Morality Play

It's not lamentable that South Africa lacks a moral foreign policy. We're just being realists.

Eve Fairbanks's analysis of South Africa's foreign policy ("South Africa's Awkward Teenage Years," January/February 2012) is a discombobulating mix of descriptive truth and normative naiveté. She correctly describes how South Africa has, since its democratic birth in 1994, slowly developed a foreign-policy orientation that is not primarily human rights-based and that lacks sufficient moral content. Indeed, she draws on my own evidence-based research in bolstering that claim.

The subtext of Fairbanks's article, however, is that it is lamentable that South Africa does not have a moral foreign policy and that the country ought to have become the world's moral conscience. This claim, though, is not only assumed without independent justification (a jarring oversight in itself) but also patently unsustainable. Indeed, Fairbanks fails to quote my own argument for why South Africa's lack of a moral foreign policy is ultimately neither here nor there.

The reason is simple: No compelling normative argument in the world has ever been produced in favor of a moral foreign policy. Can Fairbanks produce an example? The foreign-policy forays of her native United States are a textbook example of what is called "realism" in international relations theory. States maximize material self-interest on the world stage and adopt moral principles only to the extent that doing so serves national self-interest.

Why should South Africa be any different? Just because one naive African National Congress document, circa 1994, promised the impossible? Fairbanks's criterion for success -- morality -- is therefore misguided.

South Africa certainly has massive foreign-policy weaknesses: poor public diplomacy, inconsistent and unpredictable moves on the world stage, and political and technical skills deficits within the international relations department. But a dearth of morality is not one of them.

Associate, Wits Centre for Ethics
Wits University
Johannesburg, South Africa

Eve Fairbanks replies:

I'm not sure where Eusebius McKaiser is discerning such a finger-wagging subtext to my article. We agree: South Africa has a weak foreign policy characterized by "inconsistent and unpredictable moves on the world stage." McKaiser's research has focused on lack of capacity within the government's international relations department as a source of foreign-policy drift. Mine focused on the more existential confusion generated by South Africa's two distinct and sometimes competing identities on the world stage as a moral conscience and regional leader.

It wasn't only moralizing Americans who expected South Africa to take a strong human rights stand abroad after the intense struggle it waged for human rights within its borders. Many South Africans expected and, indeed, clamored for this. But the new South Africa also had a duty to support Africans and provide leadership on the continent, given its economic dominance and the previous white government's tragic history of undermining Africans in neighboring countries. These two goals have frequently chafed against each other.

I cited some examples in my article, but there are many more. In 1995, for instance, President Nelson Mandela initially excused Gen. Sani Abacha of Nigeria after Abacha executed a minority-rights activist. But Mandela later flip-flopped and attacked Abacha after coming under withering criticism (the most withering from South Africans). The Nigerian government's retort -- that South Africa had proved itself a "white country with a black head of state" -- shows the difficult pressure South Africa is under to live up to multiple kinds of ideals.

My article concludes not that South Africa's vacillation is evil but rather that it is "embarrassing -- and unsustainable." Or, as McKaiser puts it, massively weak.


Decline Just Doesn't Translate

Most Chinese think real U.S. decline won't happen during their lifetimes. And Georgia might actually be less endangered by Russia if America declines.

Zbigniew Brzezinski ("After America," January/February 2012) thinks the decline of the United States will pose huge risks to the world and seems to assume that it will occur suddenly, when other powers are unprepared. This is unlikely. The so-called "decline" of the United States, after all, is a relative concept. America is still at the forefront of technological development, and its national wealth is growing, as is its population, unlike in many European countries. The present economic crisis is temporary. The United States still has opportunities for adjustment.

The American sense of crisis comes from comparing the United States with emerging countries such as China and India in terms of the speed of development. However rapidly China develops, though, it will take at least half a century for it to surpass the United States. The rise of emerging powers will be closely connected with the shrinking of U.S. power, and the process will leave no power vacuum. Countries will easily be able to bear the psychological burden of adjustment.

In fact, it's mainly Americans and some Europeans who talk about the decline of the United States. Most Chinese think real U.S. decline is not going to happen during their lifetimes.

What Chinese people really care about is China's continued rise without U.S. or Western interference. They usually don't imagine what China will look like after its rise (or, at least, the Chinese media don't discuss this topic). They dimly think China will eventually boast a higher GDP than that of the United States, but won't be as sophisticated, and that China's average living standard might be a bit lower than America's. They think such a China will not be bullied by the United States. It's a picture of a world that, by the second half of the 21st century, has two superpowers.

Hu Xijin
Editor in Chief, Global Times
Beijing, China

Georgia, which appeared on Zbigniew Brzezinski's list of "8 Geopolitically Endangered Species" (January/February 2012) whose security is jeopardized by American decline, might indeed be vulnerable to Russian political pressure and military force. But U.S. decline or lack thereof has nothing to do with it.

During most of George W. Bush's administration, the United States offered strong but mostly rhetorical support to Georgia, encouraging its aspirations to join NATO at a 2008 summit in Bucharest. The United States provided weapons and training to the Georgian military and began to treat Georgia as a client state. There was no hint that the Bush administration was interested in reducing U.S. commitments around the globe. On the contrary, it seemed eager to add to them.

By most accounts, the Georgian government misinterpreted these gestures as signs of support for the Georgian policy of "reintegrating" Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Partly as a result of a forward-leaning U.S. policy in the Caucasus that promised more than it could ever deliver, Georgia launched an assault on South Ossetia that sparked a devastating and excessive Russian response. The result was that Georgia suffered far more politically and militarily when the United States was more actively engaged in the region than it had before and has since. It may very well be that in an era of reduced U.S. commitments abroad, Georgia will actually be less of a target for Moscow than it was in the previous decade.

Daniel Larison
Senior Editor
The American Conservative

Chicago, Ill.

Zbigniew Brzezinski replies:

Hu Xijin's comments refer to the likely consequences of a significant decline of the United States and were based on excerpts from Part III of my new book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. The circumstances with which his letter deals, however, pertain to Part IV of my book, which looks beyond 2025 to a "new geopolitical balance." As I write in that section:

America's geopolitical role in the new East will have to be fundamentally different from its direct involvement in the renewal of the West. There, America is the essential source of the needed stimulus for geopolitical renovation and even territorial outreach. In Asia, an America cooperatively engaged in multilateral structures, cautiously supportive of India's development, solidly tied to Japan and South Korea, and patiently expanding both bilateral as well as global cooperation with China is the best source of the balancing leverage needed for sustaining stability in the globally rising new East.

Who You Calling Endangered?

Some countries were surprised to see themselves on Zbigniew Brzezinski's list of eight "geopolitically endangered species" should America decline. Others were shocked they weren't on the list.

Calling Brzezinski's article "an interesting analysis as always," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko (@Gryshchenko) tweeted that though the "end of the crisis in the United States is in our interests," an "independent Ukraine will exist in any circumstances." News outlets in Belarus, Estonia, and Latvia also covered Brzezinski's predictions about Russia's designs on Eastern Europe.

The Taipei Times cited anonymous U.S. experts disagreeing with Brzezinski's analysis, with one claiming Brzezinski had contributed to Taiwan's political endangerment when serving as President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, while others argued that China might collapse under its own weight before unification with Taiwan could occur.

An op-ed in the Philippine Star warned that with its military inferiority and political disunity, the Philippines could become the "9th geopolitically endangered species" if the dispute between China and the United States in the South China Sea escalates.