Guns, Drugs, and Geopolitics: An Interview with Jacob Parakilas

Editor-in-Chief Adam Stromme sat down with Jacob Parakilas, Deputy Head of the US and the Americas program at Chatham House, to talk about the arms trade, drug trade, and America’s evolving foreign policy.  

Introductory Questions
Adam Stromme: How did you first become interested in studying international affairs?

Dr. Jacob Parakilas: I went through about five different majors in my undergrad. It started with film, then shifted from pre med, to creative writing, to journalism, and then finally to International Relations. This was around 2003-2004, after the Iraq war International Relations suddenly seemed an important thing to be doing. I just had the realization “oh, this is what I should’ve been doing all along”. I got a job in DC working for the Arms Control Association, which is a sort of hybrid lobbying group that is something between a think tank and an NGO.

After a brief stint working for ICE, I decided to apply for a Masters and went to St Andrews. I immediately got a sense that this is where some real world-class research is being done. Shortly after I arrived, the global economy collapsed. I’d been thinking about doing a PhD anyway, and it seemed like an opportune moment .

AS: What are your major research interests?

JP: My major interests revolve around American foreign policy and international security, alongside NATO, US-Latin American relations, and non-state armed groups, as well as a sideline interest in technology and its role as a factor in world politics.

The Arms and Drug Trade
From 2013 to 2014 you were the “Head of Weapons” at Action on Armed Violence, a London-based group which states its central mission as “to carry out research and advocacy in order to reduce the incidence and impact of global armed violence.” 

What sort of work did you get involved in at Action on Armed Violence, and what were the major lessons you took from working to combat armed violence worldwide?

JP: I worked on primarily conventional arms reduction, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was being ratified when I was working there, entering into force at the [end of 2014]. But ultimately it was more of a statement of intent than anything. In my research for my PhD, I did a lot of work tracking the proliferation of small arms, including field work on the ground in El Salvador, as well as on 3D guns, which in the long term might become a serious issue for trying to manage arms proliferation.

AS: What are the major challenges involved in regulating the global small arms trade?

JP: There are a number. The first is that guns are durable. When I was in El Salvador I saw guns that had been cycled around the field for 30, even 40 years. A well maintained gun can last for decades, and as a result it is very difficult to undue firearms proliferation once it’s happened.

The other thing is that guns are portable. Transfers of major conventional systems— tanks, fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles— are relatively easy to trace. But with guns this is not the case. They can be transferred in cars, they can be disassembled and sent in the mail, and more generally they can really easily get around any attempts to crack down on their availability.

Another issue is that many governments see conventional arms treaties as not having a particularly good effort-to-reward ratio, and as a result they don’t view cracking down on arms transfers as an effective way to prevent violence. The final problem is that what constitutes legitimate firearms ownership varies widely across countries. In the United States, for example, you can legally obtain an assault rifle, whereas this is next to impossible in Britain.

AS: In your January 2017 report “America’s International Role under Donald Trump”, you said “In the absence of major traditional security threats, US security policy for Latin America has largely focused on unconventional threats. Primary among these is large-scale organized drug-trafficking” continuing “a return to Reagan-style counternarcotics policies – prioritizing the use of military or paramilitary forces against drug producers and traffickers above all other mechanisms – would be controversial in the region.” 

How likely is a Reagan-style re-engagement with Latin America on combating the drug trade, in light of mounting pressure from the GOP base to both crack down on border security and to address America’s growing opioid crisis? What would its consequences be?

JP: I think they are probably willing to up their engagement a bit, but despite the trends towards removing restrictions on the use of force by this administration, I don’t see it as a terribly likely option. That said, we have seen a vocal increase in those opting for more militaristic policies, like aerial coca eradication in Colombia.

If it were to be pursued, I think it would increase the incipient anti-Americanism that has ebbed since the early 2000s. You could see a surge in populist, anti-American governments in the region. But ultimately, as to its actual objective, I don’t see it as actually having much of an impact on total drug production. At best, it reduces it in a given region.

Ultimately, Trump hasn’t really articulated a Latin America policy. To my knowledge, he hasn’t even appointed an assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs.

AS: How has the drug trade in Latin America changed in the last decade? (Colombian FARC peace? Peruvian trade?)

JP: The trend in Columbia has been towards smaller, more decentralized operations as opposed to the centralized operations like the Medellin cartel. The difficulty is that ultimately you are attacking a decentralized network, and so when you opt for a militarized decapitation strategy, you usually just see a burst of violence as potential successors compete for advancement.

For the cocaine trade, most production is localized around the triangle made up of Columbia, Peru, and Venezuela, because those are the countries that have the correct climatic conditions for the coca plant.

As the opioid crisis in the United States continues, subject to the tastes of users, it is possible that it will adversely affect the demand for cocaine.

America’s Role in the World
In the same paper, you also argued “Donald Trump will take a fundamentally different view towards Russia from that of any other modern US president.” How is this administration’s approach different, and what sort of impacts will this have on the major players in Europe?

JP: You have to distinguish between Trump, the man, and the Trump administration. The Trump administration as a whole is quite hawkish on Russia. Major players like  H.R. McMaster, Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, Nadia Schadlow, Fiona Hill, and other key players within the national security apparatus all take a pretty conventional view on Russia. Congress, in turn, has made it impossible for him to single-handedly lift sanctions on Russia.

Trump’s approach has been to search for common ground with Putin, to take Putin at his word, and to generally treat Russia as a coequal player on the world stage. Between Trump’s own stated views, and those of his administration, Russia has found it very difficult to know who to believe. My feeling initially was that Trump would eventually switch from being very pro-Russia to very anti-Russia, but the fact that he has continued to maintain his position in favor of Russia suggests there is a deeper reason than we initially thought for his views on this question.

But ultimately Trump’s sense of detachment from Europe, especially his playing fast and loose with Article V of the NATO charter [which concerns the obligation to collective self-defense by all members if any one is attacked], suggest that Russia and other players in Europe are being forced to seriously consider that the United States may not always be an invested player in the long run in European security.

AS: Widening this subject somewhat, to what extent is the current administration’s foreign policy strategy new, and to what extent is it traceable to previous Republican administrations like Bush, Bush senior, and Reagan?

JP: I think there is a lot of continuity with, in particular, the G.W. Bush administration. But the willingness to disengage the parts of the US government that aren’t concerned with near term hard power impact is new. Bush fully staffed the State Department. Granted, some of them had quite radical ideas, but they had a sense of the necessity of why the institutions and frameworks in the US sphere were there. The fact that we are 8 months into this administration and we haven’t staffed a lot of these core position is very new, and very troubling.

In terms of actual policy, you’d be struggling to find an administration that was so willing to act unilaterally to advance what it perceives to be its own interests.

AS: Where are the largest sources of global instability today?

JP: I think that one of the things we saw with the Saudi/UAE/Qatar crisis is that a lot of previously safe-seeming places and relationships are being challenged. A few years ago, you could plausibly start the year saying that the President would likely be trying to address Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, and you would be right. But in the case of the Gulf crisis, we saw the United States take a back seat approach that was in many ways unique. There were no attempts to intercede or otherwise resolve the crisis. This, as a deliberate policy strategy, is new. 

AS: What do you make of the recent developments on the Korean peninsula, and with Trump’s recent remarks at the United Nations?

JP: The easy thing to say is that North Korea is unpredictable, and that it’s not a rational actor. But I don’t think that’s the case. Rationality is not a moral character. You can rightly criticize North Korea’s human rights violations and authoritarianism, but the reality is that the government’s actions do have a certain logic to them. But what concerns me is the attempt of some administration officials to use this depiction of North Korea as a dangerous and unstable actor to justify an aggressive response.

What has kept North Korea in check is the same thing that kept the Soviet Union and China in check, namely, nuclear weapons, and there is no reason why the logic of nuclear deterrence shouldn’t be seen as being in force there as well. But if the administration continues on this track then the consequences could be catastrophic.

Photo by Chatham House

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