Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

The Military Instrument in South African Foreign Policy: A Preliminary Exploration

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

The Military Instrument in South African Foreign Policy: A Preliminary Exploration

Article excerpt


In the contemporary international system it is often contended that the utility of military means is decreasing. In addition, conventional wisdom has it that the military instrument is only to be used when other instruments have failed. Practice, however, indicates that the military instrument is much more ubiquitous than a parsimonious theory of foreign policy would admit. In South Africa's case, the political transition of 1994 saw the introduction of a low-risk policy that not only revived diplomacy, but deliberately placed limitations on and reduced the use of the military instrument. This article, however, contends that the past five years have seen the re-emergence of the military instrument in South African foreign policy. Based on four case studies, different approaches to the use of military means are described and assessed. From these it is evident that the military instrument has become more salient in South African foreign policy. This trend, should it prevail, is more than likely to produce a foreign policy dilemma concerning the conciliation of ends and means. Apart from emphasising the continual relevance of the diplomacy-military means dichotomy, this article shifts the emphasis to the military mode and considers the implementation of South African foreign policy from a different perspective.


Following the political transition of 1994, the new directions in South African foreign policy denote a break with the previous era. Although changes were gradually introduced when multi-party political negotiations began in the early 1990s, the adoption and consolidation of a new foreign policy only commenced in earnest after the change of government in 1994. Apart from advancing a reformulated and non-partisan value-synthesis, a redefinition of South Africa's global position and a reprioritisation of the national interest, the new approach differed significantly from that of the past in several other respects. In contrast to pre-1994 policy that was characterised by enforced isolation, unilateralism, militarisation, high-risk options, conflict and the primacy of the military instrument, post-1994 policy--at least in principle--epitomised international participation, multilateralism, democratisation, low-risk options, co-operation and the primacy of the diplomatic instrument.

Against this background, this article examines the military instrument in South African foreign policy. The basic contention is that contrary to initial indications--at least in more idealistic terms--the military instrument has not been relegated to a position of secondary importance, but has gradually re-emerged to become a more prominent although not a dominant fixture of South African foreign policy. It is argued that this trend is primarily the result of the regionalisation of South Africa's zones of interest and involvement, and of subsequent responses and conduct that by implication have to contend with the prevalence of unacceptable levels of regional (and sub-regional) instability and conflict. Hence by default rather than by design, military means have gained in significance, albeit in a limited and qualified manner.

In order to substantiate these claims, this article provides a theoretical exposition of the military instrument in foreign policy implementation; an overview of South Africa's pre-and post-apartheid foreign policies with reference to perceptions concerning the utility of military means; an account of the prospects and constraints of the military instrument; an analysis of recent examples of the use of military means; and finally, a concluding assessment and evaluation.


As a rule, the military dimension of foreign policy relates to at least five aspects. Firstly the operational milieu, that is the extent to which the external (and at times internal) environment has an explicit military content due to for instance a military threat or the mere pervasiveness of armed force, that may necessitate a high-risk foreign policy response of a military nature. …

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