The Multiple Faces of South African Foreign Policy

By Cooper, Andrew F. | International Journal, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Multiple Faces of South African Foreign Policy


Cooper, Andrew F., International Journal


THE 'NEW' SOUTH AFRICA PROVIDES AN INTERESTING CASE STUDY of the interaction between international and domestic politics. What Robert Putnam describes as the 'puzzling tangles'(f.1) between external and domestic factors seem especially salient here because of the transformational component in South Africa. Externally, the end of the apartheid regime has widened the range of available options. The challenge is to gauge more precisely the nature of choice in terms of both a significant recalibration of international affairs and a fundamental redefinition of domestic needs and interests. Since its election in May 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) has been pre-occupied with economic and social reconstruction, which it has pursued with a high degree of sensitivity to the constraints imposed by the global system. Internally, reforms have been shaped to fit with many of the orthodoxies set by the external environment, often when these are at odds with proposals put forward during ANC's long period of liberation struggle. Only through an appreciation of the mix of competing international and domestic pressures may the complexity of South African foreign policy be appreciated. Far from combining to produce inertia, these sharp tensions provide South African foreign policy with multiple faces. Although they often diverge, each serves as a key explanation and point of navigation not only for descriptive but also for conceptual exploration.

Examining South African in a diffuse fashion allows a break from the rigidity of the traditionally dominant interpretations of its foreign policy. The long shadow of structural realism still hangs over much of the discussion,(f.2) but it presents a disembodied portrait of foreign policy in which international conditions are privileged at the expense of domestic factors. Moreover, the search for national economic well-being remains overshadowed by the traditional search for security within the international system. Amidst all of the dramatic evidence of change, little or no attempt has been made to direct attention to the study of the location (or re-location) of South Africa in the international political economy. This is not to suggest that the domestic determinants of international behaviour have been completely neglected in the scholarship. Nonetheless, the use of this dualistic lens in the treatment of South African foreign policy has been restricted for the most part to the paradigm of bureaucratic politics and the 'management' of foreign policy.(f.3) Larger questions about the evolution of state-societal relationships or the configuration of domestic political and economic institutions still get short shrift.(f.4)

This article is intended not so much as an extended critique of the literature(f.5) as a way in which some of the puzzling tangles between the international and the domestic can be teased out and made more coherent. To capture the essence of the multiple faces of South African foreign policy, I have applied a framework of foreign policy behaviour developed by Michael Mastanduno, David Lake, and John Ikenberry which centres on a matrix of state action based on the interconnection and overlap between international and domestic strategies and goals.(f.6) While its high degree of state-centrism may cut into its ability to incorporate divergent interpretations of the rising influence of civil society, it has considerable merit for capturing the range of South African experience in a parsimonious fashion.

At the domestic level, maintaining legitimacy is accorded considerable weight in the Mastanduno, Lake, and Ikenberry framework. The more legitimacy a state possesses, so the argument goes, the more flexibility and/or room for manoeuver it has in other strategies and preferences. In building legitimacy at the domestic level, much effort is directed through the political process. At the same time, this approach is an important signaling device at the international level, where a primary goal is to mark the state's changing (and enhanced) position as a member of the global community. …

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