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Colombia joins the NATO alliance: exploring new waters


Colombia joins the NATO alliance: exploring new waters


Colombia has transitioned from a nation wracked by violent internal conflict to the first in Latin America to join the alliance.


– Colombia is now a NATO “global partner,” the first South American nation to join the alliance.
– While Colombia will not achieve full membership status and will therefore not take part in wargames, increased cooperation will produce a host of other benefits to both parties.
– The new situation may cause friction in the region, particularly given Colomboia’s eastern neighbour Venezuela — habours deep anti-US sentiments.

Mention Colombia and, not so long ago, one would have immediately thought of the violent armed conflict that has wracked the country since 1964. But a peace deal signed in 2016 between the government of President Juan Miguel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist guerrilla group, pacified the nation — which has now formally become a NATO “global partner”.

Colombia is the first Latin American nation to become accredited with the organisation, although Argentina tried to join some eight years ago. However, Colombia is not a full member. As a “global partner”, the nation will not participate in NATO wargames but will instead focus its cooperation in the areas of cyber security, maritime security, and terrorism — particularly terrorist links to organised crime.


NATO’s original purpose was as a military and political alliance to counter the threat of Soviet expansion during the Cold War. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the institution has expanded rather than faded away; its membership has grown beyond the original 12 founding nations to 29, largely culturally Western and geographically European. While the benefits to a South American nation of joining an organisation with a historic focus on Western Europe are not immediately obvious, Colombia stands to gain in a range of different areas.

Colombia’s membership is a public relations victory, especially coupled with its  acceptance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in May. President Santos, fresh from winning the Nobel peace prize for his work bringing the FARC to political terms, is determined to banish the ingrained image of Colombia as a war-ravaged narco state and replace it with that of a modern, stable nation.

Prestige is also an attractive factor — membership of NATO carries some diplomatic weight in and of itself, giving Bogota’s voice greater weight as it has the strength of the alliance behind it. It also places Colombia firmly within the Western bloc as an ally of both the US and EU nations, which gives it significant diplomatic clout, particularly in dealings with neighbours — the US remains the undisputed regional power in South America.

There are material benefits too. While Colombia already cooperates with many Western international partners to combat the ever-booming illicit drugs trade in the country, a deepening of cooperation should enable Bogota to begin to dislodge the well-established groups. Colombia does not have a full governmental presence in all areas of the county, and these power vacuums, largely in remote rural areas, are being taken advantage of by narco operations to establish cocaine production. This is now the major obstacle in the drive to improve Colombia’s development and security.

The highly profitable and highly international nature of the drug trade makes it difficult for a single nation to handle without close cooperation; this is particularly true for Colombia given the nation’s unstable history and still developing economy. Further NATO cooperation should see Bogota’s new partners more heavily press the transnational supply lines of the groups. This in squeeze the profits for producers, making it easier for the Colombian government to re-establish a presence in territory currently dominated by coca fields.  NATO member states will also benefit from any progress in thinning the narco trade — many are the destination market for Colombia’s most prominent export, cocaine.

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Photo: Daniel Cima / Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos / Flickr

The move to join NATO may lead to increased regional instability, particularly with Colombia’s eastern neighbour, Venezuela. Under President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela is veering towards authoritarianism and has in recent years supplanted Cuba as the beating heart of anti-US feeling in Latin America. Unsurprisingly, Caracas denounced Bogota’s global partnership as a “serious threat to regional peace and stability”.

While Colombia may moderate its diplomatic stance towards Venezuela as a result of its geographic location, many Western nations are more stringent — and public — in their criticism of Caracas’ slide towards authoritarianism. Venezuela may take the view that, as Colombia allies itself with an alliance condemning its actions, it is guilty of anti-Venezuelan sentiment by association. Maduro’s natural anti-American, anti-Western disposition — when combined with a floundering Venezuelan economy, a flow last year into Colombia of a million Venezuelan migrants fleeing poor conditions, and increasing domestic dissatisfaction with the leadership of Maduro — may lead to a significant heightening of tensions between the two neighbours.

Even more moderate nations, such as Brazil, are likely to feel a slight sense of unease about the deal — many South Americans recall the influence of the Munroe Doctrine, a 19th-century US policy which viewed South America as a US ‘sphere of influence’. Originally intended to prevent the New World from being dominated by the Old, it has seen Washington intervene both politically and military in South American affairs. Some nations that have fallen under this tenet of American foreign policy may see an increased US presence in Latin America as little more than an overextension of Washington’s interference in Latin American affairs — or worse, an attempted return to the era of “democratisation” heyday.

However, if the alliance is successful, NATO cooperation could help to stabilise the region in the long-term by reducing the power and reach of the illicit drugs trade, which provides the backbone of many criminal enterprises across the continent. Partnering with Colombia will allow NATO nations to pursue illicit drug trails back to producers, and Colombia’s assistance on the ground should stem the flow at the source — a much more effective method.

On the global scene, Colombia’s NATO partnership fits into a larger context of declining US geostrategic influence in Latin America. In recent years, Beijing has overtaken Washington as the preferred trading partner for many South American nations. This is a direct challenge to Washington, which still considers the southern part of the Americas as its near abroad. However, the US is now paying the price for having taken relatively little interest in South American stability or development since the Reagan era (when its interest could be considered overbearing) and China is benefitting from its policy of deliberately not interfering in the internal affairs of nations, which Latin America finds far more agreeable. Welcoming Colombia into NATO, therefore, is a reaction to this increasing Chinese influence in South America; offering the Colombians greater security cooperation is a means to bring them back into Washington’s embrace and perhaps reduce the influence of the renminbi on the Colombia peso.

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