The Child of Divorced Parents: The South America Defense Council


Unlike Asia, the Middle East or Western Europe, South America is a very homogenous region; due to its colonial past, the continent inherited two –very similar– languages and cultural proximity. Regional integration in the economic, social and cultural fields, has been brewing for decades in South America, among the top examples of this include the Comunidad Andina de Naciones (Andean Community-CAN), the Mercado Común del Sur (Southern Common Market-MERCOSUR).  CAN and MERCOSUR which are sub-regional imperfect custom unions which aim at improving economic and political ties between their members; these two organizations failed to come up with an agenda which could effectively bind all South American countries together and to this day they both face tremendous problems  (Carranza, 2003).  The fact of the matter is that regional integration in the continent was illusive which is why in the first few years of the last decade, the Heads of State and government began to craft an inclusive new project.

In December 2004, the 12 countries of South America began new process of integration, and created the Unión de Naciones Sudamericanas (Union of South American Nations – UNSAUR). Technically UNASUR is a block of regional cooperation in which the parties have set goals to be achieved in order to make South American integration a reality, thus helping to improve the realities of the population that lives in each of the twelve states  (Sánchez, 2008).  “In a formal and “theoretical” level, UNASUR is an attempt to provide the region with an international legal personality in order to have a proper vessel to dialogue with other blocs, and provide to the countries of South America, an international organization” (Moreira, 2013). UNASUR has a low level of institutionalism as it doesn’t have a permanent Headquarters and the leadership of the organization is rotated among the Heads of State who act as Pro Tempore President.

The representatives of the UNASUR nations at the 2012-13 summit. Image Source :Mercopress

One of the core objectives of UNASUR was to establish a framework in which the United States would not be present; over the last 15 years the governments of the region bitterly denounced the Organization of American States (OAS) as a mere puppet of American interests and they had been seeking a legal framework which could replace the OAS  (Hakim, 2013). UNASUR was more than a newly created international organization. It was a clear message which sought to demonstrate that US hegemony in the region would no longer be accepted and that the South American countries were finally ready to unite and face the challenges of the international system together.

While there has been substantial improvement in terms of economic and political integration with regards to the field of defense and security there hasn’t been much progress indeed, this issue had been a pending debt for the past 25 years.  During 2007 at the request of Brazilian President Lula, Defense Minister, Nelson Jobim, began a regional tour and visited his counterpart of every UNASUR Member State; the objective of his government was to create an organ of UNASUR which would, exclusively, deal with issues related to regional defense and security. After months of negotiations on late, 2008 the Heads of State of UNASUR adopted a declaration which created the South American Defense Council (SADC).

This report will analyze to what extent it is possible to argue that the SADC is en route towards becoming a collective defense organization. In order to answer the research question the paper will, first, elaborate on the theoretical notions of collective defense; second, it will provide a brief background on South American Defense cooperation; third it will analyze the interests behind its creation and the challenges it faces before it finishes with concluding remarks.

Collective Defense

In order to properly conclude whether the SADC is en route towards becoming a collective defense organization it is important to properly address the theoretical consideration of what collective defense actually is. The term has a very specific meaning and it should be separated from collective security.

Whereas collective security seeks large-scale memberships, and seeks to unite diverse states against threats to peace, collective defense binds a limited number of states sharing the view that a particular state, or states, threatens the vital interests of each of them […]. Such nations do not join forces to confront unidentified future threats to a vague conceptualization of international peace and security. Rather, collective defense provides a home for states that identify a specific threat common to them all and agree to mount a mutual defense effort against that threat (Rupp, 2000).

It is because of level of specificity of the term that to this day there is only one collective defense organization which actually meets the theoretical definition: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Indeed, collective defense is not meant to achieve collective security.  “Neither is “collective defense” an action in the name and by authority of the UN. It is an autonomous exercise of force, legalized by the Charter only under the conditions and within the limits of Art. 51” (Kunz, 1947).  A collective defense organization not only has a concrete military agenda, its members also share political ideas and objectives and they agree on who the enemy is and what the threat they are facing is.

While the notion of collective security can be linked and better understood by the liberal-internationalist theory of international relations, collective defense would be better understood by the realist paradigm. Moreover, collective security organizations hold values like freedom and sovereignty in very high regard, they seldom have specific objectives.

The South American Defense Council

While the Council was officially formed in late 2008; in 2007 the Brazilian government began to seek the creation of said body, with the objective of ​​eliminating tensions between the countries of the region and dilute the chances of outside interference or foreign control of natural resources in the area  (Aránguiz, 20013).  The Brazilian government wanted to flex its political muscle in the region and spearheading this initiative demonstrated not only to the region but to the entire international system that the government in Brasilia was prepared to take a much bigger role in the international decision-making process.

Thus, the Brazilian diplomacy, particularly the defense minister, began a tour of South America in order to promote the initiative of the Council. The Heads of State welcomed the idea in a Summit in May 2008 however, the Brazilian proposal was not put to a vote, given the fact that Colombia and Peru had significant reservations and their presidents stated they needed more information and time before making this decision  (Borda, 2012). The fact that the Brazilian project was met with reluctance from the Colombian government –who was and still is fighting a civil war– was a major setback for the Council and it served as a first indicator of the level of difficulty of building a collective defense institution (Seitz, 2008).

The South American Defense Council was created as a body for “consultation, cooperation and coordination on defense.” The structure of the CSD is composed of the Defense Ministers of the UNASUR Member States. Furthermore, the Council also has an executive body, consisting of the Deputy Ministers of Defense. The Chair of the SADC will remain in charge of the defense minister of the country who is holding the Pro Tempore Presidency of UNASUR  (Fuentes & Santana, 2009).

This body has a statute, in which Member States recognize and submit to this court to uphold the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations (UN), the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) and decisions and mandates of the Council of Heads of State and Government of UNASUR. The principles enshrined in Article 3 of the Statute provided for: respect for sovereignty and self-determination; the territorial integrity of States; non-intervention in internal affairs; respect for democratic institutions; full respect for human rights and the exercise of non-discrimination in the field of defense, in order to strengthen and guarantee the rule of law; building an identity quintessentially South American on defense to take into account the sub-regional and national characteristics and contribute to strengthening regional unity  (UNASUR, 2008) .

It is important to mention that Member States have been clear in defining the nature of the SADC, which is a “framework for consultation, cooperation and coordination on defense”. For the first time in the history of South America countries are working in finding and building confidence and transparency in order to generate solutions to common problems facing the region and thus, forming a South American identity  (Crolla, 2010). Perhaps UNASUR was inspired by the desires of San Martin and Bolivar, who wanted to found three large countries in the South American soil, but they also took under consideration the reality that exists today in the region.

The Council has highlighted the importance of increasing exchanges of military personnel in the military educational level of articular joint peacekeeping operations, to provide for joint action mechanisms to natural disasters, to plan joint tactical exercises, to encourage the defense industry to increase the autonomy of supply or to combine common positions that can be defended as such in the OAS.  Moreover, this permanent forum for consultation was also designed to facilitate military diplomacy (Polverin, 2011).  The Council’s objectives suggest high levels of commitment from modernization (and therefore unifying criteria) of the Administrative processes inside the Defense Ministries, and has also demonstrated a high level of commitment in ensuring transparency measures in order to achieve an environment of mutual trust, which is suitable for establishing effective mechanisms for consultation in international security  (Mijares, 2011).

From a theoretical point of view the Council’s first steps were a solid beginning of the path towards becoming a collective defense institution. However, the underlying sub-regional interests play a significant role in South America which is negatively affecting the operational capacities of the Council.

The SADC: The child of divorced parents

The Council has multiple challenges and the fact of the matter is that while there was political will to create a forum for consultations on defense, UNASUR Member States have different ideas and objectives with regards to its development and enhancement. “The main obstacles faced by the future Council are on the one hand, its exploitation for Brazil’s national interests and on the other, the different views of Brazil and Venezuela with regards to security and defense” (Gratius, 2008).  Given the differences between the two, it is doubtful that a common Defense Council will generate a common defense policy.

From a political, economic and military perspective there is little doubt that Brazil is South America’s natural leader; the country has been developing a strong economy and, as a result, its foreign policy has been becoming more assertive and less dependent on the United States.  The position taken by Brazil fits its geopolitical project, and this, in turn, fits the neorealist principles of power and prestige for great powers  (Mearsheimer, 2001). “This has motivated Brasilia to earn the respect of the great powers by building a sphere of influence in their own immediate space environment” (Goodman, 2009). The approval of the creation of the Council was a very important victory for Brazilian Foreign Policy however, the lack of a common view on security matters in the region is effectively hindering the chances of the Council of actually being effective  (Mijares, 2011).

While Brazil is the natural leader of the region, Venezuela has been attempting to place itself as a regional power mainly based on the fact that of the governments who share its ideological views, it is the largest.  Indeed, Venezuela leads the La Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas – ALBA) which is a group comprised of left-wing governments who have strong anti-American policies and support the Castro Regime in Cuba.

The governments of ALBA have a completely different agenda from Brazil as they wanted to create a collective defense institution with the political agenda of openly confronting the US in the region.  The Venezuelan government actively lobbied for the creation of a NATO of the South (Griffiths-Spielman, 2009).

The CDS initiative reveals the Brazilian strategy in relation to Venezuela by “regionalizing” the proposals of the government of Caracas which made them compatible with the regional leadership strategy in Brazil and filing its more radical edges, generating consensus that incorporate the interests of other countries particularly those governed by center-right administrations: namely Chile, Colombia and, to a certain extent, Peru  (Sanahuja, 2010). The government of Caracas was –and still is– a supporter of South American integration however, Venezuela and the rest of the ALBA Members have been pushing for a more assertive collective defense policy which presents a problem not only for Brazil but for Chile, Peru and Colombia who favor economic growth and development over ideological confrontations.


The South American interests with regards to collective defense are disparate and divergent from each other which has resulted in the blurring of common threats to members. This obstacle limits the operational capacity of the Council, which has had to settle for being a discussion forum with little binding power in military decisions of its members. Being a permanent forum for discussion of defense policy is a vital first step towards becoming a collective defense institution; these sorts of forums are very helpful for confidence-building measures. However, unless there is a more pragmatic approach towards defense integration it is highly unlikely that the South American Council gets the opportunity to become the collective defense apparatus of the region.

Diego Salama

Diego Salama

Senior Editor at InPRA
Diego Salama was born and raised in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He is currently engaged as a Research Assistant to the Education Director at United Nations University (UNU-MERIT). He studied International Relations at University College Maastricht and is currently pursuing an LL.M in International Law at the Maastricht Graduate School of Law. Prior to his current engagements, Diego worked for the United Nations Information Centre in Lima and he served as Secretary-General of the “VIth EuroMUN.” Diego is also an international affairs columnist for two national circulation newspapers in Bolivia where he publishes a syndicated column on Latin American politics and foreign policy analysis. He joins InPRA as an expert on Latin America.
Diego Salama