from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

South Africa: Just Another BRIC in the Wall?

March 20, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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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.

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