Spotlight: A Conversation With Our Leaders

Creating Strategic Partnerships during Two Decades

A dialogue among military and civilian leaders provides an invaluable venue for international cooperation on shared security and defense concerns.
Geraldine Cook/Diálogo | 12 April 2017

Mark S. Wilkins, the director of the Perry Center promotes the importance of educating security and defense professionals in the Americas. (Photo: Perry Center)

For two decades, the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies has connected leaders from the Western Hemisphere’s security community. Military and civilian students from Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Chile, Honduras, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago are among the 32 participant nations at the center’s classes, seminars, forums, and conferences on security and defense issues, including combating transnational organized crime and illicit networks, security and defense institution building, implication of human rights and rule of law, emerging technologies, and evolving threats, among others.

Mark S. Wilkins, the director of the Perry Center spoke with Diálogo at the “Caribbean Regional Seminar on Countering Transregional Transnational Threat Networks (T3N)” celebrated in Bridgetown, Barbados, from March 21st-23rd. A retired U.S. Army Colonel, Director Wilkins has been promoting the importance of educating security and defense professionals in the Americas to create new generations of leaders able to work together against shared regional threats.

Diálogo: What is the main goal of the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies?

Mark S. Wilkins, director of the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies: One of our main goals is to build the network practitioners for security and defense matters in Latin America and the Caribbean. We do this with seminars, conferences, workshops, and residence courses in Washington D.C. The idea is to raise the level of competence of those responsible for managing security and defense sectors in all our partner nations.

Diálogo: What is the vision of the Perry Center?

Director Wilkins: Above all, we strive to be one of the leading security and defense institutions in the Western Hemisphere. We’re focused on the future, on investigating shifts in the evolving security environment and working with partners to envision the kind of changes needed to keep our security and defense forces operating at the speed of or faster than our opponents. In doing so, we support the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the two Combatant Commands that cover the Americas: U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM). Our toolkit includes education, seminars, outreach, teaching dialogue, and research. We work with senior civilians, military, and government officials throughout the Western Hemisphere to build networks in security and defense. At the same time, we try to promote greater understanding of United States policies. This is what we are looking to do with our partner nations, and by doing so in an educational environment, we help to build bridges between our countries, and the end result is we share a mutual sustainable institutional capacity between us and our partners.

Diálogo: What kind of programs does the Perry Center offer?

Director Wilkins: We focus our efforts in three main areas of effort in the Americas: promoting effective, efficient, and transparent defense governance institutions that respond to democratically elected civilian leadership; countering transnational and transregional organized crime and the illicit networks that undermine citizen security; and promoting institutionalized respect for human rights and the rule of law among the militaries, security forces, and defense policymakers of the Western Hemisphere. All three programs directly support SOUTHCOM’s and NORTHCOM’s regional objectives.

Diálogo: What is the importance of the Perry Center’s efforts to bring senior military and civilians from more than 30 nations throughout the Americas into its classrooms?

Director Wilkins: Let’s take the case of this seminar; it’s a good case in point. I believe last December, Admiral [Kurt] Tidd [SOUTHCOM commander] met his counterparts from around the Caribbean in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They mainly discussed broad goals and agreed on these broad objectives they would collectively achieve. Over half of the people at this weeks’ seminar have previously attended the Perry Center seminars and courses. Almost all of them are now in positions as implementers of what the bosses agreed to in December. If we look at the roster of who is here this week, the participants are working in policy and strategy, operations, intelligence, and as force commanders. So, if we are truly dedicated to building a network of like-minded people to now counter multi-regional or transregional problems, we have the tool of convocation – the ability to bring all of us together and present information, debate solutions, and drive towards concrete solutions. Tomorrow –at the seminar– we will discuss regional strategy and regional policy to confront transnational and transregional networks, which, in the end, is the most complex of our current threats, and no one country can handle it alone. We discuss the problems first and then move towards how we are going to resolve them regionally.

Diálogo: The Perry Center used to be the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies. What was the reason for renaming the center in April 2013?

Director Wilkins: In 1995, then Secretary of Defense William James Perry hosted the first Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in Williamsburg, Virginia. That set into motion a process –for over two decades now –a platform where defense ministers can gather every two years to discuss the most important topics of the day. Secondly, at the very first conference, his fellow defense ministers were all mostly civilians. As a background for this situation, at that moment, most of their countries were coming out of periods of authoritarian government and dictatorship, and what they wanted was a place they could send their civilians to learn how to lead and manage their militaries, their civilians, and learn how to manage the defense and security of institutions. To this day, most of the people who attend Perry Center courses are professional civilians from security and defense establishments from throughout the region. About three quarters of our students are civilians and half of them are from or above ministry levels. This is the living legacy of Secretary Perry’s vision, so it was only fitting the center was renamed in his honor.

Diálogo: The Perry Center celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. What is the center’s biggest contribution in the past 20 years?

Director Wilkins: I think the course we set of deep strategic partnerships throughout the region. We have approximately 6,000 graduates, and by carefully selecting the people who come to our courses, Perry Center graduates –for the most part– are now leading defense and security establishments throughout the region. At this seminar for example, half of participants previously attended Perry Center courses. By selecting the right people and providing them with up-to-date international best practices within security and defense, we have empowered a whole generation of defense and security leaders to take charge of their security institutions. We are going to celebrate the 20th anniversary throughout the year with different events, seminars, and conferences to mark our anniversary. We are just getting started; this is the beginning of our celebration, and we’ll post updates periodically on our website.

Diálogo: Do you only bring students from Latin America and the Caribbean? What about other countries throughout the world?

Director Wilkins: Occasionally. The U.S. Department of Defense has five regional centers, three of which are located at National Defense University. The African Center for Strategic Studies also shares our facilities there, as well as the Near East-South Asia Center. The Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies is in Hawaii, and the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany.

The emerging trend is that we are starting to exchange students with other regions of the world. Many of the challenges we face now are transregional, cocaine leaves the jungles of Colombia, ends up being exchanged for money in Africa, which serves to finance the nefarious groups in the Middle East. Many of our students in this region, for example, now go to courses at the Marshall Center on countering T3N. Many of the students on the Pacific coast in Latin America, such as Mexico, Peru or Chile, now attend courses at the Asian Pacific Center as well. Increasingly our students are going back and forth between these areas, this is a very healthy thing. As we establish networks here in our hemisphere, we should rapidly push to establish global networks as well.

Diálogo: How many people (approximately) attend the center’s courses, and what type of profile do you look for in your “target audience”, the people who attend the courses, seminars, outreach efforts, strategic dialogue opportunities, and focused research conducted by the center?

Director Wilkins: It depends on the course. Some courses such as Managing Security and Defense are designed specifically for vice ministers and vice chiefs of defense, admirals, generals, and civilian equivalents. We have several courses at the mid-level to target people who actually fill critical jobs in policy, strategy, operations, and management. We have an introductory course both in English and Spanish –Strategic and Defense Policy– for people who are just coming in as professionals into the system. We try to cover these two levels, mid, and senior, and we coordinate with our security cooperation officers (SCOs) at the embassies closely to make sure we get the right person into the correct class.

One of our challenges is the sheer volume of defense professional wanting to come to the Perry Center. For many of our courses we have up to ten applicants for every available position; it’s very tough competition. We take students in two different ways, and it’s different from other regional centers. For some of our courses, all of the course spaces go to our Security Cooperation Officers, who coordinate with partner nation counterparts, including but not limited to, ministers of defense and the armed forces. For other courses, we accept applications directly from the field, and may accept people from civil society, non-governmental international organizations, and non-traditional sources. The resulting personnel mix of military and civilian defense professionals and people from other agencies and civil society really give a new dimension to the classes and is consistently identified as one of the best things of the center – we bring an interagency and public-private perspective to our offerings.

Diálogo: What are the advantages of being a student at the Perry Center? Can you mention some of most notable alumni of the center?

Director Wilkins: With all due modesty, I think the Perry Center is seen as the premiere security and defense [institution] for the Western Hemisphere. I was in Colombia and Panama just last week attending security and defense events there, and without fail, everywhere I went there were people in charge who had attended Perry Center classes. They told me that in many cases, the course changed their life by opening new doors. The recognition of being a Perry Center alumnus goes back to the combination offering of high levels of security and defense topics and an enthusiastic association of the alumni throughout Latin America. Many alumni proudly wear their Perry Center button every day as a proud identifier of their long term association with the center. In some cases, even ministers of defense who have been to courses in our center attributed the attainment of their position due to having been a student of the Perry Center. Our brand recognition is very high, and there is a high correlation between the people who come to our courses and the types of and levels responsibilities they are assigned when they return to their countries.

Diálogo: Does the Perry Center have agreements with other institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Director Wilkins: We have more than 20 international agreements with other defense and security studies institutions. We have a new research project called, “Defense Strategic Foresight Initiative,” through which we are going to look deep into the future, maybe as far as 2035 to identify global trends driving changes in our security and defense environment, such as accelerating climate change, changing demographics, accelerating technological advances, and the growing role of non-state actors on the global stage. We are going to write and research what this all means for the military and defense forces in this hemisphere in empirical terms. We are working on this effort with institutions like the Inter American Defense Board, ANEPE [National Academy of Political and Strategic Studies] in Chile, CAEN [Center for Higher National Studies] in Peru, and ESDEGUE [Colombian War College] in Colombia —all prominent Latin American research institutions—, and we are going to jointly publish the results before the next Defense Ministers Meeting of the Americas.

Diálogo: Could you tell me about the William J. Perry Award for Excellence in Security and Defense Education? Who is it awarded to and why?

Director Wilkins: It is an award we give once a year. We have an individual and institutional category. We accept nominations from all around the Western Hemisphere, and recipients are chosen based on their substantial dedication to enhancing capacity in security and defense, building mutually beneficial relationships, and increasing democratic security in the Americas. Nominees may be educators, practitioners, or institutions of defense and security from throughout the hemisphere or outside the region. Competition is fierce and we receive dozens of nominations every year, and we have a committee who meets and decides.

Nominees for each category range from presidents all the way to researchers and academic institutions. The 2016 Perry Institutional Award went to the Technical Secretariat of the National Security Council of Guatemala and the Center for Defense Policy Studies, also of Guatemala. Ambassador Luigi R. Einaudi, a distinguished U.S. diplomat and educator, received the 2016 Perry Award in the individual category.

Diálogo: Would you like to add anything else for our readers in the region?

Director Wilkins: Sure. I think it’s a great thing and long overdue that we are expanding the scope of how we are looking at problems in the world. For many, many years we just looked at the Western Hemisphere and what was happening inside; Africa and Asia were doing the same. The way we are looking at the problems today, and the way Adm. Tidd is actively explaining the concept of T3N, is a better approach, and we are excited to be part of this. Last year, for example, we partnered with Africa and Middle East counterparts for a week in Casablanca, Morocco, where a third of the audience was from Latin America, a third from Africa, and a third from the Middle East. This was something never done before. It was a little uncomfortable at first due to the different cultures and languages, but by the end of the week people from the Western Hemisphere had really connected with partners from the other side of the world and together, they started identifying deep and previously unidentified transregional trends and threats. They established their own network to continue communicating after the seminar – a network that’s still active a year later. The Perry Center is excited to be part of it.

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