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Southern Africa Report Archive

Dan O'Meara adds to the debate about "the huge shortcomings in South African foreign policy" in response to articles on the subject in a previous issue by Roger Southall and Peter Vale (both of whom have also provided replies, at once gracious and thoughtful, to O'Meara's own intervention).

vol 11 no 2

South African foreign policy: What's the problem?
Dan O'Meara

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 2, January 1996
Page 25



Dan O'Meara, author of a new book on the decline and fall of the apartheid state, teaches politics at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Here he critiques a pair of articles - by Roger Southall and Peter Vale - on South African foreign policy that appeared in SAR's issue of July, 1995. He hopes to offer his own substantive analysis of the new SA's foreign policy in a future issue of SAR.

My congratulations to SAR for facilitating the discussion of a new foreign policy for a post-apartheid South Africa. However, was I the only reader to feel that the contributions by Roger Southall and especially that by Peter Vale served more to tantalize than to take this debate very far forward?

Despite the differences between these texts, the gist of the complaint of both authors seems to be that the foreign policy of the new South Africa is too much like that of the "old" apartheid regime - in terms both of who is really making foreign policy and in terms of its content. While clearly there is much truth in these charges, the way both authors make their case seems to me too simple and too naive. A full critique of these texts would take much more space than is available (I would ideally like to challenge Vale's article virtually word for word, for example). However, I will confine myself to five interrelated issues: these authors' peculiarly ahistorical view of foreign policy; their understanding of the nature of foreign policy; the existing policy context and imperatives of the current conjuncture; the theoretical perspectives underpinning these articles; and the "solutions" offered.


To begin with, Southall and Vale's shared view that the foreign policy of the "new South Africa" is essentially being made by those who shaped the foreign policy of the apartheid state rests on a curious overstatement of the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) under the National Party (NP) government. For most of the apartheid period, neither the DFA, nor the responsible minister really "made" foreign policy (in the sense of taking the key decisions). For long stretches of NP rule after 1948, the DFA was presided over either by political hacks, or by men (Eric Louw, Hilgard Muller) with little political clout. This meant, in effect, that from 1948 to 1966 the Prime Minister rather than the Minister of Foreign Affairs effectively decided on the key external initiatives (D.F. Malan was, in fact, his own Foreign Minister). Then, when John Vorster came into office in 1966, he effectively ceded control over foreign policy to the Bureau of State Security. In all of the flashy external initiatives of the Vorster government - from the "dialogue" initiative to the invasion of Angola - the Foreign Minister and his department were explicitly and deliberately marginalized. So much so that in August 1975 the DFA first became aware that South African troops had undertaken their then largest foreign intervention since WWII when it received a note from Portugal protesting South African military presence deep inside Angola!

Pik Botha broke this mould of having a weak minister in Cabinet who had no clout within the party. However, he too was soon trapped in a largely unsuccessful struggles for control over foreign policy with various other state departments, ranging from the old Bureau for State Security to Military Intelligence. Of the few successful foreign policy initiatives of the apartheid regime, responsibility for only two - the Nkomati Accord and the Brazzaville Protocol - can legitimately be laid at the door of the Foreign Ministry. And the former was soon wrecked by the SADF, which also did its damnedest to derail Namibian independence.

This means that while the DFA undertook much diplomatic activity, it neither "made" nor controlled foreign policy. Vale makes the absurd claim that under the NP "the [foreign] policy process was cut off from domestic politics" (p. 7). Yet, however domestic politics are defined, they surely include internal struggles within the state and government. And far from being "cut off" from such domestic politics, South African foreign policy - in terms of its content, of who determined it, and of how it was implemented - was a product of what I would argue was the only "domestic politics" that really mattered: conflict within the government and the National Party. Even the most superficial reading of South African "domestic politics" since 1966 makes this very clear.

This is no mere historical quibble. It goes to the heart of the assertion that the institutional interests which "made" South African policy in the past are simply up to their old tricks. Understanding the history and politics of South African foreign policy both illuminates the DFA's present role and leads to a more inclusive concept of foreign policy than the one advanced in both these articles. Given the fact that the DFA spent so long in a losing war to defend its own policy terrain, a different reading of its bureaucratic behaviour at the moment might suggest that it is merely lording it over its old rivals - particularly the Defence Force - and insisting on its own preeminence on this terrain of policy.

The ANC's responsibility

But how important is this factor, really? Here the sheer incompetence of Minister Nzo and his deputy Aziz Pahad muddies the analysis of both authors far more than is necessary, and becomes a key factor in encouraging them to overstate the importance of the bureaucrats. Southall, for example, concludes his article by asking whether, with such ministers in place, the ANC is in "sufficient control of the DFA" to shift South African foreign policy? Clearly it is not. Yet Southall, in particular, passes in silence over a broader and far more important point: the very limited capacity for creative foreign policy thinking inside the ANC itself. It is, of course, true that Nzo and Pahad represent the most bureaucratic tendencies of a highly bureaucratic organization. Yet, crucially, even the ANC critics of their minister have shown very little ability to meet the challenges of new situations. Mention is made of the criticism of existing policy by the ANC chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Raymond Suttner. Yet Suttner himself has also long exemplified a particularly sterile brand of ANC policy thinking.

For the problem goes beyond mere individuals, and is deeply rooted in the ANC's own history. During its long exile, the movement did display some diplomatic finesse. But this was largely limited to a single issue - isolation of the apartheid regime. The ANC overall foreign policy stance was frozen in the most rigid of cold war postures. This was an organization whose members were all aware of the need to toe the central line, an organization never known for its willingness to tolerate - let alone encourage - creative thinking about difficult issues. This leads one at least to question the ANC's ability to think its way through the immense challenges of the post Cold War international order In an era in which diplomacy is not just "multinational," but has to grapple with the rapidly changing and immensely convoluted transnational politics of complex interdependence, it would seem to me that the ANC is almost as ill-equipped as the DFA.

Our authors' insensitivity to institutional and political history is evident at another level. Both of them, but Southall in particular, emphasize the new South Africa's "moral" foreign policy. One does not have to be an unreconstructed "realist" (in international relations theory terms) to be a little sceptical of this. The kind of moral declarations thus evoked - and also the tone of critics urging the government to greater effort in this area - are strangely reminiscent of debates in the rest of Africa during the 1960s. New states in new situations are given to grand idealistic pronouncements. Unfortunately these seldom amount to much, not because they are not sincerely intended, but because foreign policy involves something more than lofty declarations and good intentions.

Here Southall and Vale display not only a peculiarly South African insensitivity to the history of the rest of Africa, but, more seriously, they both exhibit a flawed understanding of the nature and scope of foreign policy. The foreign policy capacities of this or that state are not simply a matter of statements of principle, of votes in the UN, or even of its overall diplomatic profile. Underlying all these specifics is the issue of the institutional capacity of the state in question to develop creative foreign policies, implement them in a coherent fashion and adapt these policies to their own, largely unforeseen consequences.

What about globalization?

And this is the heart of my disagreement with these articles. Both seem marked by a fairly simplistic understanding of foreign policy (the making of decisions) to the neglect of discussing the vitally important domestic and external issues that shape the process of decision-making in foreign policy and determine its policy content, its mode(s) of implementation and its impact.

It is in this context that we must consider the most glaring omission of all in these articles. I was astounded by the absence of any real discussion of the overriding issue for all states of the new transnational politics since the end of the Cold War: the ability "the state" to deal with the enormous pressures, political as well as economic, attendant upon the galloping and largely unchallenged process of globalization. To the extent that economic issues appeared in these articles, they were either characterized as those of "development," or dismissed as part of an emerging neo-mercantilism.

Here, three points must be stressed. Firstly, globalization has severely negative consequences for South Africa's already declining place in the international division of labour. Secondly, globalization is the issue which presses most strongly on all of South Africa's immediate neighbours. Thirdly, and most importantly, globalization is transforming the nature and powers of "the state" itself. I was stunned that two articles by such eminent commentators as Southall and Vale paid virtually no attention whatsoever to what is the overriding issue confronting the new South Africa's attempts to find its place in the new, post- Cold War global order. When Southall discusses the redefinition of security, surely this issue should have taken precedence.

Part of the problem here is theoretical. While SAR is clearly not the place for theoretical debates, the issue of theory is raised explicitly by Vale and semi-explicitly in Southall. Both articles seemed to me trapped in a fairly conventional theoretical conception of foreign policy and international politics. This is most clearly evident in Vale's piece.

Vale legitimately criticizes old style realist approaches to foreign policy. Yet his irritatingly trendy post-structuralist language actually reproduces many of realism's most questionable assumptions. Consider, for example, the following statement: "At issue here is the immediate problem of bureaucratic transformation, but much deeper is the issue of foreign-policy making in a democracy. How free is South Africa to produce an individual and authentic narrative of itself in the world beyond the Cold War?"

Going behind the silly jargon (I refuse to say "deconstructing"), a number of old realist shibboleths resurface. First, the state is conceived in personified, monolithic terms. "South Africa" (not South Africans, nor even South African policy makers) has to act. Secondly, the foreign policy of this personified, individualized state is simply a matter of developing a "national weltanschauung," or an "authentic" (!!!) self-concept. What on earth does this mean? This sort of language used to be used by Joseph Mobutu. Most charitably it seems to involve much the same thing as the realists' (authentic) notion of national interest.

Too simplistic

Yet completely absent here are the problematic notions of who makes policy through which contested processes; and the fundamental distinction between the contested process of arriving at a decision to adopt a particular policy profile (decision-making) and the very different, yet also always contested, politics of implementing such policies. Moreover, even should "South Africa" arrive at such an "authentic narrative," one of the oldest saws in foreign policy studies tells us that there is a world of difference between the self-concept and explicit objectives of a policy (even if it is applied in the way the decision-makers intended) and the actual consequences or outcomes produced by such policies. Developing an "authentic narrative" might say something about objectives, but it says little about the means or resources available to realize such objectives, let alone the ability of the bureaucratic matrix in question to adapt its "narrative" to the consequences such policy unleashes.

Here is the nub of my dissatisfaction with the two articles, then. Both Southall and Vale are accomplished analysts, well versed in the shortcomings of international relations theory. Yet their articles focus on only very few of the complex array of factors necessary to analyze the foreign policy of this or that state. Their treatment of even some of these factors is superficial and some of the solutions proposed do not take us anywhere towards opening a real debate about the huge shortcomings in South African foreign policy.

Thus, the solutions offered by Vale - a more clearly defined public profile and a turning to the insight and energies of a wider group of intellectuals in the defining of foreign policy - are woefully inadequate to facilitate the charting of the kind of activist foreign policy both authors appear to favour. The first seems to reduce politics and policy solely to image and "idiom." As for the need to widen the debate about South African policy, I fully agree. But if such a debate is to lead to a more coherent, effective South African foreign policy, it will require analysts to move beyond the restricted notions presented in these texts.



by Roger Southall

Thanks to Dan O'Meara for raising questions about my recent piece on regional security. His critique is thoughtful and provocative, and raises important questions about how we should conceptualise South Africa's new foreign policy - its making and content. However, I would argue he has gone overboard. So, just a brief response.

Apart from the fact that I centred my article around regional security, and I did not attempt to address South African foreign policy as a whole, I have two major gripes.

Dan complains that both Peter and I projected an ahistorical view of South African foreign policy-making and policy (SAFP), suggesting that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was in control in the past, and that consequently it is in control now. In retrospect, I accept that I should have acknowledged that in the past, notably under total strategy, that SAFP was fragmented, and much responsibility was hi-jacked by the generals. (When addressing an informed audience, one often cuts corners). But I reject any suggestion that the DFA was so marginalised that it lacks responsibility for the past; and I do suggest that, today, the DFA is becoming the central locus of SAFP. OK, President Mandela, Cyril Ramaphosa and others are jumping in on the action because of the inadequacies of the DFA under its present political leadership. None the less, as indicated by its failure to secure its Corvettes, the Defence establishment is being reined in, notably with regard to regional policy. It is precisely because the DFA is moving back in charge of its brief that there is so much concern here, in the media and within civil society more generally, at its failure to handle internal transformation, and to respond adequately to the new demands being placed upon it. The recent Nigeria debacle is an obvious case in point.

Morality and globalisation: no responsible commentator would fail to acknowledge the fact that globalisation poses the greatest challenge to SA, and will come to shape SAFP in its broader and regional manifestations. However, Dan does seem to be donning the realist clothes he claims he does not want to wear when he laments my focus upon the failure of the new "SAFP" to take greater account of human rights concerns. Much of the immediate debate here, and rightly so, has been precisely about the questionable morality of SA's continued participation in the arms trade, its friendly dealings with fairly loathsome regimes, its budgetary bias towards western trade partners to the detriment of its expanding relations with Africa and so on. Yet it is because pressures emanating from globalisation are pushing SAFP to maximise trade and investment benefits, to the exclusion of wider political considerations, that a wide variety of outside critics, in trade unions, NGOs, universities and elsewhere, are asserting the importance of moral considerations having an important part to play in the shaping of a defensible SAFP.

Indeed, an important aspect of the debate, raging in a host of forums, is exactly the assertion that SAFP cannot become the property of the DFA alone: in the democratic society which SA aspires to become, there must be genuine provision for a democratic input into foreign policy.

Patrick MacGowan, the distinguished international political economist, has probably done more than anyone else in recent writings to evaluate the prospects for the "new South Africa" within the new international division of labour. Yet it was he, who in a recent dialogue around SAFP argued, first, that SA's "national interest" should be defined in terms of its sustaining its new democracy; and second, that this implies that SAFP should be driven by democratic as much by economic values. The concern with the human rights agenda for SAFP does not ignore the imperatives of globalisation.



by Peter Vale

Thanks for letting me respond to Dan O'Meara's creative - albeit typically caustic - response to my article on SA's foreign policy in SAR. This intervention is confined to four brief points: the DFA, the international role of the exiled-ANC, a dash of theory, and outcome and expectations. (The centrality of globalisation and the limited institutional capacity of the DFA, I have addressed in parallel work over the past few years.)

Of course the DFA has had to contest its role in the making of foreign policy: to believe otherwise, is to misunderstand the nature of international relations and the South African state. My sense however is that Dan O 'Meara falls into the trap so carefully laid by countless South African diplomats that they were innocent but highly professional bystanders (read: closet anti-apartheid liberals) in a wicked attempt by other departments to undermine their authority.

Secondly, there has been an effort - led by myself mainly - to romanticize the diplomatic capacity of the exiled ANC. This has been a mistake: the line of enquiry suggested by Dan O' Meara may well open helpful explanations for current policy failures. But let's not fail to recognise that the UDF, the Trade Union and other internal strands of resistance to apartheid had a appreciation of international affairs which was more nuanced than that which prevailed within the straight-jacket of Cold War exile.

On theory I'm frankly confused. Is Dan O'Meara really telling us that the snake-oil which passes for international relations theory helps us understand anything, let alone the foreign policy making in the post-Cold War period? It is certainly true that - possibly - theories of foreign policy-making might be more helpful. Unfortunately, Dan doesn't draw a distinction between the two.

And outcomes and expectations? Whatever Dan O'Meara might suggest, the international community looks to South Africa - or, more correctly, Nelson Mandela - for some new voice (must I really worry that this way of putting it will irritate Dan?) as the century closes. For evidence of this look no further than the recent CHOGM gathering in Auckland in the aftermath of the slaying of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

There is much more to say on all this which is why I look forward to Dan O'Meara's own essay on this topic in these pages with great anticipation. As usual he has brought a sharp historical and analytical eye to bear and has certainly lifted my thinking on all this a few floors.

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