Is foreign policy moral?

2011-08-13 11:19

Deputy Minister of International Relations Ebrahim Ebrahim recently delivered an important speech at the University of Venda. Although this speech articulated an important set of foreign-policy aspirations, it was short on an honest analysis of the challenges that hamper the likely achievement of those aspirations.

Ebrahim wanted to make sense of South Africa’s vote in favour of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, and he teased out the country’s desire to help bring about “African solutions to African problems”.

The deputy minister correctly stated that South Africa’s vote in favour of the resolution was based on the fact that the Libyan regime had attacked its citizens and it was necessary, in order to protect those citizens, to impose a no-fly zone.

Such a decision would also enable humanitarian assistance to be provided in Libya.

Add to that the African Union’s (AU) “responsibility-to-protect” principle, and South Africa’s decision comes out morally and politically sound.

On the second issue, South Africa’s general foreign policy outlook on the continent, the deputy minister captured the government’s position in the phrase “consolidating the African agenda”.

He argued that South Africa would “continue to contribute towards peace and development on the continent, including inculcating a culture of respect for human rights and sustainable development”.He had earlier also stated that “our foreign policy is by its orientation a campaign for a humane and equitable world order”.

Both the logic for the vote and the description of how South Africa viewed its mission on the continent were cogent.

However, the deputy minister is skipping over critical challenges.

First, our government’s commitment to human rights has become a regular assertion rather than always being demonstrated publicly.

There are two further challenges here. The one is the practical reality that many of our foreign-policy decisions have not been consistent with the domestic human-rights jurisprudence we are known for internationally.

Our reluctance, at times, to vote in favour of resolutions that condemn rogue states like Myanmar stand out.

The second challenge is related: it is far from obvious that South Africa does or should have a moral foreign policy.

Inevitably, foreign policy requires different interests to be traded off against each other and this rhetorical commitment to human rights, quite apart from being empirically untrue, is also ideologically flawed.

All foreign policies the world over are a complex reflection of the different interests of states – both moral and non-moral.

Ebrahim enforced this misplaced allusion to a consistent commitment to a particular moral framework.Moral concerns are relevant in how we act in and on the world as a nation state, but our foreign-policy interests transcend moral considerations.

We need to see more complex engagement within the international relations department on this strategic foundation of foreign-policy design.

If not, we will always fall back on banal expressions, heartfelt and important though these may be, such as “human rights and sustainable development”.

This is not to say that human rights do not matter. It is simply to point out that, in reality, many different strategic factors influence our foreign-policy moves.

We need to be honest about this and grapple with the realpolitik implications of self-interested foreign-policy thinking. After all, that is how the rest of the world engages in foreign policy.

In my research as a 2011 Ruth First Fellow, I interviewed high-level officials and diplomats over the past few months with a view to understanding what these strategic principles and interests are, particularly with a view to unpacking our response to the crisis in Libya.

In my Ruth First Memorial Lecture next week, I will fill out the results of this process.

For now, what is clear to me is that the very concept of a moral foreign policy is dubious, and has wrongly become the common yardstick for assessing our foreign policy moves across the region.

Ebrahim’s speech flirts with this dated commitment to moral values and principles.

As for our role across the continent, the key obstacle of course is the AU itself. Even if “consolidating the African agenda” is a desirable aim, we cannot do it alone.

My research has uncovered important weaknesses within the AU.

In my lecture, I reflect on the success criteria for a functional AU and highlight, unlike the minister’s optimistic speech to the contrary, the operational and other challenges that the union must deal with urgently if it is to become a successful replacement of the erstwhile Organisation for African Unity.

The deputy minister should be commended for articulating in some detail what the department’s aspirations are.But we need to do the hard work of unpacking and addressing the obstacles to these aspirations.

» McKaiser and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe will deliver the Ruth First Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, August 17, at the Wits Great Hall at 6pm. RSVP to

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