Foreign policy after Ukraine

ANTHONY BUTLER: Two different ideas in their heads as SA intellectuals reflect on Ukraine war

Putin took an appalling and morally unjustifiable decision to go to war – one that was far from compelled by external circumstances

First published in BusinessLive 7 April 2022

Dramatic differences of opinion in SA about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have recently shown signs of abating.

Many local intellectuals initially blamed events on “aggression” by the US, Nato and the EU, which were castigated for provoking a Russian reaction. Determined to root out Western hypocrisy, analysts recalled numerous US deployments of force against sovereign states.

An equally broad range of commentators insisted that Russian President Vladimir Putin was engaged in a naked act of aggression, in violation of both international law and the democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people. Moves to join Nato and the EU, these sympathisers noted, were sovereign decisions based on legitimate aspirations for security and economic development.

Those from both camps have now mostly learned to entertain two ideas in their minds simultaneously. Western missteps and arrogance over the past 20 years (call it “Western imperialism” if you like) did indeed create many of the preconditions for a Russian reaction. Putin nevertheless took an appalling and morally unjustifiable decision to go to war – one that was far from compelled by external circumstances.

Early observations that Western public opinion showered (white) Ukrainians with a compassion denied to the (black) victims of conflicts elsewhere in the world have meanwhile been partly supplanted by a recognition that Ukrainians are human beings too. Despite this happy convergence, SA’s foreign policy elite faces wider and deeper policy challenges that will be hard to resolve.

For three decades this country has steered a meandering path between East and West. On the one hand, SA has castigated international capitalism, condemned American imperialism, and celebrated the Chinese Communist Party. On the other, it has remained overwhelmingly dependent on the eurozone, the UK and Japan as export markets and sources of investment.

Putin’s adventure may result in the return of global power blocs, with the “West” redefined as a realm of democratic states, now including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, that are battling autocracies. 

Pretoria’s position has meanwhile become very sensitive to China, SA’s second-biggest trading partner even if it is a country that scarcely invests here. China’s longstanding support for national sovereignty and territorial integrity (the basis for its claims on Taiwan) are apparently being weighed against the potential benefits of support for a beleaguered Putin – or even a pact to create a broader Chinese-Russian Eurasia.

The efforts of a new generation of African leaders, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, to secure the continent’s fundamental economic interests through pragmatic economic diplomacy may fall foul of the politics of any new Cold War. SA’s economically essential duty-free access to the US, provided by the African Growth and Opportunity Act, could provide an early indicator of where the country stands.

We have also seen the emergence of new diplomatic instruments from both nascent blocs. US President Joe Biden has described economic sanctions as “a new kind of economic statecraft with the power to inflict damage that rivals military might”. It is not necessary to cut a country off from the American financial system or the Swift payment mechanism to impose unbearable costs on developing countries. Russia, for its part, has shown a willingness to interfere in internal party politics and national electoral campaigns.

SA’s foreign policy establishment seems poorly equipped to cope with this fast-changing world. Conflicting positions emanating from the department of international relations & co-operation and the presidency in the early days of the conflict have been replaced by a steady obfuscation.

This might be a prudent strategy, of course, in which decision-makers are waiting for other key actors – notably China – to make their positions clearer. Alternatively, however, it may simply reflect a general disarray in which competing government departments, the presidency and the ANC’s international relations committee all vie for influence.

The liberation movement’s preference for party-to-party deals, behind closed doors, is a recipe for confusion and miscalculation in this increasingly fluid international environment.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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