Let's Celebrate Our Foreign Policy Success in Colombia
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos arrives in Washington this week for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Despite the somber state of affairs around the world, on the Oval Office’s docket will be what is arguably America's greatest foreign policy success in recent history.
"Foreign policy success" is a phrase we see too rarely. Among the list of failed interventions, refugee crises, adversarial relationships, and instabilities plaguing the world, Colombia is a poster child of success. And while success is said to have many fathers, this achievement has a well-defined lineage: the Colombian people and a bipartisan determination in the United States to stand by them.
The story of Plan Colombia begins in in the mid-1990s, with the country in the midst of a debilitating multi-front war against powerful narco-mafias and insurgent rebel groups. For over a decade, Colombian governments alternated between a determination to fight and failed offers to negotiate with rebels. The U.S. government responded with a comprehensive, long-term military, development, and institutional assistance plan. Requiring annual renewal, Plan Colombia, with its low cost and high payoff, prospered through three U.S. administrations.
To get a sense of that payoff, just look at Colombia today. Its once-flailing economy is now among the region's strongest and is on track for accession to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Insecurity has fallen dramatically. Take as a bellwether Medellín: long the world's most violent city, it was selected by the Wall Street Journal as the world’s most innovative in 2013. The country’s middle class has grown steadily over the past two decades, resulting in better education, health, and social services. The homicide rate has been slashed by two-thirds. A seemingly endless civil war has ended, and we helped make it all possible for less than 2 percent of what we spent in Iraq.
Great as that all is, the benefits from Colombia's transformation don’t end at its borders. Our real return on investment has come in the form of a powerful and steadfast partner – not just regionally, but globally.
In 2014, Colombia voted with the United States 80 percent of the time at the United Nations, the highest degree of support of any Latin American country. The only country in the region to hold "global partner" status with NATO, Colombia regularly lends diplomatic and material support to global security initiatives of interest to the United States. Its largely U.S.-trained military has sent numerous anti-insurgency units to hotspots in Central America, West Africa, and Afghanistan, training local security forces in regions whose stability carries greater security implications for United States than Colombia itself.
The Venn diagram of U.S. and Colombian interests is now a near-perfect circle. With its growing economic and diplomatic clout, Colombia has championed free trade in the region through the Pacific Alliance and has taken a leading role in responding to neighboring Venezuela's crisis. As a result of our two decades of support, today's Colombia doesn't just agree with American values, it espouses them.
Perhaps nowhere else in the world has U.S. foreign policy so thoroughly achieved its stated goals, though the credit is certainly not ours alone. Plan Colombia has benefitted from three determined and cooperative Colombian administrations, most recently from the tireless negotiating and decisive action of President Santos, who has lost both sleep and allies in his work as president.
With the war now ended, the most crucial stage is upon us: implementing peace.
Now is the time for a renewed commitment from the United States, complete with a revamped strategy that addresses the exigencies of Colombia today. After successfully waging war, the only way to consolidate our joint achievements is by waging peace. The Atlantic Council's Colombia Peace and Prosperity Task Force has presented a comprehensive blueprint for doing so.
The recommendations seek to preserve Plan Colombia's gains and address its shortcomings. Security spending should shift from active combat to demobilization, intelligence gathering, and counternarcotics. To prevent criminal networks from filling the post-conflict power vacuum, we should help the Colombian state quickly expand its presence in marginalized communities. Bogota has already devised plans to do so, including offering compensation for coca cultivators to switch to licit cash crops like cacao. U.S. funding will be critical in the success of these substitution policies.
We should work together to incentivize public and private investment in these communities to chip away at poverty, which is the single greatest lifeline for organized crime. And we should provide legal and technical assistance during the transitional justice process, ensuring the victims' rights to truth and reparation are upheld.
All this is not in the name of charity; it's an investment. Crop substitution in Colombia means fewer drug overdoses in the US. Securing peace means freeing up Colombian troops for peacekeeping work abroad. And investing in Colombia's inclusive development means a stronger market for US goods and services.
That said, our funding cannot be unconditional. We must monitor implementation of the peace deal reached between the government and the FARC militia to ensure both parties are complying with the terms and are meeting the necessary benchmarks. Coca cultivation must turn downwards, after increasing too fast in the wrong direction.
In the mid-90’s, we placed a bet on Colombia. Now, we have one chance to commit to the last stage. With so many failures in foreign policy, let's throw our weight behind one we know has worked.