrupt global transnational and transregional threats to our nation’s security.
And as I reflect on the past six months, it’s this last example that should remind us just how fortunate we are to have a unique command like USSOUTHCOM. We’re fortunate to work with partners that understand what shared responsibility is all about—partners who are eager and willing to contribute to regional and international security.
We’re fortunate to have the dedicated men and women of U.S. Southern Command, civilians and service members who are deeply engaged in a part of the world that is -- itself -- deeply important to our culture, security and economic prosperity. Finally, we at USSOUTHCOM are fortunate to work in a part of the world where threats are not yet insurmountable…a part of the world where challenges aren’t yet intractable. And when it comes to addressing those threats and challenges…we’re proud to say that we, too, have a network for that.
Thank you—with that, I’d like to open up the floor to questions.