Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, has an interesting piece in today’s Washington Post on Colombia’s rapprochement with Venezuela. Among the choice bits:
U.S. relations with Colombia—Washington’s major Latin American ally over the past decade—may be on the verge of some important changes… Although the United States has been Colombia’s closest ally in fighting rebels and drugs, for Colombia the relationship often resulted in isolation from neighbors… Colombians are tired of often-futile visits to Washington aimed at convincing U.S. lawmakers that they should back the trade deal… For Colombia, it seems, as increasingly for the rest of Latin America, it is time to move on in the world.
Shifter is making the case that there is a foreign policy imperative for passing the pending free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia. The United States has asked a great deal of Colombia, but has blocked an agreement that would be mutually beneficial and is a top priority of the Colombian government. To justify this blockage, initiated by House Democrats in 2008, there has been a prolonged period in which U.S. leaders have criticized Colombian policies without offering any list of specifics that might be redressed.
The argument that FTAs can play an important diplomatic role is not new. It was put forward by Senator John McCain in his presidential run in 2008, for example. But the Obama administration has been slow to embrace it. That reluctance may have been overcome this summer, however. Last month, David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal described a potential turning point in the context of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS):
The attempt to revive the South Korea deal began several weeks ago in a late-afternoon conversation between the president and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. The president was looking for ways to shore up U.S. backing for South Korea after North Korea’s new aggressiveness, had promised to increase U.S. exports and wanted to reinforce U.S. economic ties to Asia. Mr. Emanuel saw the South Korea deal as addressing all three objectives.
A key question, then, is whether the logic supporting the KORUS push will be extended around the world. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) has already argued that it should. Shifter’s article provides the specific reasoning in the Latin American context.