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Colombia’s NATO ambitions: a plausible pursuit

June 16, 2013   ·   0 Comments


Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shocked the international community when he stated that he wished for Colombia to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Such designs were quickly repudiated by the leaders of NATO countries, but Santos’ comments still spurred left-leaning Latin American leaders like Venezuela’s Maduro and Bolivia’s Morales into quick action. Even though Colombian membership in the world’s foremost political and military alliance seems to be an unattainable goal, the concept of NATO expansion beyond the European continent can prove to be a way to breathe new life into an old Alliance.

Scholars, pundits, and analysts frequently speak of the demise of NATO. Most think that the Alliance exists as an anachronistic artifact from the Cold War, a useful political tool for Western governments who fight conventional wars. Others believe that the recent economic crises will prove that NATO cannot be sustained by nations that cannot sustain their own budgets. Even more think that NATO serves no role that cannot be filled by individual countries and their militaries. No matter which of these theories predominates, NATO has begun to show signs of wear and tear, and the Alliance seems to have systemic issues that need resolution.

For example, the twenty-eight member nations of NATO often have starkly different national security and defence objectives. Some nations want to build worldwide military infrastructures to conduct operations in various corners of the globe. Others still wish to maintain the prosperity and stability of the European continent while safeguarding against only the most dire threats to security. Finally, some NATO nations, particularly the newest members, seek to use the Alliance as a steppingstone towards full integration into the European community. While there is common ground on the broadest of ideological levels, the members of NATO differ on what their Alliance should look like and how it should operate.

NATO’s initiatives have also begun to languish. To illustrate, no nation has joined NATO since Albania’s accession in 2009. The “Smart Defence” programmes designed to pool, share, and efficiently allocate resources are in their infantile stages, with the implementation of NATO’s Strategic Air-Lift Capability being the largest achievement thus far. This month, NATO had its first serious conversations about cybersecurity and its wider defence implementations, six years after a crippling distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against Estonia brought attention to a new form of warfare for the first time. Furthermore, the logistical difficulties encountered by NATO forces in the Libyan intervention indicated a reliance on American warpower, an increasingly rare commodity given the US’ recent “Asian Pivot”.

But these issues should be considered growing pains for an international organisation that is still in its adolescence. Fortunately, NATO was never tested during the Cold War, and the first NATO joint operations came in response to the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s. From there NATO has engaged in various operations across the globe. Though the outcome of the Afghanistan war is inconclusive, NATO has done very well in other areas, including Operation Ocean Shield—NATO’s counter-piracy operations on the Horn of Africa. Though obstacles remain to further growth, NATO could seize upon opportunities to develop.

That’s where Colombia comes in. While the Latin American nation cannot join NATO because the organization’s treaty allows for only European additions, there are many reasons to amend or disregard that language. Firstly, the European requirement is tautological. The NATO of 1949 (the year of its founding) is geographically, culturally, socially, and politically distinct from the NATO of 2014. One cannot credibly argue that the Slovak Republic or Hungary (as landlocked Eastern European nations) could be considered to be a part of the “North Atlantic” region. The geographic and continental requirements seem arbitrary and there are good reasons to disregard them.

In the specific case of Colombian accession, NATO could be revitalized by having new membership. Colombia is a democratic nation that was born out of European and Western republican principles. While Colombia has its fair share of problems, few are insurmountable and none would jeopardise the health of the Alliance. NATO already has counter-terrorist, counter-narcotic, and various other training initiatives, and such programmes could be put to good use in Colombia. This could keep NATO personnel sharp, well-trained, and well-maintained without having to venture into various interventions.

Furthermore, Colombian accession would give greater urgency to integration efforts. Although some progress has been made, many of the newer members of the Alliance lag behind their allies in terms of equipment, processes, infrastructure, and research. Given the economic crisis of 2008, there has not been a serious Alliance-wide push to truly integrate all member nations into the NATO community.

Finally, Colombian accession serves the ends of realpolitik. NATO has relationships with nations across the globe, including New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea. But NATO has no “network” in Latin America. This needs to change, and Colombian accession could bring the Alliance to this area of the world, and it could serve as a strategic counterbalance to the growing power of other Latin American countries.

NATO could not be hurt by some radical new changes in membership. The wars in Afghanistan and the operations in Libya demonstrate the resilience of the Alliance, even in the 21st century. Not only would NATO remain unhurt by some new members, looking beyond the borders of Europe may be the one thing that the Alliance needs to continue positive growth into the future.

Photo credit – Flickr

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Terence Check

Terence is a current Juris Doctor (J.D.) candidate at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law where he is specializing in international and comparative law. He is also the current Editor-in-Chief of the "Cleveland State Law Review", a Top-100 ranked general subject journal of legal scholarship. Terence also holds a BA in History, specializing in NATO and European Security. He currently works for an international property management corporation in Cleveland, Ohio, USA.