REALISM AND IDEALISM IN SOUTH AFRICA'S FOREIGN POLICY* J.E.SPENCE OBE Introduction Before embarking on discussion of the specific impact of realism and idealism on South Africa's foreign policy, a brief discussion of the inter-action of these two fundamental theoretical concepts might be helpful.
First, some definition of terms: idealism has many guises (some would say sins!) but underpinning all - either implicitly or explicitly - is a bedrock of profound moral conviction. Thus, for example, nationalism and communism are examples of ideologies with an explicit idealistic content in that both are dynamic philosophies offering would-be supporters radical and often mythical interpretation of their past; analysis of present discontents; and a vision of a future free of injustice and oppression. Implicit in both is a programme of action designed to achieve the transformation of the human condition.
However, for the purposes of this analysis, idealism will be equated with one particular ideology, namely liberalism. This is essentially a Western philosophical construct concerned to promote the value of democratic self-determination, together with the economic and social goals derived from the organisation of a free market economy. More precisely in the realm of international relations, we shall be concerned with the notion of liberal internationalism principally associated with improving the prospects for global peace and security and at the same time securing justice for oppressed peoples. Orthodox liberals eschew revolutionary means to achieve such goals. Thus progressives believe that evolution is to be preferred to violent means except perhaps as a last resort when all else fails. Liberals traditionally emphasise the sanctity of human rights: for example, freedom of speech, association, religion, etc and the appropriate strategies for their enhancement and protection. In particular these rights are argued to be embodied, indeed enshrined, in the overarching concept of the rule of law manifesting itself via an independent judiciary guaranteeing equal legal provision for all citizens.
Liberalism, unlike its dynamic counterpart, is a relatively static doctrine eschewing transformational means to utopian ends, but nevertheless appealing to disenfranchised communities. It has - as we shall see - become increasingly powerful especially since the end of the Cold War and the discrediting of the theory and application of Communist ideology in the former Soviet Union, Eastern and Central Europe.
Conservatism, by contrast, is a sceptical ideology profoundly opposed to the ideal of a radical transformation of society - whether domestic or international - and acknowledging the sheer intractability of many of the problems that plague the political enterprise. Conservative practitioners pride themselves on their grasp of realism as a basis for policy making. They recognise, too, that human nature is fallible, that there are real and powerful constraints governing the formulation and conduct of policy, that the 'law' of unintended consequences can undo the search for preferred outcomes. Thus pragmatic judgement is to be preferred, acknowledging the harsh constraints of difficult circumstances. This is to accept as Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister in the 1950's remarked that "events, dear boy, events" dictate what can be done, rather than what should be done according to some abstract moral/liberal calculus.
* For a fuller discussion of some of the issues raised in this paper on South Africa's foreign policy, historically considered, see D. Welsh & J.E. Spence, Ending Apartheid, London: Pearson, forthcoming.
Perhaps one way of distinguishing between realism and liberalism is to consider both the terminology employed in decisions on international relations: realists are concerned with 'order', 'power', and the 'national interest’, liberal internationalists by contrast discourse on 'peace' and how best to obtain it via, for example, collective security legitimised and co-ordinated by international institutions thereby underpinning and sanctifying the role of the values of co-operation and the interdependence of states. Thus realists are Westphalians fiercely attached to the principle of sovereignty, sceptical about the doctrine of liberal interventionism and defending the claim that the state is the key actor in international relations.
Liberals, on the other hand, are sceptical about the notion of absolute sovereignty; they regard it as an outdated doctrine to be brushed aside when gross dereliction of human rights occurs. Realists in support of the doctrine of state primacy point to its role in agenda setting in debate - whether on trade, multi-lateral intervention, or climate change - in international organisations. In its mature form, the state, it is argued, maintains a capacity for providing security, welfare and a sense of identity for its citizenry. By contrast, the liberal stresses the value and sheer necessity for the emergence of a system of global governance to regulate the complex relations of states at a variety of levels - political, economic, social, technological and legal. Indeed, in arguing this view, liberals often claim that the notion of autonomous statehood is a declining asset as governments increasingly have to contend with the ever-increasing pressure of globalisation.
Of course, I accept that by defining realism and liberalism in this way I am indulging in the creation of ideal types implicitly suggesting that there is a permanent unbridgeable gulf fixed between the two doctrines. Yet in both theoretical and practical terms they can and do interact, borrowing intellectual baggage from the other. After all, in mature democratic states (I exclude those which are ruled by corrupt autocrats out for what they can get) political debate is inevitably couched in moral terms: decisions - whether domestic or international - have to be justified according to some version of morality - liberal, socialist or conservative. Political debate is, therefore, essentially about the need to achieve outcomes which benefit the majority of the citizenry. (Minorities may lose out, but so liberal theory holds - their time will come - after the next swing of the electoral pendulum).
And the liberal has this advantage over his conservative counterpart that he is able to stress the moral incentive for change rather than the constraints that inhibit a 'good' outcome. To admit publicly - as the sceptical conservative might - that some problems have no short term solutions, that the best that can be hoped for is a rather unsatisfactory compromise between aspiration and achievement is hardly a message likely to win votes. Similarly, to offer the excuse that intervention in other countries often does more harm than good, is perceived as a confession of weakness and again one not likely to endure the politician to his/her electorate and especially if the counter-argument that such action is required to cope with terrorism acquires a degree of persuasive logic. The realist would stress that moral choices are not simple ones between right and wrong action but very often involve choosing between evil courses of action. The trick is to choose that course of action which does the least harm to the fewest acknowledging all the time that harm will be done to some individual or group or state for that matter.
The English School The difficulty with the conservative view of moral behaviour is that it lacks the positive dramatic content which liberal and radical programmes of change can inspire. Yet it would be a mistake to think of realism as an unchanging doctrine, incapable of adapting to new circumstances and the emergence of new norms in international relations. Consider, too, the softer version of the doctrine promulgated by Charles Manning and Hedly Bull, two noticeable pioneers of the 'English School' of international theory. Both subscribe to what Manning called 'sophisticated realism' with its emphasis on a society rather than a system of states, sharing certain conventions of behaviour and acknowledging certain rules, norms and institutions to regulate that behaviour. Indeed, among the latter are diplomacy, war, international law, and the role of the great powers as well as a network of regional and international institutions that help to bind the international society of states together and prevent its complete fragmentation into a 'war of all against all'.
Thus, for example, the role of the great powers is accepted for regulating the affairs of international society; on the other hand diplomacy - a civilised and civilising enterprise - is crucial in producing at least the prospect of finding 'overlapping interests' and the emergence of consensus and compromise. Indeed, it could be argued that the emphasis placed on diplomacy and international law (notably the principle of pacta sunt servanda) results in an ever expanding network of agreements to regulate transnational affairs ranging from world trade to air traffic control and postal communications. What emerges is a complex spider web of linkages based on common values and their expression in multi-lateral institutions all serving the purpose of binding international society together.
Certainly, all states share a common attachment to the values of sovereignty, to the need to survive. To this extent, then, states are conservative creatures. On the other hand, the fact that states can and do co-operate in a multitude of ways especially in a globalised world is more than just because they share a common interest in security. It also suggests that many of the objectives of this co-operation are in fact liberal in aim and content designed to make the lot of the citizenry tolerable, meaningful and effective. And this co-operative thrust is based on more than just the need to survive in a hostile world.
What this analysis demonstrates is that realism and liberalism can and do interact and are not necessary ideological polar opposites. And this interaction has deepened since the end of the Cold War. Orthodox realism whether - expressed in academe or a foreign office – with its traditional emphasis on the values of pragmatism, scepticism, (at best) situational ethics together with the constraints that inevitably beset decision makers has had to contend with a post Cold War world. This – following the collapse of Communism – suggested that liberal values, for example, democracy and the free market had finally triumphed and would spread their influence world wide. And this development was reinforced by the growth of a human rights culture and the overwhelming impact of real time ‘liberal’ media reporting symbolised by the cry that ‘something must be done’ to remedy blatant examples of oppression wherever and whenever these occurred.
Several examples from post 1945 practice can be cited demonstrating the interaction between realist constraints and liberal incentives to break free of those constraints. Before doing so, it must be stressed that this argument applies principally to mature democratic states rather than those which have collapsed or are ruled by corrupt wicked leaders bent of self-aggrandisement and aggression against weaker dependent neighbours.
A second qualification in this particular context is to acknowledge that politicians being all too human may indulge in liberal rhetoric but behave very differently. On the other hand, we must be fair to the political class and acknowledge that democratic leaders are not simply amoral computers neatly calculating costs and benefits regardless of their moral significance or lack of it. We have to recognise surely that for most of us in private life ethical considerations do help to constrain our behaviour. Why should such ethical imperatives desert us once we enter the public domain?
True, the constraints are greater and the choices very often unpalatable but even the notion of the national interest can have a moral dimension insofar as democratically elected politicians can fairly claim that defending and asserting a national interest is what their electorates expect them to do as a bare minimum of moral obligation. What ultimately matters in ethical terms is how that interest is defined – whether pragmatically or apocalyptically – and what means are employed to protect it.
The Role of 9/11 Finally, we must consider the impact of 9/11 on the relative strength of realism and liberalism as guides to political action. It could be argued that during the Bush Administration the neo-conservative movement hijacked the tenets of liberalism, emphasising the universal appeal and relevance of democratic government and the free market for countries labouring under oppressive rule in the Third World in particular. The United States – according to this doctrine – had a mission to spread these ideals and radically undercut the appeal of transitional theory and practice which emphasises waiting on time and circumstance, allowing for the impact of tradition and political culture in changing societies from within. Neo-conservatism re-defined America’s national interest in dynamic ideological terms and what is especially interesting in this context is its capacity to combine realism (in this case the projection of American power to, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan) with liberal idealism as a transformational strategy. To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, this aspiration was designed to make the world ‘safe for democracy’.
By contrast, old fashioned realism might have dictated a more cautious strategy, recognising that liberal interventionism might stimulate the growth of radical Islamic hostility to the west; that terrorism might well increase its capacity to be home grown; what was required to secure national boundaries to keep terrorists out were networks of intelligence with like-minded states to forestall attempts to create mayhem in western societies. Nor can there be any doubt that academic and practical elites remain uncertain how best to counter the so-called ‘new’ security threats (of which terrorism is one): enforced migration; environmental degradation; international crime; money laundering; intra-state conflict on a massive scale; collapsed and failing states.
What, therefore, is the relevance of realism or liberalism as modes of explanation of these problems, let along providing effective strategies for coping with them? One possibility which does appear to command general assent is the attempt to revive the doctrine of collective security, the assumption being that multilateral co-operation is essential if the impact of these threats is to be reduced significantly. Interestingly, collective security does contain elements of both realism and liberalism: the former insofar as collaboration in a ‘coalition of the willing’ does presumably serve individual national interests; the latter insofar as mutual co-operation to deter and defend against aggression on a limited basis has long been recognised as a liberal aspiration reinforcing the notion of ‘enlightened’ self-interest. The multinational naval task force defending against piracy in the Indian Ocean is a relevant example in this context.
So much then for the evolution of realism and liberalism and their interaction at times in practice. Here are some examples of the impact of liberal ideals on the formulation and conduct of foreign policy in the post-Cold War world:
● Nelson Mandela's belief that the 'new' South Africa's foreign policy had to be primarily protection and assertion of human rights; that poorer neighbours had to be treated with 'sensitivity and respect'. This was hardly surprising in view of his experience at the hands of the Apartheid regime. Yet - as we shall see anon - a realist concern with military and economic capability and the national interest soon entered into the calculations of the new government.
● The Late Robin Cook's (Foreign Secretary in Tony Blair's first Labour Government) emphasis on the importance of an 'ethical dimension' in foreign policy making.
● Tony Blair's 1999 Doctrine of the International Community which allowed for the brushing aside of sovereignty when gross abrogations of human rights (genocide for instance) occurred. Blair set out a mixture of liberal and realist criteria which had to be met if such intervention was to occur: these included, inter alia, first 'exhausting all diplomatic options; prudent and achievable goals; long-term commitment including the task of re-building; and is the national interest truly engaged?' (1)
What is interesting about this doctrine is the combination of both realist and liberal
assumptions underpinning it, the most notable of which was the emphasis on the national
interest as the critical realist determinant of policy.
Similarly, the Charter of the United Nations combines liberal ideals with realist assumptions. The founding fathers were determined to devise structures which would avoid the failures of it predecessor, the League of Nations; hence the great powers were given the advantage of permanent membership of the Security Council on the assumption that with power (a realist notion) went ultimate responsibility for keeping the peace (a liberal aspiration) - a nice combination of liberal and realist principles of statecraft. Indeed, this was reflected in the fact that the peace makers were committed to a multi-lateral institution which in its Charter provided under Chapter Six for peaceful means for settling disputes (arbitration, mediation, good offices, etc) as well as the use of forcer under Chapter Seven. There is, too, running like a thread through the Charter an emphasis on human rights soon to be supplemented by a variety of Declarations. We should note the opening words of the Charter - 'we the peoples' - in contrast to the realist emphasis on statehood in the Covenant's opening phrase: 'the high contracting parties'.
Finally, in this context we note the development over 60 years of the European Union. This - it could be argued - was the product of an enlightened realism combining with a passionate liberalism to produce an integrated Europe free of the scourge of war that historically had involved death and destruction on a massive scale. The structure that emerged, beginning with the Coal and Steel Community in 1950 was based on the liberal premise that functional integration of the sinews of war and the establishment over time of a single market would, in effect, so bind European states together that war between them would be unthinkable.
This was a liberal aspiration but one buttressed by the enlightened self-interest of the individual states. Indeed, the European Union in its present form, is following a 'soft' power strategy of engaging constructively with maverick states eg: North Korea, Iran, etc. Indeed, its general commitment to peace keeping rather than peace enforcement might be described as a liberal construct in origin, substance, development and ideological aspiration.
Finally, in this disposition on the realist/liberal interface it is worth noting the following propositions:
● Pure realism of the cold-blooded Hobbsian variety with its emphasis on the pursuit of narrow and exclusive self-interest stresses distrust, fear of rivals and the accretion of power as the key imperatives driving the conduct of international relations and the foreign policies of individual states. In this particular context, the statesman's task has been graphically described in Michael Oakshott's famous image: 'In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-plate not appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion'. (2)
This passage illustrates the essential loneliness implicit in the task of statecraft. It contrasts, in effect, the Utopian goal setting of dynamic ideologies such as Marxism or Nationalism with the traditional conservative view that there is no final solution to the state's problems. It emphasises that as one problem is solved, another emerges from the outcome of that very solution. For the traditional conservative, then, the task of the statesman is to patch up the holes in the delicate fabric of international relations, recognising that each patch stretches the fabric to produce yet more gaps. The task is, therefore, endless, confirming all the while the law of unintended consequences.
Yet, as this paper has tried to demonstrate, realism of this kind does not appear to allow for the possibility of progressive change in the structure and process of international relations. The world appears condemned to an endless cycle of disorder (war) followed by precarious order (peace) which in turn breaks down to produce yet more disorder. Indeed, European history between 1648 and 1945 could be respectably interpreted in this way. Yet as we have seen - as in the case of the origins and development of the European Union and Tony Blair's enunciation of the Doctrine of International Community - liberal values can and do penetrate the bastion of realist theory and practice.
Realism does, therefore, have a capacity to adapt to different circumstances. Thus the concept of the national interest - the bedrock of realism - is not fixed and unchanging, except insofar as the survival of the state is the key variable. How that interest is served will depend on how states adapt to changing circumstances and re-define the utility and the means required to defend and assert that overarching interest in survival. And the truth of this proposition is best summed up by Bruce Miller:
'National interests cannot be separated from the minds of the men who formulate them ..... Ideas of national interest have a grounding in the facts of geography and economics, but these factors are subject to change .... ultimately, ideas of national interest depend upon the ideas which men have of the place which they would like their country to occupy in the world; and these ideas change in time, apart from never being unanimous within a country at a given time.' (3)
Finally, it is worth stressing the dominance of the realist paradigm in political discourse. What Miller's observation implicitly demonstrates is how realism has dominated the discourse of practical politics. However, its role as the dominant paradigm in the theoretical study of international relations has had to contend with compelling challenges from a variety of intellectual constructs during the last three decades or so. But this is not to deny its continuing impact on the way politicians in mature states define their foreign policies. In the last analysis, given the twin processes of globalisation and so-called 'new' security threats affecting all states in varying degree, we may choose to re-define the cardinal principle of realism as 'enlightened self-interest'. But to do so would be to implicitly recognise the impact of liberal values and changing global circumstances on orthodox realism. And this provides an appropriate starting point for a discussion of how these theoretical constraints have influenced the formulation and conduct of South African foreign policy in practice.
The South African Experience On taking office, new administrations - whether democratically elected or as a result of a coup or revolution - rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to start afresh with a tabula rasa for the formulation and conduct of foreign policy or, for that matter, domestic policy. Past behaviour in external relations for example treaty commitments, relations with neighbours, the pattern of external trade links and existing defence capability, cannot be jettisoned lightly. And as Bruce Miller has already reminded us, the definition of national interests has a grounding 'in the facts of geography and economics'.(4) These constraints on a new government's room for manoeuvre are not immutable, but any change in their relevance and significance for a country's foreign policy tends to be long-term and not easily removed, if at all, by immediate legislative fiat.
In this particular context South Africa's case is interesting: after all, it could be argued that the Government of National Unity elected by universal franchise in 1994 had a legitimacy of a kind never enjoyed by its Apartheid predecessor in the post-1945 period. Legality yes, it was recognised as a government by western states at least, but much time and energy had to be devoted to defending the Apartheid policy in international and regional forums not to mention the vast array of civil society organisations, NGO's (the anti-Apartheid movement, for example), etc.
Thus although the work of societal transformation was and still is no means complete, the country in one profound sense (largely because of the success of its relatively peaceful negotiated transition to democracy and the high reputation of its first President, Nelson Mandela) emerged from pariah status to good citizen of international society. Hence its rapturous welcome at the UN, the Commonwealth, the OAU, the Non-Aligned Movement, and a host of international organisations.
So far, so good: South Africa appeared to break the trend of subject to past constraints. And yet again Miller's dictum about national interest holds true about the ideas which 'men (sic) have of the place which they would like their country to occupy in the world and these ideas change in time ... '(5) The stunted version of realism - survival of the white minority at all cost - had by 1994 given way to a liberal definition of the national interest emphasising in Nelson Mandela's words that 'human rights would be the light that guides our foreign affairs.'(6) Indeed, how could it be otherwise given the world's expectation of what might be accomplished by a state whose ANC leadership had fought long and hard to rid their country of an illiberal and oppressive regime? Thus - at least to begin with - policy was based on the imperative to defend and promote human rights whenever and wherever threatened and this was at one with the domestic aspiration to remove the inequities of apartheid from the statute book and legislate for the economic and social reconstruction of a 'new' South Africa. This liberal consistency between domestic and external policy might be described as an overall strategy of enlightened national self-interest with little scope for the more orthodox cold-blooded tenets of realism as guides to policy making.
Yet what was interesting about earlier attempts to define a foreign policy appropriate for the new South Africa was the debate that did occur between realists in the department of Foreign Affairs led by Deputy Minister Aziz Pahad and radical thinkers in academe and elsewhere. The former stressed the need to strengthen economic links with western states to produce the investment and trade essential to promote government. As Pahad stressed "our European policy is essentially a projection of South Africa's domestic imperatives - economic and social"(7) - clear confirmation of Miller's proposition about the immutable constraints of economics determining a state's foreign policy however 'new' that state might be.
By contrast, radicals took a liberal line arguing that the country ought to occupy the high moral ground in terms of foreign policy. That its manifest destiny was to offer leadership on issues: eg. the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons; the peace-keeping and peace-making role of the Organisation of African Unity; the claims of the Non-Aligned Movement; human rights wherever and whenever they were threatened; the international trade in arms (certainly, giving up the nuclear option paradoxically enabled it to play an important role in the UN sponsored NPT review conference in 1997).
All these good liberal causes were helped by the fact that the country, newly liberated from the scourge of apartheid, had a 'rectitude base' not unlike those other good citizens of international society - Sweden, Norway and Canada - the domestic political systems of which were informed in theory and practice by democratic constitutional values. Thus there was a neat correspondence in all these cases between liberal practice at home and enlightened foreign policy abroad. And it is this combination which - so liberals have always argued - enables a country's citizenry to feel at ease with their government's performance and its place and reputation in the world.
On the other hand, I recall a prominent South African businessman speaking at a Ditchley Park conference in the mid-1990's dismissing the liberal agenda, arguing that the country's most important priority was concentration on increasing trade and investment to eliminate the constraints and inefficiencies of apartheid. This was a straight-forward assertion of orthodox realism putting South Africa's national economic interest at the heart of its foreign policy agenda. Yet however desirable in practice, it was not an exclusive option to be pursued at the expense of liberal aspirations. Geography - the country's domination of the southern African region; global and in particular western expectations of the role that the new South Africa could play in transforming the region and beyond; the ANC's belief in an African Renaissance (Thabo Mbeki's particular brain child) and the possibility of 'African solutions for African problems' - all these factors contrived to compel South Africa to attempt a combination of realist and liberal principles in the conduct of foreign policy. This was an acknowledgement of the constraints imposed by economic and developmental social imperatives coupled with ideological belief in the commitment that the country could make and indeed had no alternative but to make to African betterment.
And while a degree of realism dictating acceptance of free market ideas for managing the economy was deemed essential (despite the ANC's traditional preference for state control of the commanding heights of the economy), a cold blooded realism in the conduct of foreign policy was hardly likely to appeal to a ruling elite flushed with success at liberation and perceived by external actors as having a peculiar responsibility to encourage good governance and economic regeneration in the Southern African region and beyond.
Moreover, this emphasis on human rights issues was explicitly articulated in Mandela's famous Foreign Affairs article where he argued that 'we must treat the local regional actors with sensitivity and respect'.(8) Reputation was, however, found to be a wasting asset over the long run. This was especially the case given the government's self-perception as a key conflict resolver, standard bearer for the poor and dispossessed, and regional leader. But that was to set the bar very high for the conduct of foreign policy and inevitably - as we shall see - contradictions arose between ethical imperatives and realist pressures. Indeed, external actors - western governments in particular - entertained great expectations of the 'new' South Africa as a role model for conflict ridden societies elsewhere and a promoter of positive change across the Continent. Furthermore, a 'whiff' of manifest destiny was detectable in the heady days of the first post-apartheid administration. Witness Mandela's vociferous intervention in Nigerian affairs following the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues in November 1995. His protests and demands for action from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) met with a hostile reception from his fellow African leaders who remained wedded to the Westphalian principle of non-intervention. Similarly, the military incursion into Lesotho in 1998 ended in near disaster demonstrating yet again to reconcile a western-style concern for human rights with African commitment to the principle of domestic jurisdiction.
Yet another contradiction emerged between economic dependence on the rich northern states for trade and investment and the pressure to offer a lead in the search for 'African solutions to African problems' via South Africa's key role in the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). These twin objectives of foreign policy had somehow to be reconciled; appearing to be the west's African poodle was clearly unacceptable.
South Africa's record as a defender of human rights has been mixed. Like many states, the leaders of which pin their colours to an ethical mast as a matter of ideological principle, the constraints at times outweigh and complicate the incentive to be consistent and avoid accusations of double standards. In South Africa's case ties of gratitude to friends in the anti-apartheid struggle - for example Libya, Cuba and Algeria - overrode concern for human rights derelictions and provoked fierce argument over, for example, the morality of arms sales to these regimes. (Interestingly in 2009 this issue resurfaced with accusations by the opposition Democratic Alliance party that the National Convention on Arms Control Committee (NCACC) had engaged in a number of 'dodgy deals' (some authorised, some pending authorisation) with, for example, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Iran.) Another issue which provoked fierce debate arose over which China to recognise - Taiwan or The People's Republic. In all these cases principle clashed with pragmatism and the latter won.
Foreign Policy Under Mbeki On the other hand, both Mbeki administrations showed a sensible preference for soft power instruments of mediation, good offices and other forms of conflict resolution. These diplomatic techniques were employed to good effect in recurrent crises in, for example, The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Great Lakes region and Côte d'Ivoire. In part, of course, this particular thrust of policy was dictated by a realistic acknowledgement that military intervention, peace enforcement as distinct from peace keeping were commitments beyond the country's limited military and economic capability. No doubt failure in Nigeria and Lesotho taught a salutary lesson: Mbeki, too, might have recognised the danger of being bogged down in Africa's intractable conflicts where the parties are often warlords, militias and/or rapacious criminal gangs who derive benefit from the continuation of a conflict rather than the creation of a stable political order via third party intervention. And even creating a 'stable political order' in conflict-ridden Africa seems peculiarly difficult: truces often give way to renewed fighting followed by yet another cease fire and attempts at diplomatic resolution. Too often, the cycle repeats itself and would-be conflict resolvers find themselves on a treadmill with no lasting prospect of peace, let alone post-conflict reconstruction. Thus South Africa inhabits a rough continental neighbourhood; the existence of frail, collapsing and failed states - very often the object of ameliorative intervention - makes the use of orthodox diplomatic and military instruments profoundly difficult. The best that can, therefore, be achieved is short-term band aid, patchy solutions.
Yet nowhere - in South Africa's case - is the tension between liberal incentives and the real or apparent constraints better illustrated than in the Zimbabwean example. This prolonged crisis - it could be argued - was the test case of South Africa's capacity to enhance its reputation for decisive action in defence of human rights. It was (and is) after all, the regional hegemon with the means - via a combination of sanctions and coercive diplomacy to force the pace of change in Zimbabwe. Certainly, many in the west assumed that the Mbeki government had the primary responsibility and the means for the task.
Reliance on 'quiet diplomacy' had little effect in the short to medium run and the Mbeki government's refusal to openly criticise those responsible for the crisis, not to mention the extraordinary behaviour of official South African delegations which - on electoral monitoring visits to Zimbabwe - found little if anything to criticise. Rightly or wrongly, South Africa's reputation has been tarnished by its government's failure to adopt a more proactive role. True, a precarious Government of National Unity (GNU) was established early in 2009 and no doubt Mbeki and his colleagues would claim credit for their strategy of waiting on time and circumstance to provide change however uncertain its implications for the future might be. In the last analysis, however, South Africa's performance in the Zimbabwean crisis demonstrated that liberation solidarity with Mugabe would inevitably trump human rights.(9)
There are other examples illuminating the fall from grace as early aspirations to be a 'force for good' in international relations gave way on important occasions to a disturbing, indeed damaging, exercise of real politik. This is clearly illustrated in South Africa's behaviour at the United Nations (UN); as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, its delegation voted against a US-sponsored resolution condemning the military government of Burma. Similarly, South Africa was reluctant to support a tough resolution at the Human Rights Commission (HRC) over the Darfur issue. It also argued for the suspension of the international criminal court prosecution of the Sudanese president. As Archbishop Tutu remarked such a posture was 'inconsistent with our history'.(10) Strong criticism, too, came from the distinguished judge, Richard Goldstone, who argued that 'South Africa chose to support [a weak statement on Burma] which deliberately avoided pointing a finger of blame. It is a disappointing and inexplicable failure'.(11)
In this context we should also note the refusal to support UN proposals for sanctions against Zimbabwe and Iran (the latter for violating nuclear safeguards). One perceptive explanation for this departure from Mandela's initial emphasis on human rights-based foreign policy is offered by The Economist arguing that 'South Africa's ambivalent sense of identity, with one foot in the rich world, where its main economic interests continue to lie, and the other in the poor one, with which many of its people identify. Even after the end of white rule, some of South Africa's neighbours regard it as something of a Trojan horse for the West. Hence its desire constantly to affirm its African credentials while playing down any hegemonic ambitions'.(12)
This quotation gets to the heart of the dilemma facing South Africa in the external realm. And to be fair to its post-1994 leadership one must acknowledge that much of the criticism emanating from western commentators about the country's failure to observe consistently ethical standards assumes that the human rights criteria employed as a measuring rod are universally accepted.
By contrast, it could be argued that many governments in the North and the South claim, for example, that the doctrine of liberal intervention in defence of human rights is a peculiarly and exclusively western one. For these critics, human rights are less about constitutional freedoms (speech, association, religion, etc) and much more about meeting human needs in terms of food, shelter, health and land provision. In other words, South Africa's refusal to take public issue with President Mugabe of Zimbabwe on the latter's treatment of his people, a government's behaviour at the UN on human rights issues may be explained in terms of a clash of human rights cultures between the West and the Third World (possibly including South Africa rather ambiguously). And this division is reinforced by a deeply-held conviction that following uncritically western condemnation of illiberal Third World regimes is to deny South Africa's anti-colonial credentials and its moral conviction that western motives in this context are a version of disguised imperialism demonstrating double standards in the execution of policy. Thus Mbeki's emphasis on 'quiet diplomacy' with respect to the Zimbabwean issue might be construed as a variety of 'soft power' diplomacy precisely of the kind, for example, employed by the European Union in its dealings with regimes such as North Korea and Iran. So much for double standards!
But the difficulty for South Africa is that the impeccably liberal (in western terms) agenda and commitment of the Mandela administration has been difficult to replace with a more radical anti-imperialist critique of the relationship between the rich North and the poor South. And this problem is compounded by western enthusiasm for Mandela's posture and a belief that South Africa would, therefore, remain as standard bearer and activist in defence of the West's definition of what constituted an acceptable regime of human rights.
Hence the disillusion that accompanies South Africa's performance on some of the issues outlined in this paper. (And in this context the author must frankly acknowledge his visceral commitment to the western definition of human rights, though hopefully, at the same time, recognising the contradictory pressures that constrain South Africa's external performance.)
South Africa as an Emerging Power The debate on this topic is extensive but most scholars agree on the following criteria for inclusion in this category of states: a reasonably stable democratic base; a substantial military capability; a sizeable economic capability and the capacity to deliver both 'guns and butter'; an enabling environment, ie. a set of political, economic and judicial institutions which observe (to some degree at least) the accepted principles of good governance; and finally, a reasonably hospitable regional or continental environment in which the state in question can play a decisive and constructive role.
In this context South Africa might be compared with those other 'niche' players - Canada, and the Scandinavian quartet - with the difference that the latter operate from an unassailable 'rectitude baser' of universally recognised good governance and impressive economic performance. In addition, their governments can pick and choose when and where to exploit their moral advantage as sought after mediators of skilful exploiters of soft power diplomacy. So-called middle powers, therefore, entertain relatively modest foreign policy aspirations; they are content to be good citizens of international society and their electorates feel at ease with their self-prescribed role and their record of achievement.
Measured against these criteria South Africa has a mixed record: true, the state is stable but the level of crime remains unacceptably high; the management of the economy has been prudent, but the rate of delivery of social goods and services to the black majority has not realised initial expectations and sporadic township violence has occurred; the enabling environment has been preserved although there are clearly signs of stress and strain; and finally, the immediate continental environment is not propitious for the conduct of a successful foreign policy. Moreover, this applies particularly to the South African region; here a group of small, poor, weak states look to South Africa for leadership and economic benefit.
One might fairly conclude that this attempt to project itself as an emerging power of substance has been over-ambitious. One abiding problem has been the difficulty involved in reconciling the pressure to play domestically by the rules of globalisation and simultaneously to act as a spokesman for third world interests in international fora. Hence the need to project an image of prudent economic management to the overseas investor requiring an 'eclectic synthesis' of neorealist and neoliberal principles.(13)
Certainly South Africa has a 'rectitude base' but it is relatively fragile as compared with more well-developed 'niche' players pursuing more limited ambitions. Indeed, it could be argued that the election of Jacob Zuma to the presidency in 2009 on an overwhelming mandate to accelerate the pace of domestic reform suggests that the government may well have to concentrate resources on the home front rather than grandiose external enterprises.
In conclusion, what this brief analysis of South African foreign policy shows is that commitment to ethical goals in foreign policy does open a government to accusations of inconsistency and western double standards. Perhaps in the last analysis a cautious sceptical realism focusing on concrete and specific national interests and eschewing grandiose schemes for world betterment would have made more sense. As one perceptive scholar, Kuseni Dlamini, has argued, 'Even if Pretoria can do something it cannot do anything and everything everywhere all the time. Choices are inescapable.'(14)
Thus whether the 'new' South Africa remains an inspirational example as perceived by many at its birth in 1994 or has, in effect, become 'just another country' is perhaps too sharp a dichotomy. True, it is a member of the G20; true it aspires to a permanent seat on a reformed United Nations Security Council, but its record in foreign policy, as we have tried to show, is by no means inspirational in orthodox ethical terms. Perhaps the best that can be said is that South Africa has become 'just another country' facing the same dilemmas in foreign policy as most other states, having to choose between evils rather than basing policy on moral absolutes. Realism rules: OK!
ENDNOTES (1) Kampfner, J., Blair's Wars. London: The Free Press, 2004, p.52.
(2) Oakeshott, M., 'Political Elements' in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen, 1962, p.127.
(3) Miller, B., The Commonwealth in the World, London: Duckworth, 1965, p.84.
(4) Ibid., p.84.
(5) Ibid., p.84.
(6) Mandela, N., 'South Africa's Future Foreign Policy', Foreign Affairs. Vol.72, No.5, 1994, p.86.
(7) Spence, J., 'Realists and Radicals'. Johannesburg: Mail and Guardian, 0000? (to come)
(8) Mandela, op. cit., p.97.
(9) See Spence, J., '"Point Man" on Zimbabwe: South Africa's Role in the Crisis', in R. Primorac and S. Chan (eds), Zimbabwe in Crisis: The International Response and the Space of Silence. London: Routledge, 2007, pp. 17-25.
(10) Business Day. Johannesburg: 11 December, 2006.
(12) 'The see-no-evil foreign policy', The Economist. 15-21 November, 2008, pp.65-66.
(13) Idem (14) Dlamini, K., 'Is Quiet Diplomacy an Effective Conflict Resolution Strategy?' South Africa Yearbook of International Affairs. Johannesburg, 2002-3, p.171.