2017-12-28 By Stephen Blank
The Trump Administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) received a flood of public scrutiny even before it was announced.
Not surprisingly this flood morphed into a tidal wave once it appeared.
But virtually all of this commentary focused on the tone and major themes observers claimed to find in it at the expense of some of the more original aspects of this document that were expressed in the NSS’ discussion of regional security in certain areas.
Specifically, commentators either missed or omitted the sections on Latin America and Central Asia. These areas may not be priorities like Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Middle East but they are increasingly important arenas due to mounting challenges, not only from terrorists, but also from Russia and China.
The NSS cited not only enhanced use of trade and financial tools to advance U.S. interests in Latin America, it also cited examples of glaring misrule like Venezuela and the expanding presence and interests of China and Russia there.
This, though commentators overlooked it, represents an original and positive development.
The Obama Administration was essentially uninterested in the Russian presence in Latin America, which is particularly sinister. Whereas China’s presence is primarily expressed through huge trade relationships, Russia not only supports states like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua in their anti-Americanism it also seeks to expand its political, intelligence, and military footprint in Latin America and to undermine American allies like Colombia.
Indeed, there are even concerns about a potential Russian effort to undermine the integrity of Mexico’s forthcoming 2018 elections.
In 2008 Moscow actively solicited intelligence coordination among anti-American states in the region and shipped weapons to Venezuela to undermine our ally Colombia. Although those actions failed; they displayed Russia’s growing interest in striking at the U.S. through Latin America.
Today Moscow has not only enhanced security cooperation with Nicaragua, it is seeking air and naval bases in Latin America. Venezuela proves to be a case in point. The dictatorial Madero regime has not only brought Venezuela to the point of utter immiseration and destitution, Venezuela is on the verge of bankruptcy thanks to the regime’s corruption and misrule. Moscow has capitalized on this to lend Venezuela several billion dollars in return for an enhanced stake in its oil and gas fields.
In this regard it is swapping debt for equity as it has done throughout Eurasia. But we should not be surprised if Moscow repeats the subsequent phases of its debt for equity swaps in Eurasia.
Namely when the time comes for Venezuela to declare itself unable to pay its debts that Moscow will use this equity or convert it into air and/or naval bases there in accordance with its longstanding designs.
This is on top of Russia’s well-established security cooperation with Nicaragua. That cooperation takes the form of permanent bilateral consultations between each country’s security council, joint drills among troops, arms sales, Russia’s alleged training of Nicaraguan forces in anti-drug actions, and a Russian satellite station there to track U.S. aerial and naval movements among other things.
Since Moscow has also expressed its interest in access to Nicaraguan ports and airfields it too could become an object of Russian solicitations in the future for basing rights.
Therefore the NSS is right on target in singling out this penetration as something that we should both monitor and oppose.
In Central Asia we are fighting in Afghanistan and allegedly making progress. But whereas the Obama Administration for the most part, i.e. till 2015, had no Central Asia policy other than the war in Afghanistan, that area was neglected.
Even Secretary of State Kerry’s initiative of a regular 5+1 format with his Central Asian opposite numbers is only a small part of what is needed. Here too the NSS was much more forthright with its explicit message of opposition to Russian attempts to corner those states’ energy supplies and to undermine their sovereignty.
Not only do we oppose terrorism, the NSS also invoked upgraded trade and financial relationships with Central Asian governments and built upon its predecessors by championing India’s role as a facilitator for the more general process of South and Central Asian integration.
To show that these statements in the NSS are not merely words, President Trump also spoke to Uzbekistan’s President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in support of his efforts to reform Uzbekistan and to solicit grater U.S. foreign investment in his country.
These two examples show not only the global sweep of the Administration’s policy but also its increased sensitivity to challenges to America that do not receive a lot of publicity but which nonetheless materially affect our interests and security.
Furthermore these indicators of a vigorous global policy using trade, economics, and all the other capabilities accruing to the government signify a growing resistance to challenges that might, in previous administrations, have escaped notice or presidential attention.
Therefore we would do well to watch the Administration for the balance of Trump’s term to see whether or not it can sustain the enhanced attention to these areas that often are laggards in the race for presidential attention.
These may not be the challenges we see in Europe, the Middle East, and Northeast Asia, but to ignore them only abets the efforts of our regional adversaries like China and Russia to multiply the threats to us so that they can continue to promote their interests at our expense and create more problems than we can handle.
By recognizing this project of our adversaries the Administration actually marks an advance over its predecessors.
However, now it has to make good on its ambitions to act on a global scale. And that will be a real test of its ability and capacity.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College.
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