In this interview, we speak with W. Alejandro Sanchez, IWP Class of 2007. Alejandro is an international affairs analyst who focuses on geopolitical and defense issues in the Western Hemisphere.
How did you become interested in international affairs/national security?
My father is a colonel (now retired) in the Peruvian Army, and several of my relatives have also been part of the Peruvian armed forces (my godfather is a retired general etc). Hence I grew up learning about the Peruvian military, the country's internal security problems (back in the 1980s and early 1990s we had two terrorist groups, Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) as well as South American geopolitics. I wouldn't say that I became interested in international relations and defense issues but rather that such issues have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
What attracted you to IWP?
A decade ago, IWP had some signs in the DC metro, and I remember seeing one and decided that I would check it out.
I had almost finished my M.A. degree, but I felt like I wanted to keep on studying and learn more perspectives about security affairs and global geopolitics. So I wrote down IWP's name and website on a notebook (this was just before smartphones came out), checked out the course catalog, and liked the courses that were offered. I also attended one of the open houses and found the staff and faculty very friendly, so I decided to apply.
IWP's location was another factor that convinced me to attend, as I work in the Dupont area, so commuting was pretty easy.
What was the most interesting thing you have learned at IWP? Did you write any papers or take any classes that you particularly enjoyed/were useful?
Two classes I remember taking were Geography and Strategy with Professor Marek Jan Chodakiewicz and Chinese Grand Strategy with Professor Ross Munro. I really enjoyed the course on China, as I had never taken one just about said country before, and it really opened my eyes to Chinese foreign policy. I have written some pieces on China's relations with Latin America and Caribbean relations for several outlets, and it really helped me to take such a class to understand Beijing's vision and objectives.
As for the Geography class, I remember that we had to do a term paper, and I decided to go outside my area of expertise and I picked the Golan Heights. My paper discussed their importance from military and political perspective. I researched it so much that I decided to write a letter to the editor to the Jerusalem Post to provide my opinion about the importance of the Heights. And it was published! I remember adding the letter to my paper.
This success helped me gain confidence to write pieces on topics other than Latin America and the Caribbean.
Did studying at IWP change your thoughts about international affairs or national security?
I like to think that I'm open minded and willing to have my opinions changed, particularly when it comes to geopolitics, which is all about perspectives. At IWP, I certainly learned new points of view and opinions that I had not been exposed to in other places where I studied. Even if I do not agree with a point of view regarding international affairs, it's important for me as an analyst to be aware of it so I know how other individuals regard a particular issue.
What do you feel are the most impactful actions/decisions you have made so far in your career?
I would say, writing about topics that could be considered obscure but are important geopolitically. I realized that to stand out as an analyst, I couldn't just write about the same issues everyone else was writing about, particularly as there are people much smarter than me (quite a lot of them) that analyze the same geographical regions as I do. So rather than writing about country X or problem Y that were on the news, I'd do some of that but also write about other areas. And it paid off!
Once I did a report on the role of Latin American militaries in United Nations peacekeeping operations, as my father was a Peruvian peacekeeper during the Yom Kippur War.
After the report was published, a professor contacted me saying he had read my piece and he invited me to write an essay for him, as he was the guest editor of an issue of the journal Globalizations. Of course I accepted, and I wrote about Brazil's role in the peacekeeping operations in Haiti and East Timor. I realized the literature out there, particularly in English, about Latin America's role in peacekeeping is very limited, so I started writing more pieces. Eventually, I became a member of an initiative called Providing for Peacekeeping: I did a profile of Peru's role in peacekeeping operations and I became their "Peru expert." I've also been invited to be a peer reviewer for a couple of journals on articles that discuss peacekeeping, and recently I co-authored a piece about MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with an analyst friend of mine who focuses on African affairs, as he has read my work on peacekeeping.
It's pretty amazing the opportunities one gets from having an idea that's different.
What are your plans for the future?
I've thought about applying for a PhD program, as I think I have done enough articles, including various essays in books and peer-reviewed academic journals, that demonstrate that I'm a serious analyst and scholar.
Additionally, I've thought about writing a book, though I have yet to find a topic that I can write 300 pages or more about and that would be of interest to publishers and readers.
What is a piece of advice you would give to members of the IWP community interested in joining the national security field?
Considering all the different jobs and activities that fall under the umbrella term "national security," it is difficult to give a one-size-fits-all type of advice.
I would say to those that want to be national security analysts (which includes a lot of intelligence/information gathering, analysis and writing), recognize you that your first draft will never sound like Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. You can write the best analysis imaginable, but if it has spelling/grammatical mistakes, your boss will be mad at you - I've seen reports lose credibility fast because the author kept writing "Columbia" instead of "Colombia" or the author mistook Paraguay for Uruguay. Always take the time to edit whatever you just wrote.
In your opinion, what is the strategic importance of Latin America and the Caribbean to the US?
While I certainly acknowledge the tensions Washington has with countries like Venezuela these days, the truth is that the vast majority of Latin American and Caribbean states have cordial relations with the U.S. and want to maintain them, if not increase them. While in other regions of the world, there is concern about U.S. military presence for example, most regional governments would actually welcome more U.S. security aid, particularly to combat transnational crimes like drug trafficking. I've read several posture statements by the commanders of Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) that repeatedly state how said agency has the lowest priority among the other Commands. I certainly understand the reason for this situation, as Latin America does not have nuclear weapons or major military powers that could threaten the U.S. or its allies (actually most Latin American governments can be regarded as U.S. allies!). Hence, I understand that this regional stability allows Washington to focus on more problematic areas of the world.
With that said, the U.S. is part of the Western Hemisphere, this country has significant trade relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, a growing number of U.S. citizens have Latin American or Caribbean descent, and most regional states are reliable U.S. allies.
Moreover, since the region is not at risk of some violent conflict (Mexico's internal struggle with cartels notwithstanding), this means that the U.S. does not need to deploy major military resources and assets to protect its allies. Economic aid, greater support to combat transnational crimes, educational scholarships, public diplomacy initiatives, visits by the USS Comfort to communities in need, fairer trade agreements, or more regular visits by senior officials can go a long way to show to Latin America and the Caribbean that Washington recognizes their importance and values their support.