Managing security, defense, and policy matters in the Western Hemisphere is a key element of the U.S. relations with its regional partners. For retired U.S. Army Colonel Sergio de la Peña, a native of Mexico, the commitment is personal. In his role as the U.S. Department of Defense’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, he is responsible for security, defense, and policy issues in the region, and he oversees the funding of defense cooperation programs for U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), among other responsibilities.
De la Peña spoke with Diálogo at the closing ceremony of the South American Regional Seminar on Countering Transregional-Transnational Threat Networks (T3N), organized by the William J. Perry Center of Hemispheric Defense Studies from September 26th to 28th in Lima, Peru. As part of the topics discussed, De la Peña explained the mission of his role, the challenges he faces, and the common regional threats that are making him more passionate about his job.
Diálogo: What is the mission of the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs?
U.S. Department of Defense Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs de la Peña: Our mission is to provide defense policy for the Western Hemisphere, the area that’s encompassed from the North Pole to the South Pole and the western half of the globe.
Diálogo: What is the importance or your presence here at the South American seminar on countering T3N?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: The way that we go about doing our work in this hemisphere is by engaging with our partner nations, our allies, and our friends. Without their support, we are much weaker. We need to have the collaboration of every member of the hemisphere. That’s something that is more aspirational at this time because not everybody is a current friend, but the vast majority of the countries in this hemisphere think in line with what we want to achieve, so we want to make sure we strengthen those partnerships, those friendships, and those alliances.
Diálogo: How do you accomplish that engagement?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: It begins with contact on a personal level. It’s making sure that as leaders, we engage person to person; that we are able to establish dialogue at the highest levels because the leaders are what set the tone for the relationship. If you can get the leaders to agree, if you can get the leaders to talk to each other and engage in a positive way, then subordinates follow. We’re about creating an environment where we have a much more secure hemisphere.
Diálogo: What do you think is your biggest challenge?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: I think the biggest challenge is getting everybody on the same sheet of music, understanding each other. A lot of times there is goodwill. You want to do the right thing, but we have different languages, we have different terminology, we have different systems, and then we have different agencies that don’t always match up one-on-one. In some countries you have laws that allow the police to do certain things; in other countries, those are military functions. So it’s just getting to understand each other and use goodwill to be able to overcome some of those differences in structures and differences in systems.
Diálogo: What do you expect to achieve with all the countries you engaged with at this event?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: We’ve talked about a Western Hemisphere that is collaborative, prosperous and secure. The key thing about these types of events is collaboration. If you have collaboration, if you have goodwill, then you have a partner in security. If you have a secure hemisphere, you have a prosperous hemisphere.
Diálogo: What is your assessment of the participants at this conference, South American countries, talking about transnational threats?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: I think there’s a lot of goodwill, and we’ve established a good foundation for future collaboration, which is what we want to achieve.
Diálogo: What is your biggest concern?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: The biggest concern is maintaining the dialogue, ensuring that we understand each other, and ensuring that we’re constantly working toward solving any of the conflicts that could produce a difference of opinion where we have a lack of collaboration. I think if we can get past those types of challenges, I think we have a stronger and more collaborative hemisphere.
Diálogo: There is a lot of concern about regional security issues, such as narcotrafficking, weapons trafficking, human trafficking, and other criminal activities. What is your assessment about the security threats in the region?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: We have a lot of different challenges. We need to take them one at a time. We need to figure out what is the priority for us and what’s the priority for the partner nations. I think that we have a fairly good level of understanding of what threats are common to both sides. What we need to do is figure out a way to coordinate on what is the key thing that concerns both parties. Once we’re able to identify what those are, I think we can come to a point where we can prioritize in a more efficient way, so that everybody is looking at the same problem and at least putting the same value or at least the same priority on that problem.
Diálogo: How do you work together with countries in our region to counter T3N?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: The key thing about networks of this nature is making sure that we’re sharing information and intelligence, and that’s not always easy to do. It’s something that we have to work on, by establishing what are the mechanisms that allow us to share information, how do we safeguard that information? And how can we use that information to go against a common threat? It’s about making each other situationally aware of the environment that each of us is living and making sure that we’re able to figure out a way to share information, so that we can go against a common threat.
Diálogo: What is the importance of SOUTHCOM and NORTHCOM working together for the security of the Western Hemisphere?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM do work together but whenever you have a seam, whenever you have a border, you’re going to have challenges. You’re going to have limitations on what you do on one side of that area of operations versus the other. What we need to do is make sure that we maintain the dialogue and be able to close that seam as much as possible because the bad guys don’t have borders; they don’t care about seams and they don’t care about boundaries. We need to make sure that at those boundaries, we have the mechanisms in place where we can track people that are on one side or the other.
Diálogo: How does the Office of the Secretary of Defense help countries in need, like Mexico and the Caribbean islands, dealing with natural disasters? Is that a problem that can also affect security?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: Absolutely. Any time you have a natural disaster, especially a severe one, it challenges a state’s ability to respond. If the state does not respond in an efficient manner, then people get angry. When they get angry, that impacts security. What we do, as much as we can, is help. For the recent earthquake, we’ve already sent several large aircrafts, C-17s, into Mexico. Right now we’re confronting the results of the hurricanes that have gone through the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. We have to shift our attention now from some of the earthquake issues to hurricane-related concerns that affect U.S. citizens. That doesn’t mean that we forget about our partner nations. We help them as much as we can with those things that we have expertise in sharing with them, but we also have to take a look at what’s happening in U.S. territories and be sure that we respond accordingly with those people as well because in the case of Puerto Rico, it’s been pretty devastating.
Diálogo: Would you like to add anything else for Diálogo readers?
Deputy Assistant Secretary De la Peña: We’re a partner, we want to collaborate, and we want to strengthen those ties. We want to re-engage with those that may have had a different point of view for some time and are now returning back to a similar way of thinking as us.