Leading by example

2010-04-20 00:00

MANY of us were relieved to see United States President Barack Obama shake hands with Dmitry Medvedev of Russia to seal a deal in which they agreed to reduce their number of nuclear weapons by 30%. I thought that this would take the world closer to the shared goal of a nuclear-free world, an idea that the U.S. had been reticent about until Obama came to power. As an idealist, I envisaged that the deal would open the way for the 15 nuclear powers to take bold steps to decommission their nuclear weaponry, thus making the world safer for future generations.

I was amazed by the willingness of the two big nuclear powers, whose relationship has been difficult over the past five years, to put this behind them. I was even more impressed by the speed with which Obama started delivering on his promise in a speech that he gave in Prague with Russia in mind.

Then I searched deeper for various analyses of the accord. The more analyses I read, the more I realised that one should never underestimate the contaminating power of U.S. public diplomacy. It is capable of conditioning one’s thinking about every move that the U.S. makes. The experts behind it are so good that they know how to hoodwink us, gullible foreign audiences (what they call “publics”), into religiously believing their side of the story through a combination of emotional hooks and witty talk.

Of course, the U.S. has a full arsenal of public diplomacy tools to use for that purpose: from semi-commercial 24-hour news channels to the most popular search engines on the Internet — all unashamedly proudly American. You just cannot miss their perspective, often presented as an objective analysis of U.S. positions on global issues.

In a thought-provoking opinion piece published in a daily last week, Professor Adam Habib cautions us not to be fooled by the U.S.’s spin on the topic. He argues that the U.S. position remains fundamentally fixated on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, which means discouraging the emergence of new nuclear powers, rather than dismantling the dangerous weaponry held by the 15 nuclear powers, including the U.S.

Habib then proposes that while appreciating the bold commitment by Obama to lead the U.S. towards a gradual reduction of its nuclear arsenal, mainly through nonproliferation measures, South Africa should work with other states truly committed to a nuclear-free world to force the big 15 to give up their arsenals. To this end, Habib proposes that South Africa should engage these states, mobilise like-minded countries in the South and North and take advantage of antinuclear sentiments within international civil society.

This is what makes multilateral diplomacy such a complex, yet interesting endeavour. It is about continuously thinking about ways and means of achieving strategic national goals by making them look like they espouse the interests of those that a country see as potential allies during deliberations. Habib’s input demonstrates the existence of international relations scholars who are willing to use their thinking power to offer practical ideas on issues confronting the country today.

Habib seems to be suggesting something akin to balancing power. However, I think what we should take from his proposal is a set of ideas regarding matters of strategy and tactics, on the one hand, and, the substantive agenda that he thinks emerging powers should pursue, on the other.

This is because South Africa hardly ever openly discusses its strategy on critical international issues it is involved in, but it allows its competitors to communicate their own interpretation of South Africa’s conduct. South Africa really­ needs to take the nation and key strategic actors like inter­nationally active civil society into its confidence regarding its strategic intentions regarding these issues. This will help turn state ideas into national positions to be advanced in a concerted fashion by all involved in international relations­.

So much is at stake. Nuclear questions threaten to spark another complex war between the Western powers and North Korea and Iran. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan is far-fetched. Relations between the two nuclear states remain precarious, following the Mumbai bombings in 1993 and 2008. Israel’s concealed nuclear arsenal could be used should the country’s sour relations with its Arab neighbours degenerate into an open conflict. An ultra-conservative government in the U.S. or the United Kingdom could use nuclear weapons in a future war.

Although these are all “could be” cases, the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction should be decommissioned as a matter of principle. This idea that some states are responsible enough to hold on to the deadly offspring of dangerous war science and that the focus should only be on “rogue” states and nonstate elements is morally wrong. It is also politically weak because, as Habib argues, it encourages emerging powers to aspire for an esteemed nuclear status too. This will lead to an arms race of sorts, which will put the world in danger.

In keeping with its entrepreneurial character, South Africa should use the force of its example as a country that has voluntarily decommissioned its nuclear arsenal to push for a commitment by the nuclear powers to disarm and to use their nuclear technology to produce new and alternative sources of energy for a world facing a possible energy deficit in the coming two decades.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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