Saturday, March 24, 2007

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 at 08:14 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)