A Foreign Policy Full of Challenges

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The new Colombian government outlined an ambitious domestic agenda that calls for jumpstarting the economy, consolidating the peace, and promoting social justice. The success of this agenda will depend on many factors, among them how Ivan Duque manages the many foreign policy challenges he will face in a world marked by great uncertainty.  

The first uncertain factor is the United States. For decades, Washington has been Colombia’s “strategic ally” in an effort to bolster security, strengthen democracy and human rights, combat drug-trafficking, and spur the economy. Some US policies have been more effective than others, but with an unpredictable president in Donald Trump and an increasingly dysfunctional Washington, Duque will have to navigate rougher waters than his predecessors. 

The surge in coca production in Colombia over the past five years alarms the US government and Congress and worries Republicans and Democrats alike. The issue is at the top of the bilateral agenda, even more so because hardliners in the “war on drugs” occupy senior positions in the Trump administration. It is unlikely that there will be many references to “shared responsibility”, as there was with Trump’s predecessors in the Oval Office. To cooperate with the US in counter-narcotics Duque will have to manage political tensions on this hot issue in Washington and Bogota and try to avoid a “renarcotization” of the relationship.  

While Trump is never predictable, Washington can also be helpful to Duque in boosting the Colombian economy. The new president will have to preserve the bilateral free trade agreements and actively promote investment of US companies in Colombia. But Duque should also understand that Trump’s extreme trade policies should concern Colombia and the rest of the region. It will be important for Duque and his team to closely follow the ongoing NAFTA negotiations, which might offer clues and help anticipate how Trump will deal with other free trade agreements in other countries.

Political developments in Latin America can also either help advance or complicate Duque’s domestic agenda. Venezuela, without question, will be the new administration’s most vexing foreign policy challenge.   There is a great deal at stake and enormous risks for Colombia, especially related to security and drug-related issues. The Venezuelan disaster is the Latin American issue that the Trump administration devotes the most attention to, and is most worried about. Trump might want to press Duque to work with Washington on the Venezuela issue and to take on a more active regional role. At least in the short term, we can expect heightened tensions between Bogota and Caracas, especially in light of the denunciations of president Nicolas Maduro against outgoing president Juan Manuel Santos, who he accuses of an assassination attempt. 

President Duque and his foreign minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo know that Venezuela’s collapse is an urgent problem for Colombia, which will require a careful yet firm management to defend Colombian national interests but without provoking a violent reaction from the Venezuelan regime. Colombia will have to maintain the pressure on Maduro to help restore democratic rule and alleviate the humanitarian crisis. At the same time, Duque needs to prepare for an even greater exodus of Venezuelans, as the UN has projected, and seek more support from the rest of Latin America to manage the dramatic and tragic migration.

The Duque administration’s relationship with Mexico under the leftist government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who takes office on December 1, will also be important. First, because AMLO and his foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard defend the principle of sovereignty and no intervention, which suggests a softer posture on Venezuela than the current Mexican president. Second, AMLO’s security policies are unclear, but they seem to prioritize pacification over the fight against drug trafficking, especially given the failed policies of his predecessors. The next Mexican president has said he ruled out giving an amnesty to drug kingpins, but there is concern in Bogota about his commitment to a tough approach against the Sinaloa cartel, which has a relationship with the mafia in Colombia and is a destabilizing factor.  

Moreover, it is still not clear what AMLO’s position will be regarding the Pacific Alliance, which will be vital for Duque’s economic agenda. To be sure, a more protectionist and erratic US could well push Mexico to strengthen its involvement with the Pacific Alliance and even Mercosur. But the possibilities of relaunching Latin American integration will depend in part on the results of presidential elections in Brazil (in October) and Argentina (October 2019).

Nicaragua will be another major challenge for Duque. New rulings by The Hague on the maritime dispute between the two countries are expected in coming months. This is a very sensitive issue for Colombians.   Whatever the court’s decision, Duque should be prepared for aggressive rhetoric from Daniel Ortega, who will be tempted to appeal to nationalism in the face of massive unrest in his country today.  

Finally, and looking beyond the Americas, China could be a more attractive partner to pursue new opportunities in trade and integration, especially given the unpredictable situation in the United States. Until now, Beijing’s presence in Colombia has been limited compared to other South American countries. Colombia’s recent incorporation as an OECD member could help the country strengthen its global engagement, and Duque will have to continue pressing for its incorporation in the new Trans-Pacific agreement, which does not include the US.

The new Colombian government needs to be alert to the profound changes that are taking place throughout the region and the world. The uncertainty in Washington is far from over: today most experts expect that the Democrats could retake the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections later this year. In that scenario, pressures on Colombia about human rights issues and the assassination of social leaders could well intensify. Perhaps even more important, a Republican defeat would almost certainly open up discussions about impeaching Trump, and would also launch the presidential race of 2020, around the mid-point of Duque’s term.

For now, what is clear is that while the details of the new domestic agenda are being worked out, president Duque will need to be prepared for a turbulent international landscape.    

This article was originally published in Spanish for Semana