Dalai Lama Debacle: Finding the balance between politics, pragmatism and principle
The public outcry over the Dalai Lama’s treatment by government could have been averted if our authorities played open cards, writes MPUMELELO MKHABELA.
In her acclaimed work on international political economy, States and Markets, the late Susan Strange made an important distinction between relational power and structural power. The former, she contended, was the power of country A to get B to do something it would not otherwise do. The latter, on the other hand, is the power to shape and determine the structures of the global political economy within which states, their political institutions, their economic enterprises, their scientists and other professional people have to operate. This form of power, Strange wrote in 1994, ‘confers the power to decide how things shall be done, the power to shape frameworks within which states relate to each other, relate to people, or relate to corporate enterprises’.
Her compelling analysis is as relevant today as it was when she first conceived of it. From an analytical point of view it provides a relevant tool to understand the – some would say nonsensical – decision that sparked the outrage over the temporary barring of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, from visiting South Africa in March this year.
Our government’s decision to ban the Dalai Lama from visiting South Africa was a classic example of structural power at play. The country understood that although it is a sovereign republic with the exclusive right to decide on foreign policy, such decisions are shaped, ultimately, by those countries with structural power.
The People’s Republic of China has for decades opposed and forcefully countered calls for a sovereign Tibet – a goal the exiled Dalai Lama and many in Tibet are fighting to attain. Obviously, therefore, any country that creates the impression – real or perceived – that it backs the Dalai Lama is likely to incur the wrath of the world’s strongest emerging economic power. China does not have to say it. But its structural relationship with other states – not least South Africa – so dictates.
South Africa is not alone. Despite its protestations over China’s human rights record, the United States knows that its recovery from a recession is partly dependent on China’s hunger for trade. There are therefore limits to the extent to which it can harp on about idealistic values at the expense of economic benefits. This is even more so for countries whose position in the global political economy requires support from China.
Recognising power shifts in the global economy quite early, South Africa’s first democratic government crafted a one-China policy in 1997. China’s poor human rights record and the fact that South Africa had just emerged from a long struggle against apartheid – essentially a human rights struggle – did not count for much in this policy decision. Nor was it an issue that many ANC leaders had done their military training in Moscow and not Beijing. What mattered most, though, were the economic gains – and perhaps the corresponding political clout that comes with wealth accumulation – that would accrue to South Africa.
If our foreign policy of pragmatism was not made clear back in the summer of 1997 when South Africa renounced its diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favour of China, then the Dalai Lama’s barring in the autumn of 2009 has erased any doubt about it.
The South African authorities, while denying being ‘bullied’ by China – and they are correct in the sense that Beijing did not overtly tell Pretoria what to do – also acknowledge the structural power relations skewed in favour of China.
The foreign affairs minister at the time, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, told the Sunday Times in March that barring the Dalai Lama was not about human rights, but about national interest. And the national interest, she argued, could not be divorced from economic interests and human rights. ‘Human rights also include making sure that people have shelter, have jobs,’ she said. It was a simplistic acknowledgment of China’s structural power and of South Africa’s decision to be pragmatic in this regard.
And so the structural power relations between China and South Africa naturally dictated that the latter could not do what it believed the former would dislike. The politics of pragmatism have therefore in this instance trumped the politics of principle. The country, not illogically, as some have argued, chose to prioritise its strategic interests above position on international human rights.
Probably the government’s biggest weakness in this debacle has been its inability to conduct public diplomacy that gives expression to its pragmatic approach. Their dithering – first admitting the Dalai Lama was billed to come to South Africa, later on suggesting he was never invited, and finally declaring that he was free to visit, except in March – not only caused confusion about its position on this issue, but also harmed one of its greatest assets, its global normative stature. This, it has to be added, has been just another in a series of public relations disasters in the area of foreign policy.
In the light of this, President Jacob Zuma’s administration, which got into power with an invitation for involvement in decision-making, will have to ensure that policy transparency receives much higher priority. Failure to do so could in the longer term trigger public cynicism towards the government’s diplomatic activities, both here and abroad.
Mpumalelo Mkhabela is parliamentary bureau chief for the Sunday Times.