An "American Soft Power" War on Drugs

October 12, 2016

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has taken to an intensive European tour seeking both political and financial backing for projects that he hopes will ultimately complete the eradication process of the long-present FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Since the beginning of this month, the spotlight, more than ever before, has been shown upon the epidemic of drug trafficking not only within Colombia but throughout the Americas.1 Displacing about 5 million of the country’s inhabitants and killing an estimated 220,000 people over five decades of violent activity in Colombia, the terroristic FARC most recently sat down with Santos and the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba in order to come to agreement over a peace deal.  However, even with over half of the core issues resolved, much of the most difficult diplomacy as well as implementation remain ahead.2 It is exactly for this reason that Santos decided to take to the European circuit, starting in Madrid on November 3, in order to secure funding and political backing.  Given the infamously counterproductive ineffectiveness of previous policies towards the FARC as well as other drug trafficking groups throughout the Americas, many Colombians remain highly skeptical and critical of President Santos’ current efforts towards a lasting peace in a FARC-free Colombia.2 Nevertheless, his soft power approach, focusing not upon brute force or absolute deadlines, but instead upon the international political game, will, in the end, provide his nation with the best opportunity to rid itself of the stateless actor that is the FARC. Colombia’s current battle against its violent guerrilla drug trafficking groups and the newsworthy response by the President, however, are part of a much larger ongoing battle waged against drugs on a global scale, one that is unmistakably woven into the United States’ relations with Latin America.

Drugs come in all forms, shapes, and sizes, are produced and subsequently used in various places around our increasingly connected and globalized world, have starkly different pharmacological consequences, and are even viewed from vastly different perspectives, both in positive and negative lights. Despite all of this variation, one thing that has long remained an undeniable phenomenon has been the problems, characterized by violence, avarice, massive public expenditure, and government inefficiency, surrounding the so-called “War on Drugs.”

Many would argue that the question of what substances constitute illegal rather than legal drugs is, in and of itself, a somewhat arbitrary one that has been tainted by racism and self-interest. Nevertheless, what cannot be denied is the inefficiency of the war against the illicit drug trade that the United States has waged tirelessly and largely unsuccessfully since President Ronald Reagan openly declared a ‘war’ on drugs in 1986. He did so not only on the grounds of bettering the health of U.S. citizens, but also as “a matter of national sovereignty” and security.3 Since this battle was initially waged by Reagan and then further promoted as an important agenda point by former President George H.W. Bush in the context of increasingly open markets in the areas formerly occupied by the Soviet Union, the “U.S. international policy on drugs [has] justified its longstanding emphasis on supply control,” faithfully characterized by the financing of massive police and military forces as well as interdiction and eradication policies in supplying nations, “draped in the banner of national security.”3  With Latin America producing and shipping more than 80 percent of the cocaine and 90 percent of the marijuana that entered the United States at the time, this hard power initiative-based, tangible force-focused, strategy came to principally fall upon the Latin American region; however, it has remained costly and largely ineffective to this day.

As a result, I will strive to analyze the nature of the international drug trade while placing a particular emphasis on the illegal drug market between Latin America and the United States. I will then make the case that it will be soft power means, not hard power strategies that have already proven to be ineffective in the long term and a focus upon the U.S. market demand, not the largely Latin American supply, that will ultimately help at least curb the violence, money laundering, and remarkable inefficiency associated with the U.S.’s longstanding unsuccessful “War on Drugs” campaign that has existed since the mid-1980s.

Since the onset of the United States’ conscious assault on drugs, the U.S. federal government has devoted massive resources to the suppression of the supply of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, as well as designer drugs, such as LSD, through crop and laboratory eradication as well as drug shipment interdiction, especially near the U.S. border. The fact has remained however, that the multi-billion dollar drug industry absolutely could not survive without the unwavering support of the world’s largest market for illicit drugs, which, coincidentally, is the United States.  The idea of the U.S. government, essentially since the early 1970s, has long been “to reduce the flow of illicit drugs into the United States, drive prices upward, harass the traffickers, discourage consumption, and push the users out of the market.”3  Despite initial success of a decrease in the casual drug usage of the American middle class, (Data revealed a nearly 50% decrease in overall ‘current drug users’ from more than 25 million in 1979 to 13.5 million in 1990 and even fewer, 13.0 million, by 1996) this trend ultimately proved untenable, as the pattern reversed, and in the first decade of the new millennium this same category of drug users rose steadily from 14.0 million to 22.6 million.3  The simple fact is that the United States, regardless of how much money the federal government decides to throw at its supply-focused solution, lacks the resources necessary to ever be able to adequately suppress and control the illicit drug industry – an indispensable way of life for far too many who are far too willing to find an alternative transnational solution to shipping or producing drugs in a highly developed, organized, and lucrative hierarchical system.

There have already been various hard power-oriented policy making failures, which afford powerful examples of the inability of the United States government to squash and subsequently control the targeted supply of illicit drugs.  One such example was the post-Cold War Plan Colombia, which began under George H.W. Bush as part of the ‘Andean Initiative’ and was thereafter continued under the similar hard power tactics of President Bill Clinton. This policy became synonymous with military campaigns against drug traffickers and rebel groups as well as with massive aerial fumigation strategies and was perpetuated by massive U.S. foreign aid, much of which was in support of domestic police and military forces within Colombia. In the end, Plan Colombia did succeed in drastically reducing the South American nation’s coca production, weakening rebel movements, most notably the FARC – Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia –, and strengthening the central Colombian state authority, but it ultimately had little effect on the cocaine market overall, as production simply rebounded in Bolivia and Peru.


Balloon Effect 

This hard power policy failure provides a perfect example of the so-called ‘balloon effect’ phenomenon to which drug policy analysts often refer. This ‘balloon effect’ analogy is used to “illustrate the process by which drug production is displaced across national borders in order to evade eradication and interdiction efforts” and has done so with astonishing effectiveness and success.4 The balloon reference is an appropriate one because it plays to the metaphorical idea that “clamping down on cocaine production and trafficking in one area of the Andes simply pushes it into another region,” as would be the case similarly with air trapped in a balloon.4  This metaphorical ‘squeezing of the balloon’ has long been representative of the Latin American drug trade and serves as a model not only for the Andean production model, but also flexible drug trafficking routes.  As an example, the drug trafficking route from Colombia to the U.S. originally went through the Caribbean, but once the risk of apprehension there became too great, traffickers adeptly re-invented it, using Central America and Mexico as drug highways, until U.S. drug policy began to focus on Mexico around 1990. At this point, those in this transnational drug trade, as flexible as ever, simply moved back to using the Caribbean, specifically countries with weak states and lax law enforcement, such as the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, before eventually swinging transportation back through Mexico once again by the end of the decade.  In reality, the phenomenon of finding new trade routes for drugs exists for a variety of very logical reasons.

First, in large part thanks to the massive demand stemming from drug users in the U.S., the illicit drug industry is one of incredible influence and wealth, and yet it is one that, largely due to massive money laundering and corruption amongst drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), or ‘cartels,’ has uniquely developed with a propensity to circumvent expected, sporadic government interventions. Despite successes in the quantity of U.S.-bound cocaine shipments intercepted by U.S. authorities (30% in 2010), seizures did not reduce availability, as traffickers came to anticipate seizures and incorporate extra shipment estimates, while DTOs easily withstood large losses in shipments intercepted by U.S. authorities without incurring any significant loss. The reason for this is the exponential increase in resale value as raw materials are further processed into their desired corresponding drug compounds. Due to these exponentially increasing values, made possible in part due to elaborate money laundering schemes of well-established cartels, the traffickers, dealers, and retailers themselves can endure large losses of merchandise and still turn massive, lifestyle-sustaining profits with the remaining drugs that they are able to smuggle to their next selling point, while it is the campesinos, or farmers, producing the base crops who truly suffer at the hands of eradication and interdiction policies (See figure, below).


DRUG PRICES:3         Coca leaves --> $300                      (Farmgate)

                                Coca base --> $900                         (Farmgate)

                                Cocaine hydrochloride --> $1,500   (Export/Colombia)

                                Cocaine hydrochloride --> $15,000 (Import/U.S.)

                                Cocaine (67% pure) --> $40,000     (Dealer/U.S.)

                                Cocaine (67% pure) --> $150,000   (Retail/U.S.)                                          

Although these agricultural campesinos in prominent drug-producing countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia live meager lives and are continually the ones to bear the brunt of the majority of U.S. offensive policy in Latin America, there will always be “a ready supply of them willing to grow coca in exchange for a better financial stake” and the hope of living off the land yet another day.4 The campesinos’ mindset has nothing to do with knowingly participating in the illegal drug trade or attempting to serve as a detriment to society in terms of lost productivity or environmental damages, but rather has to do solely with striving to survive another day. As long as the production of illicit drugs is able to provide these poor farmers with the most hope for a prosperous way of life, there will never be a shortage of coca or similar crops in Latin America for the cartels to acquire. In addition, it would be ludicrous to think that any farmer in his right mind would willingly stop growing coca or other illicit-drug-forming crops in favor of less profitable government-recommended alternatives, such as wheat, bananas, or pineapples. It would similarly be unjust and illogical to ask him to change his way of life despite the fact that the market for previously profitable crops still exists.

Given the entire context of the drug war, it is clear that the U.S.’s “War on Drugs” initiative focusing upon hard power has been a comprehensive failure since its inception in the 1980s. Nevertheless, an innovative focus upon soft power means could help mitigate the problem.  Instead of continuing to espouse rhetoric claiming that it will change its supply-oriented drug war strategy, while each new presidential administration just continues to spend more and more on eradication, interdiction, policing schemes, and other hard power means, something fundamental must change. What the United States needs is its government to genuinely focus upon engaging in its ‘war’ against drugs by combatting the demand, not the supply. Though eventually this demand would need to be curbed not only in the U.S., but also throughout the rest of the world where other markets would surely develop. The U.S. could most effectively begin to achieve its end goal of lessening the flow of illicit drugs into the United States and, in time, throughout the rest of the world by focusing upon curbing demand in the world’s largest drug market - that of the United States. Though the bureaucracy of the Stars and Stripes does not, and will not, ever have the resources to squash the supply of illicit drugs, what it does have more realistic control over is the demand for these drugs, which its people largely provide.

By placing a profound emphasis upon education and rehabilitation of its own citizens, domestically, instead of forceful, hard power supply control policies projected upon the rest of the world, the U.S. government may legitimately be able to lessen the presence of illicit drugs within its borders in a lasting way.  Unfortunately, what must be done is the exact opposite of what has been done to this point: Instead of pushing users out of the market as the final step in the process, this must be the beginning of a methodology focused upon widespread education and mitigation of addictions, as our American society gradually strives to phase out drugs from its everyday culture. From this point forward, all of the other enumerated goals of Reagan’s “War on Drugs” may be achieved, as soft power means will discourage consumption, which will not harass the traffickers but instead reduce their market and effectively diminish business, eventually causing the lucrative nature not only of illicit drugs but also the precursor crops to diminish.  In the end, former president Reagan would retrospectively approve, because, though regrettable as an economic theory, in this case, the ‘trickle down’ effect would work wonders, eventually causing the campesinos to no longer have such a desire to grow once-profitable crops, such as coca, for sale to DTOs.  Indeed, this would be the last step in the process, and attacking the demand is the only way to make it remotely possible. The ultimate solution must begin with empowerment via soft power education and rehabilitation tools.

Though hard power means employing force and decisive action used to be the optimal way to achieve political, economic, and social goals in times in which self-interested and rational state actors were the only unit of analysis, today we undoubtedly live in a very different world. This world, vastly different from that of our ‘cold warrior’ president Ronald Reagan in the context of the bilateral power structure of the Cold War, is one that demands an appropriately modern solution, and soft power means provide that answer. Although some hard power would be necessary, soft power is the solution to a modern, neoliberal era issue in terms of illegal drugs. Drug trafficking organizations are a product of a modern era full of faceless, stateless actors and as such are very similar in composition and function to terrorist groups. Just like terrorist organizations, DTOs are amongst us and form “states within states,” which use means of terror, violence, and intimidation to acquire raw political power and cannot be successfully combated with sheer force against one singular state. They must instead must be attacked through alternative means. The extreme levels of violence, lack of state authority, control of territory by illegal cartel entities, and popular militarized government responses in countries such as Colombia and Mexico are a direct result of the failure of improper hard power tactics during the drug war. However, these unintended consequences and other poor results associated with hard power tactics attempting to break up drug suppliers can easily be exchanged for the right solution.

The modern context of our current world demands that we recognize that the days of bilateral power and state actors on a global scale are gone. No longer in an era when Reagan’s hard power means, characterized by force and intimidation, are most effective in order to achieve our goals, if the United States hopes to bring about an end to the infamous “War on Drugs” its leaders must embrace soft power techniques. Retrospectively, it is now clear that some of our government’s biggest blunders in recent history came in the form of backing repressive governments in Guatemala and El Salvador, supporting – first legally, then illegally, via the Iran-Contra Affair Scandal – the terrorist Contra Rebels against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and even aiding and ultimately helping to enable the rise of the Taliban in the Middle East. All of these things occurred under Reagan, and were directly as a result of his so-called Reagan Doctrine, which was an already-outdated hard power ideology.5

This political philosophy faithfully embodied by Reagan constituted a return to containment strategies against socialist/communist governments and employed a hard line approach against any governments that were too far radically left on the political spectrum.6 Via his ‘peace through strength’ mantra, Reagan went about rhetorically promoting democracy but doing so in a very undemocratic way and ultimately would come to hold some very appalling actors as allies on the anti-Soviet-oriented principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”6  Through this ideology and with an undying fear that Soviet communism was poisoning the world’s people, Reagan’s administration not only came to support several terribly repressive and unjust regimes in Latin America, but also gave rise to both the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden through secret funding, equipping, and training of the Islamist mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan from which both entities emerged.5 There should be no doubt today that these actions leading to the emergence of Islamic fundamentalist radicalism taken by the Reagan administration were costly and horrific, actions that have influenced the world negatively for years after the fact.  Nevertheless, these decisions were not random, but instead were based on the principles of an outdated hard power strategy that was attempting to eradicate a supply that could not realistically be eliminated.        

One can only hope that we have learned from our past mistakes and that this time, in the context of a very distinct era of globalization and the prominence of individual, not just state, actors, the United States government will not foolishly continue to force Cold War period strategies of hard power and brawn upon issues where they do not belong.  It is time for our government to take a fresh and ultimately more effective new age approach to waging war on drugs, and that starts by focusing upon soft power strategies aimed at reducing demand domestically through education and rehabilitation.


  1. González, Miguel & Silvia Blanco. “Santos: “Hemos llegado más lejos que nunca en el proceso de paz.” El País. 3 Nov. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. <>

  2. Blanco, Silvia. “Santos inicia en España su gira europea para financiar la paz.” El País. 3 Nov. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. <

  3. Smith, Peter H. “Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World (Fourth Edition).” New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

  4. Whittington, Liam. “The Balloon Effect, in Effect: Humala, Peru, and the Drug Dilemma   (Part 2 of 2).” Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) 11 Oct. 2013. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. <>

  5. Seitz-Wald, Alex. “10 Things Conservatives Don’t Want You To Know About Ronald Reagan.” 5 Feb. 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. <>

  6. Bell, Coral. “The Reagan Paradox: U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1980s.” New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Print.


About Author(s)

Kevin Kerr
Kevin Kerr is a senior undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh currently pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Spanish with a related minor in Portuguese as well as a second minor in Linguistics while also obtaining a Certificate in Latin American Studies from CLAS. After taking some time to travel and work throughout the world, specifically Latin America, post-graduation, he has aspirations of working and studying in the International Business/Economics or Public Health fields.