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South Africa desperately needs crafty diplomacy, not ideological posturing

South Africa desperately needs crafty diplomacy, not ideological posturing
Alexander Kozlov, Minister of Natural Resources And Environment of Russia and Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation meet for discussions on economic cooperation on 30 March 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

Ideology, diplomatic incompetence, double talk and propaganda have replaced realpolitik, leading to a misjudgment by South Africa of the dynamic balance of forces at play in international politics.

On paper, South Africa has an imposing foreign policy, covering most of its international issues and objectives. In many ways, however, it is a virtual “Potemkin” foreign policy, an impressive facade, given the fact that very few of the stated goals and objectives ever materialise.

This is a pity, an opportunity lost, given the fact that after the demise of apartheid, the country had the unique opportunity to embark on a new foreign policy, doing justice to its key national interests and promoting its image, status and role in international politics. It simply squandered the global goodwill of 1994, allowing party interests and anachronistic ideology to overrule national interests.

What we got instead was neither fish nor fowl foreign policy, a policy without thrust, vision or credibility, as reflected in the country’s steady decline in the global and regional pecking order, its diminished international image and role, loss of respect, and economic decline.

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President Nelson Mandela’s wise counsel was that “South Africa needs to establish a role for itself in the yet undefined world order.”

His advice, however, was way beyond our diplomats’ conceptual reach and competence. Not that they did not try, particularly making Africa, multilateralism, and economic diplomacy the centrepieces of foreign policy, but failing badly in all areas. Mandela’s quest for international moral rectitude was simply dumped after he had left.

An effective knowledge-based credible foreign policy requires thorough understanding of the history, dynamics, and directions of change of global affairs. Realpolitik in other words. 

However, in South Africa’s case, ideology, diplomatic incompetence, double talk and propaganda have replaced realpolitik, leading to the misjudgment of the dynamic balance of forces at play in international politics.

Global orders

Undaunted by its intellectual and strategic incompetence, South Africa blithely persists in pursuing a foreign policy based on faulty strategies: firstly, its misunderstanding of multilateralism; secondly, the inevitability of America’s imminent decline and replacement by China; and thirdly, phoney neutralism favouring an authoritarian rogue regime.

Historically, various global orders have existed. For example, a multipolar system during the 19th century; a bipolar system from the end of World War Two till the fall of the Berlin wall, the Cold War dominated by the US and the Soviet Union; and for the past two decades, a unipolar system where international relations were dominated by the US.

Modern international politics and the global order have always been dominated by the great powers. The number of great powers describe the nature of the world order: bipolar (two great powers); unipolar (one); and multipolar (three or more).

Renowned experts of power politics, like Hans Morgenthau (Politics among nations, The struggle for power and peace, Cambridge University Press, 1948) and Kenneth Waltz (The Theory of International Politics, Waveland Press, 1979) supported by historical evidence, particularly from the 19th Century, clearly defined multipolarity as a system dominated by three or more great powers with roughly similar capabilities.

We agree with Professors Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth that the notion of a multipolar system is largely a myth (May/June 2023 issue of Foreign Affairs). We still live in a unipolar world.

For the present, as repeatedly warned by economic/business experts, local and abroad, association with the US/West would benefit South Africa’s national interests best, a fact dismissed by the ANC, preferring association with revisionist Russia and China, following narrow party interests.

It’s a case of “birds of a feather flocking together” as these countries, both with high levels of domestic corruption, would rather deal with another corrupt government like the ANC than the more complex national interest of a democratic society. So, the government prefers to sup with the devil, as it were, wallowing blithely in ill-gotten rewards. As veteran journalist Peter Bruce wrote pithily in Business Day: “Ramaphosa has lost the West, all because Putin is paying ANC salaries.”

Might and dominance

The US and China are undoubtedly the most powerful countries in the world. The global economic dominance of the US is supported by World Bank 2022 data: US GDP $23.315-billion versus $17.734-billion for China despite the 17-fold growth of Chinese GDP since 1994.

The gap for GDP per capita is even more pronounced: US $70,248 and China $12,556. The US dollar is also the world’s reserve currency, with the US generating 25% of global output since 1980. Foreign exchange reserves are dominated by the US dollar (58%) while the Chinese renminbi contributed only 3%.

As far as military power is concerned, according to the Peterson Foundation, the US military spending ($877-billion in 2022) exceeds the combined military budgets of China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan and Ukraine.

Brooks and Wohlforth identify 13 categories that underpin military capability. In all these categories the US capability exceeds that of China by a large margin.

However, and grotesquely so, the empirical evidence cited above leaves the South African government unmoved. While debunking America’s global role to justify alignment with Russia and China, it bets on the inevitable emergence of a new “multilateral” international order replacing the US-dominated unipolar system and signing up as a captive ally of China and Russia.

According to this analysis, several new great powers now compete with the US for control of the international order. These include the rise of revisionist states such as China and Russia; the new-­found prominent states from the Global South such as India and Brazil; and the global political and economic influence of the European Union.

Therefore, as the above empirical evidence confirms, the distribution of economic power in the world indicates that the US is, by some margin, still the dominant power (although applied unevenly).

On the downside, however, taking a long view, its dominance is fraying while it struggles domestically with a house deeply divided and China is rising, although it would take some decades to equal or surpass it.

Foreign policy options

So, what are the likely foreign policy options for South Africa given the global and domestic constraints on SA’s choice to restore our image and to promote our national interests?

Simply muddling through with “business as usual” amounts to progressive disempowerment, decline, and self-destruction. South Africa deserves much better.

Therefore, particularly in the light of successive failures and fundamental changes in international relations, redesigning, re-articulation and retooling our costly foreign policy apparatus and sharpening our foreign policy thinking and articulation are imperative and urgent.

While there is a strong lobby in South Africa favouring unconditional pro-Western alignment, such a policy would, however, be unwise: it would disown our African ethos, isolating us from the Global South, its hinterland and natural home, and threaten our foreign policy independence.

At the same time, the West is much too important to ignore or offend, a disaster that should be avoided at all costs. South Africa will have to find a way, a third way, to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, so to speak. For this, South Africa needs crafty diplomacy, absent until now.

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The outlook is not good. Undoubtedly, the war in Ukraine has been the harbinger of radical changes in international politics, exposing South Africa’s inapt diplomacy. It is, therefore, highly doubtful whether it has the diplomatic nous and wherewithal to deal with the challenges posed by these changes. Its blunders dealing with the war in Ukraine have been decried far and wide, giving the country a bad name.

Indeed, South Africa’s deplorable response to Russia’s brutal and illegal war against Ukraine is an indication of Pretoria’s distorted mindset. Although pleading non­alignment, based on the anachronistic and discredited Bandung model, it has compromised its legitimacy as a roleplayer by conducting joint military manoeuvres with Russia and China, inundated Moscow with high-level official visits, and kowtowed to president Vladimir Putin, charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a criminal warmonger.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pretoria’s Putin puzzle — South Africa once again on the horns of an ICC dilemma

South Africa’s offer to mediate in the war has predictably come to nothing because of its lack of credibility. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s declared commitment to non-alignment/neutrality is simply a farcical lie.

As the French diplomat, Jules Cambon, once remarked, “countries will always have ambassadors and ministers; the question is whether they will have diplomats.”

Should our out-of-depth foreign minister, our barn-storming minister of defence, and sycophantic ANC officials be allowed to be our key foreign policymakers? Is ours, therefore, a case of diplomacy without diplomats? Can the country afford such a waste, costing the taxpayer a whopping R10-billion per annum, maintaining 125 missions in 108 countries?

It was indeed a critical diplomatic mistake to embrace a discredited rogue state like Russia, pleading phoney “non-alignment” as a smoke screen, shooting itself in the foot as it were. Authentic, credible, non-alignment seems to be the best route. It is here where South African diplomacy failed so miserably.

South Africa could learn from the example set by some 127 middle powers, representing 45% of the world’s population, with an 18% share of the global GDP, who have chosen to stay neutral, seeking deals across ideological divides following a “transactional, equidistance” approach based on pragmatism.

The kiSwahili proverb that when elephants fight it is the grass that suffers is a reminder for countries like South Africa, with constrained capabilities, to remain clinically neutral in great power rivalries, backed by smart diplomacy.

It should embrace neither the West nor China, and most definitely not Russia: a policy of pragmatic transactional equidistance seems the best foreign policy option. DM

Gerrit Olivier is Professor Emeritus at the University of Pretoria and the former South African Ambassador to Russia and Kazakhstan.

Jay van Wyk is Professor Emeritus at Kelce College of Business, Pittsburg State University, Kansas USA.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Joe Schlabotnik says:

    A penetrating article that provides meaningful insight into a complex but vital issue. Unfortunately, those who should take note and act are unlikely to do so. To quote Bob Dylan “when will they ever learn….” Probably never.

  • Ismail Lagardien says:

    Incredible. Straight out of IR theory 101, as taught in the US academy. It is, after all, “an American social science”… Scant regard for theoretical frameworks, and a desperate need to produce an explanatory critique of dominant orthodoxy, or placing it under scrutiny for the way it shapes the lives of the West’s “others”. Though I am not a postie, it is as if the world east of the Caucasus and from Turkey South East across the Indian sub-continent, South East Asia and the Nusantaran world, the Pacific Islands etc, are all part of an intellectual dead-zone. Morgenthau, Waltz… Missed a few others; Kissinger, Walt, Mearsheimer, Huntington, Bernard Lewis…?

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