Foreign affairs or foreign damage

Lawrence Schlemmer questions the wisdom of South Africa's solidarity with rogue regimes.

There is an old adage that in foreign affairs, nations do not have permanent friends, only interests. Yet South Africa has gone out of its way to try to prevent a US-led invasion of Iraq. A deputy minister has met with Saddam Hussein twice, and president Mbeki, former president Mandela, the ANC and the department of Foreign Affairs have all intervened on Saddam’s behalf. The issue is not whether Saddam is a tyrant, or whether the US has legitimate grievances; South Africa is too marginal to the conflict for our opinions to matter. Most small countries have expressed their views and left it at that. Why, then, has our government bulldozed its way into the centre of this dispute, and what are the likely consequences? The tone of our spokespeople has been aggressive: Mandela and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang have both made ad hominem attacks on Bush and Blair, and the ANC has mobilised protest marches on US embassies. The developed democracies, meanwhile, have scrupulously maintained diplomatic good form with us, despite their distaste for our attitude to Zimbabwe and our sympathy for various demagogues. We need trade and investment, yet we are offending our leading trading partners and the giants of the global economy. If we persist, they will eventually decide that we are unreliable. Is it in our national interest to take this risk?

From Lord Palmerston in the early 19th century onwards it has often been observed that in foreign affairs nations do not have permanent friends, only interests. Our government either has yet to learn this, or it is gambling on trying to change the rules.

South Africa has gone out of its way to be seen to be trying to block a US-led invasion of Iraq. The president, the ANC, the department of Foreign Affairs and our former president have intervened boldly in an attempt to win Saddam Hussein more time to convince the UN weapons inspectors that he has no hidden weapons of mass destruction. This has been no arms-length intervention - in a telling display of diplomatic collegiality a deputy minister has twice been sent to see Hussein in person.

The critical question to be asked regarding South Africa's involvement is not whether or not the US has legitimate reasons to go to war against Hussein. Nor is it whether or not Hussein is a tyrant and torturer who is still covertly preparing to extend terror into the Gulf region and beyond. South Africa is far too marginal to the conflict for these questions to be relevant. They are questions for opponents of a war with real leverage and high-level formal involvement in the UN Security Council and/or Nato like France, Russia and Germany.

Most smaller or remote countries in the world have views on the issue that they express and leave it at that, knowing that their opinions won't count a jot anyway. The question for us is why our spokespeople have gone way beyond recording their view, verbally bulldozing us from the fringe into the centre of an intractable conflict, and what the effects on South Africa are likely to be.

First there is the issue of our style. Even leaving aside the alarming statements by former president Nelson Mandela - suggesting that George W Bush is intellectually challenged and that he and Tony Blair are racists - the tone of our government has been adversarial. President Thabo Mbeki, as usual, has been measured but has hinted darkly at supporting an ongoing campaign against American and Israeli weaponry. Our minister of health half seriously let slip a view that Bush has cowboy instincts that could drive him as far as attacking South Africa. Without being discouraged by the president, the governing ANC has mobilised protest marches to US diplomatic missions.

Our government has intimate experience of diplomatic proprieties. South Africa's problematic role on Zimbabwe and its palpable sympathy for a range of demagogues in the Non- Aligned Movement must be offensive to the developed democracies. Nonetheless, their emissaries and leaders have scrupulously maintained diplomatic good form with us, to the point of generosity. Are we learning?

More importantly, however, what is in our national interest? We need trade with, and foreign investment from, the developed democracies, if not for the capital itself then for the technology and linkages. The benefits a grateful Iraq or Cuba can offer us are trivial by comparison. Yet South Africa's brotherly solidarity with dubious governments sends a strong symbolic message that it is the adversary of the leading countries in the global economy.

Perhaps our leaders are confident or inexperienced enough to gamble on the prospects of acquiring the double leverage of being both a serious player in the global economy and the champion of the weak and complaining nations of the world. But if we keep on irritating our leading trading partners and the giants in the global economy, at some point they will decide, very quietly and diplomatically, to spread the message that we are too idealistic and unreliable to play in the big league. When that happens all our favourable economic ratings will be worthless. Is this a risk worth taking?