Shawn Smallman on The Concept of Security: The U.S. Drug War, Mexico, and Portugal

We welcome a guest post today from Shawn Smallman, coauthor (with Kimberley Brown) of Introduction to International and Global StudiesTheir new book is a thematic introduction to the intellectual and structural underpinnings of globalization.  Here, Smallman shows how increased regulation and security can actually exacerbate the issues of the international drug war that those measures try to quell. -Alex

Security is a foundational issue in international affairs. Certainly, one of the first writers in this area was the Greek Thucydides, who described the paradox that it was the Athenians’ drive to create security through the construction of great walls that contributed to a conflict with Sparta. National leaders, generals and citizens have had to wrestle with this problem ever since, because actions that states undertake to improve their security–such as missile defense or alliances with neighbors–can actually heighten insecurity or lead to conflict. Many different visions and concepts of security exist that define the problem to be addressed in a very different manner.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the current “drug war” in Mexico. The United States has long supported a militarized approach to fighting drug usage by focusing on the organizations in Latin America that produce and transport these drugs. Arguably, “Plan Colombia” succeeded in that nation, where Pablo Escobar was killed and the major drug cartels were smashed in the 1990s with massive U.S. financial aid. While this did little to reduce the flow of cocaine to the United States or to diminish its cost on the market, it did diminish the threat to the Colombian state. As a result, the major drug trafficking routes shifted to the north. In Mexico, President Calderon began the conflict in December 2006 by using the military to attack the major drug producing cartels. The ensuing warfare has killed over 30,000 people, led to the collapse of the state in some border communities, and created to significant tensions within the armed forces between the army and the navy. Now, however, there seems to be little sign that the situation in Mexico is improving, and Mexican armed forces reportedly believe that this struggle will last seven to ten years. And if the Mexican state succeeds, it is not clear why the trading routes will not shift to poorer and less powerful states, particularly those of Central America. After decades of effort, little evidence exists that the militarized drug war has served U.S. security issues, or that the Mexican government’s approach to the problem is improving national security.

In contrast, some European states are now defining drug usage as a public health concern rather than a security issue. Foremost amongst these is Portugal, which decriminalized the private possession of drugs in 2001. As an article in Time Magazine describes, Portugal is a socially conservative society and many commentators predicted that drug use would increase, and that the nation would become a focus for drug tourism  In fact, nothing of the sort took place. Instead, as the conservative Cato organization described, the number of people seeking treatment increased, HIV infections fell, and overall drug usage dropped. Nor has Portugal become the center of a booming drug tourism industry. Reading the Cato report, it is difficult not to be stunned by the statistics on falling drug usage among youth in particular. There has never been a comparable drop in drug usage in the United States, despite some limited gains in some areas. Both Spain and Italy have also decriminalized the personal possession of drugs, although dealing drugs remains illegal. Within the United States, however, there has been virtually no discussion within the major branches of the federal government that fight drug usage, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In part, the U.S. government is reluctant to consider the possibility of decriminalization because of the strength of the realism within security thinking in the United States. This approach to security issues focuses on the danger posed by nation-states, and emphasizes military force as the best means to address security issues. In contrast, human security tends to focus on individuals and populations, and the threats that may come from other actors than foreign states. In this framework, drug usage may be best thought of as a public health threat, which is better addressed through decriminalization and treatment. In this sense, the drug war embodies the philosophical differences between two different visions of security, and the power that these two paradigms of security entail.

Shawn Smallman is professor of international studies at Portland State University and coauthor of Introduction to International and Global Studies. Information about the book, including an instructor’s manual and supplementary chapter, are available at