Report on the ills of Colombia’s foreign policy

By: Andrés Molano Rojas, Professor, Universidad del Rosario, Academia Diplomática San Carlos
(Translated by Peter Lenny, a CSN Volunteer Translator)

UN Newspaper Edition No. 135  

Monothematic, reactive, and improvised. Such is Colombian foreign policy, whose deficiencies, with an enormous historical weight, have generated inertia and very resistant routines. The challenge is to transform it and turn it into a real State policy.
The Final Report of the Foreign Policy Mission of Colombia, brought to light in April, makes for reading as timely as it is mandatory. On one hand, it offers a pertinent diagnosis of Colombia’s foreign policy, and on the other, a persuasive and sensible inventory of the tasks to be undertaken.

A national, collective, and multi-sectorial effort is needed to make this critical reading. Only in that way, as the document points out, will Colombia be able to take advantage of the opportunity that it has, amidst the changes on the global and regional stage, and in its internal situation, to make a change in its international relations and formulate a new strategy of corresponding with the world.

The country has to design and execute a foreign policy that allows it to find its own place on the global stage, from where it can play a protagonist’s role and exercise some type of leadership, taking advantage of its resources and experience with issues that are currently relevant in the global agenda.

The work of the Mission can be taken advantage of to make a report of the ills that afflict the conceptualization and practice of Colombia’s foreign policy. Some have a long history, and it would seem that, upon repeating them, the Mission is more of the same. But redundancy is sometimes a powerful pedagogical tool, and, by virtue of insisting, perhaps the moment will arrive in which these characteristics and tendencies are corrected.

Like this, Colombia’s foreign policy:

It’s essentially idiosyncratic, and, therefore, it suffers from a deficit of institutionality. This is reflected in the way in which its handling depends on the character and the chosen affinities of the decision-makers, and in particular on those of the President of the Republic, taking priority over (and in spite of) institutional capacities. This has negative repercussions in the rationality of the decisive processes, and inhibits the development of the specialized bureaucratic structure that must be in charge of its implementation.  

It tends to be mono-thematic and one-directional. Whether it is about narcotrafficking or the fight against terrorism, the foreign agenda is usually defined in function of a lone dominating issue, which means leaving aside others in which the country also would have things to say, interests to defend, positions on which to lead, initiatives to promote, but which tend to be relegated to the second level, and end up being turned into lost opportunities. At the same time, the narrowness of the agenda leads, almost invariably, to a restriction in the contents of Colombia’s foreign discourse and its repertoire of speakers, while dialogue with others tends to be transmitted residually or is evaded altogether. In the end, it means losing visibility and leverage at the moment of intervening in multilateral forums.  

It is state-centric and excessively government-centered in its conception and application. Diplomatic missions and representation serve as true bridges that connect San Carlos Palace with other State Departments and Foreign Offices, but overlook – literally – a wide and mixed group of social actors whose influence is underestimated, when it is not demonized or looked down upon. Said another way, Colombian diplomacy is anachronistically state-centered and seems to have difficulties in adapting to a globalized and non-polar world, in which states do now function (if they ever have) as unitary and lone actors of the international system. On the internal level, this tendency is reflected in the scarce participation that civil society effectively has in the discussion of foreign policy issues, habitually considered the forbidden preserve of the federal government.

It is preponderantly reactive and only occasionally proactive. There is a tremendous “strategic vacuum” in foreign policy. Governments make goals and objectives, but rarely do they make explicit the mechanisms and necessary resources to reach them. So in practice, the conduct of the country on the global stage is strongly conditioned by purely contextual pressures and needs, and it is oriented more by short-term ambitions than by strategic valuations and long-term projections. In that sense, the country limits itself to reacting to external stimuli and global dynamics, and has not developed sufficient capacity to process and integrate them, and even anticipate and channel them in favor of its interests.

It suffers the consequences of the improvisation with which in Colombia public policies are designed (and executed) with special intensity. All the aforementioned perhaps can be synthesized in just one word: improvisation. Something which many public policies in Colombia suffer from, and which in the case of foreign policy makes its impact felt in to main aspects. First, in the way in which it is designed – without taking into consideration the calculus of the costs and benefits that each decision entails; and, if that were not enough, with the pretension that said costs can be easily eluded or avoided. Second, in the enormous frequency with which foreign policy decisions seem to be made and applied totally out of context, as if responding to a parallel or virtual reality that has nothing to do with the internal reality nor with current international dynamics.  

Responsibility, of whom?

It must be avoided, at all cost, that the Mission’s report end up turning into another collection piece, lost on a hidden shelf of the Foreign Office.
Even with the best will, the new Administration will not be able to – by itself – fulfill the task of transforming foreign policy. To begin, the duties mentioned previously have an enormous historical weight and have generated inertia and very resistant routines. Perhaps the government can start the effort, but who knows if it will manage to keep it going.

Therefore, we must drive and strengthen this transformation from the outside. For example, from political science and international relations programs in the universities, to the unions, social organizations and communications media, etc. That is also the best path so that Colombia’s foreign policy may become, finally, a real state policy.


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