Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

Patrick assesses the future of world order, state sovereignty, and multilateral cooperation.

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South Africa: Just Another BRIC in the Wall?

by Stewart M. Patrick
March 20, 2012

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (L) is greeted by China's President Hu Jintao during the BRICS Leaders Meeting in Sanya, Hainan province April 14, 2011. (Nelson Ching/Courtesy Reuters)


Pretoria, South Africa

Next week the Indian government hosts the annual “BRICS” summit in New Delhi. For the first time, the guest list includes not only Brazil, Russia, India and China but also South Africa (adding a capital “S” in the BRICs acronym). The formal invitation to join the group came in December 2010, in an official letter from Chinese premier Hu Jintao to South African president Jacob Zuma. The alacrity with which Pretoria has seized on this new affiliation speaks volumes about South Africa’s ongoing identity crisis, eighteen years after the end of apartheid. It suggests a nation moving further away from the idealistic aspirations of its “second founding” to embrace a more cynical foreign policy in which the protection of fundamental human rights cedes to the defense of absolute sovereignty and nonintervention. This posture may curry favor with the major rising powers. But it will surely damage prospects for U.S. support for one of South Africa’s most cherished goals: a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC).

When South Africa adopted multiracial democracy nearly two decades ago, the African National Congress advocated making a “worldwide Human Rights campaign” the center of South African foreign policy. Nelson Mandela, the nation’s first black president, placed such principles at the core of South Africa’s global engagement. His successors? Not so much. Under Thabo Mbeki and now Zuma, South Africa has exchanged the idealism of its liberation for realpolitik calculation masked by anti-imperialist rhetoric. This posture has included a feckless engagement strategy with Robert Mugabe, the dictator next door, and a reluctance to criticize strongmen from Burma to Syria.

Even in Libya, where South Africa voted for UNSC Resolution1973 permitting “all necessary means” to protect civilians from Qaddafi’s barbarities, the government quickly reversed course. Once the NATO bombing campaign began, Zuma launched a full-throated broadside. “We say no to the killing of civilians,” he thundered in March 2011—equating collateral damage to Qaddafi’s scorched earth campaign. “No to the foreign occupation of Libya or any other sovereign state.” This split personality was reminiscent of an earlier incident, in October 2010, in which South Africa endorsed UNSC sanctions on Iran, only to claim, bizarrely, that it had actually intended to vote against the measure.

South Africa’s entree into the BRICS will likely cement this anti-interventionist stance, as it aligns its foreign policy more closely with its much larger emerging power partners.

Before it was a coalition, of course, “BRIC” was a catchy acronym, coined in 2001 by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill as shorthand for the four major emerging economies predicted to drive economic growth in the twenty-first century.  But a funny thing happened. The countries themselves started taking the label seriously—and to conceive of themselves as a potential political as well as economic force. The bloc began holding annual summits in 2009.

Given divergent values and interests, of course, there was less mortar holding these “BRICs” together than advertised. The quartet included two vibrant democracies, India and Brazil, and two authoritarian regimes, China and Russia. At least two members—China and India—are now engaged in a deepening regional rivalry. Still, their annual summits were an occasion to rail against inequities in the global system, from Western dominance of the IMF and World Bank to the dollar’s hegemonic privilege as the world’s main reserve currency.

In many respects, South Africa was a curious choice for the fifth BRIC. Its GDP and economic growth are lower than other emerging market economies, including Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, or even Argentina. It faces enormous internal development challenges, including among the world’s worst levels of income inequality and massive crime. Regardless, South Africans have embraced their new membership in the group as a validation and evidence of their coming of age.

Whether this new alignment will pay South Africa dividends remains to be seen. Pretoria has high hopes for expanding trade and investment with BRIC partners, and shows particular respect for China, a nation that developed without being in thrall to the West. It also has forged closer relationships with India and Brazil through the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) partnership. Collectively, these orientations point to a deepening South African commitment to represent and speak for the global “South,” ironically at a time when diverging growth patterns and political developments make it harder than ever to speak of a single “Third World.”

The current trajectory of South African foreign policy is likely to confound U.S. policymakers and reduce U.S. support for Pretoria’s Security Council ambitions. As I’ve written elsewhere, Washington remains ambivalent (at best) on UNSC enlargement. On the one hand, the Obama administration recognizes the growing disconnect between the Council’s permanent membership and global power trends, and is anxious to integrate rising powers as responsible stakeholders. The U.S. hope is that in return for a place at the high table, rising powers will devote their political muscle and material capabilities to opposing threats to international peace and security.

At the same time, U.S. officials wonder whether any conceivable UNSC enlargement will be in U.S. national interests. Beyond the question of size—Washington will only support a very modest enlargement—is uncertainty about the behavior of any new permanent member (and “permanent” is, after all, an awfully long time). Before signing off on any candidate, Washington will require assurances that the aspirant is prepared to fulfill its weighty responsibilities to support international peace and security, including being prepared to use the coercive instruments of the UN Security Council when required. In an age where the internal conduct of regimes can carry tremendous risks for international security—as well as endanger the lives of countless civilians—it is no longer possible to cling to outdated models of absolute sovereignty.

There are any number of reasons to question South Africa’s readiness to assume a permanent UNSC seat—from its meager contributions to the UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets to its modest force projection capabilities. But most problematic in U.S. eyes may be the regional power’s reluctance to contemplate the use of force—or even coercive diplomacy.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Ian

    So to summarise: South Africa won’t kowtow to US policy and is therefore a “rogue nation” or should be derided as a wannabe. No effort is made to understand why South Africa behaved the way it did wrt Libya or Zimbabwe. This hubris and unquestioning belief in gunboat diplomacy solving all diplomatic issues is sadly the reason why the US is so unloved in so many quarters around the world and is increasingly irrelevant in many others.

  • Posted by Stewart Patrick

    I appreciate this provocative response. There are two main issues here: the fallout from Libya and the broader question of whether a permanent member of the Security Council should be prepared to consider coercive measures under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.

    On the first point, it’s clear that South Africa and a number of other countries were angered by what they perceived as the failure to give mediation (by the AU or others) a real chance to end the Libyan crisis, and even more by the Western power’s use of UNSC Resolution 1973 as a license for regime change in Libya.

    The reality is that other means to deter Qaddafi’s assault on civilians had been exhausted, and the specter of thousands of deaths appeared imminent. That is why the UNSC passed 1973. And that resolution, in calling for “all necessary means”, provided the coalition with ample international legal authority to help topple Qaddafi. In this case, it is hard to imagine that the RtoP imperative could have been defended without his removal from power.

    The more general complaint seems to be that the United States not only has an itchy trigger finger but has set itself up as the country that gets to judge the conduct of other nations, including South Africa, that fail to conform to its preferred strategies for dealing with international conflict.

    My blog did not suggest that South Africa was in any way a “rogue” state. Rather, it pointed to a discrepancy between South Africa’s espoused attachment to (and symbolic embodiment of) universal human rights principles and its actual conduct, including its failure to press vigorously for political change in the thugocracy next door. (I freely concede that the United States is also guilty of fecklessness and hypocrisy at times on human rights–with Bahrain being a case in point).

    In resolving international conflicts, there is of course an entire menu of diplomatic approaches, from quiet mediation to, at the other extreme, military intervention–and one should not jump to coercion without exhausting other efforts. But any credible aspirant to permanent membership on the Security Council should be open to using the coercive tools at its disposal under the Charter when circumstances require.

  • Posted by Vitorino Batalim

    I suspect that BRICS projetc is already a trap for the peoples of the country members. I’m now investingating the role played by the Zionists in the construction of this group. My suspition comes manly from the fact that thay contron both brazilian and south african economies and governments. This way my suspition goes straight to the fact that all this coutries are emerging economies and in few time, if not now already, this coutries will begine claiming their space and each ones role in the world, both political and economic. Brics is like amalgamating this five countries to create only one to satisfy Zionists strategy for globalization, world full control and implementation of a nazi-fascist world government. Please my fellow citizens of BRICS nations, maintain BRICS but do not allow zionists to put a finger in the organization. Medvedev is a Zionist I think and Dilma is controlled by Zionists. If not she wouldn’t have been ilegally elected for president of Brazil because she was first born in Bulgaria. In Brazil we have the same situation as in USA with Obama and only the Zionist could do this throgh their control over Media.

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