In the evolving foreign policy of the post-Cold War world, Americans increasingly demand that U.S. diplomacy advance domestic interests. Nowhere is this more striking than in the most recent development in the U.S. drug war: the assigning of annual pass-fail grades, known as "certifications" or "decertifications," to other countries for their anti-narcotics efforts. The consequences of failure appear severe: the cutoff of U.S. aid, U.S. opposition to World Bank and other multilateral development loans, and the stigma of being branded a drug-trafficking nation.


Although the annual certification process has attracted little attention in the United States, it is big news overseas, particularly in Latin American and South Asian countries where drug production proliferates. For U.S. officials, certification provides an opportunity for unilateral action and a display of power at a time when many foreign observers are questioning the leadership role of the United States.

Certification was imposed on the executive branch by Congress in 1986, the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic that swept American cities and made drug abuse the public's top concern. The intent was to put teeth into U.S. international drug control efforts by, among other things, requiring the president to determine each year whether the governments of major drug-producing countries have fully cooperated with the United States in curtailing illicit production and trafficking. Countries deemed cooperative are certified, and those that are not are decertified.

However, in cases where a cutoff of U.S. and multilateral aid would jeopardize vital U.S. interests, a "national interest" exception is allowed for countries that would otherwise be decertified. The State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which makes the initial certification recommendations to the secretary of state and the president, explains these decisions at length in the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, published in March of each year.


Blaming foreigners for America's drug epidemics is not new. Since the early decades of this century, when laws prohibiting heroin and cocaine possession and use were passed, drugs have been viewed as essentially a foreign problem best controlled through law enforcement, interdiction, and eradication in drug-producing countries. The Hague Opium Convention of 1912, which committed nations to restricting opium production, established an enduring assumption for U.S. enforcement strategy: tough international measures to destroy drugs at their foreign sources curtail domestic drug abuse.

When illegal drug use surged across the United States in the mid-1960s, the government responded by stepping up international drug control efforts. In 1969 President Richard Nixon's Operation Intercept closed a key U.S.-Mexican border crossing to pressure the Mexican government into taking action against marijuana and opium producers. Several years later a U.S. senator publicly threatened to have the United States bomb Istanbul if Turkish opium farmers continued to supply heroin to the infamous French Connection. The Turkish government eventually outlawed opium production and, with assistance from the United States and the United Nations, found alternative livelihoods for traditional opium poppy farmers. But Turkish opium was quickly replaced by opium made from the crops in the mountainous Golden Triangle areas of Laos, Burma, and Thailand, and the American heroin epidemic continued to worsen.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush shared their predecessors' faith in the policy of combating the nation's drug problems by trying to suppress drug smuggling directed at the United States. Both presidents greatly increased interdiction efforts, particularly against cocaine, which had become increasingly popular during their tenures. During the Reagan-Bush era, federal funding for interdiction jumped from $350 million in 1981 to $2 billion in 1992. As the fall of the Soviet Union diminished a primary threat to national security, the Defense Department was enlisted in the battle. At the same time, support for programs to suppress drug production and trafficking in source countries increased from nearly $67 million in 1981 to more than $660 million in 1992. Still, several Government Accounting Office studies found that interdiction--even with military involvement--had not reduced the flow of heroin and cocaine into the country. By 1992 these drugs were cheaper and more plentiful than they had been a decade before.


Under President Bill Clinton, international drug control efforts are continuing, but with a shift in emphasis from interdiction to eradication and enforcement in producing countries. Given doubts about the results of the multibillion dollar Reagan-Bush interdiction campaign, these source country programs have seemed more promising. As Lee Brown, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, explained to Congress in March, "It is more effective to attack drugs at the source of production where illicit production and transportation activities are more visible and thus more vulnerable." Nonetheless, funding for interdiction and source country programs declined from $2.6 billion in 1992 to $1.6 billion in 1995, and Congress is pushing for more cuts.

Voter sentiment remains strongly in favor of America's foreign drug war, despite its apparent failure to reduce drug supplies. A survey last year by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found that 85 percent of the American public believes that "stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the United States" should be a "very important" foreign policy goal--ahead of protecting American jobs, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, and reducing illegal immigration. Yet voters are reluctant to invest tax dollars in international drug control programs, particularly those in producing countries. National polls by Peter Hart Research Associates this year and last found that two-thirds of the public prefers spending money for drug prevention, treatment, and enforcement in their own communities rather than for interdiction or foreign eradication and enforcement programs.


Certification has emerged as a convenient response to voter ambivalence and congressional pressure: it gives officials an opportunity to get tough on source countries without spending more money. Under Bush, whose international drug strategy relied on massive interdiction and source country spending, the certification process was predictable and largely unnoticed. Decertification was reserved for countries with which the United States had limited relations, such as Iran, Burma, Laos, Afghanistan, and Syria, which together produce 90 percent of the world's opium, as well as Noriega's Panama in 1988 and 1989. All other countries, including the Andean nations that supply all America's cocaine, were certified.

Under Clinton, the process has become more rigorous. Last year he decertified Nigeria for its failure to stem pervasive heroin trafficking and money laundering--the first time a country in which American business had important interests was so penalized. Several large U.S. oil companies lobbied against decertification, arguing that a drug dealer label would undermine investor confidence in the companies' legitimate activities there. The decertification decision held, and as a result the United States canceled $10 million in bilateral aid for 1994 and opposed $315 million in multilateral development bank loans (which were approved anyway). Nigeria was again denied certification this year. Nonetheless, that country's prominent role in the worldwide heroin traffic has not diminished.


To date, other countries heavily involved in narcotics production and trafficking but with important ties to the United States have not been decertified. But the Clinton administration has used the national interest exception as a diplomatic lever to try to compel improved performance without actually cutting off assistance. In 1994 Peru and Bolivia, the world's largest coca growers, were granted national interest exceptions. In 1995 Colombia, a major source for both cocaine and heroin; Paraguay, a cocaine transit country; and Pakistan, a prime producer of heroin, were added to the list. The principal justification given for these exceptions was the importance of continued cooperation in stemming the flow of illicit drugs into the United States.

With this new emphasis on curtailing foreign drug supplies by attacking the source of production, eradication of opium and coca crops generally has become the benchmark for measuring cooperation. By setting specific eradication goals, the Clinton administration has chosen a standard that is difficult for many governments to meet and has minimal impact on the U.S. drug scene.

In countries where drug crops are the principal source of income for thousands of small farmers, the threat of massive eradication campaigns can undermine already fragile democracies and foment violence. For example, Peru, the world's largest coca producer, has made substantial strides against major trafficking organizations under President Alberto Fujimori but has refused to take on large-scale coca eradication without increased development assistance to provide viable economic alternatives for coca growers. The Shining Path insurgency, which paralyzed the country for almost a decade, drew much of its strength from disaffected farmers whose support Fujimori needs to rebuild effective government after his dissolution of Peru's congress in 1992.

Bolivia, the world's second-largest coca producer, has also refused to impose eradication on politically powerful, well-organized coca growers. A brief eradication operation in February 1994 encountered violent opposition. The government subsequently sought to appease the growers by promoting legitimate uses of coca to the international community. Although it gave Bolivia a national interest exception earlier this year, the U.S. government privately issued an ultimatum--the first of its kind--threatening to decertify Bolivia if it failed by June 30 to eradicate 1,750 hectares of coca, which amounts to about three percent of its total coca crop.

Decertification would have eliminated $81 million in U.S. assistance for 1995 and jeopardized $350 million in Inter-American Development Bank loans. For Bolivia, whose $680 per capita GNP makes it one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, those losses would be calamitous. By paying farmers to destroy the coca quota by June, the government was able to meet the U.S. deadline. However, eliminating the additional 3,300 hectares of coca demanded by the United States by the end of the year may well require forcible eradication, which could bring down the government. "Our big problem," President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada points out, "is that the Bolivian people are against narco-trafficking, but they are for these farmers."


Although it can be waved as a big stick in U.S. drug diplomacy, what does the certification process achieve? So far decertification has had no impact on drug production or trafficking: the handful of countries designated as decertified are largely beyond the reach of U.S. and multilateral pressure and continue to be major drug suppliers. Countries given a national interest waiver face severe consequences if they are decertified. Even with the threat of an aid cutoff, their compelling domestic constraints have meant that none has undertaken and sustained large-scale eradication.

In the United States, eradication of lucrative drug crops also encounters formidable obstacles: despite federal and state enforcement campaigns, marijuana is now the second-largest cash crop in this country, supplying as much as half the illegal domestic market. Even if the producer countries were willing and able to wipe out a substantial portion of their drug crops, it would have little impact on drug availability in the United States. The supply-side theory that has driven American drug policy for almost a century is fatally flawed. The administration's source country programs aim to make drugs more expensive for American consumers. Yet the largest drug profits are reaped inside our borders, not in foreign poppy or coca fields. The total cost of growing, refining, and smuggling cocaine into the country accounts for only 13 percent of its retail price in the nation's cities. If the United States were able to eliminate half the coca grown in South America, prices in American cities would increase by five percent, not enough to discourage cocaine use. (In fact, coca production doubled between 1987 and 1994.)


As long as high levels of drug consumption persist in the United States, there will be no shortage of foreign drug suppliers. Even if one source--such as Turkey in the 1970s--disappears, other growers quickly fill the gap. In recent years Central Asian republics, particularly Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, have emerged as important new heroin sources, and the drug trade there is operated by drug trafficking and organized crime networks that are rapidly expanding across the former Soviet Union. Closer to home, Colombia has become a significant opium poppy grower and heroin producer, in addition to refining 90 percent of America's cocaine.

The administration's focus on source country supplies is largely futile, but there are vital U.S. interests to be served by a more effective international drug policy. As one can see in Mexico and Colombia, drug-related corruption threatens government stability, economic growth, and public safety. As a top priority, the United States should work with other governments--bilaterally and through multilateral organizations--to go after the major traffickers and their extensive financial assets. Court reform and the strengthening of judicial institutions could help governments take effective action against drug criminals. Extradition treaties can provide political cover for governments unable to impose stiff sentences in their own countries. The recent arrests of Colombian drug kingpins Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela and José Santacruz Londoño and 62 other members of the Cali cartel give hope that the Colombian government will be able to break the stranglehold of the drug lords that has so damaged the country.

Durable answers to America's drug problems have to be found here at home, not abroad. Cocaine use in U.S. cities can be attacked far more cheaply and directly by treatment than by interdiction or source country eradication, according to a 1994 rand Corporation study. The study determined that $34 million invested in treatment reduces cocaine use as much as $366 million invested in interdiction or $783 million in source country programs. The United States should share what it has learned about reducing drug demand with other countries now experiencing epidemics of their own. The worldwide drug problem requires cooperation among producer and consumer countries as well as a sense of shared responsibility. The certification process perpetuates the myth that supply rather than demand is at the heart of America's drug problems.

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  • Mathea Falco, President of Drug Strategies, a nonprofit policy group in Washington, D.C., was Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Matters from 1977 to 1981.
  • More By Mathea Falco