The late, learned editor of the Washington Post Russell Wiggins liked to tell people, particularly visitors from abroad, that in the American way of national security and foreign policy, “the stockade comes first.”
Wiggins, who was well versed in US history, drew on the experience of the Old West where the cavalry sought to defend settlers by riding out of their stockade, or wooden fort, to come to the rescue. However, if the soldiers had to choose between defending the settlers or fighting for their home base, the stockade took priority.
The notion that the homeland comes first was underscored about 10 days ago in Ottawa, Canada, when the defense ministers of Canada, Mexico and the US held their first ever trilateral meeting.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the symbolic meeting was an “unprecedented opportunity to try to bring together our nations in a common approach to continental security.”
Mexican Secretary of National Defense Guillermo Galvan Galvan added: “We intend to pursue the principle of shared responsibility. Undoubtedly, what each country does or fails to do will have a direct impact on the others.”
With the eyes of many in the US focused on Afghanistan, the nuclear summit in South Korea, the threat of a North Korean missile launch and a myriad of other security and economic issues, the meeting of the three defense ministers seemed to slip under the radar.
Even so, the Ottawa gathering came as the US has begun a gradual retrenchment; pulling back from some foreign entanglements. The polls have shown that, among other reasons, people in the US have become war-weary and tired of carrying a heavy political and economic burden around the world.
Critical to the effort to reduce commitments abroad is the willingness of allied and friendly nations to pick up some of the load.
As a South Korean diplomat said: “America can no longer do it by itself. Others must help.”
After decades of neglect, it is especially vital that the US cultivate reliable neighbors along its northern and southern borders. Only then can it count on help in stopping the infiltration of terrorists, smugglers, illicit drug runners and people traffickers.
The meeting in Ottawa was but a first step in that campaign.
In the words of Canadian Minister of National Defense Peter MacKay: “When you talk about the security of North America, none of the three of us will ever be able to work alone. We have to work together.”
The defense ministers agreed than an early task would be to fashion a common threat assessment.
As host of the meeting, MacKay said: “We will work together to develop a trilateral threat assessment for the continent that will provide a basis for common understanding and an approach as we work to address these challenges.”
“We’ve also pledged to better coordinate our armed forces’ support to the work of civilian public security agencies, countering illicit activities in the hemisphere such as narcotics, narco-trafficking, human trafficking [and] trafficking in arms,” he added.
He mentioned in particular the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The Mexican defense minister added: “Our first decisions will be made within a framework which formalizes our trilateral cooperation. We are aware that the manner and level of reciprocal collaboration can vary by country depending on competing national interests and the specific threats which have to be faced.”
He said Mexico would “enthusiastically endorse” a proposal by MacKay “to institutionalize our dialogue and meet on a regular basis in order to follow up with the purpose of facing head-on and neutralizing the threats and improving security and prosperity for all of North America.”
Panetta sought to encompass the US-Canada-Mexico alliance in a wider context.
He said that in the new US defense strategy “is the recognition that America must continue to strengthen key alliances and build innovative new partnerships around the world. This is exactly what we’re doing today.”
Among the other elements of that evolving strategy is what US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called a “pivot to Asia,” in which the US national security establishment is to focus more on the Asia-Pacific region. Within the region, attention and forces are being shifted from Northeast Asia to the South China Sea.
Richard Halloran is a commentator based in Hawaii.
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