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Love in the time of unipolarity

I’ve heard it said that relations between the US and South Africa are a lot like relations between the US and France. Having lived in all three countries, I must admit that similarities in the two bilateral relationships are unmistakable.

But what exactly do I mean by this? Since I made my first voyage to France at the age of 11, I have witnessed the bizarre nature of the Franco-American love-hate relationship first hand. I often like to describe the two countries as an old married couple — they nag, pester and annoy the hell out of each other but at the core of their relationship is a long-standing socio-cultural love affair that stretches back decades, if not centuries. And why do they annoy the hell out of each other? Because, just like an old married couple, they each think they are always right.

More than that, the United States, France, and South Africa are incredibly similar. It is more often their similarities that lead to antagonism than their differences. All three countries demonstrate a staunch belief in their own exceptionalism and all three countries have a particular, universalising worldview that they believe can be exported to other countries around the globe. Moreover, all three exert a tremendous degree of influence in their respective regions and view them as their own backyard. They also don’t like it when others poke their noses there.

Witness the recent column by former Bush advisor Michael Gerson in the Washington Post in which he claims President Mbeki sent a letter to President Bush, replete with exclamation points, informing U.S. government officials that Zimbabwe is none of their business and that they should “butt out, that Africa belongs to him.” (Speaking on 702 Talk Radio last week, US Ambassador Eric Bost confirmed that the White House did receive a letter from Mbeki with which the US strongly disagreed, though he failed to provide any additional information.) Regardless of the details of the alleged letter, it is widely acknowledged that President Mbeki’s government would prefer other countries keep their opinions about Zimbabwe to themselves while South African initiatives — successful or not — are pursued.

One could argue that this sentiment is strikingly similar to the Monroe Doctrine, minus the choice words and exclamation points. This nineteenth century US declaration similarly informed European powers that they were not allowed to meddle in the Americas and that such action would be seen as hostile to the United States. It is also reminiscent of Jacques Chirac’s irritation over US relations with Eastern European countries that supported the 2003 Iraq invasion; many will remember the French president’s finger wagging and his statement that Eastern European countries should have shut up instead of supporting the US.

There are times when American global influence dovetails with French and South African views of their own exceptionalism and regional power. For example, the US would be happy to see South Africa lead continental initiatives to promote peace, security and prosperity in South Africa’s image; indeed, this was the post-1994 hope among many US foreign policy-makers. To their credit, the US government did implicitly recognize Mbeki’s sphere of influence by allowing him several years to be the “point man” on Zimbabwe, during which time American officials largely refrained from more public criticism of Mugabe or quiet diplomacy. But this policy has been overtaken by events on the ground, hence Mbeki’s irritation.

Regardless of who is in power, it appears that the US-South African love affair will continue in much the same fashion as the Franco-American relationship has since the days of Charles de Gaulle. There will be highs and there will be lows. The US government and Americans alike will remain enamoured with South Africa, but will also be frustrated when that love and adoration is not always returned. The South African government and South Africans alike will remain similarly enchanted with all that is good, and equally disgusted by all that is bad about the United States, but will also continually strive to assert their independence from the superpower.

Undoubtedly, the similarities between the two countries will continue to draw them together while also putting them on a sure path to disagreement. For the sake of the region, it would be nice to see these two lovebirds find ways to avoid a spat and instead use their combined efforts to effect positive change on the continent — in Zimbabwe and beyond.