Colombia's Conflict and Theories of World Politics
Published on: Mar 26, 2004

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.2 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, IR 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 countries not counted among the great powers. Both academic and policy-making circles in the developing and less developed world are skeptical about a theoretical tradition whose claims to universalism not only ignore them, but also act to reify a global order within which they are destined to draw the short straw.3

The Andean Region exemplifies this breach between contemporary IR 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 IR's radar screen. The 40-year plus armed conflict in Colombia, the violent opposition to Hugo Chavez's populism, massive social protests in Bolivia and Peru, and Ecuador's persistent political and social instability have all been branded domestic issues, and thus not within the purview of systemic IR thinking. Worldwide transformations that have blurred the internal-external dichotomy, however, have prompted some to recognize 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 massive level of migration to the North, the explosion of the global third sector's presence in Colombia, increasing U.S. military involvement, and growing concerns of the international community about the deteriorating Colombian situation all illustrate the international face of this crisis.

What light might IR 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?4 IR 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 concerns5, substantive theorizing must address what Michael Mann calls IR's "most important issue of all: the question of war and peace."6 Indeed, realist and liberal theories within the classical paradigm, which share a similar ontology, assumptions and premises, purport to do just that. Given that Kal Holsti's latest figures estimate that 97% 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.7

In this short essay I will discuss what contemporary IR 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 post-territorial nature of security threats, and the North-South power disparity. I will conclude with some observations on what this may tell us about the adequacy of the theories themselves.

State Weakness

The sovereign state that lies at the heart of the Westphalian model is the building block of mainstream IR 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.8

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 tend to be more concerned with the strength of domestic social movements and armed actors than they are with 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, inter-state wars in the region during the 20th century have been extremely rare. This no-war zone, or negative peace according to Arie Kacowicz, appears to be best 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.9

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 challenges to state authority; and some level of agreement on national identity and social purpose.10 States in the Andean Region all receive low marks for the very features that mainstream IR theory accepts as unproblematic, and immaterial. Although Colombia is in no immediate danger of collapse, most indications point to a state that has become progressively weaker: the basic functions required of states are poorly and sporadically performed, central government control is non-existent in many jurisdictions, social cohesion is poor, and the fundamental rules of social order and authority are violently contested.11 Most importantly, the Colombian state fails the basic Weberian test of maintaining its monopoly over the legitimate use of force and providing security for its citizens.12

Internal state weakness, ranging from impairment to outright collapse, is the common denominator of post-Cold War global violence and insecurity.13 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, ELN, paramilitaries, and narcotrafficking organizations. 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 the Tillian tradition,14 or on the contrary a structure that has ritualized violent discord as a normal part of Colombian social life.

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 para-institutional forms of security and justice emerge. This dynamic has been exacerbated by new mechanisms of global governance and the proliferation of global actors within domestic jurisdictions increasingly perceived as legitimate alternatives to sovereign state authority. What Jessica Matthews describes as a "power shift" away from the state--up, down, and sideways--to suprastate, substate, and nonstate actors as part of the emergent world order may also involve a relocation of authority.15 This is particularly apparent in the post-colonial and developing world where the state is less equipped to respond to internal challengers, and sovereignty's norm of exclusivity is more readily transgressed. In Colombia, alternative political communities such as transnational NGO's, church and humanitarian associations, and global organizations, as well as insurgent and paramilitary groups, are increasingly viewed as functional and normative substitutes for the state.

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.

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 security against attacks, massacres, torture, kidnapping, displacement, and forced conscription, but also in the form of institutional guarantees related to democracy and the rule of law, and access to basic services such as education, employment 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 state and non-state 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 U.S. security policies.16 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.17 Both the FARC and the paramilitaries capture rents from the cultivation, production and trade of cocaine and heroin, which 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 within and at the edges of the Andean region, which in turn are involved in global financial, crime, and even terrorist networks.18 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.19 Such a post-sovereign security setting underscores the necessity for mainstream IR 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

IR theory's notion of formal anarchy coexists uneasily with relations of inequality and domination that pervade world order. While most 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 IR distinction between anarchy and hierarchy.

Some dominant-subordinate structures, such as the U.S.-Colombian relationship, may indeed 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. The rules of what Alexander Wendt and Daniel Friedheim call "informal empire" are such that inequality can also be characterized as a de facto authority structure.20 Authority implies that the U.S. 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, but rather suggests some acceptance, no matter how rudimentary, of the legitimacy of U.S. power.21 Ongoing practices that become embedded in institutional structures can create shared behavioral expectations and intersubjective understandings reflected in identities and preferences. Colombia's anti-drug 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.22 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.23

It would be an exaggeration, however, to conclude that Colombia's behavior on its shared agenda with the U.S. is completely consensual: the underlying power configuration is a constant reminder that Washington calls the shots. The U.S. 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. U.S. preponderance can also lead to "increased incentives for unilateralism and bilateral diplomacy," at times directly against Colombian interests.24 Recent arm-twisting to grant immunity to American citizens and military 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. IR 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 21st century. These theories also have a blind spot when it comes to non-state 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 AIDS, defy theoretical assumptions about great power politics and the state's pride of place in world order. Similarly, non-territorial global processes such as Colombia's security dynamics are not well conceptualized by conventional IR levels of analysis that spatially organize international phenomena according to a hierarchy of locations.25 Colombia's experience with sovereignty also calls into question the logic of anarchy in realist and liberal IR 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 IR 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 the non-Western, developing domains and suppress their narratives.

The heterogeneity of the IR 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 non-material aspects of North-South relations. Institutionalism theory 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 U.S.-Colombian relations poses a serious challenge to multilateralism and mechanisms of global governance. In spite of the ongoing reconfiguration of the state in response to global transformations, the sovereign state has proved to be highly adaptive and resilient. 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 non-realist security landscape, nevertheless require that public policies prioritize, delineate and specify threats and responses largely in conventional, military terms. And finally, Colombia's efforts to recuperate state strength, or complete its unfinished state-making process, as the case may be, suggest that state power remains pivotal to internal, and thus global, order.

Rather than dismissing IR 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 global order will inspire critical analysis of where the theories fail and what they have that is germane to analysis of international relations in the South. Just as there is no single theoretical orthodoxy in IR, neither is the Third World a like unit. With any luck, the diversity of these experiences will lead to new theorizing about world politics.


1 I would like to thank Arlene Tickner for her helpful comments on this article.

2 For 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).

3 On how Latin American scholarship has incorporated Anglo-American IR thought, see Arlene Tickner, "Hearing Latin American Voices in International Studies", International Studies Perspectives, 4, 4, 2003 (forthcoming).

4 While 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, pp. 99-117. Displaced population figures are as of September 2002, according to the NGO Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Codhes), see Boletín Codhes, September 4, 2002. The number of international refugees is taken from the website of the U.S Embassy in Bogotá,, last updated April 4, 2002, and from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees's website, last updated January 24, 2003, Colombia has the dubious distinction of having the highest kidnapping rate in the world, with 2, 304 cases being reported in 2001 according to Pais Libre, a local NGO dedicated to the problem of kidnapping. See, "Total Secuestros en Colombia 1997-2002", May 14, 2002.

5 My comments will not engage Marxist approaches, critical theory, or post-positivist constructivism, but will rather focus largely on first-order problem-solving theories of international relations.

6 Michael Mann, "Authoritarianism and Liberal Militarism: A Contribution from Comparative and Historical Sociology," in Steve Smith, Ken Booth and Marysia Zalewski, eds., International Theory: Positivism and Beyond (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 221.

7 Kalevi Holsti, The State, War, and the State of War (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 210-24.

8 Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1979). Both constructivism and liberal democratic theory are important exceptions.

9 Arie Kacowicz, Zones of Peace in the Third World. South America and West Africa in Comparative Perspective (Albany: State University of New York, 1998).

10 On empirical versus juridical definitions of statehood, see Robert Jackson, Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

11 For an excellent overview 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.

12 Max Weber, Economy and Society, in G. Roth and C. Wittich, eds., E. Fischoff et al., trans. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

13 For a sampling of the large literature on this topic, see Joel Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988); Robert Jackson, Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1991); Brian Job, ed., The Insecurity Dilemma: National Security of Third World States (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1992); William Zartman, ed., Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1995); Kalevi Holsti, The State, War, and the State of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Ali Mazrui, "Blood of experience: the failed state and political collapse in Africa," World Policy Journal, 9, 1, 1995: 28-34; and Lionel Cliffe and Robin Luckham, "Complex political emergencies and the state: failure and the fate of the state," Third World Quarterly, 20, 1, 1999: 27-50.

14 Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990).

15 Jessica Matthews, "Power Shift," Foreign Affairs, 76, 1, 1997: 50-66.

16 For 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, 3, 2003 (forthcoming).

17 The 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).

18 See Tickner and Mason (2003) and Bruce Bagley "Globalization and Organized Crime: The Russian Mafia in Latin America and the Caribbean," School of International Studies, University of Miami, 2002, unpublished paper.

19 Colombia's conflict increasingly resembles the new war nomenclature. See Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999).

20 Alexander Wendt and Daniel Friedheim, "Hierarchy under Anarchy: Informal Empire and the East German State," International Organization, 49, 4, 1995: 689-721. See also Nicolas Onuf and Frank Klink, "Anarchy, Authority, Rule," International Studies Quarterly, 33, 1989: 149-173, on the paradigm of rule as an alternative to anarchy.

21 On the different methods of social control, see Ian Hurd, "Legitimacy and Authority in International Politics," International Organization. 53, 2, 1999: 379-408.

22 This 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 U.S. 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).

23 Curiously, even while various states in the U.S. 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 anti-drug national security identity see David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

24 Robert Keohane, "The Globalization of Informal Violence, Theories of World Politics, and 'The Liberalism of Fear,'" in Craig Calhoun, Paul Price and Ashley Timor, eds., Understanding September 11 (New York: The New Press, 2002), p. 85.

25 Barry Buzan, "The Level of Analysis Problem in International Relations Reconsidered," in Ken Booth and Steve Smith, eds., I.R. Theory Today (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).