Under President Juan Manuel Santos, Colombian foreign policy has focused on lobbying for inclusion in international bodies. This strategy appears to be aimed at enhancing the presidential campaign slogan of “national unity,” rather than being a credible attempt to socialize the country into international norms. This “national unity” discourse is aimed at enhancing the population’s sense of a unified identity as Colombians.
A country’s identity is determined as much by what citizens share as by the perception of their nation’s standing in the international stage. The commonalities that Colombians share are minimal due to the varied ethnicities, customs, and deep economic inequality, among other factors. Perhaps the most prominent element defining “Colombian-ness” is the shared experience of violence in its various forms. This commonality has been exploited in the past by defining the FARC as the only agent waging a war on Colombia – similar to the identity consolidation that Bush’s war on terror signified for the U.S. foreign policy, but part of a more sophisticated, effective and enduring effort to create a sense of unity. Perceiving the country fulfilling seemingly important international roles would instill a sense of pride in the population, and the push to join three international bodies is an effort to bring this about.
The decision to seek a seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was taken by Uribe under particular regional circumstances, yet Santos has maintained this position despite an improvement in the regional climate. It is argued that Uribe’s objective in joining this body was to discuss the perceived threat that Chavez posed; a menace that contributed to Uribe’s popularity. Being part of the UNSC when relations with regional neighbors have improved would be counterproductive. First, Colombia is in no position to make contributions regarding peace and security issues as discussed in the UNSC. On the contrary, Colombia’s precarious situation would become more evident. Second, Colombia may alienate important partners; Brazil and the U.S. have been at loggerheads over Iran’s nuclear initiative. Nevertheless, Colombia gained a non-permanent seat on the UNSC on October 12.
Joining the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), however, would only boost the government’s image. The APEC was created in 1989, initially to advance regional economic cooperation. In 1994, this aim was replaced by a new one: the creation of a free and open trade and investment zone across the Asia-Pacific region in two stages, starting in 2010 and finishing in 2020. This aim has not been fulfilled due to members’ different stages of development; developing countries insist in protecting strategic and infant industries. APEC has therefore become no more than an annual photo op for heads of state wearing the traditional dress of the hosting nation. The next meeting will be held in Japan on November 13-14. Colombia has been invited to attend the meeting and may be able to join in the future if a moratorium on the accession of new members is lifted this year.
The move to be part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) represents the most symbolic step yet towards raising Colombia’s profile, lacking any intrinsic merit. The OECD seeks to coordinate economic policies among its 33 member countries. Santos’ aim is to join the OECD club to learn best practices. The OECD, however, accepts countries that have a history of good practices rather than nations with less than satisfactory practices. A case in point is the accession to the OECD this year of Chile, which is an example of exceptional achievements in the economic, political and social spheres. This relative homogeneity among member countries allows the organization to prescribe solutions to shared problems.
Some international bodies can be conducive to helping a country implement important reforms provided the country has achieved a minimum criteria. In comparison to OECD countries Colombia has the worst figures in the following indicators: income inequality, press freedom, failed states index, human development index, and gross domestic product per capita; and the second worst figures in: democracy index, global peace index, corruption perception index, and human development index. Besides, Colombia’s image abroad could be further affected by recent problems that remain largely unresolved: false positives, illegal wiretappings, humanitarian crises, human rights violations, impunity for human rights abuses, etc.
When considerable improvements are made the government would be in an ideal position to share with the world its achievements, make important contributions and implement internationally-sanctioned norms. A real, well-founded sense of pride would then result in a solid “national unity.”