Morality Play

It's not lamentable that South Africa lacks a moral foreign policy. We're just being realists.


Eve Fairbanks’s analysis of South Africa’s foreign policy (“South Africa’s Awkward Teenage Years,” January/February 2012) is a discombobulating mix of descriptive truth and normative naiveté. She correctly describes how South Africa has, since its democratic birth in 1994, slowly developed a foreign-policy orientation that is not primarily human rights-based and that lacks sufficient moral content. Indeed, she draws on my own evidence-based research in bolstering that claim.

The subtext of Fairbanks’s article, however, is that it is lamentable that South Africa does not have a moral foreign policy and that the country ought to have become the world’s moral conscience. This claim, though, is not only assumed without independent justification (a jarring oversight in itself) but also patently unsustainable. Indeed, Fairbanks fails to quote my own argument for why South Africa’s lack of a moral foreign policy is ultimately neither here nor there.

The reason is simple: No compelling normative argument in the world has ever been produced in favor of a moral foreign policy. Can Fairbanks produce an example? The foreign-policy forays of her native United States are a textbook example of what is called “realism” in international relations theory. States maximize material self-interest on the world stage and adopt moral principles only to the extent that doing so serves national self-interest.

Why should South Africa be any different? Just because one naive African National Congress document, circa 1994, promised the impossible? Fairbanks’s criterion for success — morality — is therefore misguided.

South Africa certainly has massive foreign-policy weaknesses: poor public diplomacy, inconsistent and unpredictable moves on the world stage, and political and technical skills deficits within the international relations department. But a dearth of morality is not one of them.

Associate, Wits Centre for Ethics
Wits University
Johannesburg, South Africa

Eve Fairbanks replies:

I’m not sure where Eusebius McKaiser is discerning such a finger-wagging subtext to my article. We agree: South Africa has a weak foreign policy characterized by “inconsistent and unpredictable moves on the world stage.” McKaiser’s research has focused on lack of capacity within the government’s international relations department as a source of foreign-policy drift. Mine focused on the more existential confusion generated by South Africa’s two distinct and sometimes competing identities on the world stage as a moral conscience and regional leader.

It wasn’t only moralizing Americans who expected South Africa to take a strong human rights stand abroad after the intense struggle it waged for human rights within its borders. Many South Africans expected and, indeed, clamored for this. But the new South Africa also had a duty to support Africans and provide leadership on the continent, given its economic dominance and the previous white government’s tragic history of undermining Africans in neighboring countries. These two goals have frequently chafed against each other.

I cited some examples in my article, but there are many more. In 1995, for instance, President Nelson Mandela initially excused Gen. Sani Abacha of Nigeria after Abacha executed a minority-rights activist. But Mandela later flip-flopped and attacked Abacha after coming under withering criticism (the most withering from South Africans). The Nigerian government’s retort — that South Africa had proved itself a “white country with a black head of state” — shows the difficult pressure South Africa is under to live up to multiple kinds of ideals.

My article concludes not that South Africa’s vacillation is evil but rather that it is “embarrassing — and unsustainable.” Or, as McKaiser puts it, massively weak.

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