Understanding Plan Colombia through Principal/Agent Theory: The Importance of Interest Alignment
By Captain Spencer Marsh, U.S. Marine Corps
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. Citations have been removed.
In 2000, US policy makers were concerned about the nationwide problem of cocaine addiction. Simultaneously, many Colombians were concerned that they could be kidnapped or riddled with bullets anytime they stepped foot outside of their house. These dissimilar, yet interrelated fears, led to Plan Colombia, a policy signed by both the US and Colombia that year. Although it has been praised as a successful bilateral agreement due to its anti-insurgency efforts and irrefutable positive impacts on Colombian state capability, Plan Colombia had its shortfalls. Not all objectives were met, namely, a US success in the War on Drugs. The purpose of this article is to show how the successes and failures of Plan Colombia confirm Principal/Agent Theory, specifically, the importance of objective overlap in bilateral efforts. The principal/agent objective overlap centered on fighting insurgencies, facilitated by the US’s attention-shift to anti-terrorism in the wake of 9/11, enabled Plan Colombia’s successes in the area of Colombian state capacity and security. The shared objective caused two powerful forces to align: Colombia’s political will and the US’s resources and expertise. However, Plan Colombia’s anti-drug initiatives that aimed to decrease cocaine production were doomed to fail because of principal/agent misalignment. Plan Colombia demonstrates why security cooperation practitioners must prioritize programs with clear bilateral overlap.
Principal/Agent Theory describes how a sponsor country, the principal, can achieve its objectives through providing support to a partner country, the agent. The principal invests in the agent, and likewise the agent accepts the investment, because of the mutual expectation that each country’s goals can be met. However, as supported by Ladwig and Biddle, there is a key aspect that enables bilateral success: the goals of the principal and the agent must be aligned. Without this interest alignment, the efforts of both the principal and the agent, regardless of how valiant, will be frustrated as they move in an unharmonious fashion. When US policy makers disregard or mistake interest alignment, this creates “agency loss” as the two countries follow divergent paths. Under Principal/Agent Theory, real success is only realized when both countries move in the same direction.
Background of US/Colombian Relations
The US’s dedication to Cold War anticommunist strategies largely defined its actions in Latin America from the 1950s until the fall of the USSR. During the Cold War, the US backed Latin American governments that, regardless of regime type, attempted to prevent the growth of communism. The expansion of Marxist insurgencies in Colombia, specifically the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberalization Army (ELN), put the country on the US’s radar.
But in the 1970s, the US’s attention shifted to a new priority in the region: the War on Drugs. Officially declared in 1971, President Richard Nixon established the US policy against drugs because they were a “serious national threat to the personal health and safety of millions of Americans.” While the War Nixon started was a torch passed to and carried by subsequent presidents, President Ronald Reagan was the spearhead of the Drug War abroad as he focused on supply reduction. President George H. W. Bush expanded Reagan’s supply-side tactics as he believed that the “cheapest way to eradicate narcotics is to destroy them at their source…we need to wipe out crops wherever they are grown.”
Colombia produced most of the cocaine that entered the US in the 20th century. Due to its climate and the lack of government control of the country, the cultivation and trafficking of illicit narcotics was rampant. The high demand offered by the US facilitated high prices, which made drug production extremely lucrative for Colombians. As names like Pablo Escobar, the Medellin Cartel, and the Cali Cartel became infamous, US anti-drug law enforcement, military training, and eradication resources poured into Colombia in an effort to hinder the seemingly endless flow of drugs. However, despite the consecutive presidential initiatives to decrease drug demand domestically and decrease drug supply in Colombia, Walther points out that by the early 1990s, more Americans were using drugs than before the start of the Drug War.
As President Bill Clinton took office, the U.S. and Colombia could both look back on the past 40 years and see very limited progress in combatting both the Marxist insurgents and the drug cartels. The FARC and ELN in fact had grown in power and now retained a commanding presence in Colombia. According to Marcella and Schulz, at one point, over half of the country’s towns were controlled by the FARC or ELN. The insurgencies were able to challenge the Colombian military’s strength and regularly defeated them. The insurgent groups appeared successful in achieving their goals: to hinder and delegitimate the democratic government through destabilization.
Colombia’s inability to protect its citizens from the violent insurgents resulted in the rise of paramilitaries such as the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC) who fought back against the reach of the FARC and ELN. Although the paramilitaries were aimed at the Marxist insurgents, the conflict increased violence and instability for the entire populace as the fight led to thousands of innocent deaths and mass population displacement.
The War on Drugs in the 1990s was also a failed effort. Rosen notes that from 1989 to 1998, annual coca leaf production in Colombia increased from “33,900 to 81,400 metric tons… an astounding 140% increase.” To make matters more challenging for the US and Colombia, the drug trade helped fund both the Marxist insurgencies and the paramilitaries. The US and Colombia both knew that their tactics were not working. They needed a new plan.
The New Vision: Plan Colombia
In 1999, the lack of success in combatting insurgencies and drug trafficking drove the development of a new Plan. On the US side, Clinton, in his 7th year in office, felt the rising pressure as more cocaine entered the US than ever before and more Americans became addicted. His strong anti-drug rhetoric appeared hollow to US citizens because regardless of publicized interdiction efforts, drug trafficking flowed seemingly unhindered.
Colombians, the people living face-to-face with this violence, felt an even greater pressure to adopt new tactics. A Washington Examiner article by Bennet and Boot quotes Colombia’s minister of defense saying, “in the last 15 years, 200 bombs have blown up in Colombia’s cities…4 presidential candidates, 200 judges and investigators, half of the Supreme Court justices, 1,200 police officers, 151 journalists, and more than 300,000 ordinary Colombians have been murdered.” State control of the territory reached an all-time low in 1999 as President Andrés Pastrana and his incapable military ceded 42,000 square kilometers to the FARC. Colombians felt unsafe to travel outside their own capital city as the government could not effectively control the surrounding regions.
In response to the pressure, President Pastrana proposed Plan Colombia. Pastrana’s speech introducing the Plan first recognized the government’s shortfalls, namely, an incapable military, corrupt judiciary, violent insurgencies, and drug trafficking. But Pastrana’s main initiative was to attain national security and stability through a peaceful resolution with the insurgents. He emphasized that the state’s ineffectual efforts to combat insurgent violence across its territory was a root cause to the over 40 years of instability. In Pastrana’s eyes, state capacity building was the means, and a nation free from the unpredictable violence of insurgent groups was the ends.
Despite Pastrana’s clear focus on state capacity building to counter insurgencies, he knew that Colombia needed US resources to help make Plan Colombia come to life. Pastrana tactfully played to the US’s anti-drug campaign by highlighting the link between insurgent groups and the drug trade. To grab US attention, Pastrana’s proposal connected the “problems of a state yet to consolidate power” to the “destabilizing effects of drug trafficking.” By including a fight against drugs as one of the Plan’s objectives, albeit a secondary aim, American interest was piqued. Clinton’s primary hope for the Plan was to “increase the capacity of the Colombian government to fight narcotraffickers and to keep drugs from coming into this country.” Because of the Plan’s anti-drug undertones, it achieved bipartisan support in the US Congress.
The Plan outlined obligations from both countries. Marcella highlights that at the onset of the Plan, 61 percent of US resources went to coca field eradication and to agriculture programs aimed at changing what Colombian farmers produced. And while the US also assisted with some institutional capacity building, both the US’s soft power expertise, and its hard power training and equipment were focused primarily on narcotics. Colombia’s most influential contribution was that it had the support of its people. It was the Colombian people who had experienced the violence and instability for decades, and they desperately wanted to break the mold. The people were willing to be taxed and the military and police were willing to fight and die if it meant progress. Colombian blood and treasure fell in line with Pastrana’s sentiments; efforts were focused on lasting security and stability primarily though state building to combat Marxist insurgent influence.
Success and Failure: Principal/Agent Objective Overlap
In the case of Plan Colombia, the US resembles the role of the Principal, and Colombia that of the Agent. But how well did the states’ objectives align?
In applying Biddle’s framework to Plan Colombia, it appears that in 2000, principal/agent objectives were not aligned. The US was initially only interested in fighting the Drug War. As the principal, the US insisted that the equipment, training, and personnel it provided must be used in the counternarcotic battle. The US’s greatest concern in Colombia was the drugs that showed up on American streets. The suffering and mayhem caused by Colombian state incapacity were lower on the priority list because insurgent violence had not (yet) reached US soil. When Plan Colombia first gained bipartisan support in the US Congress, Marcella asserts that there was “no willingness to cross the line into counterinsurgency support.”
At the start, Colombians were only interested in the Drug War insofar as it helped eliminate funding for insurgent groups and paramilitaries. Although Colombians concurred that drugs were part of the problem, they weren’t the core issue. According to Oehm, Pastrana emphasized a two-track process: “conduct peace negotiations with the insurgents, and neutralize the drug economy which was helping sustain guerilla operation,” while the US “wanted to focus almost exclusively on the production and trafficking of cocaine, steering clear of counterinsurgency activities.” From the Colombian point of view, drug trafficking was “not the cause of Colombia’s fragile socio-political system – [it was] the symptom of that fragility.” This explains why the agent’s objective was security and stability improvements aimed at counterinsurgency. From the U.S. perspective, the Drug War was established to assure the interests of Americans, but meanwhile, Colombia needed to do what was best for the health and safety of its own people. At Plan Colombia’s inception, principal and agent objectives were not synchronized.
The devastation of 9/11 radically changed the course of Plan Colombia. With a newfound fear of insurgencies and the rise of the Global War on Terror, the US objective in Colombia was redirected. Marcella comments on the Bush administration’s post-9/11 shift as US support now focused on “assisting the Colombian state to acquire complete power over the means of legitimate coercion, by defeating the FARC, ELN, the AUC….as well as the narcotraffickers.” The FARC, ELN, and the AUC, all recognized as terrorist organizations in the US, entered the US’s cross-hairs. US public outrage against terrorism fueled policy change, and with the support of the US ambassador to Colombia, Plan Colombia became an outlet for US counterterrorist strategy. Although the US continued to fight narcotraffickers in Colombia, the new, stronger strategic objective was to end the funding stream and interdependence between traffickers and insurgent groups. The Bush administration, and the newly elected Uribe, would join forces in the goal of Colombian security and stability.
President Bush’s National Security Strategy revealed the principal’s commitment to Colombian security and to the fight against insurgencies. Keefer and Loayza highlight that between 2001 and 2003, US funding for Plan Colombia increased by over 300%, with much of that money being focused on promoting justice, rule of law, and security capabilities. US support continued through the decade and by 2016, the principal had spent $10 billion in support of Plan Colombia. Additionally, President Uribe doubled-down the Colombian effort. Under his leadership, Colombia nearly tripled its defense spending and doubled the size of its armed forces. The agent affirmed its direction and was now supported by the principal.
Increased principal/agent objective overlap, caused by 9/11, reveals why Plan Colombia was successful in Colombian state building for security and stability, but only after the events of 9/11 realigned US security interests and created a more tangible set of US-Colombian common interests. The strong political will of the Colombians now aligned with the US’s resources and expertise in institution and military building, which helped increase the reach of the Colombian state and allowed it to gain a better monopoly of force over its territory. Bennett and Boot emphasize that a decade after the Plan was implemented, the FARC was half of its original size, kidnappings decreased by 87%, and murders plummeted by 53%. The necessity of objective alignment was summarized well by a US diplomat who said “flying over with [crop] sprayer aircraft will not solve any problems unless you have institutions of the state present to do follow up.” However, where principal/agent objectives did not overlap, in this case the Drug War, failure was imminent. Even after 15 years of Plan Colombia implementation, coca production did not slow down. Prior to 9/11, the US was attempting to make Plan Colombia an anti-drug program. This failed. After 9/11, Colombia and the US achieved success in Colombian state building and security because that is where they had principal/agent objective overlap.
In 2016, the government of Colombia signed a groundbreaking peace deal with the FARC. Twenty years ago, this level of success would have been unheard of. The deal reached between these bitter rivals is a small part of a larger accomplishment: the increased stability and security of the Latin American country due to Plan Colombia. Exemplifying Principal/Agent Theory, this accomplishment is largely credited to the Colombian and US’s shared objective of combatting insurgent groups after the advent of 9/11. Likewise, Principal/Agent Theory helps to understand why the incongruent anti-drug aims have left both countries permeated with more drugs than ever before. This case study demonstrates that security cooperation practitioners should make every effort to understand the partner country’s objectives, determine where interests align, and develop programs that focus on those areas in order to ensure that both countries’ blood and treasure are spent productively.
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About the Author
Captain Marsh served as a Communications Officer in 1st Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, California between 2016 and 2019. He is currently in the training pipeline to become a Latin American FAO. He recently completed Naval Postgraduate School’s National Security Affairs program with a focus on the Western Hemisphere and is now assigned to the Defense Language Institute for Spanish studies.