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The Geopolitics of Narcotics: Section 706 and Great Power Rivalry

In part four of our new series, “The Geopolitics of Narcotics”, John Scott examines the impact of counter-narcotics policies on the broader geopolitical interactions of states, and in particular how Section 706 of the US FRAA legislation may prove to be an opportunity for Chinese influence on the global stage.

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It is continually fascinating how the human consumption of drugs – the interaction of specific chemicals within the human brain – can have a profound role to play in the interaction of nation states. This most micro of phenomena can shape the most macro, similar to how the contraction of the Ebola virus can close an international border; how the spread of bovine disease can void billions in international trade; or how a rush of the adrenaline hormone in a cabal of traders can shake a stock market.

In many countries around the world, drugs continue to shape policy and vice versa in areas beyond just public health. Substances such as cocaine, amphetamines and heroin can mould the economic and diplomatic destinies of states, including those of great geostrategic importance – from Mexico to the Philippines to Afghanistan, to the United States.

Last week, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its annual overview of global narcotics, and for enforcement agencies the world over, it paints a bleak picture. Drug seizures across the world are certainly skyrocketing. However, so is almost every indicator of drug consumption and traffic. The purity and potency of psychoactive substances are at record levels, and with them the rates of drug-related infections and deaths. Meanwhile, the illicit cocaine and opioid industries are undergoing an unprecedented boom, with traffickers taking home greater profits than before.

The United States was for decades the world’s foremost advocate of the criminalisation of drugs (indeed the very name of the UN Office for Drugs and Crime belies the extent of American influence in the organisation). Successive administrations have strongly condemned narcotics as a threat to national security, public health and family values, and have increasingly justified the global ‘War on Drugs’ by highlighting the role of narcotics in the funding of terrorist organisations. Meanwhile, however, with the continued rise of China, the ‘Washington consensus’ of international counter-narcotics may have somewhat legislated itself into a corner, creating for American lawmakers an entirely new challenge.

The starting point of this potential blow-back is Section 706 of the sprawling Foreign Relations Authorisation Act, or FRAA. The Act as a whole provides the US Executive with a strategic framework for engaging with foreign powers and organisations, and thus could be considered one of the world’s most significant pieces of legislation. In particular, Section 706 addresses how the United States will act towards so-called ‘Major’ countries – those that house the production or transit of significant amounts of narcotics – that have “failed demonstrably” in the international fight against the drug trade. For the country in question, being ‘designated’ by this Section of the FRAA translates into the denial of fully one half of all US financial assistance (outside of extraordinary or emergency humanitarian funding) for that financial year. For as long as the United States has been the supreme international donor, therefore, this has amounted to a severe punishment for negligence.

In September 2018, President Trump designated two ‘Major’ countries – Bolivia and Venezuela – under the FRAA. He thereby permitted the denial of 50% of all financial aid to two South American governments, one of which is already economically fragile and, another which is fast becoming a failed state in front of the world’s eyes. Were this to have been implemented in the decades of unchallenged American financial supremacy, this could have amounted to a crushing blow. But the current strategic reality is, as Washington will be well aware, rapidly changing.

Both Bolivia and Venezuela have been major recipients of Chinese investment and aid in recent years, and given China has proven less selective in its financial diplomacy than most Western powers, this will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Subsequently, rather than pushing smaller governments into conforming with US-led policies, the ‘Sectioning’ under the FRAA has rather pushed them towards a deeper partnership with the United States’ greatest long-term adversary, Beijing. Although legislators will be under no illusion that the FRAA designation will turn Caracas and La Paz into pro-China proxies or alter their stances overnight, they will likely be aware that their actions could prove significantly counter-productive in the years to come.

Meanwhile, these developments also provide an insight into Chinese diplomatic priorities. Beijing has long been just as hostile as Washington to abusers and profiteers of narcotics – indeed its ‘treatment’ centres for sufferers of drug addiction have been likened to militarised ‘re-education’ camps, and the Government remains willing to apply the death penalty for distribution. But its attitude to the trade appears to be quite different to the countries that, in the eyes of the US, ‘demonstrably fail’ to prevent trafficking activity. In a similar way to its Belt & Road Initiative investments, which have been criticised for financing controversial governments across Asia and Africa, Beijing evidently appears more willing to prioritise potentially lucrative economic deals with decades-long yields over maintaining some consensus on law enforcement.

Such moves may only be small cogs in the global game between the trans-Pacific rivals, but they are arguably indicative of a need for Washington to alter its methods of keeping foreign partners ‘onside’. Were a future administration to ‘designate’ much larger economies along the major trafficking routes, such as Brazil, Mexico or Nigeria, this would likely provide a huge opportunity for China to ‘replace’ it in highly significant emerging markets, and ultimately reap a reward. On top of appearing condescending to foreign countries facing the brutal front-line realities of the drug war, the US international strategy may indeed prove strategically reckless.

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John Scott is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. John has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic and organised crime analysis for Intelligence Fusion, and now works in political risk for a leading intelligence firm in London.

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