Now that the Obama administration has entered the home stretch and must surrender its authority on 20 January 2017, the evaluations of Barack Obama’s foreign policy record are coming at an increasing pace. Typical of such evaluations is a lengthy essay by Jeffery Goldberg in The Atlantic.
Goldberg’s opinion about Obama, to a surprising degree, echoes those from more conservative – and generally more critical – analysts who dubbed the Obama administration’s policy framework to be “constrainment”, a neologism designed to convey a difficult middle ground between containment and neo-conservative interventionism, along with a hearty dose of neo-isolationism, a growing recognition of the limits of American power,and a sad acknowledgement that even overwhelming military power is simply insufficient to routinely achieve the desires of a president and his administration. (Articles such as this or by this author ifurther explored this idea of constrainment.)
In describing the Obama foreign policy approach, Goldberg wrote, “…Obama believes that the Manichaeism, and eloquently rendered bellicosity, commonly associated with Churchill were justified by Hitler’s rise, and were at times defensible in the struggle against the Soviet Union. But he also thinks rhetoric should be weaponised sparingly, if at all, in today’s more ambiguous and complicated international arena. The president believes that Churchillian rhetoric and, more to the point, Churchillian habits of thought, helped bring his predecessor, George W. Bush, to ruinous war in Iraq. Obama entered the White House bent on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he was not seeking new dragons to slay. And he was particularly mindful of not promising victory in conflicts he believed to be unwinnable. ‘If you were to say, for instance, that we’re going to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and build a prosperous democracy instead, the president is aware that someone, seven years later, is going to hold you to that promise,’ Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, and his foreign-policy amanuensis, told me not long ago.”
Going forward, as the calendar moves ever closer to the end of the Obama administration, and especially once the election takes place and his successor begins to assemble a new cabinet and administration, there will be an increasing flood of advice directed towards the next president. These will come via op-eds in major newspapers and still lengthier articles in monthly and weekly periodicals, as well as more scholarly position papers, studies and policy briefs pouring forth from think tanks, elder statesmen and former officials from both parties (including not a few individuals hoping to be appointed in the new administration), all of which will set out what must be included in the nation’s future foreign policy agenda.
Meanwhile, in these final months of the Obama administration, and then in the speeches of the two major party candidates, once the conventions have made their final decisions about those candidates, we can expect to see more efforts by the outgoing president to fix his foreign policy legacy in place and clarify it through speeches that are, ostensibly, on almost any topic – and, crucially, for the two candidates to set out their competing international agendas whenever and wherever they have an audience or readership for articles in their name.
By contrast, listening to the recent speech by President Jacob Zuma in Port Elizabeth, setting out the party’s manifesto for the upcoming election, it was astonishing to see not a single reference to any aspect of foreign policy whatsoever. This was despite the fact that the country has serious challenges in this area and that international economic policy is crucial to the success of any development efforts.
Moreover, it is striking how little discussion and debate there really is in South Africa at virtually any time over the country’s international stance and positions. Parties competing for leadership (or at least aiming for the possibility of such competition) barely speak about it, let alone there being any public, contesting voices within the governing party over any decisions being made.
As a result, there is little discussion of the very real impact of foreign policy on the nation’s circumstances, save, perhaps, for the occasional criticism of yet another genuflection towards China over the Dalai Lama, or the anger over, say, the government’s unwillingness to enforce its own laws in carrying out an International Criminal Court-ordered arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. In that decision, the real debate was less over the real foreign policy questions as much it was over the traducing of the country’s own legal structures and efforts by government to avoid carrying out specific judicial decisions on the matter.
Yes, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) periodically issues a document that articulates the broad strokes of South African foreign policy, but that document has often diverged from the governing party’s own foreign policy goals and objectives expressed in their manifestos on the topic. And this party paper often seems to have lifted wholesale blocks of rhetoric from the old jargon of the 1980s, with the party’s tilt towards an insistence that the old Soviet Union had held the high ground intellectually and that “progressive” nations must still oppose the West across a whole wide range of issues.
In contrast to that newest version of the party’s old leanings, over 20 years ago, in the November/December 1993 issue, in that widely heralded article published in Foreign Affairs, under Nelson Mandela’s authorship, “South Africa’s Future Foreign Policy”, he had made it perfectly clear that those old verities then needed to be systemically uprooted. As Mandela had written in that article, “As the 1980s drew to a close I could not see much of the world from my prison cell, but I knew it was changing. There was little doubt in my mind that this would have a profound impact on my country, on the southern African region and the continent of which I am proud to be a citizen. Although this process of global change is far from complete, it is clear that all nations will have boldly to recast their nets if they are to reap any benefit from international affairs in the post-Cold War era.
“The African National Congress (ANC) believes that the charting of a new foreign policy for South Africa is a key element in the creation of a peaceful and prosperous country. Apartheid corroded the very essence of life in South Africa. This is why the country’s emerging political leaders are challenged to build a nation in which all people – irrespective of race, color, creed, religion or sex – can assert fully their human worth; after apartheid, our people deserve nothing less than the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Mandela approach of a principled, highly moral foreign policy, of course, had difficulties right from the start, however, in successfully addressing that squalid dictatorship in Nigeria. Moreover, it found that as part of the country’s full reintegration into the global economy and international institutions, South Africa’s policymakers found they had to make adjustments and acquiesce to many aspects of the prevailing international order. That may not have satisfied the old guard, but it was a part of a necessary reordering of thinking after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, of course, this new orientation of policies was fundamentally different than the old regime’s increasingly desperate foreign policy that had been designed to hold off total international diplomatic and economic isolation – and, most especially, to continue access to international lending and petroleum supplies.
During the Zuma era, however, an increasingly fundamental reordering of priorities seems to have taken place. Most important, this has included placing South Africa’s participation in the BRICS grouping – and most especially its economic umbilical cord to China and growing political subservience to it – at the pinnacle of foreign policy attention, even though it has a major trade imbalance with China and relatively insignificant trade with the other BRICS partners.
A secondary emphasis has been adherence to incumbent, unsavoury African leadership in places like Sudan or Zimbabwe, regardless of those tenets once expressed by Nelson Mandela, in adherence to the African Union’s formalism. And in the case of Zimbabwe, such support would seem to fly in the face of achieving any changes that could wind down the ongoing flow of economic (and political) migrants and refugees into South Africa – along with the attendant social and political problems that have come with that population flow.
And as the Zuma administration’s attentions have increasingly been drawn towards its own weaknesses and internal difficulties, the presidency’s grip on guiding the country’s foreign affairs has come to have an increasingly haphazard quality. While three of South Africa’s BRICS nation partners – Brazil, Russia and, increasingly, China – have deep and growing economic difficulties, South Africa seems to go blithely along with the idea that participation in BRICS is the country’s keystone foreign policy achievement, and that it should remain at the centre of foreign policymaking.
Or, consider the dispute over US poultry imports, a subsidiary issue that became key to South Africa’s continued participation under the African Growth and Opportunity Act provisions for duty free access to the vast American market. Further, resolution of this dispute was crucial to the country’s car manufacturing and their exports (as well as its agricultural exports) to America, as well as being an important contributor to skilled employment in the nation. Nevertheless, the South African government continued to treat this problem as a type of economic nationalism that required public pushback against the US, rather than a recognition that AGOA access was crucial to the further success of the nation’s exports – and heedless of the fact that America is one of the few parts of the world where South Africa still maintains a significant trade surplus.
Demonstrations of chest-thumping economic nationalism seem to have trumped the idea that international economic decision-making should be tightly geared towards improving export earnings, driving job creation, and improving investment. Most recently, the government’s surprise issuance of a totally unexpected new draft mining charter would seem to be capable of putting a new pall over further investment decisions by international miners.
Meanwhile, other international policies seem increasingly to be a collection of ad hoc measures and independent, unco-ordinated departmental initiatives. Putting aside any questions regarding possible fiscal improprieties, on the one hand, despite some vast, uncharted budgetary implications, the presidency and the Energy Department continue to pursue procurement of a vast Russian atomic energy infrastructure. Simultaneously, the country is trying to gain deeper connections to Iran and access to its bountiful oil resources (the deputy president was there in 2015 checking things out), now that international economic sanctions are being rolled back.
And, now, most recently, the president, himself, was discovered to have been in Saudi Arabia helping officiate over the formal opening of a joint arms production facility, precisely as Saudi Arabia has become ever more deeply involved in a devastating hot war in neighbouring Yemen. (Presumably there was a petroleum component of these meetings as well.) And in the fighting, the Saudis are directly facing off against factions largely supported by the Iranians. Participating in an arms factory in a country engaged in belligerent military actions would certainly seem to be flying in the face of any remaining nods toward that principled, moral foreign policy of the 1990s.
What this all seems to demonstrate is that in the absence of a strong, cogent, and coherent direction over the nation’s foreign policy, and as foreign policy is increasingly extemp-ed and ad hoc-ed by various government departments – there seems to be little co-ordination and reference to broader national needs such as the national economic crisis.
With a president and his closest associates almost totally consumed by their internal political difficulties, foreign policy, like so many other elements of national policymaking, drifts without a guiding rudder or plan, and captured by whoever makes the first move among the many senior officials clamouring for a chance to shine. This, in turn, has both real costs as well as more intangible ones, such as the degradation of the nation’s reputation and its standing internationally. Not good, and not likely to change any time soon. DM
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (2L) and U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (R) welcome South African President Jacob Zuma (L) and his wife Nompumelelo Ntuli to the opening dinner for G-20 leaders at the Phipps Conservatory on September 24, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. EPA/Win McNamee
"If a man seeks from the good life anything beyond itself, it is not the good life he is seeking" ~ Plotinus