In late December of 2016, President Manuel Santos of Colombia signed a cooperation agreement with NATO noting that such an alliance would enable the fight against transnational crime, terrorism, and drug trafficking. Despite the toothlessness of the agreement, countries, such as Ecuador and Venezuela, pounced on it. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez said the initiative would “introduce external organizations with nuclear capability into our region.”
Last month, after a multi-year investigation of narcotics trafficking in Venezuela, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Venezuelan Vice President, Tarek Zaidan El Aissami Maddah a “specially designated narcotics trafficker.” As expected, the usual volley of denunciations and conspiracy theories sprang into full gear. The Centre for Research on Globalization published an article suggesting that the U.S. allegations were nothing more than a cover for a “monstrous attempt to bring NATO to South America.”
It’s an obvious—though traditional—non-sequitur; why would NATO leave the European front to tackle the war on drugs? By what logic?
The CRG articles starts by highlighting China’s potential development opportunities, which it claims will help countries regain their sovereignty and break “loose from the IMF’s and World Bank’s debt tentacles and the rest of the western monetary gangsters.” The implication, of course, is that a China-driven economic development plan would liberate countries from imperialist north and therefore should be seen as a threat worthy of a NATO countermove to ensure the North’s predominance.
But how reasonable and likely is this?
No one can deny that the U.S. has historically meddled in the region. But both to assert that the U.S. is bent on extending its collective NATO military umbrella to the Western Hemisphere and that it believes that China’s involvement will set the region dangerously free from its “debt tentacles” is impractical, farcical and facile. While China has been able to secure economic assets in the region and score some strong political points, most of that is limited to “resource diplomacy,” and it remains questionable the extent to which their economic and diplomatic ties are a threat to the U.S.’s geostrategic interests.
Although China has generously extended lines of credit to Venezuela and Ecuador guaranteed by access to natural resources, given the political uncertainly in both countries, the wisdom and sustainability of both deals remain unclear.
Moreover, whether in Brazil, Argentina or Chile, the unequal terms of trade that characterized the raw materials exporting countries of South America and the manufactured exporting economy of China is now under question. As dependency economists going back to Argentine economist Raul Prebisch argued and proved (though the arguments have been long forgotten) the trade relationship characterized today by China/Latin American terms of trade never leads to development. With the exception of the raw-material-bound economies of Ecuador and Venezuela, the rest of the region has awoken to that reality.
All of this leads to the point: why would the U.S. or Western Europe bring in a military alliance to defend against an historically failed model? NATO is a collective defense agreement initially designed to preserve security from Soviet expansionism. More recently, it has (albeit with difficulty) aimed to preserve territorial integrity in the euro-Atlantic area. Yet, in spite of all the tumultuous politics and volatile policymaking in South America, as Harold Trinkunas notes, the region is unlikely to engage in interstate war. Although not analogous to NATO, the regional multilateral organization UNASUR has used its own defense council to “[G]uarantee a South American zone of peace.” In so doing, it has continued to highlight the region’s efforts of solidarity and integration. It is implausible if not laughable to suggest that NATO would have a reason to establish a presence in South America.
In short, when it comes to claims of NATO expansion to the hemisphere, understand it for what it is: fear mongering to cover up for the failures of misguided economic policies in the region. Why would anyone believe that NATO would extend its already attenuated collective security arrangement intended to protect the West against a nuclear Soviet Union (or later Russia) to defend an economic order against an already ailing economic model? Illogical—ridiculous even—that someone would make the claim.