Among the multiple critiques of international relations theory, its limited relevance for understanding the Third World’s place in global affairs has gained increasing attention during the past decade.1For an introduction to this line of analysis, see Stephanie Neuman, ed., International Relations Theory and the Third World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998). First, the end of the Cold War revealed a more complex world stage with a plurality of actors, problems, and interests that had little to do with traditional interstate power relations. September 11 drove home like a sledgehammer the point that the world is about far more than the high politics of Western nations. Today, international relations theory’s poor ability to describe and explain, much less predict, the behavior of states in the global South is recognized as one of its primary shortcomings. This in part accounts for the tepid reception that this body of theory has received within those countries not counted among the great powers. Both academic and policymaking circles in the developing and postcolonial world are skeptical about a theoretical tradition whose claims to universalism not only ignore them, but that also have acted to reify a global order within which they are destined to draw the short straw.2On how Latin American scholarship has incorporated Anglo-American international relations thought, see Arlene Tickner, “Hearing Latin American Voices in International Studies,” International Studies Perspectives 4, no. 4 (2003): 325–350.
The Andean Region exemplifies this breach between international relations theorizing and the multifarious problems besetting peripheral states and societies. Until very recently, the violence and social conflicts found in nearly every corner of the Andes were not even on international relations’ radar screen. The 40-year plus armed conflict in Colombia, the violent opposition to Hugo Chavez’s populism in Venezuela, massive social protests in Bolivia and Peru, and Ecuador’s persistent political and social instability were all branded domestic issues, and thus not the purview of systemic international relations thinking. Worldwide transformations that have blurred the internal-external dichotomy, however, have prompted recognition of what has long been common knowledge in the region: local conflicts and problems are completely enmeshed with complex global economic, social, and political processes. Colombia’s conflict is a case in point. Global markets for illicit drugs, links between Colombian armed actors and international criminal organizations, regional externalities of Colombian violence, the burgeoning Colombian transmigrant community on all five continents, the explosion of the global third sector’s presence in the country, increasing US military involvement, and growing concerns by the international community about the deteriorating Colombian situation all illustrate the international face of this crisis.
What light might international relations theory shed on a conflict that is estimated to result in 3,500 deaths a year, two-thirds of which are civilian, that is responsible for 2.7 million displaced people and another 1 million-plus international refugees, whose political economy is such that an average of seven kidnappings occur daily, and that has the country awash in numbing levels of violence and human rights abuses?3While the number of conflict related deaths is high, the overall figures on violence in Colombia are nothing short of alarming. In 1999 there were 22,300 violent deaths, representing a homicide rate of 53.66 per 100,000 individuals, according to Alvaro Camacho, “La política colombiana: los recorridos de una reforma,” Análisis Político no. 41, 2000: 99–117. Displaced population figures are as of September 2002, according to the NGO Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento. See Boletín Codhes, Bogotá, September 4, 2002. The number of international refugees is taken from the US Embassy in Bogotá website, http://usembassy.state.gov/bogota/wwwsdh01.shtml, last updated April 4, 2002, and from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ website, last updated January 24, 2003, http://www.acnur.org/. Colombia has the dubious distinction of having the highest kidnapping rate in the world, with 2,304 cases reported in 2001 according to the NGO País Libre. See http://www.paislibre.org.co/el_secuestro_colombia.asp#, “Total Secuestros en Colombia 1997-2002,” May 14, 2002. International relations theory is in the business of explaining and predicting violent conflict, as well as the behavior of the world’s member states in relation to conflict and stability. Although critical and second-order theories of international relations have fundamentally different concerns,4My comments will not engage the multiple Marxist approaches, critical theory, or postpositivist constructivism, but will rather focus largely on first-order problem-solving theories of international relations. For a general overview of the main theoretical traditions in the field, see Stephen Walt, “International Relations: One World, Many Theories,” Foreign Policy no. 110 (1998): 29–46. substantive theorizing must address what Michael Mann calls international relations’ “most important issue of all: the question of war and peace.”5Michael Mann, “Authoritarianism and Liberal Militarism: A Contribution from Comparative and Historical Sociology,” in International Theory: Positivism and Beyond, ed. Steve Smith, Ken Booth, and Marysia Zalewski (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 221. Realist and liberal theories, which share a similar ontology, assumptions, and premises, purport to do just that.6On classical realism, see Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (New York: Knopf, 1948/1973). The standard work on neorealism remains Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1979). On neoliberal theory, see Robert Keohane and Lisa Martin, “The Promise of Institutionalist Theory,” International Security 20, no. 1 (1995): 39–51. Still, the classical paradigm in international relations is primarily concerned with the international relations of the advanced, industrialized states. But if Kal Holsti’s figures are correct, that 97 percent of the world’s armed conflicts between 1945 and 1995 took place in either the traditional or the new Third World, a viable theoretical framework of world politics must be able to integrate the global periphery.7Kalevi Holsti, The State, War, and the State of War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 210–24.
In this short essay I will discuss what contemporary international relations scholarship may or may not offer in its treatment of the Andean Region, and of the armed conflict in Colombia in particular. My commentary will be limited to three issues familiar to the developing world, as seen through the lens of Colombia’s current crisis: the correlation of state weakness with violence and instability, the postterritorial nature of security threats, and the North-South power disparity. I will conclude with some observations on what this might tell us about the adequacy of the theories themselves.
The sovereign state that lies at the heart of the Westphalian model is the building block of mainstream international relations theory. Most theorizing about international politics characterizes the state in terms of power, understood as the capability of achieving national interests related to external security and welfare. Realist and liberal perspectives, and some versions of constructivism, are all concerned with explaining conflictual and cooperative relations among territorially distinct political units, even while their causal, or constitutive, arguments are quite different. Although Kenneth Waltz was taken to task for blithely claiming that states under anarchy were always “like units” with similar functions, preferences and behavioral patterns, much of international relations scholarship persists in a top-down, juridical view of statehood largely abstracted from internal features.8Waltz, Theory of International Politics. Both constructivism and liberal theory are important exceptions. See respectively Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), and Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
But international legal sovereignty may be the most that the advanced industrialized states have in common with states on the global periphery such as Colombia. First of all, Colombia’s priority is internal security, not its power position relative to other states. Threats to the state originate within Colombian territory, not in neighboring countries. In spite of some longstanding border tensions and historical rivalries within the Andean Region, Colombia and its neighbors are more concerned with the strength of domestic social movements and armed actors than they are with external challengers or the international balance of power. Indeed, even in the absence of a regional balancer, strong democratic institutions, dense economic and political networks, or multilateral governance structures, interstate wars in the region during the twentieth century have been extremely rare. This no-war zone, or negative peace according to Arie Kacowicz, appears to best be explained by a shared normative commitment to maintaining a society of states and to peaceful conflict resolution, contradicting both material and systemic explanations of interstate behavior.9Arie Kacowicz, Zones of Peace in the Third World: South America and West Africa in Comparative Perspective (Albany: State University of New York, 1998). International stability in the Andean Region stands in sharp contrast to persistent domestic strife.“Colombia fails the basic Weberian test of maintaining its monopoly over the legitimate use of force and providing security for its citizens.”
State strength in much of the developing world is not measured in terms of military capability to defend or project itself externally, but rather according to the empirical attributes of statehood. The institutional provision of security, justice and basic services, territorial consolidation and control over population groups, sufficient coercive power to impose order and to repel domestic challenges to state authority, and some level of agreement on national identity and social purpose are more meaningful indicators of state power. States in the Andean Region, however, all receive low marks for the very features that mainstream international relations theory accepts as unproblematic, and immaterial. Colombia is certainly in no immediate danger of collapse. Indeed, the resilience of its democratic institutions in the face of the internal conflict is noteworthy. Nevertheless, most indications point to a state that has become progressively weaker: the basic functions required of states are inadequately and sporadically performed, central government control is nonexistent in many jurisdictions, social cohesion is poor, and the fundamental rules of social order and authority are violently contested.10For an analysis of Colombian state weakness and the “partially failed” thesis, see Ana María Bejarano and Eduardo Pizarro, “The Coming Anarchy: The Partial Collapse of the State and the Emergence of Aspiring State Makers in Colombia,” paper prepared for the workshop “States-Within States,” University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, October 19–20, 2001. Most importantly, Colombia fails the basic Weberian test of maintaining its monopoly over the legitimate use of force and providing security for its citizens.
Internal state weakness that ranges from impairment to outright collapse is the common denominator of post-Cold War violence and insecurity.11For a sampling of the large literature on state weakness, see Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1991); Lionel Cliffe and Robin Luckham, “Complex Political Emergencies and the State: Failure and the Fate of the State,” Third World Quarterly 20, no. 1 (1999): 27–50; Holsti, The State, War, and the State of War; Joel Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988); and I. William Zartman, ed., Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1995). Not surprisingly, it is also the permissive condition of Colombia’s security emergency. Reduced state capacity underlies the more proximate causes of the violent competition with and among contending subnational groups, namely the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the ELN (Ejercito para la Liberación de Colombia), paramilitary groups, and narcotrafficking organizations.12A good introduction to Colombia’s current political violence and the various actors involved is found in Frank Safford and Marco Palacios, Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 345–370. Recent efforts by the Alvaro Uribe administration to build up Colombia’s military suggest movement toward state strengthening, although effective consolidation must go far beyond this one component of stateness. It remains to be seen whether in the long run Colombia’s bloody conflict becomes a force for state creation in a variation on the Tillian theme, or on the contrary, a structure that has ritualized violent discord as a normal part of Colombian social and political life.13Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990).
This erosion in capacity and competence has taken its toll on what is perhaps a state’s most valuable asset—legitimacy. The Colombian state’s mediocre performance and problem-solving record degrades central authority, reducing public compliance and policy options, and leading to a further deterioration in internal order as extra-legal forms of security and justice emerge as viable alternatives. This dynamic has been exacerbated by new mechanisms of global governance and the proliferation of global actors within domestic jurisdictions that have legitimated nonsovereign loci of authority. What Jessica Matthews describes as a “power shift” away from the state—up, down, and sideways—has resulted in a complex web of cross-cutting and intersecting arenas at the local, regional, state, transnational, and global levels, which reconfigures social power relationships and produces new sites of authority.14Jessica Matthews, “Power Shift,” Foreign Affairs 76, no. 1 (1997): 50–66. In the Third World, where it is common for states to contend with both domestic and external polity alternatives, and where the notion of exclusive sovereign authority has always been problematic, domestic constituencies increasingly identify and organize themselves in a multiplicity of ways in a highly fluid, heterogeneous political landscape. In Colombia, communities such as transnational NGOs, church and humanitarian associations, foreign legal regimes, and international organizations, as well as insurgent and paramilitary groups at the local level, are increasingly viewed as legitimate substitutes for the state. While new spheres of authority may eventually promote norm compliance and stimulate reforms in Colombia, so far the strengthening of alternative polities has tended to compromise central authority, further debilitating the state.15I have argued this previously in Ann Mason, “Exclusividad, autoridad y Estado,” Análisis Político no. 47, 2002: 55–76.
Global security dynamics
At the same time that Colombia’s security crisis is in great measure attributable to the empirical weakness of the state, it also highlights another dimension of the emerging global order: the complex interplay between domestic and international security domains. The globalization of security puts into sharp relief the growing discontinuity between fixed, territorial states and the borderless processes that now prevail in world politics. While Realists would point out that current events in North Korea and Iraq are eloquent reminders of the applicability of a traditional national security model in which state-on-state military threats predominate, concerns in Colombia reflect a somewhat different security paradigm.“Many of the internal risks that Colombia confronts are also enmeshed with regional, hemispheric, and global security dynamics that are dominated by both state and nonstate actors.”
First of all, insecurity in Colombia is experienced by multiple actors, including the state, the society at large, and particular subnational groups. Security values, in turn, vary according to the referent: national security interests, both military and nonmilitary, exist alongside societal and individual security concerns. Colombian society not only seeks protection against violent attacks, massacres, assassination, torture, kidnapping, displacement, and forced conscription, but also security in the form of institutional guarantees related to democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law, employment and a minimum standard of living, and access to basic services such as education and health care. Many of the internal risks that Colombia confronts are also enmeshed with regional, hemispheric, and global security dynamics that are dominated by both state and nonstate actors.
While Colombia is typically viewed as being the in eye of the regional storm, the Colombian crisis is itself entangled with transregional and global security processes, including drug trafficking, the arms trade, criminal and terrorist networks, and US security policies.16For an elaboration of the transregional security model see Arlene B. Tickner and Ann C. Mason, “Mapping Transregional Security Structures in the Andean Region,” Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2003): 359–391. The remarkable growth in the strength of Colombia’s most destabilizing illegal groups during the 1990s, for instance, is directly attributed to their ability to generate revenue from activities related to the global market for illegal drugs.17The relationship between rents from illegal drugs and the internal conflict in Colombia is well established in Nizah Richani, Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002). Both the FARC and the paramilitaries capture rents from the cultivation, production and trade of cocaine and heroin. This finances their organizations, keeps them well stocked with arms also traded on regional and worldwide black markets, and sustains a pernicious conflict. These transactions occur within complex transnational criminal associations inside and at the edges of the Andean region, which in turn are involved in global financial, crime, and even terrorist, networks. Seen from this perspective, Colombia’s war is not so internal after all: it actively involves dense transborder networks composed of an array of global actors. Such a postsovereign security setting underscores the necessity for mainstream international relations theorizing to go beyond its state-centered vision of world politics and to develop conceptual tools better equipped to deal with global realities.
Power and authority on the periphery
International relations theory’s notion of formal anarchy coexists uneasily with relations of inequality and domination that pervade world order. While most representatives of states in the South would tell you that the exclusive authority with which the institution of sovereignty endows them is not quite equal to that of their more powerful northern associates, neorealism and neoliberalism insist that the evident discrepancies among states are mere power differentials within a decentralized international system that lacks a central political authority. Thus, hegemony and asymmetrical interdependence as such do not contradict the fundamental international relations distinction between anarchy and hierarchy.
Some dominant-subordinate structures, such as the US-Colombian relationship, may be about more than material differences, however. The immense disparity in economic, political and military power has permitted Washington to impose its will in Colombia on a wide range of issues similar to a coercive hegemonic project. Nevertheless, Colombian observance of American preferences in its foreign and internal security policy is not exclusively related to overt threats or quid pro quos. Constructivist research suggests that there exist legitimate hierarchical structures in the international system involving states as well as institutions. The rules of what Alexander Wendt and Daniel Friedheim call “informal empire” are such that in some circumstances inequality can be characterized as a de facto authority relationship.18Alexander Wendt and Daniel Friedheim, “Hierarchy under Anarchy: Informal Empire and the East German State,” International Organization 49, no. 4 (1995): 689–721. Authority implies that the United States exercises a form of social control over Colombia, and that in turn Colombian compliance cannot always be explained by fear of retribution or self-interest, suggesting some acceptance, no matter how rudimentary, of the legitimacy of US power. Ongoing practices that become embedded in institutional structures can create shared behavioral expectations and intersubjective understandings reflected in identities and preferences. Colombia’s antidrug posture, for example, that was in great measure shaped by Washington´s militarized war on drugs and aggressive extradition policy, has over time become internalized.19This process is, nevertheless, highly uneven, and can be mediated by multiple factors. For an analysis of how domestic considerations led Colombia to adopt a confrontational position toward US demands on extradition during the Gaviria administration, see Tatiana Matthiesen, El Arte Político de Conciliar: El Tema de las Drogas en las Relaciones entre Colombia y Estados Unidos, 1986–1994 (Bogotá: FESCOL-CEREC-Fedesarrollo, 2000). Colombia has appropriated the prohibitionist discourse of the United States, and become an active agent in reproducing its own identity and interests vis-à-vis the illegality and danger of drugs.20Curiously, even while various states in the United States are considering the decriminalization of drug use for medicinal purposes, Colombia’s current proposed political reform includes eliminating the “personal dosis” of illicit substances, which had been legalized by the Constitutional Court in 1994. On the construction of an antidrug national security identity see David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).
It would be an exaggeration, however, to conclude that Colombia’s behavior on its shared agenda with the United States is completely consensual: the underlying power configuration is a constant reminder that Washington calls the shots. The US reconstruction of Colombia’s internal conflict into part of its war on global terror, with great uncertainty within the country about its implications for a negotiated settlement, is illustrative. US preponderance can also lead to “increased incentives for unilateralism and bilateral diplomacy,” at times directly against Colombian interests.21Robert Keohane, “The Globalization of Informal Violence, Theories of World Politics, and The Liberalism of Fear,” in Understanding September 11, ed. Craig Calhoun, Paul Price, and Ashley Timmer (New York: The New Press, 2002), 85. Recent arm-twisting to grant immunity to American citizens and military personnel in Colombia from prosecution for human rights violations under the International Criminal Court is a case in point. Still, material inequalities can obscure how third-dimensional power also operates in the informal authority relations between the United States and Colombia.
The Colombian situation suggests various themes which theories of world politics would be well advised to take into consideration. International relations theory has been largely silent on the issues of state-making and state-breaking that reside at the heart of the Third World security problematic. In neglecting domestic contexts more broadly speaking, this body of theory is inadequate for explaining the relationship between violent “internal” conflicts and global volatility at the start of the twenty-first century. These theories also have a blind spot when it comes to nonstate actors in world politics. In overemphasizing states, realist theories in particular are hard pressed to adequately account for the countless sources of vulnerability of states and societies alike. Security threats, from terrorism to drug trafficking to SARS, defy theoretical assumptions about great power politics and the state’s pride of place in world order. Similarly, nonterritorial global processes such as Colombia’s security dynamics are not well conceptualized by conventional international relations levels of analysis that spatially organize international phenomena according to a hierarchy of locations.22Barry Buzan, “The Level of Analysis Problem in International Relations Reconsidered,” in I.R. Theory Today, ed. Ken Booth and Steve Smith (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995). Colombia’s experience with sovereignty also calls into question the logic of anarchy in realist and liberal international relations theorizing. Seen from a peripheral point of view, the notion of formal equality is little more than a rhetorical device that camouflages deep and persistent material and social inequalities in the international system. We thus arrive at the conundrum of a “stable” world order, in international relations terms defined by the absence of war among the world’s strongest states, wracked by violent conflict and immeasurable human suffering in peripheral regions. Perhaps most importantly, today’s global security landscape should prompt us to rethink theories that by and large bracket non-Western domains and suppress their narratives.“The complexities of Colombian security dynamics, which vividly illustrate a nonrealist security landscape, nevertheless require that public policies specify and prioritize threats and responses largely in conventional, military terms.”
The heterogeneity of the international relations discipline cautions us against jettisoning the entire canon as flawed when it comes to the Third World, however. Constructivists’ incorporation of a social dimension into an analysis of state identities and interests is a promising research agenda for analyzing nonmaterial aspects of North-South relations. Neoliberal institutionalism has also contributed to our understanding of the role of global institutions and norms in conflict resolution and cooperation in the Third World, and may offer insight into seemingly intractable conflicts such as Colombia’s. Paradoxically, certain realist precepts also have utility for analyzing the international politics of developing states. The distribution of global economic, political and military power has an enormous impact on center and peripheral states alike. As we have seen, the inequality in US-Colombian relations poses a serious challenge to multilateralism and mechanisms of global governance. Furthermore, in spite of the ongoing reconfiguration of the state in response to global transformations, sovereign statehood has proved to be highly adaptive and resilient, vindicating realism’s state-centric assumptions. Colombia’s internal weakness, for example, is to be contrasted with the state’s increasingly successful political and diplomatic agenda within the international community, even in the face of increasing global constraints. The complexities of Colombian security dynamics, which vividly illustrate a nonrealist security landscape, nevertheless require that public policies specify and prioritize threats and responses largely in conventional, military terms. And finally, Colombia’s efforts to recuperate state strength, or complete its unfinished state making project, as the case may be, suggest that state power remains pivotal to internal, and thus global, order.
Rather than dismissing international relations theory outright for its shortcomings in explaining the problems of countries such as Colombia, we may be better advised to look toward peripheral regions for what they can contribute to testing, revising, and advancing our theories of international politics. Perhaps the explosion of war-torn societies in the Third World and the implications this has for world order will inspire critical analysis of where the theories fail and what they have that is germane to analyzing international relations in the South. Just as there is no single theoretical orthodoxy in international relations, neither is the Third World a like unit. With any luck, the diversity of these experiences will lead to new theorizing about world politics.
I would like to thank Arlene Tickner for her helpful comments on this essay.
Ann Mason is the founder and executive director of Mason Education Group, based in Bogotá, Colombia. She served as executive director of Fulbright Colombia, as well as associate professor and department chair of political science at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. She received a grant in 2001 from the SSRC’s program on Global Security and Cooperation.
This essay originally appeared in Items & Issues Vol. 4, No. 2–3 in the spring/summer of 2003. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.