November 29, 2016
The National Speech & Debate Association's December 2016 topic is an excellent opportunity for the PF community to return to its roots. Debaters disillusioned by other topics containing obvious ground skew issues, a limited literature base, or less-than-interesting impacts will find the Plan Colombia topic to be a warm & familiar welcome, even if they don't have extensive knowledge of the topic area. Similar to how most December topics are, this resolution asks us to evaluate a policy decision on the basis of "Should we or should we not do X." For much of Public Forum's short history, the December topic typically set up debates in such a format. As of 2016, 10 of the last 15 December topics included an action that the actor, usually the United States, should or should not do, which has helped to establish some of the cleanest debates we've had to date. Next month's debates should be just as productive, if not more so, for this and a few other reasons.
By being a shorter topic, there is inherently a limit to the different possibilities for interpreting the resolution. Unlike, say, the tendency of debaters debating the November 2016 topic to turn to arguments of topicality, next month's topic is much more straightforward with regards to what does and does not qualify as a Plan Colombia policy that could potentially be ended. While this is probably a topic area that most competitors and judges will not have a lot of background knowledge on coming in, it is a topic area that can be easily explained, which lends itself to a debate more centered on impact analysis, weighing, and clash as opposed to definition or topicality debates. Rather than having to plan block files to be ready for the most "out there" arguments that loosely link back to the topic, the Plan Colombia resolution forces debaters on both sides to research a lot of the same facets of this long-standing US foreign policy with South America.
This policy-oriented approach to the resolution is a similar trend being observed increasingly in other events such as Lincoln-Douglas debate mainly because it sets up the two opposing sides with lots of area to broadly or specifically clash on the issues. Debaters who not only understand but approach the topic as policy-makers will be better suited than their peers because of what the topic asks us to analyze. While there are a lot of reasons why the US should either pull out of or continue to support the Colombian effort to eradicate drug trafficking, none of these matter if there isn't a clear goal in mind. The best way to think like policy-makers is to establish a clear framework as to both what the problem is and how that team intends to solve it. Whether it's focusing on economic impacts, human rights abuses, or questions of national sovereignty, the team that walks in with a specific goal in mind to sell the judge on is probably the team that will walk away having convinced said judge of the validity of their side. The topic already does a good job of establishing a clear idea of what should be discussed, and it's up to debaters to figure out how to frame that in a coherent narrative to persuade the judges with.
One additional consideration here with the next topic is what perspective to take. The actor in the resolution can be clearly understood to be the United States Federal Government; however, the topic doesn't force us to take on their perspective when we ask the question. If you intend to ask the question from the perspective of a US policymaker, you might see costs and benefits that are very specific to our role as an outside force offering assistance whereas asking the question from the viewpoint of a Colombian lawmaker might produce a vastly different result. An alternative to both of these points of view might be to approach the topic from a global perspective, evaluating the harms and benefits that extend out globally past the borders' of either country. Still, some might see more value in appealing to the trending nationalist view of US public policy and therefore try to formulate arguments around that. The biggest thing to remember is that the resolution only specifies the actor, not the focus of who gets impacted the most. The more of these perspectives you can come to understand, the more of the topic area that you can claim to be ready for.
The final thing worth pointing out on a topic like this is how much is already changing year to year with Plan Colombia. The potential downfall of great policy-oriented topics is how much the policy itself can change over a short period of time. Some debaters might argue that with Plan Colombia policies looking like they are starting to be phased out in place of Peace Colombia polices, the resolution precludes negative since there is no Plan Colombia to end anymore. It should be noted that this issue of inherency isn't exactly resolved, especially not with the drastic change in administrations that is about to befall the White House in 2017. That being said, this is an important question to consider. In order to understand what the US should or shouldn't do with regards to Plan Colombia, one primarily has to understand what the US plans on doing going forward. Policy suggestions that are vastly different from what is actually being discussed among foreign policy experts might be a tougher sell as they are often slightly removed from reality. Debaters should focus on what we do know, not what we think we can guess about the future. While the phrasing of the topic can only do so much to encourage healthy debates, it's this kind of understanding of public policy that helps uphold this mission even further.