Yesterday Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th
President of the United States. He provides a symbol of hope to a fearful nation and an uncertain world, battered by the worst economic crisis we have experienced in 80 years, and facing an array of vexed international challenges.
These range from uncompleted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a hostile standoff between nuclear India and nuclear Pakistan, to an intensification of violence in Palestine and Israel, and growing uncertainty as to whether the crisis of stabilizing global carbon emission will be addressed conclusively and successfully in Copenhagen later this year.
President Obama offers the opportunity for America and the world to look for rights-based and multilateral solutions to these global crises. South Africa, by rights and by inclination, should be a willing and vigorous partner in the plan to reinvigorate a more just world order.
It is my opinion that our recent votes and voice in international councils and forums, such as the United Nations, have placed us on a potential collision course with a more enlightened White House administration and put us in the company of the rights-delinquent nations and authoritarian regimes of the world.
Earlier this month it was revealed, for example, that South Africa refused to support a declaration by the United Nations General Assembly calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality.
What we practise at home, in our constitution and via progressive legislation, we contradict abroad for fear of offending some of the most retrogressive authoritarian countries in the world.
Shortly before Christmas, South Africa's foreign policy was again in the news in Washington - and again for all the wrong reasons. Under the headline, "South Africa's Crime", the highly influential Washington Post decried our government's enablement of Robert Mugabe's "destruction of neighbouring Zimbabwe, at the cost of thousands of lives."
What inflamed the Post - a reliable barometer of liberal, Washington opinion, and required reading by all members of the new US administration - was South Africa's continued refusal to pressure Robert Mugabe to step down as a first step to ending the humanitarian crisis which he has inflicted on his own country.
South Africa's blocking (with Russian connivance) of a US-British initiative to place Zimbabwe again on the Security Council agenda of the United Nations, in December, was widely portrayed as another instance of our temporizing with tyranny, rather than standing , alongside Botswana and Kenya, against the widening oppression unleashed by Mugabe.
In its lead editorial on Sunday December 21 2008, the Post thundered -
"What's happening here is pretty clear: South Africa, a country which aspires to continental leadership, is allowing a depraved strongman to utterly destroy a neighbouring country...
(President) Motlanthe's government has the economic, political and military leverage to rescue Zimbabweans from their leader ; yet it not only refuses to act but actively blocks interventions by other countries. Mr Motlanthe, Mr Mbeki and those in South Africa who support this unconscionable policy have become accessories to a grave humanitarian crime."
I expected some sort of defence against this serious, but justified, charge. But quiet diplomacy is clearly spreading: The South African Embassy in Washington issued no rebuttal, not even a feeble resuscitation of the clearly flawed and failed "power-sharing deal" authored by Thabo Mbeki. Perhaps Mugabe's clear affirmation, in mid-December, that he shares power with no one (he was quoted as saying,
"I will never, never surrender, Zimbabwe is mine") made such a defence inadvisable, or maybe our diplomats were simply asleep at the switch: a late-December check of the SA Embassy website revealed no statements had been issued since November 15, when President Motlanthe visited Washington for the emergency G20 economic summit.
The end of 2008 also marked the end of South Africa's ill-starred two year turn as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. What should have been the crowning achievement of South Africa's ascent to the heights of the world stage, proved instead to be a solidarity-exercise with some of the most repressive regimes in the world.
Apart from blocking UN discussions about human rights in Zimbabwe,we voted against imposing sanctions on Burma's rights-delinquent military junta and Iran, for violating nuclear safeguards. Elsewhere at the United Nations, our votes on the Human Rights Council, for example, extended forward cover for other tyrannies, from Belarus to Uzbekistan.
This led Washington heavyweight, Michael Gerson to suggest, earlier this year, that South Africa's voting record placed it in a new foreign policy category: "a rogue democracy."
Whatever has motivated these gestures - from reconfiguring the world order to reaffirming our third-world credentials - we are heading for an early collision with the administration of Barack Obama.
Our UN votes, alongside Russia and China, have undermined efforts to implement the ground-breaking UN "responsibility to protect" resolution, which authorizes international intervention when a state fails to protect its own people from grievous violations of their human rights. Yet the new US administration is headed by true believers in this doctrine.
Take Obama's close foreign policy confidante, Susan Rice, for example. She has been nominated, with cabinet rank, as US Ambassador to the UN. An emphatic believer in coercive diplomacy to avert humanitarian catastrophes, she has previously advocated American led bombing campaigns or naval blockades "to force a recalcitrant Sudanese government to stop the slaughter in Darfur." Seared by her visit to Rwanda after the 1994 Genocide there - which the Clinton Administration, of which she was also a member did nothing to interdict, she vowed to never let it happen again.
The Obama administration clearly takes international rights and justice seriously, and will be keen to engage like-minded international partners. It will turn the page, decisively from the unilateralism and global unpopularity of President George W. Bush. President Obama's ascent on the world stage should provide a pause for thought in Pretoria.
Do we want to be remembered for the distance our policies have travelled from Nelson Mandela's 1994 promise that "human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs?"
Or will we seize the moment to reconnect our own constitutional commitments to equality, human dignity and liberty - to our voice and votes in world forums. Promoting the decriminalization of homosexuality, and supporting democracy in Zimbabwe and justice in Sudan would be good places to start.