On one side of the Atlantic, it is “America First”; on the other, it is “immigrants out”. State visits are cancelled acrimoniously, potential foe countries are put “on notice” via social media, and the use of tactical nuclear weapons is no longer unthinkable.
If you want a vision of South Africa’s future place in this increasingly unsettled, reactionary, right-wing world, imagine a bunch of people sitting around a table unable to get anything done — for at least four years.
Think of it as the “meh conjecture”, because that is the nearly audible reaction of local foreign policy experts when they look into the global future from South Africa’s point of view.
Is the world a much more dangerous place than it was only a year ago? Certainly. Are other certainties about international relations evaporating amid the irrationality of new actors, such as raving egomaniac and United States President Donald Trump? Absolutely.
Does that mean we need emergency preparations for the terrible things that will happen? Meh. Probably not.
“It will probably be more of a muddle,” said Martha Bridgman, the editor of the South African Journal of International Af fairs this week about the future of international diplomacy. “That’s not ideal but is better than a meltdown.”
Since Trump’s shock election, analysts of all stripes are cautious about predictions. But there are some trends that those watching the interplay between nations can point to.
“The dearth of leadership is universal now; everyone is floundering,” said former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad. He sees an ongoing revolt against globalisation being manifested as a challenge to entire systems of leadership. This means it is likely that there will be inexperienced administrations in countries across Europe as well as in the US in coming years.
“There is hostility to leadership at every level,” he said about the emerging global zeitgeist.
The result is that career diplomats, the people who have traditionally kept the wheels of diplomacy oiled, might be reluctant to stick around. “One concern is that career foreign officers will be jumping ship,” said Bridgman about the US state department.
At the same time, South Africa’s diplomatic corps is developing a reputation as a neat place to park disgraced officials or generally inconvenient people.
“Every so often [the SA foreign service] really messes up and that is partially because it’s a dumping ground,” said Oscar van Heerden, a scholar who is soon to launch a book on South African foreign policy during the administration of Thabo Mbeki. “There is a lack of experience, of training, of institutional memory.”
Political upheaval in the United Kingdom has seen top diplomats depart, and there are expectations of similar departures in other European countries as moderate governments fall before far-right contenders.
So, across multilateral institutions and in bilateral negotiations, the odds are there will be people who, to put it kindly, have yet to hit their diplomatic stride. This does not spell trouble so much as paralysis.
Analysts agree that getting things done on the international stage takes nuance and skill, deft handling, careful consensus-building and a minimum of strong-arming.
Even Trump, not the sharpest tool in the shed, seems to be realising this. “Trump is seeing that, domestically, he can’t just ram through this about-face policy of his,” said Bridgman.
Hopefully the same will be true internationally, when tangles with the likes of Iran will make Trump realise that “being the bully on the block does not just make everyone fall into line”.
Once this dawns on the new political incumbents, all will be back to the frustrating job of getting things done only by the tiniest of increments, familiar to anyone with a vision who ever accidentally stumbled into political office.