Trim the “fat” but that’s not our principal foreign policy strategic challenge

by Mukoni Ratshitanga It is commonly held that foreign policy is an extension of a country’s domestic policy. Small wonder then that it is hotly contested as domestic policy. States endeavour to protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity, promote their economic well-being and national image, among others. Foreign policy is therefore nothing but the name we give for a country’s domestic political, economic and, in the widest sense, ideological image of itself. It is this broad context within which foreign policy specifics are fashioned that Mzukisi Qobo misses in his article: “SA should trim excess fat from many embassies,” (Business Day, September 21 – ). He argues that South Africa should close down diplomatic missions from whence there is no “demonstrable increase in investments, growth in export markets and an upturn in employment.” Economic diplomacy is and should be one of our strategic tasks. This has in fact exercised strategic levels of government in the last couple of years. It was noted that since 1994, South Africa has done well in political diplomacy but not as well in economic diplomacy. One of the least known facts is that thanks to our success, we are host to the second largest number of diplomatic missions in the world after Washington. Acknowledgment of our success and failures, relative and absolute, did not imply, as it could not, perceiving foreign policy in cost accounting optics. Rightly or wrongly, it took it for granted that government is morally, politically and legally obliged to be prudent in its uses of public resources, including the all-round productivity of foreign missions assessed as part of on-going review of everything it does. Admittedly, it is not prudent to assert that there will not be much “demonstrable increase in investments, growth in export markets and an upturn in employment as an outcome of our diplomatic relations” with many of our SADC neighbours and much of the continent for a long time to come.A cursory glance at the underlying logic of the Southern African Customs Union’s (SACU) equal share of customs revenue among SADC member states suggests that though unstated, South Africa is in fact a provider of development aid to the region. Were each one of our countries in the region to receive their due, South Africa would doubtlessly benefit the most. But the model is not without good reasons. Our development efforts would be unsustainable if the rest of the region (and continent) remains underdeveloped. This is why South Africa’s contribution to the development of the region and continent has continued to be and must remain part of our foreign policy objectives. Besides self-interest, there is, after all, a principle of “solidarity” in the system of international relations, according to which you lend a helping hand to your neighbours and others further afield. Consistent with another and antithetical paradigm, Qobo is doing something more than advice government to “trim the fat” and close down missions from whence there is no “demonstrable increase in investments….” This is the corporatization and “rightsizing” paradigm of the state, a cost accounting purview which perceives government and governance exclusively in terms of financial loss and benefit. This view does not appreciate the social and political side of foreign policy which does not easily lend itself to the precision of an accountant. At times to its own and largely to society’s detriment, it defines the “national interest” in extremely narrow terms and often ends up being all things to everyone. Soon, the protagonists of this school of thought will demand the closure of South Africa’s mission to the United Nations in New York because it has no “demonstrable increase in investments, growth in export markets and an upturn in employment as an outcome of our diplomatic relations,” or so it assumes. The strategic foreign policy challenge is not, as Qobo and others would like to have us believe, the R10bn or so we spend annually on our missions or that 60% of missions are headed by politicians or people who are not career diplomats, a non issue if historical and contemporary domestic and global lessons mean anything. Relative to the totality of what it earns the country, the money spent on our diplomatic missions must also be assessed in terms of government spending as a whole. We have, for example, rightly or wrongly increased the political wage bill by more than R1bn a year after the 2009 general elections with the increase in cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and departments. The larger issue with respect to our foreign policy is its strategic political orientation! Mukoni Ratshitanga, September 25, 2012.