Today marks the date of entry into force of the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement (FTA). What a long, strange trip it’s been since the agreement was signed in 2006. The rear-guard action of those opposed to trade generally, those opposed to the United States in Latin America specifically, and those who sought to use the agreement as leverage to promote narrower special interests has been fierce. In the end, however, it became politically untenable and strategically short-sighted to continue to deny both Colombian as well as U.S. citizens the benefits of the trade agreement, and, as a result, today marks the beginning of a new chapter in U.S.-Colombian relations.
Nonetheless, amid well-deserved celebrations within the trade community, we should not lose sight of the fact that the current moment is just the next step. It is a critically important step, to be sure, one that should have occurred years ago, and one that, by its absence, held up much of the rest of the hemispheric agenda for the past several years. It is important that the U.S.-Colombia FTA be seen as a tool for the improvement of the lives of people in both nations, and that, together, we work toward that outcome through close attention to the implementation process. And it is equally important that the United States and Colombia begin now to work toward a broader trade agenda, one that would bring Colombia as a Pacific nation into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum as well as near-term participation in negotiations to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Colombia should also be invited to join the G20 as a permanent member, and, once all standards have been adequately met, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), too.
Colombia is a nation on the move, and an engaged, strategically-minded United States would seek to capitalize quickly on the success of the bilateral FTA by working with others to bring Colombia into the broader global trade and investment architecture. Colombia has a well-established and hard-earned record of success, and it has proven over the years to be a close friend of the United States. At a time when we need allies globally, we should do what we can to promote Colombia’s broader ambitions, consistent with our own interests, just as we are doing with nations outside this hemisphere.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote recently that President Obama is now beginning to think about what he might like to achieve in foreign policy terms in a second term. The list, he writes, is predictable: addressing climate change, reducing nuclear weapons, reviving the Palestinian peace process, managing the Arab Spring and improving development assistance for Africa. Assuming that this is an accurate reflection of current White House thinking, it is a depressing list for those of us who see the dramatic opportunity costs in the Americas that would continue to accrue with a passive approach to the region. Sure, we’d like to see peace in the Middle East, zero threat from nuclear weapons and poverty alleviation in Africa—who wouldn’t—but these are intractable issues that have vexed policymakers for generations. Progress on these issues over the next few years, if any, will continue to be elusive, even with full time presidential attention. There is a much greater opportunity for tangible, lasting progress in the Americas in a manner that will directly support U.S. economic and strategic interests, but we have to begin to contend for the Americas as a priority.
Implementation of the FTA with Colombia is an important, historic step which will have a positive and lasting impact. Both parties look forward with anticipation to the positive benefits that the agreement will bring. Yet it cannot be the final step. Even as Colombia seeks to expand its profile as a hemispheric and indeed global player, the United States has an important, ongoing role to play in support of Colombia—a posture that would support our own national interests.
As both presidential candidates begin to consider what the next four years might look like under their respective leadership, it is time to take a new look at the Americas.
Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.