Colombia’s Balancing Act Among the Great Powers

The world’s great powers have real and tangible impacts on Colombia. The next President of Colombia must engage in thoughtful, strategic planning to understand Colombia’s role in an increasingly tense geopolitical environment.


Photo: Presidency of the Republic of Colombia via RCN Radio

The world’s great powers have real and tangible impacts on Colombia, from trade and investment to the security of the country’s institutions and even the health of its people. The Andean country’s deep relationship with the United States, its burgeoning engagement with China, its diversified investment from the European Union, and its increasing tensions with Russia have led to conflicting interests operating in the country. They will also shape where the country goes next. The next President of Colombia must engage in thoughtful, strategic planning to understand Colombia’s role in an increasingly tense geopolitical environment.

The interconnectedness of the world means that the interests of the great powers—the United States, China, the European Union, and Russia—span all corners of the world. Colombia is far from an exception. For geopolitical, commercial, and domestic reasons, Colombia has caught the attention of the global powers. With great power engagement come opportunities but also risks. Colombia’s foreign policy will become even more critical in shaping its future.

While each of the great powers has its own agenda, they fit loosely into two camps when it comes to Colombia. In one camp there are the U.S. and the EU, who have shared interests in providing aid, fostering a green economy, and promoting human rights. In the other there are China and Russia, both of which have interests that challenge U.S. influence. Historically, the United States was the sole competitor for influence in Colombia, but China’s rise is leading to growing competition in the country.

Colombia has a deep and multidimensional relationship with the United States and has long been a U.S. stronghold in the region. The United States is Colombia’s top trading partner and the largest singular source of investment. The U.S. also has a history of providing large amounts of aid to Colombia on issues like promoting the peace process and housing Venezuelan migrants. Amid growing foreign influence in the region, the United States will likely make sure to preserve a strong relationship in Colombia. Even if a candidate who is less friendly to the United States wins the 2022 Colombian presidential election, pressures from Washington and from political actors in Colombia who have deep ties with the United States will prevent the newly elected candidate from moving too far from its historic relationship.

China, the United States’ largest global rival, has not engaged with the Colombian market as deeply as it has with those in other Latin American countries such as Argentina, Peru, Brazil, or Venezuela. Recent developments, however, indicate that Colombia is growing closer to the Asian superpower. China has been able to use its comparative advantages to invest in significant projects, including the long-awaited Bogotá metro, the Bogotá regional railway, and a major gold mine in Antioquia. Colombia has welcomed Chinese investment. During a visit to China, President Iván Duque expressed interest in promoting Chinese investment in his country, and in June 2021, Colombia’s ambassador to China stated that Colombia aims to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a goal that Duque could potentially accomplish by decree before leaving office.

Given Colombia’s position as a U.S. stronghold, the country has attracted a concerning level of attention from Russia. In efforts to challenge global US influence, Russia has shown antagonism towards Colombia, using it as a proxy to affect U.S. influence in Latin America. Russia has allegedly supported guerrilla groups and candidates who oppose the current US-backed government and has even worked with Venezuela to commit a cyberattack against Colombian armed forces. Russia is likely on the lookout for opportunities to destabilize a critical US ally during the upcoming presidential election in 2022, given their expertise doing so in multiple previous elections, including the 2020 US elections.

Colombia must play a delicate balancing act as tensions rise, and it will not be simple to keep the superpowers in their good graces and attract more trade and investment from the opposing parties. Colombia’s next president will need to rekindle the country’s relationship with the Biden White House, which has been distant with Colombia after members of the ruling party, the Centro Democrático, openly supported Republican candidates during the 2020 U.S. elections. Also, to attract Chinese trade and investment, they will have to continue to show their value and available opportunities. Colombia’s leaders must accomplish this balancing act while addressing domestic challenges, including furthering the peace process, promoting the domestic energy sector and the government’s plans for energy transition, accommodating Venezuelan migrants, addressing COVID-19, and anticipating foreign attacks on Colombian democracy.

Colombia’s relationships with the great powers will be critical for Colombia to play its part in addressing global challenges like the climate crisis, as foreign investment and trade are vital to the country’s plans for national energy transition. Colombia can capitalize on its role in great power competition to accomplish national goals, but only if it does so strategically. If done effectively, in the long-term Colombia will be able to maintain the mutual benefits of its close relationship with the U.S. as well as increase business with the EU and ever-growing China.

To leverage these relationships, Colombia will need to evaluate where it has common goals and demonstrate its alignment with foreign interests. For countries like the U.S. and the EU, common interests include human rights, environmental issues, and progress with the implementation of the peace agreement. By continuing to demonstrate its key value as a player in addressing the Venezuelan crisis, Colombia can show its worth as a strategic partner and attract foreign aid for migrants. When working with China, Colombia should highlight its stable investment environment and business opportunities. Solar energy is a particularly apt sector for investment, as China is the world’s largest producer of solar panels. Colombia has had certain success in establishing infrastructure projects with China. Continuing to attract these projects will be critical to developing the country’s infrastructure.

The Colombian private sector also has a role to play to leverage great power competition in the country’s favor. It will have to work closely with the public sector to make Colombian industries attractive to foreign powers. By doing so, Colombian enterprises can benefit from competition. It will be key for the private sector to match the strengths of each of these foreign powers with sectors where Colombia could benefit.

An important criticism of Colombian foreign policy is that it seems reactive rather than proactive to developments abroad, as if Colombia were adrift while great power competition happens around it. President Duque appears to have no coherent geopolitical strategy. Instead, diplomacy serves as an extension of domestic quarrels, and diplomatic postings serve as rewards for loyalty or the setting for a dignified retirement.

The next Colombian government must have a comprehensive plan, one that spans across government bodies and ministries, for promoting its interests on the global stage. The plan must continue some of the previous government’s ideas such as the Pacific Alliance or the welcoming of Venezuelan immigrants and Afghan refugees. Presidential candidates must present the public with robust foreign policy ideas and plans as they campaign for office. Finally, these plans must include ways to leverage relationships with the great powers to promote Colombia’s interests. Not doing so will be detrimental to Colombia’s long-term interests and leave the country adrift as the great power competition wages on.

This article is part of a larger forthcoming report to be published by Colombia Risk Analysis. Follow them on social media to be the first to read the article when it is published.

Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk.

Johan Marulanda is a Risk Analysis Intern at Colombia Risk Analysis and is currently a graduate student at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Follow him on Twitter @johanmarulanda_.

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