The balance of power between the United States and Latin America has been shifting steadily over the last decade but for a variety of reasons Colombia has remained reliant on US support and loyal to the US government. This is now changing as Colombia gradually assumes a modest, but more prominent, economic and political role in global affairs.
The visit from high level US State Department officials in late October exemplified this trend and highlighted the fact that Colombia no longer has to go to Washington with its cap in its hand asking for support. It is unclear if talk of an enhanced partnership will be realized but this might not matter too much for Colombia, which has recently been strengthening ties to Europe, Asia and other Latin American countries. For all the grand words of James Steinberg, the US Deputy Secretary of State, the actual scope of the cooperation mentioned in the talks seemed a bit underwhelming for an ally that is “among the strongest and most vital that the US has.” A new focus on energy cooperation and scientific innovation does mark a change—and could bring some benefits to Colombia—but with US foreign policy centered on the Middle East and Asia and the Obama administration heavily focused on domestic issues there is nothing to suggest that there will be much concrete action. This is a shame because Colombia offers a lot of opportunities for the State Department’s often-stated goal of pursuing “mutually beneficial” policies. The US may not realize it yet but it needs access to Colombia’s growing market as well as firmer allies in South America. The US’s failure to ratify the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia has opened the way for exporters from Canada, Europe and Asia to take advantage. While the new Republican majority in the US House of Representatives might be positive for the approval of the Colombian FTA, there is no guarantee for swift action. Protectionist Democrats and isolationalist “Tea Party” Republicans may have the power to further delay the agreement. Fiscal conservatives will aim to further reduce US foreign aid and assistance. This is in contrast to other governments who recognize the need to expand trade and international support. At a recent speech in London the UK foreign minister, William Hague, claimed that they “need to focus more on Latin America” which is one of “the engines of international economic growth.”
It is true that original expectations in Latin America of President Obama were perhaps too high but the White House also made some mistakes. They spent too much time courting a Brazil, whose foreign policy focus is heavily weighted to “the South” instead of “the North”, and too little time supporting Mexico and Colombia, two historical allies. The US visit to Bogotá may finally suggest a shift in strategy. There is talk that the US may now focus on shoring up ties with the axis of “market-friendly” allies like Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Indeed this group is already forming its own alliances and US support for this integration would be mutually beneficial. However, I do not think that anyone in Latin America, including Colombia, is necessarily holding their breath for further engagement from Washington. In many cases they may not need it.