Trump’s Weird Threat to Colombia

More foreign policy amateurism.

col-flagVia the AP:  Trump delivers shock rebuke to Colombia over cocaine surge

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).

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. KM says:

    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!

    This is how a bully works: do what I say or I’ll punch you. Thing is, it only works if you are willing or able to throw the punch. A bully that doesn’t shove people into the dirt is a bully that quickly finds out some of his marks *will*.

    Columbia’s gonna turn right around and tell Trump to STFU. We’re not the only power in town anymore and if Columbia doesn’t like what we’re offering, China or Russia will be more then happy to offer better terms. I’ve noted this on other threads like this: all a SA country needs to do is allow China to perform military exercises in their waters or at their bases and suddenly there’s a foothold way too close to our borders. The more allies we lose, the more potential bases of power friendly to people who don’t like us.

  2. MBunge says:

    Let me see if I understand.

    Cocaine production has exploded in Columbia.

    According to that AP article, it appears that explosion is DIRECTLY LINKED to the policies of the Columbian government.

    Donald Trump signals this state of affairs will not be tolerated indefinitely.

    Steven Taylor and others throw a fit over Trump’s reaction.

    And Trump is supposed to be the fool?


  3. Joe says:


    Yeah, Mike. You don’t understand.

  4. If I might point out: it’s Colombia, not Columbia.

  5. @Joe: This would be the case, yes.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I see that cocaine futures just jumped 20%.

  7. Pete S says:

    @MBunge: So Colombia tried something different, it did not work to lower production, but did end a civil war. They apparently have stepped up interdiction so they are obviously trying. The proper response to this is maybe more along the lines of quiet discussions, not idiotic threats.

    Of course another US response could be to find an effective way to lower demand rather than focusing only on supply. Maybe the 80’s drug war which is still being increased by the DOJ is not the best answer?

  8. Ben Wolf says:

    This stuff has consequences. Venezuela is no longer allowing transactions in the dollar for their oil. China is issuing gold-backed, yuan denominated futures contracts in exchange for oil. Russia is also de-dollaring its economy. The dollar is going down long-term due not to money printing or too much debt, but to terrible foreign policy.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    FYI, buy big cap stocks and sell dollars on rallies.

  10. @Pete S: The reality is that no matter what has been done, the actual supply of cocaine has continued unabated and the street price has remained low (in other other words, despite billions spent, the supply-side policies have not been successful).

    Really, this is the same old song that has been sung for decades and there is a more than legitimate question as to whether the amount of money spent in the drug war has, in fact, been worth it. One thing is for sure: tough rhetoric is worthless and even tough policies often do not work. Indeed, it is historically the case that as cultivation is hampered in one location, it tends to shift elsewhere.

    The main issue is that there are a large number of people who like their blow and are willing to pay for it. That is the main problem. Yelling at our friends in Colombia won’t change that.

    So, ultimately, neither our esteemed commenter, nor the President, appear to have much of a grasp on the complexities of this issue.

    And, btw, aerial spraying is problematic because when Roundup is dumped from the skies, it lands on the licit and illicit alike.

  11. Mister Bluster says:

    If I might point out: it’s Colombia, not Columbia

    Bungles has been snorting toot off the bill of his red hat again!

  12. michael reynolds says:

    I assume by now that Colombian leaders have learned to ignore the man-baby’s screeches and howls. No one takes what Trump says seriously. The ratio of threats to follow-up is dozens to nothing. He threatened fire and fury if North Korea made any more threats. Have they stopped threatening? Nope. Has Trump done anything? Nope.

  13. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Mister Bluster: One might even say that he is talking out of his bungehole.

  14. SenyorDave says:

    @MBunge: Cocaine production has exploded in Columbia.

    I live in Columbia, MD. Is Trump actually threatening our town? We’re very blue, Clinton won almost three to one, so I guess it is possible.

    As far as cocaine production goes, I’m not in the know, but I haven’t read anything indicating Columbia, MD is a major supplier. But I assume you know much better.