Volume 5, Number 120
2 May 2005

It is mid-April as I write this letter to all of you from the beautiful port city of Montevideo, Uruguay, the latest stop in a whirlwind tour of the national strategic colleges of Latin America. Earlier I was in Ecuador, just in time to witness a constitutional crisis between all three branches of government. From Uruguay I will continue on to Argentina, Peru, and El Salvador. Then, after two whole days at home, my wife and I will head off for ten days in Provence, France, to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. My deepest gratitude to Jack Powelson for contributing two excellent TQE's in my absence. — Loren

Military Futures of Latin America

Dear Friends,

My consulting work brings me into frequent contact with people in the political elite of Latin America, about a third of whom have careers in the armed forces. In this essay, I would like to try to synthesize for you a perspective on the peculiar state of Latin American military institutions today, and the directions in which they may evolve in the future.

A portrait of Latin American military institutions

There is no "typical" Latin American military, but it is quite clear that none of them resemble the US military. Let me try to paint a picture.

First and foremost, these are not war-fighting forces, with several notable exceptions. Warplanes and helicopters are generally inoperable for lack of spare parts and maintenance. Radars hardly exist. Warships sit in harbor, elderly, unreliable, and lacking fuel. Armies are small and ill-equipped, with vintage trucks, nonfunctional armor, obsolete artillery. I have seen soldiers training in sandals, because the army could not afford shoe leather. In several countries the military is a part-time occupation: everyone, from top to bottom, leaves at noon to go off to his or her second job.

This surprising state of affairs is not limited to Latin America. In fact it is becoming the norm for many countries of the world. Since the end of the Cold War armed forces have been hollowed out, cut back, starved for funds, and redirected towards other missions and roles. The great exception to this trend, of course, has been the armed forces of the United States. Minor exceptions include China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and a few others. At the same time, demands on the United Nations for peacekeeping forces have steadily increased. Bangladesh is notable for managing to recoup a large fraction of its military budget through payments by the UN for its participation in peacekeeping operations.

Why do militaries persist in Latin America?

In the face of these trends, why do Latin American countries retain their armed forces? It isn't merely tradition, though tradition is always important, and it isn't merely inertia. There are other forces at work.

To an extraordinary extent, Latin American states are "owned and operated" by their political elites. They provide the top political leadership of almost every party, and their sons and daughters staff the extensive governmental bureaucracies. For those not born to wealth and power, one of the very few reliable avenues for advancement into the political elite is through a career as an officer in the armed forces.

Over and above their employment and upward mobility functions, the armed forces of many Latin American countries have frequently been called upon to protect the property rights and privileges of the political elites. This mirrors in many ways the role of the American military in preserving slavery in southern states before the Civil War. When land reform efforts fail in Latin America, as they have all too often, the end result tends to be a decades-long civil war that pits radicalized peasants against the military. For a sobering history of the Latin American land-reform disasters, I recommend Jack Powelson's book The Peasant Betrayed.

Can a military be abolished?

The functions listed above are sufficient to make abolishing the military politically difficult if not impossible in most Latin American countries, despite the financial and economic advantages of such a move. As yet only two countries have abolished their military institutions: Costa Rica and Panama. However, it is important to realize that in both of these countries the police and coast guard have taken on additional roles and functions to replace the missing military. For example, they have specialized national police units that can respond with greater force than one typically associates with a purely police function. I believe it can fairly be said that these countries have abolished their militaries in name but not in function.

The history of failed states — Somalia and Afghanistan are two recent examples — strongly suggests that when the power and integrity of a national government decline too far, then local "strongmen" step into the power vacuum. These may be clan or tribal or religious leaders, organized crime bosses, or former military or militia leaders (warlords). Whatever their origin, the one thing they have in common is an armed militia that they do not hesitate to use to maintain or increase their power.

In short, actually abolishing a military is much more difficult than might appear at first.

Similar arguments apply to intelligence services. When they are formally abolished, their functions eventually reappear within a national police agency, often giving this agency too much power for the political stability of the nation.

What does the future hold?

If most Latin American countries are unlikely to abolish their militaries, then what? In many ways, this is the more interesting question.

For most of the smaller and poorer countries, I think we can expect to see the demise of essentially all naval and air forces, for the simple reason that they are extremely expensive. Indeed, this process is so far advanced that it is already the de facto case. I expect that the ground forces of these countries will eventually drop down to a sustainable size that will permit specialized units to earn hard currency by serving as peacekeepers with the United Nations and other regional groupings of nations, while small professional units will provide the bare minimum necessary to deter the emergence of local warlords.

For the larger countries, I wonder. Perhaps in the next quarter century we will see the emergence of a continental-scale regional security force, modeled loosely on the NATO alliance ("an attack on one is an attack on all"). This multinational force could provide naval and air coverage for the entire continent, at considerably less cost than would be incurred if each country were to attempt to maintain a full military.*

Ultimately, I believe, the disappearance of military organizations depends on the institutional strength of every country in the region. When every country has in place robust democratic institutions of government, self-correcting and self-healing, with a full roster of checks and balances between all centers of power, then and only then will military organizations broadly decline to vestigial status. Without strong and healthy democratic institutions throughout the entire region, Latin American political elites will have every incentive to maintain their armed forces.

On the other hand, the nightmare scenario for Latin America is a return to the era of military dictatorships and police states. Fortunately, the powerful forces of modern economic development seem to be working against this scenario. Globalization, liberalized trade, increased speed of communications and transportation, the emergence of international institutions of justice: all of these work strongly against totalitarian governments of all forms.

On balance, I believe that Latin American armed forces are evolving towards smaller, professional forces, with eventual integration into regional and international systems for border, coastal, and airspace security. For all of us who vividly remember the bad old days of strutting caudillos and brutal secret police, this will be a welcome change.

Sincerely your friend,

Loren Cobb

* Note added 29 April, 2008: Talks have begun between Brazil and Colombia for the creation of a "South American Defense Council," to be established 3 May 2008. If this council is successful then many other South American nations may be expected to join. — Loren

Readers' Comments:

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Provocative observations, Loren.  The relationships between military units and national police forces on the one hand, and between democracies and national security systems on the other might be worthy of a future TQE. Before 9/11 and Iraq, one might have thought we were easing into a kind of UN international peace-keeping force that had moral authority and cost-sharing benefits. Now that "security" is being re-defined, is that still a model? Or are we back to regional alliances? Or both? Or is the US "go it alone" example everyone's preferred model these days?  Are there economic incentives (re Bangladesh) which could be packaged in stronger way to help drive countries to UN/interdependence or regional alliances?

— Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.

Reply: I am convinced that the "go it alone" approach adopted by President Bush during his first term was little more than a last desperate attempt by neoconservatives to capitalize upon the US preponderance of military power, and in the process to regain some of the imagined glory of the Reagan years. As a geopolitical strategy it proved to be ruinously inefficient, having achieved only a small fraction of its goals at enormous cost to the American taxpayer and to our young men and women in uniform. There are heartening indications that the lessons of this failure have been at least partially understood by those responsible for the development of US national strategy. Everything that I have seen in the military world of 2005 leads me to believe that the long-term trend — the conversion of armed forces from warfighting to regional peacekeeping and peace enforcement — is continuing, and perhaps even accelerating, within the armed forces of the United States just as elsewhere. — Loren.

What lessons do you draw for a country with a large and flourishing military; not in any danger of "fading away"? What worries me is that we now have a huge industry lobby (military-industrial complex, plus homeland security) whose prosperity depends on making us feel unsafe.

— Will Candler

Reply: It's my intention to address militarism in industrial countries in a series of letters over the next year or two. It's a complex topic, and one that interests me deeply. My conversations with ranking US officers lead me to believe that a substantial minority would prefer to redirect our armed forces toward peacekeeping and "peace enforcement" (the option spelled out in Chapter VII of the UN Charter), if this can be done without reducing our national security. It seems to me that what keeps our military flourishing — and fighting aggressively abroad — are aspects of the American culture and psyche which color the way we as a nation interpret potential threats. These aspects are not likely to go away any time soon. There is an article relevant to this subject on my website: The Persistence of War in Europe. — Loren

Interesting piece. How do they see the huge US military in the Latin American countries you know? Especially our nuclear stockpiles?

— Signe Wilkinson

Reply: It depends. Those on the left see the US military as a serious threat, based on our history of interventions in Central America. Those in the center and right tend to see the US military a potential source of support, but one that must be handled extremely carefully. The question of our nuclear stockpiles very rarely comes up, but in those few times that it has I have heard considerable puzzlement concerning the necessity for such an enormous amount of firepower. — Loren

This is the "End of War ... by attrition", rather than War by Attrition. But I am less sure of the trend to eliminate armed forces. I suspect you are correct, in that the most effective component of the armed forces in Latin America today are small groups that focus more on internal control. However, I believe that Armed Forces are a result of percieved threats to National Interests. These perceptions are on the rise today in Latin America. Venezuela is likely to militarize in the near term, financed by oil income. Colombia is continuing to militarize financed by US federal taxes and drug consumption. Neither Bolivia nor Ecuador can maintain a national government and fan the fear of threats from Peru and Chile, respectively.

And if all the small countries have professional armies that will subcontract out to the UN for peace-keeping, which countries will provide the places where the peace needs to be kept?

— Christopher Viavant

The world would be a better and smarter place if more Quakers understood the role the American military plays in providing the safe haven that allows Quakerism to flourish. And Quakerism would be be better off and smarter if more Quakers served in the military. Quakerism's intellectually detached peacenikism is one reason that most people don't take the Quaker philosophy seriously.

— Michael Schefer

Response to Michael Schefer by Dick Bellin: I am pleased to learn that I am not the only Quaker who thinks this way. One of the most troubling aspects of my membership in the RSoF is that I am not a pacifist. As much as I detest wars, and applaud any and all ways to prevent them, the unpleasant reality is that a military presence is and will continue to be necessary, probably always. I understand very well the resentment so many people feel against those who are willing to let others defend their rights to the safe haven this country has provided for them, while at the same time denegrating those who do the defending. During WWII, most of  the "Fighting Quakers" who realized that they had to put their pacifism on the shelf for the "duration" were read out of their Meetings.

— Dick Bellin


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting, Editor.
  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2005 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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