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A Hub for the Americas: Utilizing NATO’s Strategy for its Southern Flank in the Western Hemisphere

By Air Force Colonel Oren D. Leff

North America’s Challenge

The airwaves are saturated with news stories of mass migration originating from Central and South America. North America has struggled over the last several decades with ever-increasing challenges from its South including, but not limited to, human, drug and weapons trafficking, mass migration, and gross poverty. Fears of uncontrolled borders have dominated the public’s consciousness over the last several years.

It is now time for the United States and its North American partners to stop focusing on the symptoms; rather, it is time for a renewed focus on actually solving the foundational issues that facilitate the symptoms.

The United States, Canada and Mexico must work together to address three foundational issues: (1) governance (2) rule of law and (3) economic / social development. Properly addressing governance and rule of law should stimulate greater economic and social development, which in turn will naturally mitigate the multiple symptoms that drive mass migration. North American security and stability is a tri-lateral matter that must be confronted through a collaborative solution.

When serving as the Commander, U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, advocated for a joint non-kinetic approach to address our shared challenges. He noted that the Western Hemisphere is linked culturally and economically and shares a social and political conscience shaped by the common values of respect for democracy and human rights.

Admiral Stavridis noted the importance of establishing and strengthening a foundation of security through building social, economic, and political stability on this foundation; and through this stability enabling an environment conducive to enduring prosperity. At the time, U.S. Southern Command re-vectored to establish multinational military exercises, security assistance programs, human rights educational programs, sensible technology sharing, anti-terrorism information sharing and assistance, humanitarian aid, and a wide variety of other programs.

This article, however, advocates for a less myopic approach. Addressing government matters and rule of law systems in Central and South America requires the broadest of international governmental cooperation, if only to enhance credibility and cooperation. Multi-national military assets and resources should be only one part of the resolution program. The United States, Canada and Mexico must develop an intergovernmental program to partner with the Central and South American governments, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and academia to identify and assess the foundational issues in each specific country from which the symptoms hale. We must address the root cause(s) of the problem: What are the conditions in each country causing problems? How might Central and South American governments modify themselves and their rule of law systems to facilitate more conducive environments for sustainable economic development? How might economic and social development be simultaneously implemented to facilitate more stable governments and rule of law systems? What actions might Canada, the United States and Mexico uniformly take to minimize the military and economic resources currently expended?

As a result of Central and South American instability associated with governance, rule of law, and varied aspects of economic and social development, North America’s combined challenges include, but are not limited to, mass migration, transnational crime, potential for the spread of violent extremism and terrorism, as well as the trafficking of humans, weapons and drugs.

It is incumbent on us to address those foundational issues, such as government corruption, poverty, petty and organized crime, and lack of physical human security that directly precipitate these symptoms. When addressed, our cooperative security directly benefits and these symptoms will be greatly mitigated. It should not be inferred that the foundational issues and their resultant symptoms or challenges should not be appropriately and simultaneously addressed through some combination of measures. Rather, the only way to truly address the challenges we face, which in part, no longer respect geographical limits or borders, is to identify and implement a new approach that mitigates the drivers and sustainment mechanisms for the challenges faced.

A Similarly Situated NATO – Facing A New Set of Challenges

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949 by the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations to provide collective security against the Soviet Union and what subsequently became the Warsaw Pact adversaries. NATO is a defensive military Alliance focused on deterrence, reassurance and capacity building. The Alliance has expanded since its inception to 29 nations with 21 Partnership for Peace nations, seven Middle Eastern and North African partners, four Gulf partners, and several other Partner nations to include Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Mongolia.

Today, these 70 nations all face new and amorphous threats not originally envisioned when the Alliance was first conceived.

Collectively, these nations face a new set of threats including mass migration, terrorism, increased extremism, and human, drug, and weapons trafficking. These challenges facing NATO all stem from instability to the South. They are extremely difficult to anticipate, detect and more importantly, to respond to and prevent.

There are a number of common issues related to governance, rule of law, and development facing NATO’s Southern Flank and Central and South America. The issues arrange from lack of clean water and sanitation services to increased crime, housing shortages, youth unemployment, and displaced populations. There are inescapable dangers that compel hundreds of thousands of Central Americans to flee their jobs, homes and families and cross Mexico by foot to reach the United States. These migrants, similar to those emigrating from within the African continent, are

escaping conflict, generalized violence and targeted persecution. They are not traveling by choice. To effectively address the issues, governments could benefit from external assistance from international partners, non-governmental organizations, academia and international think tanks all working in concert to identify root causes and viable resolutions.

A Long-term Resolution – NATO’s Strategic Direction South Hub

After a collective recognition of the new world threats that exist in the current global environment, NATO modified its approach. Although Article 5 remains relevant with the ever-looming threat from Russia on its eastern flank, the Alliance found itself adapting in a manner never previously envisioned.

“The Southern Flank presents a number of security challenges that could pose a direct and significant threat to NATO. Most of the Southern Flank threats are transnational and emanate from a volatile environment, characterized by political instability and transitions with different intensities of violence and different timescales, but with relatively connected socio-economic, cultural and political drivers.”

“The growing challenges emanating from the South require a comprehensive, strategic approach harnessing all aspects of diplomatic, intelligence, military, economic, informational, humanitarian and legal levers available to the International Community. To face the threats emanating from the South with the military instrument being but one part of a truly comprehensive response and a larger international effort.”

NATO Framework for the South

The Framework for the South was created to provide a comprehensive approach to combat growing challenges and threats emanating from NATO’s Southern Flank, and in particular North Africa. NATO Strategic Direction – South Hub (NSD-S Hub) was established in 2017 and became fully functional in July 2018 as one entity to further enhance the effectiveness of the Framework for the South.

NATO’s Hub acts in accordance with its strategic concept as a coordination element for the cooperation of NATO commands and various civilian entities attempting to address security-related matters. Its purpose and its structure reflect the complexity of military and security policy as well as economical, ecological and demographic developments that are constantly increasing on

NATO’s Southern Flank. NATO’s Hub approach incorporates non-military actors including regional development and crisis handling experts, academics, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations.

Allied Joint Force Command Naples, one of NATO’s three operational commands, took the lead in developing this strategic approach toward Africa, and subsequently in proposing further programs to enhance cooperation and understanding of the issues, partnership opportunities and how to address core fundamental challenges.

Which nation will take the lead in developing a similar approach for the Americas? Will the United States legislature, Canada and Mexico see the prudence in more comprehensively addressing Central and South American foundational issues of governance, rule of law and development?

Over the last fifty years, Central and South America have experienced a massive surge of democracy. In 1978, only Costa Rica, Colombia, and Venezuela had democratic governments. Today, “the continent is experiencing a mostly democratic wave, with the exceptions of Cuba and Venezuela and the uncertainties observed in Nicaragua and Bolivia.” Although there are many democratically elected presidents who have not been able to complete their mandates and have had to resign or be dismissed for various reasons, the reality is that the Western Hemisphere today is more democratic and freer than it was in the recent past.

Regardless, the stability of many of these democratic governments remains tenuous. Historically, over the last two centuries, the Central and South Americas have seen more than 360 successful coups and many other failed coup attempts.

In turn, the Americas has also seen more than 250 constitutions over that same period, with an average of 13 constitutions per country, a figure much higher than that observed in Europe or North America. It is, therefore, incumbent on the three North American countries to jointly assist fledgling democracies throughout Central and South America in further developing into bastions of stability and investment opportunity. The main benefit of such engagement is security throughout the Western Hemisphere and a mitigation of the overwhelming symptoms inflicting North America today.

At the United Nations General Assembly, Seventy-Third Session, 5th & 6th Meetings in October 2018, when addressing the world’s drug problems, the Columbian representative specifically called for better coordination, stressing that efforts are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Discussion noted that the international community must adhere to the agreed principle of shared responsibility. This same premise is that which NATO’s paradigm of engagement in Africa is based. As the NSD-S Hub continues to break new ground toward successfully identifying real solutions for the foundational issues facing NATO’s Southern Flank, NATO’s Secretary General, Jen Stoltenberg stated when referring to the importance of NATO’s Hub, “If NATO’s neighbors are stable, NATO is more stable.” This is why the United States, Canada and Mexico should look toward NATO’s model of engagement in Africa as a solution for North America. Simply stated, if Central and South American foundational issues are adequately identified and comprehensively addressed, the entire Western Hemisphere will be more stable.

NATO’s approach is a holistic one, committing NATO in a continent that is facing an extremely complex security situation. In this context, it is necessary to identify solutions that are flexible and graduated and in accordance with the political will of both the NATO and African nations and are adaptable to changes in the security environment. North America requires a similar approach toward Central and South America, one inclusive of all those states and entities with impacted interests; an approach to create broad effects with a minimal footprint and costs.

Applying the NATO Model: A North American Partnership

The NATO Hub concept aims to embrace a wider range of cooperation. Its focus is on the Washington Treaty, Article 2 which states, “The Parties will contribute toward the further

development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being.” The Hub focuses its efforts on examining issues from the perspective of government stability, rule of law and economic/social development, each of which serve as a primary facilitators for the multitude of challenges arising in the South. The NATO approach is simple: A better sharing of information and an increased understanding of the numerous challenges from the varied perspectives, to include but not limited to governments, non-governmental organizations, and grass roots community groups, affords all relevant parties the insight necessary to identify solutions for the complex problems facing much of North Africa.

The Hub provides its comprehensive assessments and analyses developed through study days, webinars, and numerous engagements with NATO civilian and military leadership as a tool to assist in short and long-term response, strategy, and policy development. The United States, in conjunction with Canada and Mexico, now has the opportunity to establish a similar “Hub for the Americas” and work toward jointly identifying the foundational issues causing the overwhelming number of symptoms with which our nations must deal. A “Hub for the Americas” would provide informed recommendations for enabling solutions to the political decision-makers from the three North American nations.

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A “Hub for the Americas” should not necessarily be a military (or joint military) entity. Rather, the complex issues facing North America may be more effectively addressed through the creation of a broader, more inclusive body with specific authorities and joint funding provided by the governments of Canada, the United States and Mexico. The “Hub for the Americas” should be comprised of both civilians and military personnel representing the highest levels of each of the governments. The body can take advantage of already established entities from within each of the North American governments such as the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South), based in Key West, Florida, which currently conducts detection and monitoring (D&M) operations throughout their Joint Operating Area to facilitate the interdiction of illicit trafficking in support of national and partner nation security. JIATF South already operates through a network of interagency and international partners to illuminate transnational organized crime networks and

support interdiction and apprehension by U.S. and Partner Nation law enforcement agencies. This is but one example of a pre-existing entity that can be utilized by a “Hub for the Americas” to enhance dialogue between governments, non-governmental agencies, and academia through key leader engagements, webinars, conferences, and other direct engagement modes.

Through direct engagement with Central and South American governments, a “Hub for the Americas” would contribute to North America’s comprehensive understanding, situational awareness, decision-making and information sharing for its own “Southern Flank.” Developing a “Hub for the Americas” should serve as a key tool in acquiring greater stability throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Colombia, Central and South America's oldest and most stable democracy for more than a century, struggled greatly as it was on the verge of becoming a failed state during the 1990s. Colombia’s economy was floundering, foreign investment had sharply declined, and the security environment was quite unstable with the constant threat of terrorist bombings initiated by drug cartels and continued by various armed Marxist insurgent groups. Colombia had two major communist insurgent groups active through the 1990s: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). A reactionary paramilitary force also developed, the United Self-Defense [Groups] of Colombia (AUC), born out of the 1980’s hitmen squads of the drug cartels, whose task initially was to protect relatives of cartel kingpins from being kidnapped by the leftist insurgents. Between 1999 and 2006, international assistance, cooperation and the recognition of shared responsibility to confront the country-wide threat were crucial in generating a new stability within Columbia.

The first major effort was to stabilize the nations rule of law system and security situation through an overhaul of the Colombian Public Forces (the Armed Forces and the National Police) included intense training, revised military doctrine and campaign strategies, and increased capability and capacity.

From 1999 through 2011, the Colombian government with significant international support tackled its multiple security and economic issues. In addition to military and police action against a vast array of armed cartels and insurgent groups, the government engaged in complex peace negotiations with threatening opposition groups. Colombia focused its efforts on protecting the population, protecting infrastructure, and maintaining territorial control, all to achieve internal stability.

Colombia is now the Alliance’s only partner in Central and South America. NATO and Colombia have been engaged in dialogue and cooperation since 2013. An Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program, signed in May 2017, formalized the recognition of Colombia as a partner and opened access to the full range of cooperative activities.

A “Hub for the Americas” should serve multiple functions including information sharing, understanding, monitoring, assessing, governance and justice mentorship, convening and moderating multinational security and trade fora, management assistance; and, coordination of all activities in Central and South America. This common approach should provide guidance for how the United States, Canada and Mexico can work together to address security challenges including but not limited to maritime security and organized crime. United States Southern Command established a program of “cooperative solutions” as method for addressing the foundational issues in existence throughout Central and South America. These problems require governments to fully cooperate in the utilization of resources, engagement with non-governmental international agencies, humanitarian assistance groups, academia, and think tanks throughout the region.

A “Hub for the Americas” is a means to defining and adequately addressing the foundational issues in Central and South America. If the foundational issues are identified and assessed, United States, Canada and Mexico can more effectively utilize cooperative solutions to work toward mitigating the many symptoms that currently afflict North America. Bringing everyone together and openly sharing ideas and information is a vital step toward enlightenment and understanding the different points of view of our partners. Ultimately, the United States Government specifically, but also the Nation as a whole, needs to view the world through others’ eyes; it is not enough to try and understand the other points of view, but truly understand where they are coming from and

whence that point of view originates. There needs to be a complete understanding of the sources of grievance, and truly establish a permanent residence in the critical nodes in the international web of thought that drive political, cultural, and economic instability.

A Win-Win-Win Comprehensive Approach

The concept of a “Hub for the Americas” should serve as a catalyst for discussion at the strategic and political levels. Ultimately, the goal should be to combine resources, eliminate duplication of effort, and identify foundational issues that weaken governance, limit rule of law systems, and result in sub-par economic and social development programs that feed the tide of problems impacting the North American continent.

NATO’s Hub for the South is taking the lead in compiling comprehensive information regarding the foundational issues facing NATO’s Southern Flank. NATO’s Hub has begun to provide aggressive recommendations to NATO’s political and military leadership for consideration as future strategy and policy are developed. As part of the process, NSD-S Hub’s engagement is beginning to improve the African continent’s perception of NATO. While traditionally NATO engages national leadership in governmental structures, the Hub derives its information from all levels, to include the grass roots population. This is what a Hub for the Americas could provide: Information flow from the governments and the people to best determine how the international community can benefit and aid the Central and South American nations from which North America’s primary challenges stem.

At worst, a “Hub for the Americas” creates a joint international approach ensuring cooperation between the United States, Canada and Mexico. A program that utilizes a multi-national, multi-domain approach to ensure our governments gain a common understanding of the issues that significantly impact all of their citizens. At best, this Hub brings about an agreed upon joint approach at helping North America’s neighbors in Central and South America address their issues in such a way that results in a new prosperity in the western hemisphere.

This issue is not new. In fact, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) presented a March 2013 analysis of mass migration impacting the

United States’ southern border noting that the answer is not more militarization of the border or callous treatment of refugee children, but rather a reimagined approach to relations in the region. A “Hub for the Americas” is just that reimagined approach.

This proposal represents a new way of doing business. A method to, as NATO’s Hub prescribes, “coordinate, consult and communicate” links between the three North American governments, their partners, both governmental and non-governmental organizations, and subject matters experts from the international academic and think tank communities. Ultimately, this proactive cooperative framework is designed to address all shared interests in the stability and security of the entire Western Hemisphere.


Colonel Oren D. Leff, a U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate, served as Special Advisor to

Admiral James G. Foggo, Commander of NATO Joint Force Command Headquarters,

Naples, Italy (which hosts NATO’s Hub for the South); Commander of US Naval Forces

Europe; and Commander of US Naval Forces Africa. As a member of the Commander's

Action Group, he was responsible for full-spectrum theater operational policy, strategy

development and engagement management. Colonel Leff is now the Staff Judge Advocate

for the Air Force Test Center (AFTC), Edwards AFB, California. The AFTC conducts

developmental test and evaluation of air, space, and cyber systems. He is responsible for

providing full spectrum legal advice to the Center commander, a general court-martial

convening authority, and three subordinate installations within the center, as well as 34

geographically separated units.


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[2] Hoover Institution, Fall Series, Issue 418, “Latin America: Opportunities and Challenges for the Governance of a Fragile Continent,” Ernesto Silva, December 3, 2018.
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[13] PRISM - National Defense University, The Journal of Complex Operations, Vol. 5, No. 4, “Colombia Back from the Brink From Failed State to Exporter of Security,” pg. 3, Juan Carlos Pinzón, 2016.
[14] PRISM - National Defense University, The Journal of Complex Operations, Vol. 5, No. 4, “Colombia Back from the Brink From Failed State to Exporter of Security,” pg. 7, Juan Carlos Pinzón, 2016.
[15] Partnership for the Americas – Western Hemisphere Strategy and U.S. Southern Command, Introduction, pg. xviii, James G. Stavridis, November 1, 2010.
[16] Partnership for the Americas – Western Hemisphere Strategy and U.S. Southern Command, Introduction, pg. 60, James G. Stavridis, November 1, 2010.
[17] AFL-CIO, “Examining the Root Causes of the Central American Refugee Crisis,” March 20, 2013.