Saturday, March 24, 2007

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South Africa is a normal country

Pssst.... hey, IR grad students. looking for an interesting paper topic? Michael Wines' New York Times front-pager on South Africa's foreign policy would be a good start.

Wines asks why a regime that relied on international support to end apartheid seems... let's say "indifferent".... to human rights abuses in countries near and far:

Modern South Africa came about, historians agree, in part because of the United Nations’ unrelenting stance against apartheid. The United Nations affirmed that South African racism was not merely an internal political problem, but a threat to southern Africa. It banned arms shipments to South Africa. It demanded fair treatment of black dissidents.

It worked. This month a democratic South Africa sits as president of the United Nations Security Council. It was a remarkable, even poignant affirmation of the power of morality in global diplomacy.

Or so it might seem. After just three months as one of the Security Council’s nonpermanent members, South Africa is mired in controversy over what could be its great strength: the moral weight it can bring to diplomatic deliberations.

In January, South Africa surprised many, and outraged some, when it voted against allowing the Security Council to consider a relatively mild resolution on human rights issues in Myanmar, whose government is widely seen as one of the most repressive on earth.

Last week the government again angered human rights advocates when it said it would oppose a request to brief the Security Council on the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, where the government is pursuing a violent crackdown on its only political opposition. South Africa later changed its stance, but only after dismissing the briefing as a minor event that did not belong on the Council’s agenda.

This week South Africa endangered a delicate compromise among nations often at odds — the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany — to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

The major powers agreed on an arms embargo, freezing of assets and other sanctions against Iran, but South Africa proposed dropping the arms and financial sanctions and placing a 90-day “timeout” on other punishments, which critics said would have rendered the sanctions toothless.

“I’m not gutting the resolution,” Dumisani S. Kumalo, South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations, told news agency reporters this week. “I’m improving it.”

Why is South Africa acting this way? Wines gets at some possibilities at the end of the article:
Apartheid, the South African government contends, was a crime against humanity. In contrast, it argues that human rights abuses in Myanmar do not fall within the mandate of the Security Council. Indeed, the South African government says, the Council’s encroachment on issues better left to lesser agencies like the Human Rights Council undermines the organization’s global nature.

Seasoned scholars may and do differ, but to many analysts here the real question is why, given its standing as a beacon of human rights, South Africa has taken such positions at all. Perhaps nobody outside Pretoria knows, but there are plenty of theories.

One, advanced by a committed advocate of Burmese freedom, is that South Africa is feathering its strategic relationship with China, which largely controls Myanmar, supports Zimbabwe’s authoritarian government and has assiduously courted President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. China has big investments, a decent-size immigrant population and great ambitions in South Africa. South Africa has a similarly close relationship with Iran, an oil supplier.

But even during its struggle for liberation, the African National Congress, or A.N.C., now the governing party, maintained ties to supporters with questionable human rights records, like the Soviet Union, China and Libya.

Another explanation is that South Africa is playing the role of bad boy on the Security Council to underscore its demand that the Council be overhauled to reflect new global realities.

South Africa and many other developing nations deeply resent the great powers’ veto over major United Nations actions, often against developing countries like Zimbabwe and North Korea. They want the emerging Southern Hemisphere to have more sway in the body’s policies and actions.

“South Africa wants reform of the Security Council, come hell or high water,” said Thomas Wheeler, a longtime diplomat for South Africa who now is chief executive at the South Africa Institute of International Affairs, a research group. “And they’re using practically any means to do it. They’ve got almost a bee in their bonnet — that this is the way to go, to force the issue in this way.”

A third theory, a hybrid of those two, is that South Africa’s leaders have yet to decide whether they are democrats or the revolutionaries of two decades ago, railing against seemingly immovable establishments on behalf of seemingly lost causes. The powers in those days were the United States and Britain, powers inimical to the Communists who were the financiers of black liberation movements in the 1980s.

“What you have here is the continuing, ongoing tussle over whether the A.N.C. is still a protest movement or the governing party of a responsible member of the international community,” said a retired American diplomat with decades of Africa experience. “They’re reflexively against anything we’re for — we in the States, we and the British, we in the North. It’s more Chinese than the Chinese.”

Let's knock down the third theory first -- I suspect this is not about reflexive anti-Americanism. The ANC has been perfectly willing to tolerate Washington Consensus-style economic policies for more than a decade now. This is not about the doctrinaire implementation of a militant ideology.

I'm not sure I buy the Security Council reform argument either. South Africa's obsteperous behavior at the UN is not a sufficient roadblock to Security Council action -- and if, anything, their positions on some issues are likely to alienate rather than persuade the United States and other western governments on U.N. reform. Plus, if it was just about UN reform, one would expect to see South Africa adopt a tougher position vis-a-vis human rights abusers in their bilateral relations -- and there's been zero evidence of that happening.

Me, I buy a variant of the first hypothesis -- South Africa is becoming a normal country pursuing a realpolitik foreign policy. If this means coddling dictators in Harare and accomodating rising powers in East Asia, so be it. It should also be pointed out that they're not the only country in the Southern African region to be acting this way.

From an IR theory perspective, however, post-1994 South African foreign policy might represent an ideal test of the power of ideas and norms to influence a middle power's foreign policy -- and the test suggests that ideas don't count for a lot. However, that's just my take based on a very surface-level scan of Pretoria's behavior. A proper, in-depth case study might turn up a different explanation..

Grad students, why are you wasting your weekend reading this blog? Get to it!!

UPDATE: I've now created a new blog category, "thesis ideas," devoted to these kind of research questions prompted by an interesting news story.

posted by Dan on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM


dan, there's a fourth hypotheses -- south african leaders, like the leaders of a lot of former colonies are hyper-sensitive about interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. this is a norm that states with these kinds of historical experiences and memories are particularly prone to support. this could be pretty easy to test in both large N and small N fashion.

minor aside...IR theory does itself a disservice to assume that realpolitik practice is not rooted in ideas. there's no logical reason to assume that there are things called 'interests' that are ontologically distinct from things called 'ideas'. do you think that the process by which south africa leaders try to figure out whether it is better to support or oppose zimbabwe while cultivating ties with china is somehow 'idea-less'?.... but this is a whole other topic....

posted by: AIJ on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]


posted by: Zathras on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

May be too late for this; feels a bit like selecting on the dependent variable at this point.

posted by: wml on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

It's an interesting version of realpolitik that accepts the collapse of a neighboring state's economy, and a steady flow of refugees from that state, to help preserve the neighbor's regime.

The best one can say of Robert Mugabe's administration in Zimbabwe from the standpoint of South African interests is that it's been a nuisance. More realistically it's been a substantial inconvenience to South Africa's people and economy -- just not to Mbeki and the ANC, to whom Mugabe represents a fellow African big man. There are ways in which the relationship resembles the one Ian Smith and the white minority government of Rhodesia had with the apartheid government up until 1980, a key difference being that the Afrikaners used the Rhodesians as much as Smith's government relied on the South Africans. Mbeki by contrast appears not to get much more from his steadfast support of the Zimbabwean strongman than a personal warm feeling of solidarity.

I wonder that neither Wines nor Dan seem to have considered the ways in which the international position of the old apartheid government may have influenced Mbeki's outlook. Like the apartheid regime, the South African government now supports maintenance of the political status quo in the region -- especially in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe -- seeing critics of neighboring regimes as essentially hostile to itself. For the apartheid government this policy reflected reality; the replacement of friendly colonial and (in Rhodesia's case) white minority governments represented steps toward the complete isolation of South Africa.

Regional realities have changed, but Mbeki and the people working for him may just not know how to change with them. So far from being hostile the West is almost desperate for South Africa to succeed; so far from needing to support neighboring regimes to fend off isolation, South Africa is now left to help foot the bill for the Zimbabwean government's failures -- from which it derives no benefit at all. Realpolitik would point South Africa toward acting like what it is, a regional superpower. Mugabe should be looking south as a supplicant, not a comrade. But inertia and sentiment appear to be greater influences on the Mbeki government's regional policy than calculation.

Incidentally, if this view is correct, it follows that South Africa's government probably does not have well-developed views as to how sympathetic it should be toward international issues outside the region -- say, toward Iran's nuclear program. South African officials may incline toward irritating the American and European governments, but that doesn't mean South Africa has good reason to commit itself to supporting Iran, or Sudan or even China just because the government of one of these countries chooses to quarrel with the West for some reason. Logically a South African government might well choose to steer an independent course if that reflects its own interests -- but wanting to do that and knowing how are not the same thing.

posted by: Zathras on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

I've been at conferences where political scientists write on precisely this topic, usually with an argument about identity in southern Africa. So not as novel as Dan thinks. Sorry :-).

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

Mbeki has domestic problems to worry about. A substantial proportion of SA's lower classes still view Mugabe as a revolutionary hero and in recent years pressure has been building to have SA implement measures, especially expropriation, similar to those instituted by Mugabe in Zim. Add to this the fact that Mugabe's removal is not likely to improve the situation in Zim. Many of the old man's associates in ZANU-PF are likely to be just as bad as he is. And, any unilateral action by Mbeki's regime would be opposed by other leaders in the region. There are thus a lot of reasons for inaction, and little other than moral protestations weighing in favor of action.

posted by: D.B. Light on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

I suggest that reading Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth and/or VS Naipaul's A Bend in the River would get everybody here much much further in understanding this 'paradox'.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

D B Light suggests another possible interpretation, one that I have resisted. This is that Mbeki and the ANC have supported Mugabe because they, or at least some of them, are considering emulating his internal policies in South Africa.

The inmplications of this scenario are not pleasant to contemplate, but I suppose one must allow for the possibility that South Africa's foreign policy is stronly influenced by its domestic politics (it would hardly be the only country of which this is true). I would have thought that Mugabe's conversion of Zimbabwe from a country that exported food to one that sends refugees to South Africa would have made Mbeki's support for the regime in Harare unpopular. However, this view may assume too much, in terms of the ANC's own confidence in its hold on power. To the extent the ANC is dependent on the support of people who only grudgingly accepted the replacement of the white minority government with a black-dominated, but democratic regime, its leaders might feel compelled to avoid steps that might risk inflaming passions.

The immediate result is that South Africa's policy toward Zimbabwe looks as if it is being made in Harare. But governments preoccupied with domestic politics tend not to be so concerned with how their actions look abroad (not that I have any others in mind or anything). Dan speaks of South Africa as a "normal country" by way of contrasting it to the moral exemplar seen by some in the West, and I've suggested that its leaders may not have had enough experience to design a foreign policy motivated by their country's clearly identified interests rather than driven by inertia and sentiment. But Light's suggestion implies that Mbeki's government, for domestic reasons, may simply not feel it has much room to maneuver with respect to Zimbabwe. Or it could imply something much worse, for South Africa's own future.

posted by: Zathras on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

Did not the ANC have the support of various communist countries and an alliance with the SACP? Weren't there also racialist African ideas floating about at the time? Wasn't it also the case that Thabo Mbeki's father was a member of both the ANC and the SACP and Mbeki himself received military training in the USSR? Perhaps Mbeki and many in the ANC consider Zimbabwe and Myanmar genuinely progressive regimes: they are, after all, revolutionary and left.

I think the left connection by itself is enough to explain things. Hardly anything is as predictable as the left supporting tyranny and tolerating widespread death and misery. The idea that SA would be "liberal" just because they were the beneficiaries of liberal societies is silly, quite as silly as the idea that blacks can't be racist because they were the victims of racism. People just aren't like that.

posted by: chuck on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

Why not all being a part of the truth. I think the main reason is that "Human Rights" is a Western idea conception, and it was only a tool for ANC and many in SA Anti-apartheid movement. There are a lot of abuse reports inside ANC and other groups.

posted by: lucklucky on 03.24.07 at 08:14 AM [permalink]

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