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On Gaborone's foreign policy during COVID-19 and beyond

From the helm: President Masisi is charting the country's foreign policy PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO
The proactive Diplomat in Chief, President Mokgweetsi Masisi, has a few paramount questions to nibble on as the world shifts to a new order, both literally and metaphorically.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its broad impact on the country will require the presidency to radically rethink and review the strategic underpinnings and operational modalities of Botswana’s foreign policy.

Chief amongst these underpinnings, are two issues, namely, Botswana’s place in Africa and as an offshoot of that, its ‘Africa Agenda’ and multilateral agenda. Secondly, a comprehensive white paper that will inform and drive his economic diplomacy agenda.

As a start, while it has been a challenging period for everyone, the President’s time has run out for him to decisively carve out his foreign policy legacy and outlook. I have consistently applauded the President’s diplomatic approach and foreign policy priorities in the formative months of his presidency. Taking over and transitioning from Ian Khama’s decade of a somewhat turbulent foreign policy at head of state level, Masisi’s job was easily cut out for him in terms of opening up to the world and riding the ‘new dawn, new hope’ wave.

President Masisi’s initial foreign policy priorities were not over the top departures from the five-decade old playbook Botswana already had. The eclectic doctrines informing our foreign policy are still intact and will only need to be refined and perhaps slightly reshaped to accommodate the ‘new normal’ as we have been accustomed to say.

It isn’t yet clear whether President Masisi and his team at Foreign Affairs are more inclined to ‘quiet diplomacy’ or are still finding their feet, but the Botswana government’s silence on key developments in the region is worrying and indicates Gaborone’s reluctance to engage or project its power to impose solutions on African problems.

Simply put, Gaborone is careful not to be seen to be throwing its weight around, particularly by speaking up against African regimes like Zimbabwe, as Ian Khama preferred to do. As a graduate student, we’d joke that Khama’s administration would rebuke Robert Mugabe by breakfast, then speak out against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad by dinner.

He was a busy man with his ear to the ground, and although many of his ‘rebukes’ were mere ‘delusions of grandeur’ (punching above his weight), the tendency to speak out was still a clear commitment to Botswana’s principles of advocating for democracy and the uncompromising protection of human rights.

Again, I will admit, the irony of Ian Khama: the internationally acclaimed human rights advocate and Ian the domestic hardcore president is glaring, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Under President Masisi, there seems to be conceptual confusion about how to carve out our place in the world on the backdrop of former president Khama’s decade of a mixed legacy in our foreign affairs. The COVID-19 pandemic now provides Botswana with a fresh opportunity to strike a perfect balance between being a ‘norm entrepreneur’ (defending and advocating for the values we hold dear) and economic diplomacy with a dash of audacity, ambition and unparalleled courage.

This is perhaps the only significant departure between President Masisi and his predecessor: the significant shift away from ‘rooftop’ diplomacy to a subtle strand of ‘quiet diplomacy’. I say subtle because though the President doesn’t speak much about what is happening in the region and globally, he isn’t afraid to speak up when he has a platform either.

In contrast, and given what is happening in Zimbabwe, former president Ian Khama’s administration would’ve released a statement already, condemning the Mnangagwa administration’s predisposition to arresting protestors and journalists.

Masisi prefers a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to foreign policy: the utilitarian, self-interested, open-for-business, transactional posture that seeks to put economic diplomacy at the forefront. It isn’t fair to compare Presidents. It’s beyond obvious that the global context that Khama operated in is worlds apart from the current challenges bedeviling the world and Masisi’s administration. I’m particularly interested in the COVID-19 global order that President Masisi is operating under

and beyond the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up traditional diplomacy in the time of which handshakes; bilateral meetings, multilateral negotiations or international conferences were the norm. As an avid believer in face-to-face meetings himself, this has undoubtedly shaken up the President’s streak.

The Africa and Multilateral Agenda

The pandemic has heightened our vulnerability. Multilateralism and increased regional cooperation will matter greatly and will be much-needed shock absorbers for dealing with the impending economic shock that will hit us in the next year or two.

Given the state of the global multilateral system, perhaps we must look to our neighbours first in the region and across the continent and build stronger alliances. But the state of the African Union and Regional bodies is marred in its own challenges. Botswana has signed but is yet to ratify the flagship African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). COVID-19 has forced all countries to look inwards first and accelerate their industrialisation agenda.

Botswana’s trade deficit has shot through the roof during the pandemic. Gaborone will need to carefully assess the prospects of its standing on the African continent and with AfCFTA to position itself to benefit from the enormous potential that the agreement brings while unwavering in its commitment to nurturing its industries to reach competitive export capacity.

Under this new dispensation, Botswana will also need to lend its voice to supporting radical institutional reforms on the continent; particularly issues of peace, security, human rights (and in light of the pandemic), speaking strongly for coordinated continental responses to health pandemics.

As President Masisi will also be preparing to take over as Chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, this will be a golden opportunity for him to project his and Botswana’s vision and authority given the escalating state of affairs in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the DRC. Whatever the outcome, COVID-19 will be a test for Botswana’s Africa and global agenda.

Defining priorities: a foreign policy white paper

The debate on ‘codifying’ or documenting Botswana’s foreign policy is surely older than me. But it has not lost its relevance given the evolving nature of international affairs. This isn’t an argument to cast Botswana’s foreign policy in stone, leaving it rigid and lacking in imagination. As former Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull once remarked, “change, unprecedented in its scale and pace, is the tenor of our times.” The ongoing changes in geopolitical power dynamics, international trade, technology, COVID-19 and associated health pandemics demand a comprehensive framework to guide Botswana’s international engagement over the next 10 years and beyond.

President Masisi must rally his brilliant diplomats in the Foreign Service to put together a 10-year horizon that defines the country’s national interests in a rapidly changing world. The white paper must address and capture the above issues of an ‘African agenda’ and multilateral order. It must address issues of security, trade and cooperation in the region, transatlantic relations, and a nuanced pivot to Asia that goes beyond China.

How do we plan on using our soft power to advance our interests in a contested world? How do we jump on the bandwagon of technology and innovation? Will we ever address the dual citizenship issue from a constructive forward-looking perspective? How do we view and ensure prosperity of our citizens abroad? Climate change, migration, economic growth, a stable and prosperous region, cross-border infrastructure investments etc.

COVID-19 is a great threat to many aspects of Botswana and the world, but it also presents opportunities to change the style and practice of our diplomacy. There are crucial lessons to be learnt on how we can search for global prestige and respect abroad while achieving prosperity at home.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a Political Economist with interests in politics, foreign policy and international trade. He writes in his capacity as a Motswana

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