Washington Names a Special Envoy. What Can He Do?

On February 20, Secretary of State John Kerry presented Bernard Aronson, the United States’ first special envoy to the Colombian peace process. This is a welcome move.

Since talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas began in 2012, U.S. support has been consistent, but distant. Its usual manifestation has been public declarations of U.S. backing—a general statement every two months or so—from a high-ranking official. But with Aronson’s appointment, a senior official will be engaged with the process on a full-time basis. U.S. support for the talks is likely to take a qualitative leap forward.

A Colombian Request

The move, Secretary Kerry said, is the result of a direct request from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

“In December I met with President Santos in Bogota, and he asked me directly whether or not the time had come for the United States to perhaps take a more direct role, and be more directly supportive of the peace process.”

What prompted President Santos to make this request in December is unclear. Timing was a likely factor: the FARC’s quick November 30 release of a captured Colombian general, and its mid-December declaration of a unilateral ceasefire, gave fresh momentum to the talks, leaving a clear impression that they had moved to a more advanced phase. President Santos no doubt calculated that a more explicit show of U.S. backing was appropriate at this stage. But it is uncertain what additional roles or duties he wishes U.S. diplomats to fulfill at this time.

A change in U.S. posture

Even six months ago, in our interactions with U.S. officials, the idea of a special envoy to the peace talks didn’t quite fail the “laugh test,” but was certainly viewed as premature. A series of recent events—Santos’s reelection victory, the captured general’s release, the ceasefire, steps toward de-escalation of the conflict—changed that calculation.

Changed U.S.-Cuban relations

The December 2014 diplomatic opening to Cuba also likely made the idea of a special envoy more practical. It eased, both politically and diplomatically, the presence of a U.S. government representative in Havana on a mission unrelated to the bilateral relationship with Cuba.

A qualified envoy

Bernard Aronson served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George H.W. Bush (41) administration. There, he oversaw a shift away from the Reagan administration’s opposition to negotiations in El Salvador, toward a stance of support for UN-brokered peace talks.

The choice of Aronson is, on balance, smart. He is experienced with U.S. support for peace negotiations in Latin America. And, since he served in a Republican administration (though himself active in Democratic politics), he has more credibility with Republican legislators, whose support is important as they now control both houses of Congress.

Aronson’s efforts were vital to encouraging El Salvador’s rightist government to stay at the negotiating table. But he is not a reserved, conciliatory career diplomat. Álvaro de Soto, the UN official who mediated the El Salvador peace talks, described Aronson as “browbeating me” about issues like negotiation deadlines and imposing a cease-fire, and criticized his State Department for the impatience with which it approached the talks and occasionally undercut his work. Investigative journalist Juanita León, meanwhile, points out that Aronson’s private-equity firm, which he founded in 1996, has investments in oil extraction projects in Putumayo and Meta, two conflictive zones with a heavy FARC presence.

The FARC is delighted

In Havana, guerrilla negotiators quickly issued a statement “hailing” Aronson’s appointment as U.S. special envoy. They voiced a view that more direct U.S. involvement in the peace process is “a necessity, given the permanent presence and impact that the United States has in Colombia’s political, economic, and social life.”

Second-hand accounts and captured guerrilla communications make clear that, just as they seek dialogue with their opposites in Colombia’s military leadership, FARC leaders have long desired contact with the U.S. government. This is due to the U.S. “presence and impact” mentioned in their statement; to their desire to discuss issues that only U.S. policymakers can resolve, like drug policy, extraditions, and the return of leaders jailed in the United States; and to the political legitimacy, however slight and indirect, that the hemisphere’s largest country’s participation in negotiations confers on them.

Because of that last point, and because of the FARC’s presence on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, it would be surprising to see Aronson meet with FARC negotiators during his first visits to Havana. (U.S. diplomats had no meaningful contact with the FMLN until El Salvador’s peace talks were quite advanced, in July and August 1991.) However, a meeting with FARC could happen if the Santos administration encourages it, perhaps as a way to moderate the FARC’s political views. If such a meeting takes place, it will be the first contact between U.S. diplomats and FARC representatives since 1998.

What will a special envoy do? Improvise, probably

The Obama administration has relied heavily on the figure of “special envoys” to deal with global crises and issues. As of December, the American Foreign Service Association counted 49 special envoys or special representatives at the State Department.

A helpful October 2014 U.S. Institute of Peace study [PDF] by Princeton N. Lyman and Robert M. Beecroft explains that special envoys “are most useful when a conflict situation is of major importance to the United States, has strong regional as well as bilateral aspects, and exceeds the State Department’s capacity to address it.” Advantages to naming one include conveying a high level of U.S. interest, overcoming bureaucratic constraints on U.S. action, providing more intense focus, and engaging “in diplomacy with enemies or other ‘unfavorables’ where formal diplomatic contact would be inappropriate.” Potential disadvantages, though, include undercutting the State Department, muddying lines of command, turning out to be more of a symbolic than a substantive gesture, or “introducing outsiders with little knowledge of the situation.”

Bernard Aronson has much relevant knowledge, and his nomination is a welcome gesture. We wish him well in the next few weeks as he departs for Colombia and Cuba. We still don’t really now, though, what he will do.

“Peace can only be made by Colombians themselves,” he said on Friday. “We have no blueprint made in Washington to offer. We will not take a place at the negotiating table, but we can push, prod, cajole, and clarify and help wherever we can.”

This likely means that we can expect a period of improvisation. Aronson is unlikely to be in the room while negotiations are in session: that is a role for the two guarantor countries, Norway and Cuba. Some of the special envoy’s most important work will be in Washington, briefing people throughout the administration, and especially members of Congress whose support will be crucial in the post-conflict phase. In Havana, Aronson can communicate directly to the negotiators what the United States is prepared to concede in terms of policy changes before an accord, and what it is prepared to offer Colombia in post-conflict support.

We hope that the upcoming period is one of creative and constructive improvisation, and that, with a special envoy focused full-time on the issue, the U.S. government can help Colombia get through some of the very thorny issues that stand in the way of an eventual peace accord and its implementation.

Tags: U.S. Policy

February 23, 2015

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