Domestic coherence needed to strengthen our flip-flopping foreign policy
Aquarter of a century after the dawn of democracy, and South Africa is still struggling to craft a coherent foreign policy. It has neither succeeded in asserting itself in any meaningful way in world affairs nor has it been able to master the forces that shape the international agenda. Its policy is neither fish nor fowl.
While it can be argued that foreign relations is always a moving target, requiring constant reviews and adjustments, a country has to develop its own persona — informed by its values and principles — which should not easily be swayed by prevailing winds.
A campaign by South Africa a few years ago for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council provoked excitement in foreign policy circles. Then the country was handed the rotating chairmanship of the council and proceeded to make a hash of it, supporting repressive regimes in Myanmar (Burma) and the Middle East. It abandoned its own values, what it stood for. South Africa is now keen to rekindle its campaign, but nobody seems interested. Americans believe in their own exceptionalism — a big, brash, in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. They can afford to. They have the biggest armed forces known to man. Their economy is the engine room of international capitalism. Old behemoths such as Coca-Cola and General Electric have colonised the globe. New companies such as Apple, Google and Amazon have, in a short time, become titans of the world economy. They have therefore inadvertently become instruments of US foreign policy; because the world, it seems, cannot do without American innovation.
We can argue all we like, but they dictate terms. They will bomb a country if they feel like it, as they did in Iraq, Syria and countless other places.
The Brits have become a waning, if not a wasting, power. Brexit is merely the manifestation of the Little Englander mentality that took hold a while ago. The small islands that colonised and dominated the globe for centuries and gave the world a common language are withdrawing to their shell. Apart from the UN and its agencies, Britain’s international relevance now hangs largely on the US and other former colonies through the Commonwealth, of which South Africa unnecessarily remains a member.
Although never bluntly stated, South Africa set out with a clear intention never to be another failed African state. It’s a constitutional democracy with a human rights ethos, moored by institutions such as a fiercely independent judiciary, a free press, an activist civil society.
Under Nelson Mandela, the country’s foreign policy was initially guided by its values. It didn’t sell arms to oppressive regimes; it was harshly critically of human rights abuses everywhere in the world.
After Mandela, South Africa’s foreign policy seemed to depend on the personal preferences of the man at the top. Thabo Mbeki, a foreign policy fundi, sought to position South Africa as the preeminent spokesman or mouthpiece of Africa and its diaspora. Values or principles, so critical in the Mandela years, were tossed aside. We were not appalled by the Robert Mugabes of this world. We embraced them enthusiastically and defiantly. Warts and all. They were African, and that’s all that mattered. That sullied our reputation. A country viewed as a beacon expended its currency to assuage and comfort brutal regimes.
Under Jacob Zuma’s presidency, foreign policy was as woolly as the man himself. He followed the money, or where he thought he could find it. His personal friendship with Vladimir Putin was driven by the nuclear deal from which he and his cronies stood to benefit hugely.
From President Cyril Ramaphosa’s few months in office, it seems the singleminded purpose of his administration will be job creation. His escapade at the recent Commonwealth summit was all about attracting foreign investment. His socalled investment envoys are about bringing in the money. These actions or decisions will bring influence to bear on foreign relations. If we want other people’s money, we will have to listen to them and take seriously what they say.
Foreign policy cannot be decoupled or disengaged from domestic policy. And it’s not always or only about what your diplomats tell the outside world. It is also about what political actors inside the country — be they inside or outside government — say and do. For instance, Australians now want to offer white farmers easy entry to their country because of what they understand to be a murderous campaign against them in this country. AfriForum are in the US as we speak selling the narrative of an onslaught on white farmers, if not white society as a whole.
Unlike countries such as the US, South Africa — besides being a relatively small economy — does not have too many levers, either hard or soft, to pull in its conduct of foreign relations. It can’t threaten or wage wars at will. It doesn’t have multinationals that can influence perceptions in its favour. Its reputation is all it has. And that should be dictated by our value system.
Our struggle to forge a single or uniform South African identity is therefore the source of our itinerant foreign policy. And we therefore get swayed by any wind which seems to be the strongest at any particular moment.
One cannot, for instance, launch into battle with a disjointed army or without the support of the entire populace. The coherence or the agreement needs to first come from inside.