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A Multilateral Approach To the Drug War

By Peter Hakim / October 24, 1996



Year in and year out, overseas antidrug policies represent the United States at its most unilateral, made-in-Washington style of international decisionmaking. This "me first" mentality may partly explain why these policies persistently fail - and provide good reason for the US to begin working toward a broader, multilateral strategy for dealing with the illegal narcotics trade.

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No one can claim that the international drug war has been a success. True, some battles have been won: The biggest two cartels have been busted - their leaders are mostly dead or behind bars - and each year more coca plants are eradicated and more cocaine is intercepted. Still, the massive flow of cocaine and other drugs to the US continues unabated. Around the world, narco-dollars are a growing menace to democratic institutions and legitimate business.

Even worse, the US war against drugs has mainly produced antagonism - not cooperation - in relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly every Latin American government recognizes the deadly effects of the drug trade, but few believe the US approach is going to accomplish very much. The US international antidrug strategy is not working.

That, however, does not mean that the US should abandon its efforts. The US has real interests at stake in sustaining an international campaign against narcotics. Drug money is corrupting politics and subverting democratic practice in some Latin American countries. The violence and criminality associated with the narcotics trade is eroding the credibility of democratic leaders and institutions in many places.

The availability or price of cocaine in New York or Los Angeles is not affected very much by the failure to prosecute a drug dealer in Bogota, Colombia, the construction of a processing facility in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, or the official toleration of a money laundering operation in Mexico City. Yet each undermines the rule of law and contaminates democratic government.

The decriminalization of illicit drugs can also be rejected. Even though it probably would reduce the crime and violence associated with the production, sale, and use of narcotics, this option has little support anywhere. In addition, the worldwide experience with other addictive substances such as alcohol and tobacco does not inspire confidence that legalizing drugs will do the US much good.

Making the drug war a multilateral initiative is another alternative for US policy. This would require Washington to work with the other governments of the Western Hemisphere to formulate the guiding norms for antidrug efforts, to determine appropriate mechanisms for implementation and review, and to establish needed institutional arrangements for cooperation. A joint effort of this sort will not put a dent in the US's drug problem - or anybody else's - anytime soon. However, the effort can help break down mistrust, diminish friction, and build up regional cooperation that could make the campaign against drugs more effective.

The first, necessary step down this track is a change in US legislation. US law now requires the president to annually judge the antinarcotics efforts of other countries and to "decertify" and penalize those who are not performing up to Washington's standards. No multilateral approach can work if the US insists on the right to make unilateral judgments about its partners and then to impose penalties on them. The governments of the Western Hemisphere will have to design a form of collective review and sanction - as they have for violation of democratic process. Ideally, it would also include an assessment of the US performance along with that of other nations.

Some institutional mechanisms will be needed to allow for regular consultations among the governments, for the securing of necessary technical assistance, and for the resolution of disputes. The Organization of American States' Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) can take on some of these tasks, and the governments of the hemisphere can draw on their considerable cooperative experience in other areas such as trade and human rights.

The US should have the leading voice in a multilateral initiative on drugs (as it does in other cooperative ventures in this hemisphere). But unlike today, it should not have the only voice.

* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.