After almost half a century of conflict the Colombian government finally struck a landmark peace deal with the leftist rebel group, FARC in August 2016. It has been one of the deadliest and long standing conflicts of the Latin American region and one that caused huge number of civilian casualties over the years. Although this peace deal failed to get endorsement from the Colombian citizens who voted against this peace process in a plebiscite held around the country; nevertheless this peace process has strong implications for Colombia. This peace process showed that Colombia is ready to put behind its dark past plagued by years of violence. With a thriving economy, increased participation in international forums and constant efforts to mend its internal problems; Colombia has shown that it is ready to build itself a new reputation on the international arena.
The main focus of this article is to discuss about the foreign policy determinants and capabilities of Colombia as a sovereign state and the implication of these factors on the conduct of its foreign policy. The terms determinants and capabilities are sometimes used in a synonymous manner. That is they are interdependent. Determinants are nature’s given realities; you either use them or you don’t. But when determinants are consciously applied and converted into foreign policy capabilities then only they have any meaning to the strength of the state. Both determinants and capabilities can be further subdivided into specialized areas like geo-spatial realities, geo-economics, geo-demographic base, geo-strategy etc. These terms will be explored in terms of Colombia further into this writing.
Formerly a Spanish colony in the northern part of South America, Colombia declared its independence in 1810 under the leadership of Simon Bolivar. Back then the country was called Gran Colombia and it had much larger territorial expanse. Modern day Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama and Colombia all were included inside the territory of Gran Colombia. Colombia inherited its modern territorial shape in 1831 when the former state of Gran Colombia was dissolved. Modern day Colombia has many unique characteristics which sets it apart from other states of its region as well as the world. Hence its foreign policy implications have also been very different compared to its other Latin American neighbours. To have a better understanding about the foreign policy of any nation one needs to look into the determinants of the country’s foreign policy. For our convenience we divide the foreign policy determinants of Colombia into certain categories, namely geo-political realities, geo-spatial realities and geo-demographic base.
Foreign policy determinants
Geo-political realities: Colombia, a country expanding more than 1 million square kilometers, its geo-political realities are quite unique. The country is bordered by 5 other counties namely – Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama. And it is the only South American country to have access to both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It sits in the strategically important connecting point of South and Central America. Its location in the northern tip of the South American continent is also a very attractive position in geopolitical terms. Colombia is rich in natural resources. It is the fourth largest coal producer worldwide, the fourth-largest oil producer in Latin America and the largest producer of raw emeralds in the world.
Geo-spatial realities: In geo-spatial terms, Colombia is divided by three Andean mountain chains or cordilleras: Cordillera Occidental (West Andes), Cordillera Central (Central Andes) and Cordillera Oriental (Eastern Ranges). Almost the entire southern region of the country is covered by thick the Amazon forest, the eastern part consists of the lowly populated Orinoco river basin, and the Pacific and Caribbean shorelines along the West and North, all these make up the geographical margin for Colombia.
Geo-demographic base: Geo-demographic base is the population aspect of a country.
Now for Colombia, a country home to almost 50 million people, it is the 3rd most populous country in Latin America. The country has a tropical equatorial climate, and as a result the main population cores are located in temperate zones at higher altitudes. Majority of the population lives around the upper highlands and coastlines. Very small portion of the population as little as 3% lives in the East and South. Almost 8 million people live in the capital city of Bogota situated at the center of the country, which is considered as the population core. The two largest port cities in the northern coasts are Cartagena and Barranquilla. The Magdalena river basin links the core with these peripheral population centers.
Now let us look at how Colombia has used these determinants to make her foreign policy more capable. For our convenience we will try to look at the foreign policy capabilities of Colombia from two perspectives, namely geo-strategic and geo-economical perspectives.
Foreign policy capabilities
Geo-strategy: Geo-strategy is based on conversion, converting nature into muscle. For Colombia there are certain geo-strategic challenges. The major challenge is to strengthen control over its population cores and its resource rich peripheral areas. Another dimension of Colombia’s foreign policy is that although it suffered from years of internal conflict and drug trafficking problems abroad, but it was never diplomatically isolated.
Colombia always had good participation in the international forums and today it has membership in a host of international organizations. Colombia has traditionally played an active role in the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) and in their subsidiary agencies. Former President Gaviria became the Secretary General of the OAS in 1994.
One of the long term strategies of Colombia is to maintain close ties with whoever controls the Panama Canal, which is the United States of America. It is a very important trade route for Colombia and vital for its flourishing economy. This might explain the reason why Colombia always had close ties with the U.S. Besides, combating issues like communism, drug trafficking and also due to geographic proximity the U.S. and Colombia always worked together.
The famous ‘Plan Colombia’ is the name of a United States military and diplomatic aid initiative aimed at combating Colombian drug cartels and left-wing insurgent groups in Colombian territory. The plan was originally conceived between 1998 and 1999 by the administrations of Colombian President Andrés Pastrana Arango and U.S. President Bill Clinton, with the goals of ending the Colombian armed conflict and creating an anti-cocaine strategy.
Since 2000, the U.S. has spent nearly $10 billion to help encourage peace and eradicate illicit drug trafficking in Colombia. Moreover, Colombia’s military capability has also transformed radically due to years of fighting internal conflicts and drug wars. Between 2002 and 2010 Colombia spent $100 billion on defense. That is an average of $12.5 billion per year. These investments in the war machine made Colombia’s army among the largest in Latin America, on par with Brazil, and among the 15th largest in the world. Today Colombia’s armed forces including the country’s 160,000 police amounts to 463,149 personnel. A strong army increasingly allows Colombia to exert regional influence and establish authority. Some demonstrations of which have already been seen against Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Geo-economics: When we discuss the economic aspects of geo-strategy then we use the term geo-economics. It refers to the non military approach of determining strategy. For a country like Colombia which has suffered heavy blows on its economy in the past due to internal instabilities but over the past one and a half decade it has very efficiently found a recovery path. Colombia has rich deposits of natural resources and as we have already mentioned it is the leading exporter of emerald in the world market.
Its economy is largely reliant on energy and mining exports. However, these items can be very much affected by price fluctuations, and so in recent years Colombia took significant initiatives to diversify its economy. The Colombian tech industry grew 177% between 2007 and 2012, and it is also being called the Silicon Valley of South America.
Besides in recent years Colombia has developed its shipbuilding industry to such an extent that now it is revered as one of the biggest in Latin America. The U.S. and Colombia cooperation in the security sphere has extended into the economic sphere as well. Colombia views the U.S. as a long-term strategic trade partner. Additionally, Colombia is a free market economy and therefore has major commercial and investment ties to the United States.
In 1990, the administration of President Cesar Gaviria initiated economic liberalization or “apertura,” with tariff reductions, financial deregulation, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and adoption of a more liberal foreign exchange rate. These policies eased import restrictions and opened most sectors to foreign investment, although agricultural products remained protected. As a result, today the U.S. is Colombia’s largest trading partner and the U.S. – Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement in 2012 has reduced tariffs and promoted Colombian economic growth.
Without exaggerating one can truly say that Colombia in the 21st century has taken serious steps to eradicate its past horrors. It is no longer a country infamous for its drug trafficking activities or for its Marxist guerrilla groups. Throughout the last one and a half decade it has quite successfully built itself a new reputation as one of the fledgling powers of Latin America. With a thriving economy, robust military and strong international alliances. As a result, Colombia can be safely labeled as rising regional power in the Latin American region.
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