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A Vital Anthropology of Foreign Policy

The Association for the Anthropology of Policy

Review of Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: US Policymaking in Colombia by Janne Bjerre Christensen (Danish Institute for International Studies)

November/December 2015

Foreign policymaking is anything but a linear process based on dispassionate, rational assessments to be neatly evaluated. That conclusion becomes clear when reading Winifred Tate’s powerful book on the invention, implementation and repercussions of US policymaking in Colombia. “Plan Colombia,” which was enacted in 2000, is a critical site for interrogating US policy formation, Tate says, because “it was going to help Colombia do it all: reduce drug trafficking, defeat leftist guerrillas, support peace, and build democracy” (p 3). Although praised as a great success in the US—a “miracle” even—Tate counterposes this triumphant story with local residents’ “sober assessments of damage in the region” (p 25).

The book shows how illegal narcotics emerged as a national security threat in the US during the 1980s and 1990s, giving rise to a “zero tolerance paradigm” and an increased militarization of US drug policies. It then moves on to demonstrate how human rights organizations in the US pushed for transparency in US military aid, and how this legalization paradoxically paved the way for US support to paramilitary forces in Colombia. Due to the rising demand for accountability, the US could not pursue its militarization and counterinsurgency through the Colombian military, so the violence was outsourced to private armies. The US largely concealed this practice through a narrative of the Colombian state being “absent” or “failing”—a claim that Tate questions.

Building on and adding to the Foucault-inspired anthropological literature on governance, governmentality, policies, (post)colonialism, and the state, Tate reveals the competing agendas of policymaking, the “multiple narratives of justification and positioning” (p 4), and their (unintended) consequences. She uncovers what policymakers bring to the table, their numerous, often contradictory motivations and intentions—power plays among Democrats and Republicans; previously failed or succeeded endeavors in Latin America—which are largely detached from realities on the ground in Colombia; yet find a fixed point in Plan Colombia. By outlining the interlacing “origin stories” of the policy, Tate demonstrates why and how the militarization and the prohibitionist approach to drugs took power over other positions and became part of “a larger political struggle framed as a culture war” (p 54).

The book is an extraordinary achievement not least due to the immensity of sources and the thickness of description applied on all levels of analysis. Tate is equally at home ethnographically in Washington’s political offices as in the Colombian jungle of Putumayo, and she follows Plan Colombia all the way through: from its inception and multiple origins, through NGOs’ responses, to the effects on Colombian farmers. As a political activist she took part in the US discussions when Plan Colombia was initiated. Later she interviewed most of the key policymakers, excavating their motivations at the time. Positioning herself politically, she analyzes the normativity of the proposed policies without passing judgment a priori, evenly criticizing the human rights agendas pursued by NGOs and the militarization of policies set off in the White House.

Paralleling her own methodology of moving back and forth between Colombia and Washington, Tate also devotes a section to the meaning and importance of “travel” in policymaking—US politicians visiting Colombia, Colombian activists visiting Washington—displaying how expertise is created, and how being a victim of and bearing witness to violence is used and abused politically.

Considering the force of her valuable work, it is a bit surprising that Tate does not clearly outline the theoretical and methodological contributions she is making. Limiting fieldwork to an unspecified “deep hanging out” obscures the scope and quality of her multi-sited field encounters (p 13). Although applying the notion of “embedded ethnography” (p 14), Tate does not thoroughly discuss the particular (ethical) problems, limitations and advantages of that methodology—and the extent to which it actually differs from other kinds of ethnographic participation.

Also, although impressively showing us what anthropology can offer the study of foreign policy—detailing the fragments, emotions, the hidden and hypocritical processes of what is often portrayed as rational, linear and self-evident - the book might benefit from a more detailed theoretical debate, positioning her work more explicitly in the burgeoning anthropological literature of policy, governance and the state. The references to this literature often remain implicit.

This criticism aside, Winifred Tate’s book is exceptional and of vital interest both to anthropologists working on policies, globalization, and governance, and to the growing number of political scientists invested in the constructivist “practice turn” of international relations.

Janne Bjerre Christensen is a postdoc researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. She is the author of Drugs, Deviancy and Democracy in Iran: The Interaction of State and Civil Society (2011).

In addition to this review of the first title in the “Anthropology of Policy” series, which is edited by Cris Shore and Susan Wright and published by SUP, ASAP will occasionally provide book reviews of interest to members and friends of the association in this column. If you have any suggestions, or if you would like to contribute to this column, please contact either of the contributing editors: Judi Pajo at or Theodore Powers at

A link to this article on the Anthropology News website can be found here.

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