Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The World Needs a Better United States

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The World Needs a Better United States

Article excerpt

IN 2010 SOUTH AFRICAN President Jacob Zuma asked me to serve as the country's ambassador to the United States. Coming straight from Cape Town's tough political battlefield, where I had most recently served as the governor of the Western Cape province, I had very little need for diplomacy. I suspect I was given the ambassadorship mostly because I had the foresight to engage the unknown visiting senator from Illinois in 2006, on issues ranging from HIV in Africa to the future of the Middle East, for almost two hours in my office. Two years later, he would be elected the first black president of the United States.

I arrived in Washington in 2010 amidst an outpouring of love for Nelson Mandela, whose frailty and mortality at the time created fears that he may soon be no more. At the same time, the hope and change on which President Barack Obama sailed to victory was being hobbled by a more pragmatic managerialism in the face of a persistent economic recession, declining approval ratings and a governance system that was divisive and gridlocked.

I soon realized that I represented more than South Africa's interests. I was also a representative of an heroic anti-apartheid struggle and the resulting transition that had inspired countless Americans. At the same time, I was also a Muslim representative arriving in the wake of the "war on terrorism" and the rising tide of Islamophobia in the West. There was a palpable curiosity by those in the anti-apartheid movement, the Muslim community and those familiar with my thinking, about the type of diplomacy I would bring. Would I be ideological, moralistic and strident, or quiet, cautious and acquiescent?

Although I came to the United States as a representative, I leftas an observer of America's strengths and shortcomings. Five years on, I look back at a fascinating and enriching period of my life, and reflect on five critical lessons.

First, I learned that diplomacy is the art of telling the truth intelligently and gently, whether speaking about South African or U.S. foreign policy, which I believe remains inconsistent and historically reliant on militarism. Points of disagreement, I believed, should be discussed and debated, without either diminishing the crucial role that the U.S. plays in the world or allowing any of my own predispositions to reduce the ability to be heard or heeded.

Second, I learned the U.S. shifts by degrees and decades, not dramatically. For all its valorization of individualism, the U.S. is governed by a deeply embedded institutional system, resistant to change while constantly appearing to change. The players may be replaced, but the playbook endures. When the 2011 Arab Spring protests provided the U.S. with an opportunity to strike out a new path in the Muslim world toward the less predictable but more sustainable path of human rights, freedom and democracy, it blinked at the first signs of murkiness. Yet recent efforts at détente with Cuba and Iran show that we may be witnessing the assertion of a less militaristic and unilateral approach.

Third, Washington can't help relating to Africa other than through the lens of aid, disaster relief and security, rather than as a continent of economic opportunity. To its credit, the U.S. has done great work on matters such as preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, and it has been vocal in supporting democracy and human rights in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. But Obama's Africa policy is largely rooted in symbolic commitments. …

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