Small Wars Journal

The Importance of Diplomacy in United States Southern Command

Sun, 12/18/2016 - 11:23am

The Importance of Diplomacy in United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)

Christopher Cedros

Winston Churchill once famously stated that “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”[i] Although the former Prime Minister was incredibly satirical in this statement, diplomacy remains one of the most effective tools for militaries and governments to get other nation-states to coordinate in both parties’ perceived best interests. Specifically, diplomacy is one instrument utilized by the U.S. Combatant Command (COCOM) United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) that deals specifically with the nation-states in the region of South and Central America. With the sequestration creating economic constraints on the COCOM, diplomacy is the most effective mechanism of coordination between the U.S. and the states in South and Central America. SOUTHCOM’s diplomatic actions are effective because the organization can operate at both ends of the spectrum within the realm of coercive diplomacy.

This paper is divided into three different sections. First, it defines and explains coercive diplomacy. Second, it delves into the current environment of the SOUTHCOM Theater, with an emphasis on countering transnational organized crime (CTOC) and its effect in the nation-states of Venezuela and Colombia.  Lastly, the paper explains why diplomacy, on opposite ends of the diplomatic spectrum, is the most effect tool for tackling CTOC in both states. In the case of Venezuela, SOUTHCOM is able to exercise soft power by affecting the country’s assets and thus avoiding direct conflict with a socialist regime. In the case of Colombia, SOUTHCOM is able to facilitate the country’s acquisition of resources and military training, thereby ensuring another ally on the South American continent.

Defining and Explaining Diplomacy

Diplomacy, like many aspects of the American military method, is an art not a science. Within diplomacy, there are varying views on how to coerce nation-states to do what the U.S. wants them to, specifically, the act of coercive diplomacy. Scholar Bruce Jentleson cites the success of coercive diplomacy on Libya in his article, “Coercive Diplomacy: Scope and Limits in the Contemporary World.” Within the criteria of this are the concepts of carrots and sticks. Carrots and sticks refer to the policy of offering a combination of rewards (carrots) and punishments (sticks) to induce behavior.[ii] Within coercive diplomacy explicitly, there are three criteria to balance its effectiveness: proportionality, reciprocity, and coercive credibility. Proportionality refers to focusing on working with the regime on policy, rather than changing the regime within a weak nation-state, “The policy-not-regime-change reassurances provided through secret talks and other channels [are] crucial to”[iii] progress to coercive diplomacy. Reciprocity refers to “carefully calibrated carrot-and-stick . . .  step-by-step linkages between the carrots offered and the concessions made [to] building trust.”[iv] Lastly, coercive credibility refers to the U.S. military and government ability to use soft power—for example, the ability to use economic sanctions and multilateral support—against another nation-state.[v]

Bruce Jentleson explains the effectiveness of these realms of diplomacy. However, its focus does not delve into the realm of South and Central America. To fully examine if SOUTHCOM applies these principles as well as Jentleson desires, this paper will examine General John Kelly’s posture statement in lieu with current events in Venezuela and Colombia.

SOUTHCOM Posture Statement and Current Issues

When General John Kelly addressed the Congress with his posture statement, he laid out four specific security issues to keep the homeland safe from the region. These priorities sequentially are detention operations, countering transnational organized crime (CTOC), building partner capacity, and planning for contingencies.[vi] Though this address was issued almost ten months ago, its priorities remain the same today. When reviewing the priority of CTOC, General Kelly focuses much of his attention toward the nation-states of Venezuela and Colombia.[vii]

When observing current events relations with Venezuela, it is no wonder why CTOC nears the top of SOUTHCOM’s priorities. In the case of the nation-state, relations between them and the U.S. remain uneasy. The Venezuelan people elected Hugo Chavez, a socialist who expressed support for anti-Western alignment and allied with U.S. adversaries like Russia and Iran, as their president from 1999 to 2013.[viii] Upon his death, the Venezuelan people elected his successor, Nicolas Maduro, who maintains a similar Socialist stance as Chavez on policy and strategy for the state,[ix] as well as similar negative sentiment toward the United States. One of the claims cited by SOUTHCOM is the Venezuelans government’s allowance of drugs to pass through the state to the U.S., “because of antagonistic relations with President [Maduro] of Venezuela, the reach of American drug agents, and the aid that comes with them, does not extend here.”[x]

Unlike Venezuela, the threat of CTOC from the state of Colombia does not reside within its government, but rather from the internal issues of the socialist movement called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC is a Marxist people’s army fighting against, in their eyes, the capitalist imperialism of the Colombian government. In order to maintain a standing force for over five decades, the FARC entered into drug trafficking as a means for financing, “Over time, the drug trade became a major source of financing for the FARC, as its role expanded to include control of laboratories, marketing, and trafficking.”[xi]

The issues that the states of Venezuela and Colombia face with regards to drugs entering the United States forces SOUTHCOM to make CTOC a vested national interest.  The type of diplomatic measures the military and government implements determines the effectiveness in which the government and SOUTHCOM coerce this problem onto both states.

Diplomacy and SOUTHCOM: A Match Made in Heaven

When looking at Venezuela and Colombia, one government appears a clear ally to support SOUTHCOM in its mission on CTOC, while the other appears an adversary to U.S. intervention and support. Because of this, SOUTHCOM implements the appropriate level of carrots and sticks within the coercive diplomacy formula that Jentleson would recommend, “the keys to success are a coercer state strategy that combines carrots and sticks . . . against a target state . . . for the external pressure and persuasion.”[xii]    

In regards to Venezuela, SOUTHCOM applies more sticks than carrots against its government. Because the Venezuelan does not support the United States in many of SOUTHCOM’s priorities, the U.S. continues to use its coercive credibility to pressure the government. The measures of coercive credibility that are implemented include economic sanctions, restriction on visas,[xiii] and freezing assets of Venezuelan officials identified as responsible for drug trafficking and human rights violations.[xiv] This, alongside SOUTHCOM’s continued efforts of Operation MARTILLO “continues to demonstrate commitment by the United States . . . to counter the spread of transnational criminal organizations.” While these issues continue to evolve, the overall goal diplomatic effort remains to make the Venezuelan government more cooperative towards SOUTHCOM preventative goals on CTOC.[xv]

The Colombian government, unlike Venezuela, is more cooperative with SOUTHCOM’s goals against CTOC. Because of this, the government and SOUTHCOM apply more of a combination of what Jentleson refers to as proportionality and reciprocity. Proportionality by focusing on working on policy change and reciprocity from “both sides believ[ing] they are getting ‘something for something’ rather than ‘nothing for something.’”[xvi] The U.S. and Colombia had been long standing allies, and Colombia has received aid since Cold War-oriented military assistance pacts in 1952.[xvii] From this diplomatic aid the U.S. provides, Colombia has become one of SOUTHCOM’s best allies in CTOC, “after years of intensive capacity building assistance in Colombia . . . [it] now is an exporter of law enforcement and justice sector capabilities.”[xviii] This openness between countries also allows for the best proportionality on policy, “[SOUTHCOM] is providing assistance to the Colombian military’s transformation efforts, as it works to improve interoperability.”[xix]


When General John Kelly addressed the Congress House Armed Services Committee in February 26, 2014, he laid out specific fears with regard to the looming sequestration: “Ultimately, the cumulative impact of our reduced engagement will be measured in terms of U.S. influence, leadership, and relationships in the Western Hemisphere. Severe budget constraints have serious implications for all three.”[xx] Through these deficiencies, SOUTHCOM continues to use the art of diplomacy in order to enforce the objectives of protecting the U.S. homeland from CTOC. Whether attempting to coerce adversarial governments or allies, diplomacy, when used correctly, allows SOUTHCOM to tell “people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”[xxi]


Andreoni, James. “The Carrot or the Stick: Rewards, Punishments, and Cooperation.” EconPapers. Orebro University School of Business. Website updated November 27, 2014.

Bata, Sergio. “Why Sanctions Are Right in the Case of Venezuela.” The Huffington Post. Website updated October 11, 2014,

Jentleson, Bruce. “Coercive Diplomacy: Scope and Limits in the Contemporary World.” The Stanley Foundations. December 2006.

Kelly, John F. "Posture Statement of General John F. Kelly, United States Marine Corps Commander, United States Southern Command." House Armed Services Committee. February 26, 2014.

Kumar, Nikhil. “The Man Who Holds Venezuela’s Future.” TIME Magazine. April 23,2014.

Marcella, Gabriel. “The United States and Colombia: The Journey from Ambiguity to Strategic Clarity.” U.S. Naval War College. May 2003.

Neuman, William. “Cocaine’s Flow is Unchecked in Venezuela.” The New York Times. Published July 26, 2012.

“Quotes by Winston Churchill.” Good Reads. Accessed November 26, 2014,

 “Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime: Addressing Converging threats to National Security.” The White House. July 2011.

“US House of Representatives approves Venezuela sanctions.” BBC News. Website updated May 28, 2014.

“U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials may bring them to the table.” The Washington Post. Website updated May 29, 2014.

“Venezuela Profile.” BBC News. Website updated September 24, 2014.

Youngers, Coletta and Eileen Rosin. Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.: London, 2005. 

End Notes

[i]Quotes by Winston Churchill, Good Reads, accessed November 26, 2014,

[ii]James Andreoni, “The Carrot or the Stick: Rewards, Punishments, and Cooperation,” EconPapers, Orebro University School of Business, website updated November 27, 2014,

[iii]Bruce Jentleson, “Coercive Diplomacy: Scope and Limits in the Contemporary World,” The Stanley Foundations, December 2006, 1,

[iv]Ibid., 1.

[v]Ibid., 1.

[vi]John F. Kelly, "Posture Statement of General John F. Kelly, United States Marine Corps Commander, United States Southern Command," House Armed Services Committee, February 26, 2014, 12-30,

[vii]Kelly, “Posture Statement,” 7. 

[viii]“Venezuela Profile,” BBC News, website updated September 24, 2014,

[ix]Nikhil Kumar, “The Man Who Holds Venezuela’s Future,” TIME Magazine, April 23,2014,

[x]William Neuman, “Cocaine’s Flow is Unchecked in Venezuela,” The New York Times, published July 26, 2012,

[xi]Coletta Youngers and Eileen Rosin, Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy, (Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.: London, 2005), 103. 

[xii]Jentleson, “Coercive Diplomacy,” 3.

[xiii]“US House of Representatives approves Venezuela sanctions,” BBC News, website updated May 28, 2014,

[xiv]Sergio Bata, “Why Sanctions Are Right in the Case of Venezuela,” The Huffington Post, website updated October 11, 2014,

[xv]“U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials may bring them to the table,” The Washington Post, website updated May 29, 2014,

[xvi]Jentleson, “Coercive Diplomacy,” 3. 

[xvii]Gabriel Marcella, “The United States and Colombia: The Journey from Ambiguity to Strategic Clarity,” U.S. Naval War College, May 2003, 31,

[xviii]“Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime: Addressing Converging threats to National Security,” The White House, July 2011, 9,

[xix] Kelly, “Posture Statement,” 21. 

[xx]Kelly, “Posture Statement,” 3.

[xxi]Quotes by Winston Churchill, Good Reads, accessed November 26, 2014,


About the Author(s)

Christopher Cedros is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy. His tours include serving as Communications and Ordnance Officer aboard USS Klakring (FFG-42) and Damage Control Assistant aboard USS Farragut (DDG-99). Christopher has deployed operationally for United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), United States Central Command (CENTCOM), United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), and United States European Command (EUCOM). These views do not reflect the opinions of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or the United States Navy and are solely his own.