Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 2 August 2018

Hegemony is a fine art in politics – what is SA’s power projection in BRICS?

This notion of a reluctant hegemon on the continent is quite frankly wearing thin and, if we are to survive both continentally and globally, we must actively engage in hard and soft power politics. In other words, a more realist approach to our foreign policy objective is what is needed if we are to succeed in being accepted as Africa’s hegemonic power.

Hans Morgenthau, a German-American political scientist and a scholar of International Relations formulated the now widely accepted six principles of Political Realism. He captured it in his book, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, fifth edition, 1978, pp 4-15.

The principles, paraphrased, are:

  • Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.
  • The main signpost of political realism is the concept of interest defined in terms of power, which infuses rational order into the subject matter of politics, and thus makes the theoretical understanding of politics possible. Political realism avoids concerns with the motives and ideology of statesmen. Political realism avoids reinterpreting reality to fit the policy. A good foreign policy minimises risks and maximizes benefits.
  • Realism recognises that the determining kind of interest varies depending on the political and cultural context in which foreign policy, not to be confused with a theory of international politics, is made. It does not give “interest defined as power” a meaning that is fixed once and for all.
  • Political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action. It is also aware of the tension between the moral command and the requirements of successful political action. Realism maintains that universal moral principles must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place, because they cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation.
  • Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe.
  • The political realist maintains the autonomy of the political sphere; the statesman asks “How does this policy affect the power and interests of the nation?” Political realism is based on a pluralistic conception of human nature. The political realist must show where the nation’s interests differ from the moralistic and legalistic viewpoints.

In short, we, as international relations scholars, are taught when dealing with realism, that the world is anarchic, there exist no central authority that can regulate such anarchy and thus, as nation states, you are on your own and your survival is premised on interests defined in terms of power.

The more power you have, economically, socially and militarily, the more you can ensure optimal returns with regards to your national interests.

What, if not this, is the purpose of state craft? What are the national interests of South Africa? What, if any, are our national security imperatives? And finally, what, if any, is the link between our intelligence services and our foreign policy imperatives? These are the pertinent questions we must ask and answer if we are to project our power on the continent and in the world.

After all, there must have been a logic as to why the BRICS group invited South Africa into the grouping. The insistence on the part of China must have been informed by thought through reasons. You can fault the Chinese on many fronts, human rights, so called democratic centralism and the fact that they as a communist country are indeed dabbling with Capitalism disguised as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” but you cannot fault them on planning. It is common cause that they plan centuries ahead of executing their plans. And so to include South Africa into the BRICS group, one can only assume that they have a plan, but are we living up to such a plan. I argue that the reluctance on our part to take our rightful place as the African Continent’s Hegemon, will in future jeopardise not only our standing in BRICS but also our desire to occupy a permanent seat on a transformed UN Security Council.

I think it is safe to assume that though Nigeria at times has a larger economy than ours, the diversity of our economy and the fact that it is backed up with a world-class financial sector puts us in pole position. As for Egypt, the political instability in that country again makes South Africa a safer bet as a continental partner.

So when we invited some African countries to attend the recent BRICS summit, did we simply do it out of courtesy or were we making a clear statement to our BRICS partners that this is our power projection on the continent? They must see SA’s economy and its size in relation to not only SADC and how integrated it is but also to see SA as bringing the entire Sub-Saharan population as a common market to the table. In other words, South Africa brings 14 economies and 257-million consumers to the partnership. That is our power projection in BRICS.

Now, in order for us to consolidate such claims, we must adopt a very clear realist approach to our foreign affairs on the continent. China and Brazil must be viewed as serious competitors in Africa and we must make it clear to them that this is our backyard. Instead of always wanting to give the impression that we as South Africa are not here to benefit and optimise our returns in other African countries, we must have a clear investment programme, a trade strategy that clearly benefits us and a soft power projection that is second to none. It is already happening to a certain degree but this needs to be intensified. Our financial sectors must dominate the banking sector in these countries, our mining houses must exploit the natural resources; it must be our telecommunications companies that must command their airwaves and it must be our cultural prerogatives that must find resonance with our fellow Africans, DStv and M-Net; it must be our construction companies that rebuild Africa’s infrastructure and not the Chinese, to mention but a few.

Morgenthau goes further when he says, realism assumes that its key concept of interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid, but it does not endow that concept with a meaning that is fixed once and for all. The idea of interest is indeed of the essence of politics and is unaffected by the circumstances of time and place. Thucydides’ statement, born of the experiences of ancient Greece that “identity of interests is the surest of bonds whether between states or individuals” was taken up in the 19th Century by Lord Salisbury’s remark that “the only bond of union that endures” among nations is “the absence of all clashing interests”. It was erected into a general principle of government by George Washington:

A small knowledge of human nature will convince us, that, with far the greatest part of mankind, interest is the governing principle; and that almost every man is more or less, under its influence. Motives of public virtue may for a time, or in particular instances, actuate men to the observance of a conduct purely disinterested; but they are not of themselves sufficient to produce persevering conformity to the refined dictates and obligations of social duty. Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good. It is vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account; the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it and we must in a great measure, change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. No institution that is not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed.

It was echoed and enlarged upon in our century by Max Weber’s observation:

Interests (material and ideal), not ideas, dominate directly the actions of men. Yet the “images of the world” created by these ideas have very often served as switches determining the tracks on which the dynamism of interests kept actions moving.

Yet the kind of interest determining political action in a particular period of history depends upon the political and cultural context within which foreign policy is formulated. The goals that might be pursued by nations in their foreign policy can run the whole gamut of objectives any nation has ever pursued or might possibly pursue.

And so again I ask, What, if not this, is the purpose of state craft? What are the national interests of South Africa? What, if any, are our national security imperatives? And finally, what, if any, is the link between our intelligence services and our foreign policy imperatives? These are the pertinent questions we must ask and answer if we are to project our power on the continent and in the world.

Morgenthau concludes that the concept of interest defined as power imposes intellectual discipline upon the observer, infuses rational order into the subject matter of politics, and thus makes the theoretical understanding of politics possible. On the side of the actor, it provides for rational discipline in action and creates that astounding continuity in foreign policy which makes American, British, or Russian foreign policy appear as an intelligible, rational continuum, by and large consistent within itself, regardless of the different motives, preferences, and intellectual and moral qualities of successive statesmen. A realist theory of international politics, then, will guard against two popular fallacies: the concern with motives and the concern with ideological preferences.

If we as South Africa are to survive not only globally as the African Hegemon but also to effectively address our very own triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment, since one’s foreign policy is inextricable linked to one’s domestic policies, then continuing as a reluctant hegemon, is not in our national interests. DM


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