Last Updated
Thursday 18 December 2014, 14:58 pm.
Our foreign policy and what must guide it

After Botswana's support of Palestinian membership and statehood at the UN, we are at that time again when we must ask: is Foreign Affairs Minister, Phandu Skelemani getting it right?
By Staff Writer Fri 19 Dec 2014, 18:27 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: Our foreign policy and what must guide it

What really informs seemingly contradictory stands on democracy and human rights when it comes to nations such as Israel and Swaziland on the one hand and Zimbabwe, the Ivory Coast, Libya and Syria on the other. To understand this, we need to comprehend the dominant schools of thought in international relations.

We basically have two main camps. There are hawks and realists. Then there are doves or liberals. Realism can be seen as a theory within international relations which predict that states will act in their own national interest in defiance of moral consideration. Author of the book 'Realists Persuasion', Andrew Bacevich argues that in general, this belief results from an observation of human nature and the perception of people as selfish and fiercely competitive and that realism regards the international arena as anarchic, governed by no authority overriding sovereign states.

Meanwhile, liberals often argue that we have institutions such as the United Nations and they help keep peace and foster cooperation.  Liberals argue vehemently against the painting of nation states as forever at loggerheads as peace is possible and there is room for states to cooperate. For liberals then, the preferences of states, as manifest in their cultural, economic, and political entities, determine their actions on the international stage. Therefore, presumably, if two or more states share preferences, their aligned interests may result in 'absolute gains' from cooperation. Realists though argue that states may cooperate but they are more interested in relative gains. They are more interested in their own benefits from the arrangement but only in comparison with others.

Given that liberals are concerned with morality, Ludwig Von Moses in his 'Liberal Foreign Policy' posits that "for the liberal, there is no opposition between domestic policy and foreign policy and the goal of the domestic policy of liberalism is the same as that of its foreign policy: peace". 

Botswana's confusing foreign pronouncements though are not isolated. Statesman and diplomats must engage in a contradictory game. In 1989 the world expected the US administration of George Bush Senior to act against China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Despite all their democratic and capitalist rhetoric, the USA did nothing more than sanctions that did little to cripple China. Essentially, the USA had no vital interest requiring war with China over Tiananmen Square. Former USA Secretary of State, James Baker has  added to the realists argument positing that the likes of him and Henry Kissinger were successful at foreign policy because they knew that "the American people are tired of paying the cost, in blood and treasure, of these wars that we get into that sometimes do not represent a direct national security threat to the United States".

The father of realism, Hans J. Morgethau in his groundbreaking book 'Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace' assumes that human nature, in which the laws of politics have their roots, has not changed since the classical philosophies of China, India and Greece endeavoured to discover these laws. That nature, remember, is selfish thus "statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined as power".  He advises that statesmen guard against two popular fallacies: the concern with motives and the concern with ideological preferences. Skelemani seems to have gotten this part right given his pronouncements on Zimbabwe and silence on Swaziland. Let us map it rationally. Botswana shares a border with Zimbabwe. The trouble in Zimbabwe means an influx of refugees and illegal immigrants into Botswana. This often causes a fair amount of social problems; sometimes security and economic troubles too. It then makes it a matter of vital interest to Botswana that there be peace and security in Zimbabwe.

If we had farming or industrial potential that benefits from chaos in Zimbabwe, then it may just have been right for us to let the conflict in Zimbabwe fester. But we do not. Why did we bother to meddle in Libya? We had no business to really and had Muammar Gaddafi survived, we were headed for some hostility. Would our silence have made the West dislike us? If so, then it was necessary, or else it was mere reckless adventurism equal to the one on Syria.

Given this, what remains then is for Skelemani to map our vital interests. What interests are we protecting in the world? With successive American presidencies, you know what their vital interests are. In fact, there is hardly any shift in interests as they centre on the sphere of economics, security and strategic geopolitical positioning in the interests of remaining a dominant global power. What are we in the pursuit of?

These questions have not been answered. At times, Skelemani is fighting for constitutionalism, sometimes for democracy. What really do we want from the world? Until this is answered, Skelemani's foreign policy mavericks will be questioned and seen as applying double standards. He will continue to make statements on countries such as Syria - statements I doubt the Syrians even read - and potential damaging statements as those made against Laurent Gbagbo before he was deposed.  It should be clear that we are on a crusade for democracy across the world if democracy is of vital national interest to us. If not of vital national interest, then why bother, unless it is by extension as a guarantor of good relations with the leading nations of the world maybe as pointed out below.

What seems obvious is that where the Americans and the British go, we follow. Because we are a mono commodity economy, we remain a weak state in terms of global influence. This also makes us beholden to those who buy our diamonds most. Besides, it becomes some Mickey Mouse foreign policy if we are to have our vital interests dictated by our alliance members, as this can never adequately protect us. As we must all know by now, in foreign policy, there are no permanent friends, and no permanent enemies. The whole issue of fighting Robert Mugabe to make him abide by his own constitution is also an unnecessary liability that realists would shun. Remember they are hawkish but seek to avoid unnecessary scuffles unless we were doing it to gain the affection of our American and British friends. And if we were, nothing is wrong with this since we have a duty to the self to appear good to those through whom our interests are protected. If as Skelemani has said previously, we criticised Zimbabwe purely out of good motives to have Mugabe abide by his own laws, then something is wrong with our approach to foreign policy.

This is because good motives do not always bring good results, hence the futility of motives on foreign policy. To search for the clue to foreign policy exclusively in the motives of statesmen is both futile and deceptive. It is futile because like Morgenthau says, motives are the most elusive of psychological data, distorted as they are, frequently beyond recognition, by the interests and emotions of actor and observer alike.

For instance, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's politics of appeasement were, as far as we can judge, inspired by good motives. He sought to preserve peace and to assure the happiness of all concerned yet his policies helped to make the Second World War inevitable and to bring untold miseries to millions of people.

Comparatively, Sir Winston Churchill's motives were much less universal in scope and much more narrowly directed toward personal and national power, yet his foreign policy achieved greater success at peace. What matters most is for the statesmen to understand the essentials of foreign policy then translate that comprehension into successful political action.

While Skelemani has been criticised for his deafening silence on Israel's massacre of Palestinians, it is explicable in realist terms. It actually is the right stand to take. Israel is a heavily armed juggernaut with the explicit support of the greatest military power the world has ever known, the USA. Anyone who goes to war with Israel goes to war with the USA essentially. For Botswana to make potentially inflammatory statements then would be suicidal. This is because as Morgenthau says, while the individual may say for himself: "Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish),  the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care.

While the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival". As they say, there can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action.

Skelemani though still runs the risk of getting boggled up in legal perspective of things. While international law exists, strict adherence to it is the exception rather than the norm in foreign affairs. In this realm, unlike in domestic policy, what the law says is not what should lead action necessarily. That Mugabe has broken the law then is not always good enough reason for adversarial foreign policy as it may lead to disastrous consequences like war. And you cannot always count on your alliance members to come to your defence because they too would first weigh their own options and domestic circumstances before coming to your aid.

In the final scheme of things still, Skelemani must bear in mind that as Stephen Walt argues in the magazine Foreign Policy, realists believe that foreign policy should deal with the world as it really is, instead of being based on wishful thinking or ideological pipedreams. Be that as it may, realists know that international politics can be a brutal business and states cannot afford to be too trusting, but we also know that states get into serious trouble by exaggerating threats or engaging in foolish foreign adventures. If it is far from us, given our means and little ambitions then let us stay out of it-even realists support this perspective.

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