April 10, 2018
Commander of U.S. Southern Command, Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd | April 10, 2018 | U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland
As delivered April 10, 2018
Good afternoon, and thank you for that warm welcome. Thank you for the invitation to join you all today. Addressing the Naval Academy’s 4000-strong brigade of Midshipman is an honor for any naval officer, but especially for an academy graduate who is about to inherit the dubious honor and title of “the old goat.”
Seriously — I’m delighted to be here. And it’s worth giving a shout out to all those other proud members of the great class of 1978 who are with us tonight — are you out there ’78?. I’m told we have about an hour set aside this evening. I’d prefer to spend my time talking with you, rather than at you. So my plan is to open with about 20 minutes of framing thoughts, and then open up the floor for discussion.
But don’t worry – I’m not going to drag you through a standard (and boring) SOUTHCOM 101 brief, with org charts and the like. Instead, I want to offer our perspective on how today’s complex global security challenges are playing out in the Americas.
As our new national defense strategy recognizes, we are facing increased global disorder, characterized by the decline in the rules-based international order and the return of strategic competition. This is creating a security environment that is more complex, and more volatile, than any we’ve experienced in recent memory.
I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here, and say that Latin America and the Caribbean is the “next frontier” of some of the toughest, most complex, and most dynamic security challenges that exist today. I firmly believe that what we at SOUTHCOM are learning and the way we are adapting apply broadly, not just in our theater.
These challenges aren’t traditional “military” threats. But neither are they solely “developmental” or “diplomatic” issues, either. They’re something else, something that falls into a grey area, that’s not very well defined, with rules we’re still figuring out.
But what’s happening in this grey zone has significant implications for regional and international stability, democratic governance, and what’s going to be demanded of all of us, as leaders, to address them.
In Latin America, challenges to the rules-based international system comes from both non-state and state actors alike.
Their motivations are different, but many of their means are the same. So are their detrimental effects.
Both are expanding coercion to new fronts, and violating principles of sovereignty in new ways.
Both are exploiting ambiguity and seams in our national security frameworks. And both are deliberately blurring the lines between crime and war, development and security, conflict and competition.
And while these actors don’t necessarily work together, both benefit indirectly from one another’s actions. They create operational space for each other to exist and thrive. They have a symbiotic, if unintentional, relationship.
But the real challenge posed by these actors lies not in the products they are moving, or the influence they are accruing. The real challenge lies in the inter-related effects they are having on the broader security environment.
We should all care about these effects. They matter, because they corrode our partners from within, undermining their sovereignty and making them more susceptible to a range of other threats. In some cases, they distract and detract from Latin America’s potential to contribute to regional and international security. In others, they reduce the competitive space we have to advance our interests.
Let’s start with the effects generated by non-state actors: what we call ‘threat networks.’
We’ve started using this term to encompass a whole range of ‘bad actors’-terrorist supporters and sympathizers, drug traffickers, arms dealers, human smugglers, money launderers, and the like.
These groups are borderless, operating with fluidity and impunity, across all domains.
They work in the margins, intimidating or buying off the support of civilian populations, coercing, corrupting, and controlling politicians, making alliances with security forces, or using institutions to camouflage their objectives.
And thanks to enormous profit margins, they possess capabilities that far outmatch local law enforcement.
Military-grade weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, armored vehicles, the latest in GPS technology to track their illegal shipments, sophisticated smuggling tunnels, semi submersible submarines…you name it, and these guys likely have it.
And use it-not just to move illicit products, but to attack, intimidate, and kill. Latin America may be at peace, but thanks in part to these groups, it’s also the most violent region on the planet.
Since the year 2000, the region has experienced more than 2.5 million homicides.
Every 15 minutes, a young Latin American is murdered. At least 1/3 of all central and South Americans know someone who’s been shot dead in the past 12 months.
These stats are chilling, but all the more so for what they really reveal.
As they pursue those illicit profits, what these illicit groups are really engaged in is an assault on the rule of law, and everything it stands for. Take a look at some of the images behind me [slide]. These are a couple of recent examples of what partners like Colombia, Brazil, and El Salvador are up against.
Retaliatory car bombs detonating outside police headquarters.
Turf battles that turn into city-wide shootouts between criminal groups vieing for control of the cocaine trade.
Insecurity so rampant the military has to be brought in to try and regain control.
And let me be clear: this is not a “Latin American” problem. I’m not singling any of our partners out.
I could just as easily put up a picture of Chicago, or Los Angeles. We’re dealing with this challenge, too, on a different scale, in some of our largest cities.
MS-13 and M-18 were born in Los Angeles, after all… Affiliates of Mexican cartels run distribution hubs from Chicago, Miami, and Baltimore…and criminal networks fight fierce turf battles here, too.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which country this is taking place in, because the truth is, in some form or another, it’s taking place in every country.
All over the world, we’re seeing elements of a broader system of violence, alternative order, and criminality.
This system exists in parallel with, and occasionally overlaps, the legitimate, Westphalian-based one. It exploits its existence and its gaps, while also reaping the benefits of a globalized, integrated world.
Its purpose typically isn’t to overturn or replace legitimate governments.
Instead, it corrodes governments from within…weakening them just enough to make it easy to do business.
The cumulative effects of their activities eat away at core democratic values like the rule of law, eroding citizens’ faith in democracy, especially in countries with the highest levels of criminal violence.
Widespread corruption and insecurity in turn drain precious financial resources away from the state, making it harder to address more entrenched development challenges and achieve lasting economic prosperity…providing fertile ground, not just for threat networks to proliferate, but also an opening for state actors like Russia and China to exploit. Which they do-across the globe, and right here in our hemisphere.
Russia’s increased role in the Western Hemisphere is alarming, given its intelligence and cyber capabilities, proven interference in multiple elections, and global intent to upend the international order, disrupt regional politics, and discredit democratic institutions.
Russia also continues to sell arms and provide financial lifelines to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values.
As for China, their economic engagement offers the appearance of an attractive path to development.
But this engagement comes at a price.
The Chinese model extracts natural resources to feed its own economy, often with little regard for environmental laws, fair trade practices, or human rights.
China is using economic statecraft-and more unscrupulous means like bribes-to pull Latin America into its orbit, as part of their intent to reshape the international system in its favor.
That has significant strategic implications, because that international system is founded on principles like rule of law, the protection of human rights, and the right to free and fair elections.
It’s comprised of nations who value equal partnerships, and who cooperate freely with one another, without coercion.
Russia and China, in particular, have a decidedly mixed track record when it comes to respecting those principles.
Like threat networks, neither are directly, overtly threatening to destroy the rules based system. They’re engaged in something more complicated…more opaque…something in that grey zone I talked about earlier, that’s hard to see and even harder to define. They’re undermining the system from within, exploiting its benefits while undercutting its principles.
Today, more than ever, future conflicts will be a complex struggle in that gray zone and that struggle may not even come to war, or may not resemble it in the way we expect, based on our careful study of history and military theory.
And it doesn’t matter if it’s taking place in the violent slums of urban cities, or in the voting chambers of international bodies, make no mistake: this is a struggle for the future of the world as we know it, the system that sustains it, and the principles that uphold it.
So what does this mean for all of us, but most especially for all of you, as future leaders?
Well, for one thing, it means we all have to become far more adept operating in that ‘grey zone,’ and in understanding how security threats may disguise themselves in forms we don’t expect, or manifest themselves (often deliberately) in ways that don’t seem malign…at least on the surface.
The U.S. faces state and non-state competitors who employ a wide range of political, informational, military, and economic measures to influence, coerce, and intimidate, or undermine U.S. interests or those of friends and allies. This extends, rather than replaces, traditional conflict. Some call this hybrid warfare, but I would argue that it’s just the latest evolution of warfare.
For the Navy this is especially important on two points.
The first is the way the navy thinks about future fights. Rightly so, today’s navy is focused on the very real potential of high end state-on-state conflict. But everyone should remember the grey zone tools and approaches will exist before, during, and after a major war. It doesn’t exist solely outside of “the big fighting battles.” and if you think this gray zone stuff is hard, wait until it’s combined with a serious conventional fight. This will be complexity at a scale we have not imagined. !Twill be a global, multi-domain, multi-functional fight that is not the traditional military on military war we might prepare for in our wargames and imagine in our OPLANS.
The second is the way we naval officers think about ourselves; the way we prepare to do our jobs. Annapolis has always been about technology- in short, engineering over humanities.
Don’t get me wrong — effective naval leaders must be knowledgeable technical experts.
But that isn’t sufficient; we must be far more …your grades in thermodynamics and electrical engineering absolutely do matter here; but your understanding of what matters to people and nations may be what matters most out there. To succeed in the grey zone and in future warfare we must all have at least a basic grounding in history, culture, economics, and the human and cognitive domains. Understanding (and leveraging) these areas matters as much as technological superiority – as we’ve seen over the past 17 years of war.
In the hands of our adversaries, ISIS and Al Qaida, and even more so in the hands of our major global competitors, Russia and China, the cognitive domain is weaponized. Regardless of what your major is today, and even if you have to teach yourself, on your own time –a grounding in the humanities is critically important to being an effective warfighter. Your technical training may teach you the “what,” and the “how,” but only the broader understanding of context can help you understand the “why.” for those of you who aspire-to be strategic leaders, without understanding and being able to explain the “why,” you’ll be lost.
All of the above means we have to think bigger than ourselves. The security challenges we face in today’s complex world can’t be solved alone. They require joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational cooperation.
Integrating service cultures and competencies, fostering trust and mutual confidence across the intelligence community, law enforcement, the diplomatic community and with NGOs, and operating together as one ensures we can meet the demands of the 21st century. Being ‘joint’ is something we pride ourselves on. And for good reason…we’ve come a long way. But today “jointness” demands even more; the ‘true joint’ demands deeper integration with our interagency counterparts …with our network of alliances and partnerships…and with civil society. It demands creative, adaptive leaders who thrive in chaos, who can build dynamic and diverse teams, and integrate the sum of very different parts into one dynamic, and effective, whole. It demands leaders of character and competence, sensitivity and integrity.
As you start your military careers, of course you must master your chosen specialty. But you can’t stop there. I encourage you to find ways to build bridges, create alliances, and deepen cooperation across the entire spectrum of partners and teammates.
Seek out diversity in thought, action, and beliefs. Studies have shown that diverse teams tend to be more creative and cohesive-even more so when led by leaders who value and encourage diversity of thought and experience. Be one of those team members; be one of those leaders.
So what this really comes down to is that this era demands of all of us, demands of all of you, as future leaders, to be a bridge and a change agent.
This means you have to connect your own dots in ways that will likely produce novel and unsettling insights. That will challenge old approaches that were built for a different era, for fundamentally different problem sets.
This means you have to build something that better reflects the interconnected world we live in-and the interconnected challenges we face.
Many will reject this change that must take place because lagging indicators have not made the necessity undeniably obvious. But you must embrace something new, to protect something enduring.
I am convinced we must adapt and build connections, across services, agencies, and borders.
And you must lead the way. For years to come, through some significant challenges…
Because you are the leaders for this time, the change agents and the bridge to our future. The nation and the lives of those you will lead depend upon you. We are all depending on you.