The Trump administration’s foreign policy moves with respect to Iran and Jerusalem can have consequences, perhaps unintended, for U.S. bilateral relations elsewhere. John Stremlau, an American academic based at South Africa’s prestigious University of the Witswatersrand (“Wits”) in Johannesburg, has published an article on the impact of Trump’s foreign policy on South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s efforts to repair the damage to his country’s governance by former President Jacob Zuma. He argues that the U.S.-South African bilateral relationship is likely to deteriorate further.
Stremlau cites South African resentment of U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s statement that countries that do not support U.S. policies at the UN will somehow be punished. In 2017, South Africa voted with the United States only 18 percent of time. From Ambassador Haley’s perspective, the South African record is among the ten “worst.” President Ramaphosa has also publicly opposed the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, and he is pursuing stronger economic ties to Iran that are likely to collide with new U.S. sanctions there. With respect to the U.S. move of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Ramaphosa government has recalled its ambassador to Israel over the killing of Palestinian protesters in Gaza by Israeli security forces. Stremlau also points out that South Africa is likely to take one of the “African” seats on the UN Security Council at the upcoming session. Stremlau is calling on the many “entrenched networks” of cooperation between the United States and South Africa to “shield South Africa from Trump’s bullying.”
According to Stremlau, the bilateral relationship faces a rocky road ahead. Under President Zuma, the relationship was no better than “correct,” despite protests by both sides that it was friendly and warm. Ramaphosa is a businessman and one of the architects of South Africa’s “non-racial” democracy. Many of South Africa’s American friends had hoped that there would be a reset in the bilateral relations once Ramaphosa was in office. That appears unlikely for the time being. While on the UN Security Council, South Africa is likely to adopt positions on issues ranging from Iran to Palestine and Israel that will be opposed by the Trump administration. There are also tariff and trade issues that will set back the relationship.