Fostering cooperation in the region

Fostering cooperation in the region
© Greg Nash

Canadian Brigadier General Stephen Lacroix signed up for a traditional career in the armed forces, but a personal connection to Latin America landed him in Washington.

Lacroix, director general of the Inter-American Defense Board (IADB) for 2017–2019, leads an organization that is largely unknown outside of Western defense and security circles — and whose initials are sometimes confused with the Inter-American Development Bank. And, as the military advisory group of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IADB serves a stakeholder that’s often at odds with itself.

“If I look back at this, I think what I’m most proud of is, to a certain degree, restoring some of the organization’s prestige in the eyes of some of our key stakeholders,” Lacroix said in an interview with The Hill last week.

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Lacroix’s term ends on June 21, and he wants the organization’s member countries to continue to “privilege multilateralism over bilateral relationships in terms of looking at solutions” once he’s gone.

“But for that to happen, I think we need a lot of capitals in the region to believe in the organization. And, to use an American football metaphor, I think we’ve been able to move the yardsticks, but we’re not in the end zone yet. We haven’t scored a touchdown, but it’s trending in the right direction,” he said.

The OAS is the world’s oldest regional multilateral organization, but its effectiveness has waxed and waned with the investment of member countries. In recent months, the debate over Venezuela’s leadership has taken over the organization’s focus.

The IADB, founded in 1942, was once mostly known because of its educational institution, the Inter-American Defense College, often confused with the unrelated School of the Americas.

Under Lacroix, the IADB has focused on its core mission of providing OAS members with technical and advisory materials on defense and security issues, particularly on regional threats like cyber defense and drug interdiction.

“The quality of the products and advice that we provide to them steadily improved over the course of the two years. And it’s not really me; it’s a team effort,” he said.

Lacroix’s calm demeanor seems almost at odds with the nature of a motley organization that outsiders often view with mistrust.

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He credits his unique understanding of the Western hemisphere’s diversity, a trait he picked up as a child, for his success as head of the IADB.

“My parents were academics, and my father was a linguistics professor, so his interest was with Native American languages. So because of that, and their lifestyle and interest, we lived in Mexico for four years total, and then we moved to Colombia for two years and then did a year in Chile, a year in Peru and a year in El Salvador,” he said.

Years later, his command of Spanish and degree in translation would land him jobs as an interpreter for Canadian commanders visiting the region.

And those gigs led to Lacroix’s current position.

“I was on a specific track to do traditional military things. So, you know, command troops and squadrons and regiments and that type of stuff,” said Lacroix, who at the end of his tenure will return to Edmonton, Alberta, to command the 3rd Canadian Division.

Lacroix’s relative lack of diplomatic experience gives him a perspective that’s proved useful in running a multilateral military organization in a region that’s known both for its nationalistic sentiments and a lack of traditional military threats.

Although Latin America hasn’t faced an international war in decades, many countries still define themselves by the conflicts that shaped the region’s borders in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“There’s some baggage there, some positive, some somewhat negative, if you look at military history in the region over the course of the last — it’s been 500 years now,” Lacroix said.

“I would say that around the table, they get along just fine. But there was always an undertone of, I wouldn’t call it mistrust, but I would call it carefulness, and also that same tension exists between the civilian leadership and people in uniform and a lot of countries in Latin America, once again, due to the military governments of the past,” he added.

But historical and cultural understanding of the region only goes so far, as new threats and challenges are constantly appearing on the horizon.

One of Lacroix’s signature projects has been to strengthen the Inter-American Defense Foundation, the board’s fundraising arm, to improve understanding of particular issues for hemispheric defense forces and their private-sector partners.

The foundation had its first conference in Colombia in May, where the focus was on cybersecurity threats and regional capabilities to confront them.

“I think we showed and have shown the U.S. that we can deliver — for a lot less money than what they can deliver — in terms of quality and participation. And I think there’s more to come,” said Lacroix.

During Lacroix’s tenure, most of the IADB’s largest members have held elections that have led to sweeping changes in national politics, and the United States has radically altered the way it does business in the region.

Despite political changes in the Western Hemisphere, military-to-military relationships are better than ever, said Lacroix.

“Oddly enough, it hasn’t been hard at all. So yes, of course, there are the tweets, and there are the declarations coming out of the White House. But from military to military, I would qualify their relationships as being as better than they ever were, which is odd,” said Lacroix.

“It doesn’t preclude some of the challenges that countries at the top levels are facing, and this arm wrestling at times with President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE and some of his closer advisers, but it has had zero impact on us. None at all, actually. Now, once again, I’m not a diplomat. I’m not too sure why that is. And it is somewhat surprising. But that’s the fact,” he added.