This article was originally published in the Winter 1997 issue of the Harvard International Review.

The international community, including the United States, has utterly failed to recognize and address the true scope of the threat posed by global narcotics cartels. These cartels are not typical criminal organizations: they rival small armies in firepower, match the financial sophistication of skilled bankers, and threaten the institutions of free people in numerous countries. Once thought vanquished, the scourge of the drug cartel has returned and is now more dangerous than ever.  

A few facts shed light on the gravity of the situation we face. Recently, US Senate subcommittee hearings documented that Mexican drug cartels are conducting military-style excursions across the US border and targeting US counter-narcotics officials for assassination. The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates overall costs of domestic drug abuse and drug-related crime at US$67 billion each year, and US Drug Enforcement Agency Director Tom Constantine has stated that foreign cartel operations in the United States are the greatest organized crime threat that the United States has ever faced.

Make no mistake: the civilized world is losing the drug war. Global narcotics organizations hold no respect for any nation’s laws, boundaries, or sovereignty. With access to financial resources and sophisticated technology, they have largely succeeded by exploiting the limited jurisdiction of individual countries.

Traditional foreign policy institutions are ill-equipped to confront shadowy adopt a multilateral approach involving Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia. Such a framework would provide each member nation with an “ownership interest” in fighting narcotics trafficking. Such a drug war alliance would encourage these nations to police themselves and eliminate the perception of the United States as an imperialist “big brother.”

The alliance would also send a clear message about the seriousness of the narcotics threat and allow for collective strategies. Just as countries cooperate to difficult to achieve where narcotics production and distribution have become entrenched economically and socially. Time is of the essence, as cartel leaders spend billions of dollars each year strengthening their influence over governments, police forces, and financial institutions across the hemisphere.

Negotiations are already underway between the United States and Panama to establish a Multinational Counternarcotics Center at former US military installations. These negotiations present an opportunity entities unhindered by the moral or legal constraints that guide most members of the international community. In the face of this threat, the United States should respond as it has in similar circumstances when free nations have faced a common enemy: it must form and lead an alliance with a clear-cut plan for achieving victory.

In attempting to deal with the drug problem in the western hemisphere, the United States has historically dealt with nations on a bilateral basis, but this policy is flawed. Instead, the United States should counter an international military threat, the United States and its allies would benefit from a multilateral mechanism for striking back at narcotics syndicates. Instead of expending resources gauging the degree to which US allies cooperate within bi- lateral frameworks, the United States and its allies could together develop methods, goals, and timetables for destroying their common enemy.

The key to a successful alliance is the political will of member countries. This high level of leadership is all the more to move forward on the alliance concept and establish an action-oriented structure for confronting the narcotics threat. Constructing such an alliance is a daunting task, but it may be the only way to remove the cloud of corruption and violence that hovers above the tremendous economic promise of the Western Hemisphere. The United States must revolutionize and reinvigorate its counternarcotics strategy and build an international alliance dedicated to combating narcotics cartels. 

Note from the Editor

In the winter of 1997, the Harvard International Review invited eight distinguished guest writers—including future presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and John Kerry—to reflect on the role that the United States was meant to play in the global arena, as the world edged away from the Cold War and towards the new millennium. Eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the initial euphoria from the fall of the Soviet Union had paved the way for a more pragmatic consideration of what the United States could and should do with its extraordinary power. The topics of these essays run the gamut from US-Europe relations to arms transfer policy to the narcotics trade. Together, they craft a vision of US foreign policy that is bold, ambitious, and thoughtful. In short, they are portraits of engagement and leadership in a new era.