Defense cooperation agreements are a good thing, and the United States has many with friendly nations around the globe. They enable mutual undertakings such as disaster response and counternarcotics efforts, they define limits, and specify rights and obligations for signatories. Sometimes they attract controversy, as did the U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) signed in October of 2009. But generally they won’t if they are in step with each party’s needs and adequately explained.
Unfortunately, when the U.S.-Colombia DCA was announced, South America’s regional bully, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was quick with a hysterical response. He deftly mischaracterized its counternarcotics theme as a threat to his government during a South American leaders’ summit in order to distract attention from his outlandish multi-billion dollar arms purchases. These include long-range Sukhoi Su-30 fighter-bombers, Mi-35 combat helicopters, plans for advanced Su-35 fighters, submarines, and seaborne missile attack platforms.
Whereas Chávez signs all manner of troubling pacts with Russia and Iran without restraint, it’s comforting to know that Colombia’s Constitutional Court decided that the DCA required legislative approval. That’s the difference separation of powers and rule of law make. The Court’s decision deserves respect and newly inaugurated President Juan Manuel Santos did the right thing by setting the issue aside.
As other commentators have pointed out, both countries can continue cooperating under a patchwork of existing arrangements. However, that’s not the end of the story. As security assistance to Colombia winds down because of successful efforts to reign in its internal terror threat, drug and arms trafficking remain an ongoing menace in the region. In Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, remnants of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas are now so involved in trafficking that people in rural areas refer to them as "FARCOs" instead of "narcos."
Although illicit drug consumption has stabilized in North America, it is still growing worldwide, ripe for expansion into India and China, both with burgeoning middle classes. Efforts to control and contain this phenomenon in our hemisphere — with all its related ills — will be useless unless the United States (which can afford it) is able to contribute to the fight by monitoring suspicious air and sea movements and passing that information to partner countries. Cooperation agreements will always be needed to facilitate this.
In negotiating them, we might keep in mind three principles. First, be flexible. A pact made with one government may not be acceptable to a successor. For 10 years, cooperation with Ecuador meant access to an airfield that we had improved for large, military planes and support crews to detect airborne and maritime drug shipments. When its footprint became politically sensitive, President Rafael Correa declined to renew the accord. Yet, cooperation continues in other ways as the United States helps Ecuador strengthen its own interdiction capabilities.
Next, embrace new methods. While we might need to continue tracking using conspicuous 1950s-vintage planes for now, flexible staging locations using smaller, less noticeable, civilian sensor platforms should become the model. With help from Congress, we might update our technology to do more tracking from ships or remote radar locations. These steps could help shrink our military footprint, reducing the need for facilities upkeep and status of forces agreements that take forever to negotiate and create headaches for partner countries.
Finally, work closely with partners and keep an eye on the political football. If an agreement begins to look out of step or wanders from its original purpose, then back up, take a deep breath, and start over. Negotiators sometimes try to pack as much as they can into an accord, which can invite speculation and raise unexpected complications. When satisfied all is ready for public discussion, accompany it with a comprehensive bilateral public affairs plan.
With accountability and such principles in mind, formal cooperation agreements trump a handshake and a smile any day. Perhaps at a later date, the U.S.-Colombia DCA might be rethought and renegotiated — if for no other reason than to consolidate previous agreements and update the responsibilities assigned to each party in light of the evolving nature of our cooperation. But when and if is up to Colombia.
In the meantime, regional leaders would do well to cast a more critical eye on pacts enabling Hugo Chávez’s arms buildup as well as all the extra-hemispheric help pouring into Venezuela to challenge the existence of its democratic neighbors.