Institutionalizing Global Wars: State Transformations in Colombia, 1978-2002: Colombian Policy Directed at Its Wars, Paradoxically, Narrows the Government's Margin of Maneuver Even as It Tries to Expand It

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Colombia has been waging two interrelated but distinct wars since the late 1970s: its civil conflict and the war on drugs. On both accounts it is difficult to tell internal from external factors, but the distinction is important. (1) In Colombia, where democracy has coexisted with war for at least two decades, it is crucial to know if global variables have been instrumental in the persistence of democracy, or if, on the contrary, they have drained democratic resources. And then, in one case or another, how have they done it?

This set of what and how questions has three possible answers. First, the torch of contemporary democracy may be in the hands of cosmopolitan communities that oppose reactionary nationalist forces. So politically, globalization is synonymous with democracy. This is part of Kaldor's "new wars" thesis, which in turn has its antecedents in previous waves of globalization. (2) Constant, for one, believed that commerce and the universalization of rights and tolerance would begin an era of peace that only primitive nationalists would reject. (3) Second, global actors may hinder development, or promote self-serving policies that destroy, or severely undermine, democracy. Several works have strongly made this case regarding economic globalization or the war on drugs. (4) They argue that it is not strictly the objectives that may be wrong, but the unintended consequences might be so large and so negative that they call into question the entire enterprise. Third, global actors may promote democracy only to have national actors appropriate it in unexpected ways. Robert Friman has argued that when national policy makers confront great external pressure and have only a narrow margin in which to maneuver, they may resort to deception, appearing to agree to international demands while in fact serving national--or their own--interests. (5) However, by doing so they might engage in a process in which they progress from opposition to simulation, then to imitation and finally to internalization. The canonical example of this is "human rights diplomacy," and certainly part of the Colombian government's reaction to the international human rights community fits into this model.

These perspectives can co-exist, since each of them might simply be highlighting particular aspects of the very complex relationship between internal conflict and external factors affecting it. However, in each case we are essentially examining only whether global forces are promoting or undermining democracy. It is possible to take another stance altogether. Instead of wondering about the sign and quantum of democracy contributed by global forces--positive or negative, large or small--we can ask about the changes in the nature and structure of the state and the political regime when it faces war and must incorporate new stakeholders while possibly losing old ones. It is this set of chemical changes in the nature of the state and the regime that will be the focus of this paper.

I will confine myself to the role of the United States government in setting policies and fostering institutional innovations related to both Colombian wars, the one on drugs and the one against guerrillas. The U.S. role has two aspects. On one hand, it defends democracy. Were it not for U.S. pressure, it is doubtful that the Colombian military would have tried to combat the paramilitary groups that, in collusion with the army, were committing atrocities against civilians. Figures show that it was only after pressure became intolerable, in the midst of a serious Colombia-U.S. conflict, that the paramilitary started to be harassed. (6) In the war on drugs, the U.S. has combated the penetration of organized crime into politics, a noxious phenomenon for any democracy. (7) On the other hand, it has severely distorted some basic democratic mechanisms, abducting them from public deliberation and creating reserved domains that are not only undemocratic, but also allow the growth of authoritarian tendencies within the state, as in the aerial fumigation of illicit crops. …


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