Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on May 25 that his country had formally become a “global partner” of NATO — the first Latin American state to obtain an official status in the organization, which is to be formalized this week. Colombia joins Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, and Pakistan — other nations also listed as "partners across the globe" or "global partners," but none of them in Latin America. The areas for cooperation include improvements to the combat capabilities of the Colombian military, good governance, military education and training, the security of sea lanes, cyber security, and ways to combat terrorism and organized crime. A partnership agreement with NATO was reached a year ago (May 2017) after the Colombian government concluded a peace accord with FARC, a former terrorist group that has since become a respectable political party. The president’s statement came on the same day that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said that Bogota would be officially invited to join — their reward for steering a pro-Western course.
Cooperation between Colombia and NATO has been on the rise since 2013. In 2016, Bogota signed a military cooperation agreement with the bloc. A 2009 bilateral deal allows the US to maintain bases on Colombian territory. In its move to become a NATO partner, Bogota is violating an essential principle of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which specifies that its member states cannot join military alliances.
In practice, the partnership indicates that NATO is expanding its traditional zone of responsibility to encompass another continent across the ocean. This is yet another confirmation that the alliance has ceased to be a European group. It has conducted a ground operation in Afghanistan and a naval operation in the Indian Ocean fighting Somali pirates. Many member states have joined the US forces in Iraq as members of this coalition of the willing.
It is true that Colombia is the first South American nation to be granted a NATO status, but it does not mean that the organization’s presence on that continent’s soil is something absolutely new. The US has special operations forces deployed under the pretext of fighting drug traffickers. UK forces are on duty on the Falkland Islands. The bloc members have military facilities in the Caribbean, which is not exactly part of South America but rather a suboceanic basin of the western Atlantic Ocean, bordered by the coasts of two South American nations: Venezuela and Colombia (Panama is part of Central America). The report NATO 2020: Assured Security, Dynamic Engagement mentions the possibility of military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Colombia is an essential country for NATO’s global expansion, because it’s the only one in South America with coasts on both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Status in NATO paves the way for the bloc’s bases on Colombian soil to be added to the US facilities already in place.
The South American Defense Council (SADC) created in 2009 is a 12-country-strong defense arm of UNASUR, which does not include the United States and operates outside its influence. Its emergence demonstrates the growing trend of solving regional security issues independently of the United States. Washington is not even an observer, although the possibility of becoming one has not been ruled out if it changes its policy toward Cuba. Moreover, the group includes Venezuela and Bolivia, states openly unfriendly toward the US. Argentina is to host the 2018 South American Defense Conference in August. Colombia’s new status will influence those proceedings. Bogota may become a connecting link between NATO and South America, in an attempt to sideline the SADC as the entity that defines the continent’s defense policy.
There is a backstory to the announcement about Bogota being granted official NATO status. Last month, six South American states, including Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia, suspended their memberships in UNASUR, the anti-US bloc, to express their dissatisfaction with Bolivia’s leadership, thus rendering the SADC irrelevant. UNASUR sought to bypass the US-influenced Organization of American States (OAS). Colombia’s NATO status is part of a trend — the US is making efforts to boost its influence in Latin America while the continent is becoming increasingly divided.
It should be noted that the six countries that have left UNASUR are members of the Lima Group that was set up last August by twelve North and South American nations, including Canada, which are by and large friendly to the United States, especially after the left-wing leaders lost power in Argentina and Brazil. The group opposes the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela, which call for the continent’s independence from Washington.
Syria, Iran, and the unpredictable foreign policy of the US, which includes canceling summits previously agreed to, as well as many other surprises for the world community, are on the radar screen, undeservedly eclipsing other events of great importance. Colombia’s new NATO status is one such example. The North Atlantic Alliance has moved to the South American continent. The bloc’s privileged partner has access to the Pacific. The organization has acquired a new geographical scope. It’s not the end, it’s the beginning. The military presence that will emerge there will be followed by political meddling in South America’s politics and attempts to bring more South American states into the NATO orbit.