The modern President has to be countless things that are not spelled out in the Constitution. He or she has to be a cheerleader for the nation, an international peacemaker, a moral leader, a jobs president, the nation’s chief economic manager, politician in chief, and even a dancer at our weddings and a source of comfort at our funerals.
Moreover, a President must preside over a highly specialised and sprawling bureaucracy. When it comes to policy, the presidency has three major areas to preside over: economic policy, domestic policy and foreign affairs.
These are all competing policy spheres. But the demands of the office require that presidents strike a balance between all three substantive areas. Failure to do so, history will judge them harshly.
President Masisi has been in office for six months. As Chief Diplomat for the Government of Botswana, he inherited a ripe, low hanging fruit, ready for the taking. That fruit was a mixture of unexploited opportunities in our international relations due to a decade long visible absence by a head of state at international fora.
Like any leadership role, the Presidency must have a guiding set of values and principles. A Head of State has the responsibility to speak on behalf of and represent his people and their interests at international engagements. The President embodies his people’s hopes and dreams; he projects those dreams as national interests on the global stage. A presidential doctrine of foreign policy and diplomacy must allow us to see through his eyes, and to understand what he believes Botswana’s role in the world should be. He must acknowledge the constraints of Botswana’s ability to control or direct global events.
Foreign policy doctrines often emerge after an observation of foreign policy decisions/actions that suggest a pattern or philosophy that ties everything together in one neat coherent package.
The first task of a Botswana President in the post-Khama international arena was simple: Be a President and engage with the world. Masisi presumably believes in the Gaborone foreign policy establishment or consensus, which he clearly subscribes to.
Botswana’s international credibility, as it is conveniently understood, is an intangible yet potent force. One that when properly nurtured, keeps the world and the region stable, and Botswana’s friends (investors) to keep signing checks.
There was a thorn on Botswana’s foreign policy playbook during the Ian Khama years. This thorny playbook prescribed ‘megaphone diplomacy’ to almost every global situation.
The playbook came out of perhaps an overzealous attitude of ‘Botswana exceptionalism.’ We’ve always used our noble beginnings and our rise to economic prominence as a form of soft power and that worked well for us for many years. But the playbook also served as a trap that could lead to bad decisions, and this came out during Khama’s tenure.
Masisi forms part of the establishment that has governed Botswana for five decades. He is aware and is in touch with history. He looks and speaks like a reader. He seems to admire the nation’s founding fathers and their contribution to Botswana’s rise to economic, democratic and social progress.
He speaks fondly of Sir Seretse Khama who was one of the key architects of Botswana’s foreign policy realism in the 1960s.
Every president has had diverse tests on the international stage. The challenge for Masisi as for all others will be to distinguish the merely urgent from the truly important and to focus on the important.
In this context, we have just witnessed a significant pivot in our foreign policy. Speaking at the influential Council on Foreign Relations, Masisi articulated this aptly when he said, the diplomacy of calling out your neighbour when you think they’ve done something terribly wrong… we don’t do it that way anymore. We have now chosen to stick to regular diplomatic engagement because we have diplomatic relations. If you have diplomatic relations with somebody, you talk to them. And if they become too bigheaded or stubborn then you can get on the big hailer and tell the world.
Masisi’s team sees little to be gained from continuing past policies that have borne little fruit, particularly former president Khama’s megaphone diplomacy. Furthermore, by adjusting their policy stance on this particular issue, the administration conserves resources, builds goodwill and focuses on other issues that matter.
Broadly speaking, Masisi has not shown any signs that he will radically deviate from the founding principles of Botswana’s foreign policy. All his international engagements so far have been aligned to Botswana’s values and national interests.
But the President seems to be determined and on a path to carve out his own legacy, and so we expect that whatever his doctrine of foreign policy will be, it will be defined by his prior leadership experience and journey up the ranks of power and his current view and interpretation of the world as it currently is, and how he thinks it ought to be.
The diverse pool of issues that define the international order do not remain constant across different presidential administrations. Upon assuming office
He has spoken of his intentions to lead Botswana in its continued efforts to support the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union’s (AU) efforts in fostering democracy, peace and stability. The current state of regional and continental cooperation remains with recurring challenges. We are yet to see if Masisi will direct more efforts to speaking on the weakness of regional body mechanisms that are holding the region and the continent back.
On matters of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which became a hotly debated issue during Khama’s term, Masisi has spoken widely that Botswana will continue to be a loyal supporter and proponent of the ICC.
This stance is directly in line with Botswana’s own values of a rules-based international system that promotes human rights and accountability. But although the ICC is a necessary institution, it is an imperfect court, and it’ll be interesting to see if Masisi and his foreign affairs apparatus will concede to the need for much fairer and wide ranging reforms.
An already prominent issue under Masisi’s administration is none other than China. China’s rise to economic superpower status and its renewed ‘Marshall Plan’ to be a global leader has propelled it to the forefront of international debate and scrutiny. Most prominent is its growing role on the African continent. Botswana’s President Masisi acknowledges what China is and what it seeks to do.
President Masisi’s interpretation of China in the world is unfazed by the rhetoric of a renewed neo-colonial world order. He has paid a state visit to China, attended the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and has retorted that ‘China is but a country, and the Chinese are but a people.’ Masisi’s views on China are more pragmatic.
He sees China as a country merely pursuing its interests, and he acknowledges that we must deal with China by also aggressively pushing our own agendas and holding ourselves accountable for the outcomes of that relationship.
Masisi’s administration is also keen to continue former president Khama’s conservation diplomacy. Botswana was recently thrust to the centre of international media attention when an allegation surfaced claiming that elephant poaching was on the rise due to a decision to disarm the anti-poaching unit. Masisi has been quick on his feet to contain the situation and has used it to redefine and reinvigorate Botswana’s role as a global leader in environmental conservation.
This isn’t to say that foreign policy under Masisi will only be dominated by his personality alone. It will be defined by a combination of the President, current global issues and the calibre of his presidential advisors on foreign policy, including the leadership of the Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation.
Masisi is very much the internationalist. But he’s also an idealist in so far as he believes that we should be promoting values like democracy, human rights and rule of law, because not only do they serve our interests, they make the world a better place for trade and exchange of ideas.
Part of this idealism will have to be a concession that the world is tough, complicated and messy.
And in order to advance both our security interests and the values we hold dear, sometimes we’ll have to be hardheaded, firm in our convictions and recognise that there will be times when we need to shine a spotlight on an injustice somewhere in the world.
There are going to be times where our economic interests conflict with our concerns about human rights and rule of law. On an even if basis: Even if all these events and significant issues lead to some sort of Presidential Doctrine, that doesn’t equate to a grand strategy of foreign policy, which we are yet to see or hear about from the Botswana government with actual policy content.
Masisi has not articulated a grand strategy yet, both on the foreign policy front and on the domestic policy front.
If I were Masisi’s foreign policy team, I’d start thinking very hard about a speech that clearly prioritises Botswana’s interests and values. Because unless the President defines his own grand strategy, pundits, will be more than happy to define it (badly) for him. President Masisi is nowhere near his predecessor. Whether he will have his own distinct character and doctrine of foreign policy is still up for debate and further observation.
*Bakang Ntshingane is a Masters candidate in Economics & International Trade at Chonbuk National University in South Korea. He writes on politics, trade and foreign policy.