A balancing act

2010-03-30 00:00

A FORTNIGHT ago, a high- level­ discussion was taking place in Pretoria involving government officials, foreign policy analysts, business representatives and civil society activists about the extent to which South Africa’s international conduct is drifting away from a commitment to human rights.

In a famous speech in 1997, the United Kingdom’s secretary for foreign affairs under Tony Blair, Robin Cook, promised that the UK would pursue an ethical foreign policy. This means that the UK would allow ethical and moral imperatives to drive its foreign policy decisions. Cook was criticised for making what was seen as an impractical claim and also for subsequently failing to stick to it.

The UK found itself in a dilemma: while the reduction of agricultural subsidies would have been “the right thing to do,” the repercussions for the UK economy outweighed the moral considerations. Since then the practical limitations to an ethical foreign policy, especially when in conflict with national interests, has been a subject of much debate.

South Africa has been asked by opinion makers and advocacy groups to adopt a human rights-driven foreign policy, following controversies over its votes against motions on Myanmar, Iran and Zimbabwe during its tenure in the United Nations Security Council and following the decision not to grant the Dalai Lama a visa.

In the run-up to Human Rights Day, the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) and the Department of International Relations co-hosted a discussion on whether South Afri­ca’s foreign policy is drifting away from human rights in favour of national economic interests. The meeting was also convened to find ways in which values like human rights and national interests could be balanced in foreign policy practice.

On the one hand, there is a growing concern that South Africa is disengaging from a human rights-based foreign policy in favour of an ideologically driven pursuit of the transformation of power relations globally. The country’s votes against motions on Myanmar, Iran and Zimbabwe are provided as evidence of this. In some cases, this alleged departure from ethical foreign policy is said to be an artifact of a pronounced projection of national economic interests in the past few years. Of course, the Dalai Lama controversy suggested to some that values and principles enshrined in the Constitution were abandoned to protect trade links with China.

On the other hand, there have been calls for South Africa to adopt a more mercantilist foreign policy by ensuring that it generates commercial returns from its value-driven peace diplomacy in Africa and elsewhere. This school of thought argues that South Africa cannot continue to act on the basis of altruism, especially when its activities involve millions of taxpayers’ rands. From this perspective, the move to enhance economic and commercial diplomacy should lead to business opportunities for South African business. We are told that South Africa should exercise hegemony over Africa not just because­ it is the right thing to do, but because with Africa’s population likely to reach two billion by 2050, it is a potentially profitable market to control.

This raises the question of whether this dichotomy between cosmopolitan values like human rights and national interests can be justified in a modern foreign policy.

In his keynote address, Deputy Minister E. Ebrahim argued strongly that values like human rights are central to South African foreign policy, while the panel made up of senior foreign policy practitioners and analysts debated in detail the extent to which the balance between values and interests is a dilemma for South Africa.

It was agreed that there is not necessarily a conflict between the pursuit of values and national interests, but rather values are often intangible forms of national interests. It came out that the Constitution enjoins government to pursue a balanced foreign policy, i.e. one that is both value-based and interest-driven. There was consensus that the country’s foreign policy record demonstrates the commitment to blur the line between values and interests, while it was conceded that this has not always been properly communicated. It was accepted, though, that lack of consensus on what constitutes our national interests bedevils this balancing act. For this reason, government and non-state actors have been speaking at cross-purposes on international affairs.

Because of the fluid nature of the global and regional environment and the growing multipolarity with the rise of emerging powers, the contours of foreign policy questions being debated are changing. This enables those involved in foreign policy to imagine new ways of creating the “right” foreign policy without undermining national interests.

This fluidity creates spaces for relatively small states like South Africa to be creative in advancing their agenda. This includes creating stronger links with civil society globally and working with business to achieve its goals. The deployment of such smart diplomacy will require the country’s constituencies to be in constant conversation on key determinants of country positions regarding all major international issues.

As brokers between the world of policy and that of ideas, foreign policy think-tanks need to catalyse this inclusive process of public deliberation and strategising.

• The outcomes of the meeting will be available on the IGD website soon. Visit www.igd.org.za


• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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