Today in Brussels, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos made his first visit to the headquarters of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance to further advance and formalize the agreement that the country made to become an alliance partner in May 2017.
The meeting came during a larger presidential trip to Europe and was held in concert with a presentation on the conflict resolution lessons that have been learned in Colombia as it has sought peace with guerrilla rebels.
Photo: President Juan Manuel Santos shakes hands with Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, in the president’s visit to advance Colombia’s relationship with the alliance as a “global partner” country. (Credit: Presidencia de la República de Colombia)
When Colombia gained “global partner” status last year, it became the first Latin American country to do so. Today’s visit also marks the first time a Colombian president has ever visited the NATO offices in Belgium, according to the organization.
Global partner status, something Colombia shares with Japan, Australia, Afghanistan, and five other nations, does not obligate a country to commit troops or military resources in the event of a NATO conflict.
NATO does welcome such assistance from partners, depending upon the circumstances, but Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas, who traveled to Brussels with Santos, said that “Colombia will not conduct tactical operations with NATO.”
Ultimately, the level of Colombian participation in any future NATO conflicts and missions would be decided by the country, a NATO representative told Finance Colombia.
In 2015, Colombia did participate in a long-term NATO operation, Operation Ocean Shield, that fought against pirates in the Gulf of Aden off the Horn of Africa. The country supplied at least one ship, according to a NATO representative, with Colombian resources “helping to suppress piracy and secure international shipping lanes,” said Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO and the former prime minister of Norway.
Stoltenberg, while speaking today alongside Santos in Belgium, added that “our cooperation has provided real benefits — both to Colombia and to NATO.”
More than direct military involvement, NATO and Colombia say that their partnership is more focused on training and advancing a shared understanding on common interests, including maritime security, cybersecurity, fighting terrorism, improving emergency management, understanding links to organized crime, and raising transparency in national defense operations.
“Colombian personnel have benefited from courses at the NATO School in Germany and the NATO Defense College in Italy,” said NATO in a statement. It added that its “Building Integrity program has increased transparency and professionalism in Colombia’s defense institutions.”
Though Colombia resides outside of the traditional geographical sphere of the U.S./European alliance, which is made up of 29 members and was the core unifying organization of the West throughout the Cold War, the country has long had a close military relationship with the United States and its soldiers are widely respected across the globe for their experience fighting guerrillas in difficult jungle and rural environments.
Colombia “has a lot of expertise to offer in the areas of counter-insurgency, counter-narcotics and in countering improvised explosive devices,” according to NATO’s website.
Colombia has been fostering a relationship with NATO since 2013, when it signed an “agreement on the security of information” agreement with the alliance that set the table “to explore future cooperation and consultation in areas of common interest,” according to the organization.
The 2013 agreement was the first step for Colombia to be considered as a NATO partner, and various defense officials from Colombia have continued to make formal visits to the organization’s offices to discuss shared interests, including common logistics and defense sector transparency standards, in the intervening years.
In May of last year, this relationship was elevated through Colombia becoming an official global partner through NATO’s Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme (IPCP). Countries must be approved by the 29 member nations of NATO before entering the IPCP, and Colombia received unanimous support.
Santos first announced the news of his visit to NATO last Friday on the same day that Colombia was admitted into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a prestigious economic club of nations that Colombia had been formally seeking to join since 2013.
The NATO stop of the trip came while the head of state traveled to Europe to sign the formal paperwork that would finalize the nation’s membership in the OECD. Santos also spoke with members of the European Parliament in France this week and will attend the annual conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO) on Friday in Geneva.
Combined, joining the OECD and gaining partner status with NATO represent major achievements within Santos’ wider goal of elevating Colombia’s standing and inclusion in the global community.
“Being part of the OECD and NATO improves the image of Colombia and allows us to have much more play on the international stage,” said Santos last week.