Dalai Lama dilemma

2009-10-13 00:00

THE Dalai Lama has caused another foreign policy dilemma. This time it is the United States president, Barack Obama, who confronts the challenge of having to choose between promoting the sound ideals behind the Tibetian freedom struggle and maintaining economic relations with the strong Chinese economy. Last week, Obama refused to meet the Dalai Lama until he had met the Chinese authorities. Obama is to undertake his first state visit to China in November.

When then president Kgalema Motlanthe’s cabinet refused the Dalai Lama a visa to speak at a conference in South Africa earlier this year, South Africa was condemned as a rogue democracy. The government was heavily criticised inside and outside South Africa for failing to stand firmly on the side of those whose human rights were being violated by the Chinese government.

Analysts and media personalities alike were dismayed at the fact that South Africa decided to secure its domestic economic interests at the expense of fighting a noble cause elsewhere. Activists were flabbergasted that South Africa appeared to have listened to China’s warnings that should we give the Dalai Lama a platform to launch an international crusade against China, the multibillion rand trade between the two countries may be jeopardised.

We critics emphasised constitutional values of human rights and democracy as they applied to the people of Tibet more than the constitutional principles of socioeconomic rights of South Africans. In a true spirit of internationalism, we called on our leadership to forgo the goal to consolidate domestic and international economic stability for unemployment and poverty in pursuit of noble human rights goals. Inspired by our liberal values, we demanded that our government exalt the interests of suffering people elsewhere, even at the expense of our less-fortunate fellow citizens.

The country’s voting positions during its two-year tenure in the UN Security Council in 2006-8 were rehashed as evidence that the government has been systematically drifting away from a human rights-based foreign policy for some time. It was said that by voting against U.S. and United Kingdom-sponsored resolutions on Iran, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, rape, and climate change, we sided with rogue states and human rights violators.

Even that historic speech by Isithalandwe Nelson Mandela to the Council on Foreign Relations of the U.S. in 1992, which laid out the values and principles defining the foreign policy of the new South Africa, was brought alive to show that South Africa adhered to the doctrine of human rights-based foreign policy until the Thabo Mbeki and Motlanthe governments departed from the noble cause.

It emerged last week that some weeks ago Obama sent a delegation to the Dalai Lama’s exile home in India to indicate to the Tibetan leader that he would not meet Obama when he visited Washington last week. The reason given was that Obama did not deem it wise to meet the spiritual leader before meeting the Chinese authorities. Obama seemed wary that if he met the Dalai Lama, it would make his constructive engagement with China all the more difficult. But Obama knew that provoking China would hurt the U.S.’s economic recovery plans.

In the ultimate analysis, the equation tilted in favour of the U.S.’s strategic and national interests at the expense of a noble cause. Noble causes tend to be associated with the common good for others rather than national prosperity and security.

The former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did meet the Dalai Lama in spite of China’s concerns. The situation is, however, different for Obama. The U.S. needs Chinese investments in order to offset the effect of growing national debt. China has become the largest growing economy and its trade with the U.S. has grown astronomically. China’s global diplomacy has positioned it at the centre of world politics and if its interests are hurt, it is able to mobilise a large number of states or use its own power in the international system to fight back. More importantly, Beijing has, in the past few years, escalated pressure on other states to isolate the Dalai Lama.

This means that, as in the case of South Africa, Obama’s administration does not have many choices. This is all the more crucial for any country that harbours ambitions to play a central role in the emerging global order, economically and politically. There is unanimity that China will be a pivotal state for the emerging multipolar world order. Some see China becoming the ultimate superpower in just three decades. So its concerns cannot be brushed aside.

Obama has incurred the wrath of campaigners and civil rights activists for whom his decision is nothing but an appeasement of undemocratic China. Critics just cannot understand the fact that he willingly met the Dalai Lama when he was a senator several years ago and he now cannot meet him as a president.

What confuses critics is that in a case of this nature, either the president resigns in conscientious objection or suppresses his own preferences in favour of the country’s interests. As for us observers, we need to understand the complexities of managing a plethora of interests.

But this does not mean that governments should use national interests to avoid making moral decisions. They need to improve their communication and engagement of opinion makers. The South African government is poor at communicating, partly because instead of building a sophisticated communications architecture, it simply employs former journalists.

There will be many times when Zuma will disappoint his support base, too, in the interests of the country. This is the business of leadership and governing a country. This may happen more frequently now that the new administration has decided to use international relations to protect and advance national interests a lot more than before. Whose interests will we advance in response? Some romantic middle-class values or the interests of the downtrodden?

• Dr Siphamandla Zondi is the director for Southern Africa at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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