South Africa’s international agenda must be lead by our domestic political & economic interests

REJECT: Ramaphosa says Dons got it wrong

As much as there has been in recent years the urge to look east, many continue to believe that South Africa must keep its historic allies. The new found strategic partnerships and emphasis on alliances with countries such as China, Cuba and the rest of the BRICS countries has made many commentators, outside and inside of government, to try and convince the new Ramaphosa administration to look West again to countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Germany.  

Yet if one were to take recent occurrences both in the US and UK as indicators, one would soon discover that we really do not share much in their values as these commentators would make us want to believe. 

Take for example, the recent statement by US national security advisor, John Bolton, who issued a threat to the International Criminal Court. Continue with investigations into the war crimes committed by US troops and intelligence operatives in Afghanistan, said Bolton, and the US will retaliate and, if needs be, impose sanctions on the ICC as well.

“Any means necessary”, “unjust prosecution” and “illegitimate court” are just some of the phrases Bolton employed in his attack on the ICC. He went farther to point out that the ICC was antithetical to US values and a threat to US sovereignty and national security. As Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Bolton vociferously opposed the US finally joining the Rome Statute and would later describe the US pulling out of the ICC as the “happiest moment” of his political career. For his opposition to joining the ICC, among others, Bolton was later rewarded with the post of US ambassador the United Nations.

Notwithstanding South Africa’s own struggle with the ICC, the remarks by this senior US official in the Donald Trump administration must be viewed within its proper context. Bolton was justifying the Trump administration’s move to close the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) office in Washington and was defending Israel, together with the US, against any acts that would seem to try and hold the US and Israel accountable for their actions internationally.

“Business Insider South Africa” reported that of Bolton’s remarks, Amnesty International USA’s, Adotei Akwei, who is the deputy director of advocacy and government, said the statement by the US national security advisor “sends a dangerous signal that the United States is hostile to human rights and the rule of law”.

This latest episode from a senior member of the US administration should serve as an example to explaining South Africa’s struggle with the US. It is well known by now that on many different occasions South Africa has opposed the US in the UN, throughout each of the American presidencies, and we know this through statistics released by the Trump administration earlier in the year when the US administration indicated that they would start siphoning off funds to countries who differed with them. In other words, they blackmailed nations and this came, again, on the back of the US moving of their embassy to Jerusalem; a move condemned internationally.

Indeed, South Africa does benefit much from its relationship with the US. In our fight against HIV-AIDS, as our top trade partner and we might well fall victim to Trump’s moves of cutting us out of AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) because South Africa has a much more sophisticated economy than other beneficiaries of AGOA.

But to simply cosy up to the Americans and the British would be pushing the Neville Chamberlain line of “appeasement at all costs” in the face of US and UK nationalism, protectionism, isolation and trade totalitarianism. 

A decade after the global economic depression, the world has witnessed the rise of an Aryan on the other side of the Atlantic. Some in government and those commentating want us to appease him even if we have fundamental disagreements with the US. Please also remember that the Aryan occupying the White House, like Hitler in Nazi Germany, was one in the making for decades and not just an accident of recent history. The man in the White House solidly reflects the views and aspirations of the electorate of the US.

Yet just as Trump has solid support for his views and surrounded with people like Bolton, Chamberlain’s “appeasement” with Hitler came from a firm foundation found in the British aristocracy of the 1930’s. In an essay written in “The Guardian” on 19 July 2015, University of London’s, Dr Karina Urbach, wrote that “…we should not be surprised to find that the history of the [British] royal family in this [prewar] period was not unlike that of others, committed to the folly of appeasement on the eve of the Second World War”.

According to Urbach, the British aristocracy, most exemplified by King Edward VIII who would later abdicate, was to support the Nazis because they had a common ideological enemy: communism. She also points out how useful this class of people in the United Kingdom was for Hitler’s war of propaganda and how in particular Joseph Goebbels knew not to attack the royal family during the abdication crisis in 1936. 

Today, some suggest another appeasement between the US and South Africa against: communism. Like the agreement between the British aristocracy and the German Nazis, the elitists classes in South Africa feel threatened by the developmental models proposed by countries such as China, Cuba and Russia. Little wonder Trump’s tweet on land is used as an opening salvo in their arguments.

International relations theorist, J. Samuel Barkin, in his 2010 book, “Realist Constructivism: Rethinking International Relations Theory”, suggests a hybrid between international theories. We can no longer think only in terms of “idealism”, “realism”, “constructivism” etc in international relations as if these theories act in silos of each other when it comes to foreign policy. Often, suggests Barkin, foreign policy should be understood, and practiced, through a hybrid approach.

For example, the People’s Republic of China has always had a constructivist approach to international relations. Since the days of Bandung in 1955, they have emphasised the sovereignty of nations, and thus the principle of non-interference, but have also emphasised the importance of non-hegemony by one or two nations and the necessary practice of multilateralism. Even to this day, they practice multilateralism. Yet we also know that China understands their foreign policy to be an extension of and based on their national domestic policy. Hence, they are as constructivist as they are realist. 

While South Africa’s foreign policy must be practiced in a realist sense it cannot do so in isolation from its ideals and a constructivist approach. Its foreign policy is closer to that of China’s because of multilateralism, “win-win” solutions and developmental diplomacy. 

Like China, South Africa must also be realist and therefore does not have to understand foreign policy in an “either-or” dichotomy. Either you are friends with the US or friends with China, Cuba and Russia. Rather South Africa must ensure that it is both constructivist and real at the same time which replaces “either-or” with “and”.

Wesley Seale is a PhD student in International Relations at Beiwai University, Beijing, China