America First, Colombia Second? Peace with FARC in the Age of Trump

The peace deal signed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timochenko in June 2016 was a leap forward for a country devastated by civil war, but it was only the first step in a long process. As if winning over the opinions of the Colombian people were not enough to bring the agreement into force, Santos must also balance American concerns; without US funding and support, FARC disarmament is unlikely to occur. The Trump Administration’s “America First” foreign policy makes the prospect of Colombian peace all the more uncertain.

In its most basic formulation, an “America First” policy doesn’t have to spell out negative consequences for the Colombia-FARC negotiations. In his January 2017 Inaugural Address, President Trump declared, “From this moment on, … every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” Placing the welfare and security of American citizens over those of other countries is nothing new; past presidents have insisted on US interests throughout their dealings with foreign powers.

The problem with “America First” arises not from its emphasis on American interests, but from the diminished role it gives to the values of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. On the many occasions in which President Bush and President Obama asserted US interests, they also noted the importance of American values. This could not be further from the current administration, in which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that if the United States allows its policies to be dictated by its values, “we probably can’t achieve … our national security interests.” Trump and Tillerson’s view of the relative importance of interests vs. values has become painfully clear in the Middle East, where restrictions on civil liberties in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have gone without even mild criticism from Washington.

The Obama administration pursued constructive engagement on the issue of peace in Colombia. In several instances, Secretary of State John Kerry forcefully stated the United States’ support for the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group. President Obama committed over $450 billion to aid in the peace process, creating a joint program between the United States and Colombia called Peace Colombia. Some of this investment may have been an effort to protect US interests in the long term; as scholars of foreign policy have observed, a stable international order provides an advantage to the United States. At least some of the pressure for US engagement in Colombia, however, came out of a concern for the welfare of the Colombian people; notably, a group of American faith leaders pressed for US support for truth and reconciliation in the aftermath of the conflict.

President Trump’s lack of interest in promoting values is visible in his equivocating stance on Colombian peace. The administration began wavering on the issue during Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearings, in which he declared that the administration would have to review the agreement and “determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.” The White House waited nearly nearly four months in office before finally endorsing the deal in a meeting with Santos. In the meantime, President Trump held an impromptu meeting at Mar-a-Lago with two Colombian opposition leaders, Andrés Pastrana and Álvaro Uribe, raising eyebrows in the Colombian press. The President also fed doubts about his support for Colombia when he fired Special Envoy to the Colombian Peace Process Bernard Aronson, failing to appoint a replacement. These steps were not insignificant. By calling into doubt the international consensus in favor of peace, the administration fueled the already-strong movement against Santos and the agreement.

President Donald Trump, right, listens as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Trump has followed his muddled rhetoric on Colombia with muddled actions. In May 2017, President Trump preserved the Obama administration’s commitment of $450 billion to Peace Colombia with a federal spending bill. However, his “skinny budget” proposal for 2018 calls for a 21% reduction in funding that would have been used to reintegrate rebels into society, promote rule of law in areas formerly controlled by FARC, and provide humanitarian assistance. President Obama’s dealings with Colombia were consistent; this administration’s actions have been anything but.

Rather than taking a clear-cut position on the Colombia peace negotiations and using the power of the United States to accomplish that goal, the Trump administration has deployed American diplomacy to a more immediate US interest in Colombia: preventing the spread of cocaine. Unlike the Colombian peace agreement with FARC, which serves the long term interests of the United States but is more directly associated with human rights, cocaine interdiction has an immediate and obvious impact on US citizens. By cutting off a major supplier of drugs to the United States, the US hopes to curb its own domestic cocaine problem. If human rights have to be sacrificed to make it happen, then so be it.

Police officers stand guard over packages of seized cocaine during a media presentation at the pacific port of Buenaventura, Colombia, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. About one ton of cocaine was seized in a container during an operation of control by counternarcotics police at the pacific port. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
President Trump’s swift action to curb cocaine trafficking has come at a high cost. In September 2017, President Trump issued an ultimatum to the Santos government: ramp up cocaine eradication efforts, or be designated as having “failed demonstrably” at adhering to international counternarcotics agreements. Just three weeks later, Colombian police fired on a group of protesting coca farmers, killing at least eight and injuring over 50 people. The massacre not only runs counter to human rights norms regarding free association and peaceful assembly, but also threatens the delicate peace between FARC and the central government. President Trump’s concern for US interests at the expense of American values is in sharp contrast to the Obama administration’s steady balancing of justice and peace.

US values have played a crucial part in Washington’s engagement with Colombia, and they should remain a factor as Bogotá navigates the peace process. Under an “America First” policy that abdicates the United States’ human rights obligations, the Colombian Peace Deal is in a precarious position.