Trump’s Weird Threat to Colombia
More foreign policy amateurism.
U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening that he may decertify Colombia as a partner in the war against drugs unless the South American nation reverses a record surge in cocaine production.
The shock rebuke for Washington’s staunchest ally in Latin America came Wednesday in the White House’s annual designation of nations it deems major drug-producing or drug-transit zones.
Twenty-two countries were designated by the U.S. as major drug transit zones Wednesday, and only Venezuela and Bolivia were deemed once again not to be fulfilling their international obligations to combat drug production and trafficking. The leftist governments of both those nations are hostile to the U.S.
Yet, in a statement, Trump said he “seriously considered” also decertifying Colombia because of the “extraordinary” growth of coca cultivation and cocaine production to record levels over the past year.
This is likely Trump doing what Trump does: thinking that making threats is some kind of negotiating tactic (even when negotiations aren’t even underway). After all: if he makes a threat, maybe others will be scared and change their behavior! Or, he can back off like he is making a concession!
The reality is that this is the President of the United States publicly insulting the US’s strongest ally in the region. It will have no effect on coca cultivation and cocaine production, but it will damage relations with the Colombian government and will negatively impact the Colombian public’s view of the US.
Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, described Trump’s threat as a “huge mistake” that would likely reverberate throughout a region that has long resented the U.S. drug certification process as a throwback to the days of gunboat diplomacy.
“The message to the rest of the region is that no matter how many years you collaborate with the U.S., if you deviate from our preferred strategy for a moment, we’ll publicly humiliate you,” Isacson said. “They’re taking the bilateral relationship to its worst place in two decades.”
Indeed, and for no reason save that the president thinks that bluster and bullying is a way to influence others. Given that he has already unnecessarily threatened military intervention in Venezuela and Vice President Pence is comparing him to Teddy Roosevelt, this is just another case of Trump creating more trouble in Latin America (not to mention all the Mexico rhetoric). Of the various amazing things about these utterances: they are pointless, unforced errors. Foreign policy isn’t some pointless reality TV show.
The certification process is an odd policy tool in any event, and in a case like Colombia, decertifying them at the moment would be detrimental to US policy goals. Essentially, decertifying Colombia would mean taking away assets Colombia would use to fight the drug war that the US wants it to fight. Such actions would lead to coca cultivation increases and drug interdiction decreases. It would be utterly counter to US policy preferences. It is not an accident that the only countries currently decertified (Bolivia and Venezuela) are places that would not be cooperating with the US on this topic no matter what. The certification process, which dates back to the 1980s, is really more about political signalling than it is about actual anti-drug actions.
(BTW: discussions about whether US anti-drug efforts in the region are a good idea is whole other conversation).