SA must use its global, regional influence wisely

SA must use its global, regional influence wisely
Amitav Acharya

Daily Dispatch
31 May 2012

BY most accounts, South Africa is an "emerging power", at least based on its membership in forums such as the G-20, the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa), and now the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). Yet, how can it best contribute to the evolving framework of global governance?

The BRICS is not the same as the G-20. Contrary to the hype surrounding it, membership in the BRICS is more of a status symbol (and an uncertain investment attraction) than a passport to real decision-making authority in global affairs. BRICS does not have much cement to hold it together, given the competitive relationship between China and India, and the discordant voices within the grouping about issues of global order ranging from climate change to UN Security Council Reform.  In the absence of deeply shared political, economic and strategic outlook, it has little potential to affect global governance, except for mildly enhancing the status and privileges of its members.

The G-20 is a more consequential forum. Unlike its entry into the BRICS, South Africa did not lobby to be included in the G-20. It did not have to, because its initial membership was decided almost solely by Washington and Berlin in the late 1990s.  The G-20 has served an important function in managing the global financial crisis of 2008, although this alone does not guarantee its future success or even relevance.

Yet, the whole emerging power bandwagon raises some troubling issues for the management of international order, which South Africa must contend with. Let me outline three of them here: The first is about principles of interded national order. Some argue that by joining BRICS, South Africa has placed power and self-interest over principles which it had espoused as a member of IBSA with, India and Brazil, including a commitment to human rights and democracy not shared by BRICS members China and Russia.  To offset such perceptions, South Africa needs to use the BRICS forum to engage China and Russia in discussions over such values.

Although the emerging powers are said to espouse the principles of equity and justice and challenge traditional Western dominance, many also remain more wed to the most traditional norms of international relations, such as non-intervention, than the nascent principles of global governance, such as the responsibility to protect. This can produce if not outright hypocrisy, at least perceptions of confusion and ambiguity. Critics point to South Africa's stance on the Libyan crisis, where its initial principled endorsement of intervention seemed to be at variance with its subsequent support for the African Union's criticism of it.  Pretoria might be forgiven for not foreseeing that the humanitarian intervention in Libya would become an unabashed policy of regime change. But it at least needs to do a better job of explaining its position, not just to critics but also to its friends - some of whom are the same old Western powers - against their abuse of international norms.

Second, emerging powers include not just the South's most significant economic players, but also in many cases military powers. Their new institutions, while acting as a bridge between the rising developing nations and the old West, could also aggravate the polarisation of the South into a "power South" and a "poor South".  Being inducting into the global power elite, they distance themselves further from the rest of the developing world. South Africa must use its membership in groupings like G-20 not only to bridge the North-South divide, but also to prevent South-South polarisation.

Third, emerging powers (such as India in South Asia, China in East Asia) tend to have contentious relations with their neighbours. There is the temptation to "leapfrog" their unglamorous neighbourhood in order to pursue the global glitz that membership in BRICS and G-20 brings. Indonesia, a G-20 member, is tempted towards a "post-Association of Southeast Asian Nations" foreign policy. South Africa is the sole representative of Africa - the most marginalised of continents - in both the BRICS and G-20.

Despite, or perhaps because of its global stature, South Africa itself faces difficulties in getting its own nominee elected as the secretary-general of the African Union. Global leadership aspirations should not come at the expense of regional governance.

Some contrast President Jacob Zuma's more inward-looking approach with former president Thabo Mbeki's overactive African engagements, but the key is to find a balance between regional indifference and regional dominance, a problem China faces in dealing with East Asian regionalism.

The challenges that South Africa faces as an emerging power are by no means unique to it, but finding creative and balanced approaches to deal with them may be the best contribution that South Africa can make to global governance.

Amitav Acharya is the Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor of International Relations at Rhodes University and the UNESCO chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance at American University, Washington, DC. His previous appointments include Professor of Global Governance at the University of Bristol, Professor at York University, Toronto, Fellow of the Harvard University Asia Center, and Fellow of Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government