South Africa


Miss(ed) Congeniality: A commentary on the politics of the US and SA foreign policies

Miss(ed) Congeniality: A commentary on the politics of the US and SA foreign policies
US President Donald J. Trump hugs a US flag before speaking at the 46th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, USA, 02 March 2019. Trump spoke on the final day of the four-day American Conservative Union's CPAC conference. EPA-EFE/ERIK S. LESSER

Both South Africa and America have mixed feelings about what they really want internationally. Is it ‘world peace’ like a beauty contest participant would want, or is it something else?

There is a wonderful scene in the Sandra Bullock, William Shatner, Candice Bergen, Benjamin Bratt, and Michael Caine film, Miss Congeniality. That is the film where Sandra Bullock plays an FBI agent who has gone undercover as a beauty contest competitor – Gracie Hart/Miss New Jersey – when a bomb plot is suspected for the globally televised finale.

At the hands of Michael Caine’s coaching and grooming, Bullock undergoes a transformation from ugly duckling to plausible beauty contestant, as when she must answer the universal question for beauty contests of “what her dream for the world is”. She eventually grits her teeth, first utters her true feelings – be tougher on criminals – until she finally squeezes out the inevitable words, “World peace”. Watch:

Rewatching that moment (and a confession here, rewatching the entire film yet again), this incident offers some useful commentary on the foreign policy of two nations – South Africa and, inevitably, America as well. Let me explain.

All nations and national leaders, as they orient themselves in the international community, draw from various impulses and realities. These include a nation’s fundamental ideals, histories (both personal and national), geographical circumstances, and ideological perspectives. These are all part of trying to figure how their nation should position itself vis-à-vis other nations and populations, as well as towards other international actors. Absent a complete revolutionary upheaval of a nation’s basic values and governance, there are always some broad continuities – even if there are changes at the margins.

The reversal of a century and a half of American isolationism from European and East Asian issues was made inevitable from the conflagration of World War I, but only made definitive after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. And even after the victory in that second global war, a big chunk of the American political class and much of the population still had to be dragged across the board to confront the twin challenges of the Soviet Union militarily, and then the economic and financial rebuilding of a devastated western Europe.

These policies met with great success – the USSR was contained and western Europe was preserved and restored. But the underlying logic of both containment and the potential perils of the domino theory helped give rise eventually to the disaster of the Vietnam War and a matching geopolitical cynicism in the midst of the Cold War expressed in the cliché of support for authoritarians who had lined up with the US – “Sure he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard?”.

Concurrently, though, new issues and values were making themselves felt, including human rights advocacy, even as these often jostled awkwardly with the older certainties of the Cold War. As the Cold War receded, though, trade and economic issues rose in importance – and eventually ecological and environmental ones as well.

For South Africa, following the collapse of the old apartheid regime, the newly installed Mandela government felt obliged to embrace precepts set out in a 1993 article in the prestigious journal, Foreign Affairs, credited to the new president, of a highly principled foreign policy in place of the old regime’s behaviour. In this new approach, in contrast to that militarised realpolitik approach of the predecessor regime, the new administration would be a highly moral one in which human rights and human dignity would be at the very core of things. Or, as this article had said, “… issues of human rights are central to international relations” and “human rights must be the light that guides”.

However, South African leaders supportive of this landscape soon enough learned some of the limits to that approach. It was one thing to have such honourable positions, but it was another thing altogether to have any discernible impact on, say, Nigeria’s Sani Abacha’s appalling regime through appeals to virtue, or even to marshal Nelson Mandela’s undoubted global celebrity in order to achieve tangible impacts globally – even on policies close to the new president’s heart. Over time, South Africa’s foreign policy, while it publicly held on to a set of high principles, has increasingly shifted its focus to an embrace of its new BRICS partners, seeing them, at least putatively, as the global wave of the future, and putting economic and trade policies far down on the priority order as well.

Now, with this as background, move to the present moment. The foreign relations of Donald Trump’s America in many ways appears to have broken with the past, including with some of the fundamentals of US policy since World War II – in addition to examples of policy incoherence and his extreme personalisation of policy. Increasingly, the Trump administration repeatedly finds itself forced to tidy up its impromptu decisions after the fact, disconcerting its allies and antagonists alike.

At this point, it seems almost impossible to figure out what, precisely, the Trump administration’s policy is, or policies are, in the Middle East and South Asia. At some point, it seemed to be to defeat ISIS and then bring all the troops home. But simultaneously it seems pointed towards increasing pressure on Iran to draw back its forces in Syria and Yemen, for that nation to draw down its missile developments, to reform its economy and to make human rights an operative concept there as well – and keep troops in Iraq, just in case.

But on the other hand, simultaneously the Trumpian policy is supportive of Saudi Arabian military actions in Yemen and backing Saudi dreams of being the pre-eminent power in its part of the region – even as Saudi traducing of human rights (noting the fate of Jamal Khashoggi just for starters) elicits barely a murmur. Meanwhile, the Trump policy towards Israel suffers from a similar incoherence – moving the US embassy to Jerusalem in spite of longstanding US policy that the final status of that city remains to be adjudicated – but simultaneously insisting it has a plan for peace that will make everyone happy in the region.

On trade, the president seems to continue to see it as an international zero-sum game in which threats are the best negotiating tool, against allies, neighbours, and strategic antagonists alike. (Cynics must surely be wondering if he took a long weekend away from the Wharton School when the differences between the laws of absolute and comparative advantage were explained by his econ professor.) Oh, and by the way, he has been pushing this approach as he manages to forget that his new tariff regimen (imposed on spurious national security grounds) is actually taxes on American consumers, not Chinese, or Canadian, Korean or German exporters.

Meanwhile, while the president (and he, not staffers Elliot Abrams or John Bolton) is really calling the plays, it remains vague as to what, exactly, Trump’s America really wants to see happen – and how – in Venezuela. Thus, the economic sanctions mount up, even as Nicolás Maduro’s corrosive economic mismanagement exacts yet more hardships on a longsuffering population. While it seems reasonably clear that there is no real plan to call on a military option – something that would run diametrically counter to Trumpian intentions over the use of the military in the Middle East and Afghanistan, despite the charges of leftist critics – it seems unclear how Trump sees the next steps come forward.

But, of course, the real demonstration of a strategic incoherence among the Trumpians is with the relationship with North Korea. After a year of threatening “fire and fury” (in a tit-for-tat rhetorical battle with North Korea), almost by a miracle, the president was suddenly exuding friendship, love and fawning respect for Kim Jong-un. But in a negotiating policy that eschewed any reliance on expertise and experience in the government, the president bestowed two successive leader summits on Kim and a draw-down of US-South Korean joint military exercises, largely in exchange for some head bobbing in the direction of eventual denuclearisation from Kim. Not a big win for the master dealmaker.

Throughout these past two years, the Trump way seems to have become the embrace of authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Mohammed bin Salman such that they, respectively, had nothing to do with the cyberhacking of the 2016 US election, the ultimately fatal ill-treatment of a US student imprisoned in Pyongyang, or the death by bone saw of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And in each of these cases, the president’s apparent fondness for (and trust in) authoritarians runs counter to the expressed ideals (if not constant practice) of the nation. It leaves far too many, domestically – and internationally – mystified.

Meanwhile, as far as South Africa goes, foreign policy seems to fall between several stools. On the one hand, it seems too quick to see the stealthy hand of the imperialists at work in undermining the nation, as in the case of that non-issue of the non-diplomatic interference by five nations offering suggestions in how best to solicit new foreign investment. On the other hand, it remains deeply engaged in the Sahrawi question and Morocco’s continuing presence there, even as South Africa’s foreign relations seem to virtually ignore the criticality of economic and commercial diplomacy with various major trade partners where it already has a trade surplus – and could achieve much more.

Most recently, verbal support for Venezuela’s Maduro regime (and the dispatch of senior governing party leaders to visit) is increasingly out of step with a growing number of other nations, most especially many of Venezuela’s neighbours. Instead, it seems to be placing more weight on the loose use of the term “socialist” than it does in relieving the obvious suffering of the people there.

Finally, South African foreign policy seems at something of a crossroads as its BRICS partners now increasingly represent authoritarian governments (or, in the cases of India and Brazil, at the minimum, democratically elected ones where the results have not been conducive to greater political freedom). As a result, the country is caught between continuing to carry on with this connection, despite all the negatives, or stay with it in the hope that it will eventually represent a global force for good. Some day.

And so we circle back to Miss Congeniality. In that classic scene, Gracie Hart tells the audience what she really wants – tougher treatment of criminals – but finally goes with “world peace”. Because the script demands it. But her heart clearly isn’t in it. Donald Trump can speak about his buddies, the dictators, but he really wants to spank his allies. South Africa, meanwhile, wants to give obeisance towards the old Mandela formulation, but it seems to have its eyes yet elsewhere. Miss Congeniality might not approve. DM


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