In December 2011, Lieutenant General Guy Thibault, head of the oldest defense and security cooperation organization in the world, spoke with Diálogo during the Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC 2012) in St. Kitts and Nevis.
Founded during World War II, the Inter-American Defense Board has since evolved and adapted to address the security challenges impacting the Western Hemisphere today.
Diálogo: What is the Inter-American Defense Board?
Lieutenant General Guy Thibault: The IADB is a unique hemispheric body created in 1942 with a focus on defense cooperation since World War II. It is actually the oldest defense security cooperation mechanism in the world, for multilateral organizations. So it focuses largely on issues of military affairs, defense affairs, and has representation from most of the nations within the Organization of American States (OAS), so truly, is a hemispheric body with representation from Canada, the United States, South America, the Caribbean and Central America. We have 27 member-nations.
Diálogo: How is the IADB related to the OAS?
Lt. Gen. Thibault: In 2006 there was a change in the institutional relations with the OAS. The IADB was created as an entity of the OAS which is our hemispheric political body. This set of changes came from the recognition that we needed to evolve the way that the defense and the Armed Forces were being integrated into the political system that we have in the hemisphere. So this board, which was created in 1942 by the Armed Forces, by Defense Ministries to take care of defense cooperation had not evolved and adapted with the changes in our security situation. Today, unlike in 1942, we don’t see the typical defense threats that we had seen during World War II, and the threats today are largely what we characterize as multidimensional security threats. In 2003, there was a special conference that was held in Mexico, Conferencia Especial sobre la Seguridad en las Américas [Special Conference on Security in the Americas], and that conference, just brought a new set of challenges to our countries, challenges of transnational crime, illicit drugs, proliferation of small arms, irregular migration, the natural disasters that this region sees regularly. So making the IADB part of the organization of the OAS was with the intention of making sure that defense and Armed Forces issues are better integrated within the overall hemispheric political decision making bodies that we have, that are dealing with multidimensional security threats.
Diálogo: What you just said explains in some way why the word “defense” is part of the Inter-American Defense Board’s name, when there is not a real defense problem in our hemisphere…
Lt. Gen. Thibault: We recognize that the Armed Forces or Armed Services in each one of our countries serve multiple roles today. In a country like Canada, we have our Canadian Forces deployed in missions around the world, in United Nations peacekeeping missions as observers. We also have a major operation that has been ongoing for many years now in Afghanistan… When you look at what the Armed Forces are doing, they have multiple roles using the capabilities that are unique to the Armed Forces in terms of equipment, their training, their organization, their ability to do complex tasks. That exact same multipurpose use of the Canadian Armed Forces is true in all of our Armed Forces. We can see examples today where the Armed Forces which were created effectively to protect the state, to protect the interest of the state, need to be involved in all aspects of the threats to our societies.
In Brazil we have the Brazilian Army involved in operations in the favelas; in Central America, in Colombia, we see operations which are truly important to protect the states against the transnational crime and narcotrafficking activities. So while we might not have traditional defense threats in terms of external state on state, the utility of the Armed Forces is essential for the countries to be able to confront the challenges we face. At the hemispheric level, a board such as the IADB, where we can share information, experiences, where we can consider how to take the lessons from humanitarian assistance/disaster relief in Haiti, in Chile, and get ready for the next major disaster that strikes is what the IADB is all about. So while defense is in the name, we are part of a larger security architecture.
Diálogo: Where do you see the IADB biggest contribution in the Western Hemisphere?
Lt. Gen. Thibault: With a hemisphere as diverse as what we see in the Americas, with the United States on one side and the Caribbean on the other, it is true that the issues are very different and the challenges in each region are very different. So I think that the area where the IADB can truly add value is in ensuring that we are sharing information between all countries, that we are learning effectively from each other. That’s where we are going to see the greatest contribution. Right now, sharing information across the hemisphere is very different. Why is it different? In some cases because is very complex. There are so many organizations involved in this issue that it is difficult to share.
Given the network we have with our 27 member countries, we have a role to play in terms of doing a better job of information sharing. The second area where I think we can really add value is when a disaster strikes, a natural disaster, a man-made disaster… we need to act. And in order for us to act we have to ensure that the political decision makers at the highest level in the hemisphere are supported by good information. So, I as the chairman of the IADB have a role to serve as an advisor to the Secretary General, to the OAS as a body. I think that I can, on behalf of the member states, help to add value and make sure that the decision makers are being informed by good military advice. So the answer is information sharing and military advice.
Diálogo: In your presentation during Cansec 2012, you said that you were tasked with improving information sharing. How do you plan to accomplish this?
Lt. Gen. Thibault: The task that we have is more complex than just information sharing. The task that I have comes from the General Assembly of the OAS, which includes bringing forward a plan to enhance our ability to respond. So information sharing is really just one part. There are many aspects to enhancing our ability to respond. One is to know where we have gaps in certain capabilities. Another is to know where the most probable crisis will occur and then focus on it by working with regional mechanisms to really see what they would need in terms of programs to support and build capacity, if it is an issue of a lack of equipment or capabilities… We have a role to play in terms of the assessment of the gaps in the most compelling problems, based on the regions, based on the specifics of those regions. It is true that in certain parts of the hemisphere we don’t have a problem with capacity, we have loads of capacities. I think that is quite important that we focus on gaps and assessments of the needs and that information sharing is going to be an important part of enhancing our ability to respond. So clearly information sharing means that you have to have a means to share information.
Given today’s increasingly open information systems, it is incumbent on us to look at the Internet as a mechanism to create community that will allow us to effectively share information. In this case, in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, so we are exploring a system such as APAN (All-Partners Access Network) which we know has many significant advantages for us. It is Internet based, it is open access, it is proven… so I think a system like APAN is a very good choice for us. There are other ways, but right now we are focused on exploiting the potential of APAN as an information sharing mechanism for the countries in the hemisphere.
Diálogo: Tell us a little bit about the Inter-American Defense College, part of IADB.
Lt. Gen. Thibault: The Inter-American Defense College is also an old institution. For countries who don’t know very much about it, I would encourage them to consider sending students to participate in these programs, focused on military and civilian officials, and designed to be an advanced study in terms of hemispheric defense and security cooperation. Today we have a year-long program with over 60 students representing 16 countries representing all of the languages of the OAS: French, English, Portuguese and Spanish. We also have a student from China. The experience that these students will get is unique and an important part of their understanding of the Inter-American system.