Challenges and Opportunities for the Inter-American Defense Board

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s challenge to the rules-based international order have amplified the importance of multilateral organizations and international alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The strategic environment engendered by China’s rise and Russia’s belligerence has engendered novel arrangements as well—such as AUKUS and the revival of the Quad Security Dialogue in the Indo-Pacific region. But great power competition is not something that happens only “over there,” it is a phenomenon that also takes place “over here,” i.e., close to home in the Western Hemisphere. The multilateral defense organization that is closest to the United States—the Inter-American Defense Board (IADB)—is also the oldest continuously active defense board in the world.

Despite its challenges, there are reasons to believe that the IADB can enhance Western Hemisphere security and provide a forum for cooperation on challenges ranging from China’s illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing to Russian disinformation campaigns. Indeed, regional trends make it such that the IADB not only can be but must be a strong venue for future cooperation on hemispheric defense. This is especially true in a region like Latin America and the Caribbean, historically opposed to unilateral action of any kind and focused intensely on collaborative and collective responses to international events. 

Born out of World War II and the Cold War

Throughout World War II and the Cold War, the United States worried about the advance of strategic rivals, and specifically Soviet communism, in the Western Hemisphere. The prevailing doctrine of this earlier period of great power competition was strategic denial, which was an attempt to deny major rivals a foothold in Latin America and the Caribbean from which they could menace, distract, or otherwise thwart the strategic interests of the United States. The United States viewed the Western Hemisphere as its strategic flank and was thus vulnerable to hostile advances by its great power rivals. The Western Hemisphere was recognized to be a tangible vector for security threats or political instability to reach the United States.

Although not always consistent, strategic denial held that nondemocratic political systems in the Western Hemisphere represented a dangerous conduit through which extra-hemispheric actors could exert malign influence. Then, just it is as now, the strategic environment meant a need to coordinate hemispheric defense policy, discuss shared security challenges, and develop collaborative approaches to common defense and security issues in an effort to prevent the advance of external aggressors.

Within this context, the IADB was born in March 1942. Created by defense ministers from 21 states, the IADB is now the oldest active multilateral defense institution in the world, having celebrated its 80th anniversary earlier this year. The IADB is comprised of several different organs, including an educational entity, the Inter-American Defense College (IADC), which offers joint training programs and full graduate degrees for members of the military, police, and participating governments.

In 2006, the Organization of American States (OAS), the principal multilateral organization for the Western Hemisphere, incorporated the IADB and tethered it to its Committee on Hemispheric Security. Since then, the IADB has played a technical and advising role, in addition to its coordinating role, for the OAS. While the IADB has achieved notable successes, such as advising on demining activities in the Western Hemisphere, the institution still has considerable untapped potential. The demands of the region’s increasing geopolitical competition combined with an environment that is resource-scarce means the IADB is required now more than ever.

Contemporary Challenges

That the IADB has endured for 80 years is a strong endorsement of its value and utility as a multilateral forum for hemispheric defense cooperation. Furthermore, the IADB’s longevity speaks to its ability to serve as an equal forum that offers the opportunity for regional leadership and solutions that are not driven solely by Washington or by the U.S. military.

Nonetheless, the IADB also faces challenges, both structural and economic, that might place it at a disadvantage in the face of a more dynamic and complex security environment brought on by increasing Russian and Chinese regional activities. First, the IADB is not structured as an operational command or collaborative headquarters in the same sense that NATO or commensurate organizations are structured. Though the IADB offers an impactful forum for communications and military collaboration, its stated mission is to “provide the Organization of American States (OAS) and its member states with technical, advisory, and educational advisory services on issues related to military and defense matters in the Hemisphere.” Compounding this, the structural relationship between the IADB and the OAS, with the IADB subordinate to and dependent for funding from the OAS’ Committee on Hemispheric Security, has given rise to criticism that the IADB is not sufficiently empowered to reach its full potential. In other words, the IADB’s current funding structure inhibits its ability to address contemporary regional challenges in an expeditious manner.

Some have argued for structural reform to bridge the gap between the diplomats and the military representatives of member states, perhaps by shifting responsibility for delegations to defense ministries’ vice armed forces. At the same time, the unique structure of the IADB in relation to the OAS and its civilian diplomats might also provide an opportunity to highlight military cooperation activities in countries where diplomacy-focused foreign affairs ministries may not have full visibility on the impact of military diplomacy activities.

The second principal challenge for the IADB is all too familiar: resource scarcity. Not only is the IADB dependent on the OAS for funding—leading to budget decreases in recent years—but it is also competing with the leadership of the Committee on Hemispheric Security. For historical reasons, the committee may not view the military delegations of the IADB as the optimal engagement point given the history of civil-military tension that exists in many Latin American countries owing to military dictatorships. As a result, the IADB is not adequately resourced to provide a forum for contemporary regional challenges despite a significant investment in human resources by the ministries of defense in the Western Hemisphere.

A Vital Forum for the Western Hemisphere

Despite some of these limitations, there are strong reasons to be optimistic about the future of the IADB. In 2020, at the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in Chile, the IADB was designated as the lead for carrying out an exercise to validate the “Mechanism for Cooperation on Disasters” design. Completed in February of this year, this initiative aligns with both U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Northern Command’s desires to promote regional collaboration on disaster response and humanitarian relief. The IADB is also engaged in strategically important initiatives such as Women, Peace and Security and developed a forum for collaboration on cyber defense. The IADC, which graduated its first class in 1963, offers senior military professional education—distinct from similar opportunities offered by the United States in that its doctrine is not solely that of the U.S. armed forces. 

To further enhance the potential of the IADB, there are concrete steps that U.S. policymakers can take. The “equal forum” nature of the IADB—that it is not dominated by U.S. funding or policy advocacy in the eyes of the region—is one of its greatest strengths. At the same time, many of its key initiatives and focus areas are shared with U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Northern Command. The limited funding the IADB receives from the OAS could be bolstered by direct engagement with the relevant Combatant Commands in the United States to fund specific engagements that align well with their priorities. A working relationship already exists between the two U.S. Combatant Commands covering the Western Hemisphere and the IADB.

The IADB can also function as a forum to highlight military diplomacy and security cooperation activities to diplomats at the OAS, enhancing both visibility and stronger civil-military relations. Furthermore, the IADB can be better leveraged for multilateral events that require significant diplomatic coordination or technical evaluation, such as the hospital ship deployments to the region or technical analyses of complex infrastructure projects managed by member state armed forces, perhaps in consultation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Reinvigorating the IADB will not just enhance its ability to engage on short-term objectives but position it as a leading forum for long-term strategic threats, too, such as IUU fishing, military engagement on climate change, and cohesive responses to disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. As the organization celebrates its 80th year, these critical steps could reinvigorate it and guarantee another 80 years.

Ryan C. Berg is senior fellow in the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Chris Bernotavicius is a military fellow with the CSIS International Security Program.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of CSIS, the U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Chris Bernotavicius

Former Military Fellow