In this three-part series, Lapologang Caesar Lekoa* explains the pillars that inform Botswana’s foreign policy posture and how these have withstood the test of time
Botswana’s 50 year independence anniversary (September 2016), offered an opportunity to reflect on the country’s achievements using multilateral diplomacy or multilateralism as a foreign policy tool, and the future relevance of that particular approach in promoting the country’s national interest abroad.
Evans and Newnham (1998) describe multilateralism as “a system of coordinating relations between two or more states in accordance with certain principles of conduct....to realise objectives in a particular issue area”. Simply put, multilateralism refers to the voluntary involvement of more than two countries in addressing common challenges for mutual interest based on agreed rules, usually under a specific institutional/organisational arrangement.
To place our assessment of the tool in the proper context, we should ask three questions. First, what did Botswana want from the international system (that is, the country’s foreign policy goals), second, what was the context (both domestic and external), under which Botswana pursued these goals.
Finally, how did Botswana’s foreign policy makers perceive and interpret the international environment around them based on their philosophical/conceptual worldview at the time (that is, did they see only threats around them, a rosy world “out there”, or indeed a mixture of the two?).
The type of conceptual “lenses” that foreign policy makers wear (and consequently what they see), is critical because it determines the type of foreign policy choices they make.
First, what Botswana wanted in the international system was based on what the policy makers saw as key national interests, namely, national security (protection of territorial integrity and national sovereignty) and economic development. These key imperatives were pursued in the context of equally important national values of democracy, national unity and self-reliance, as well as internationally accepted principles of peaceful co-existence, peaceful resolution of conflicts and non-interference in the internal affairs of states.
The chief focus of foreign policy was therefore the concrete goals of physical and economic security, as well as non-quantifiable attributes, in the form of national values which defined the country in the eyes of the world. These were practical goals, limited to the primary needs of the country at the time, but still relevant for any assessment of the country’s performance in the foreign policy space today. Second, the country operated in a domestic and external environment that tempered her foreign policy ambitions with reality, arising mainly from geography and resource limitations. As the author Kaplan (2012) says “A state’s position on the map is the first thing that defines it, more than its governing philosophies even”.
While Kaplan recognises the constraints of geography, he acknowledges that human agency can substantially influence the course of human events. Still, Botswana could not escape her sobering internal circumstances, then and today, for example, a small population, limited economic resources and opportunities, limited human resource capacity, and unfavourable climatic conditions.
These limitations dictated, inter alia, that Botswana’s foreign policy attaches great importance to regional and international cooperation. The external environment was as inhibitive as it was threatening: a hegemonic apartheid state and hostile minority regimes as neighbours, a landlocked geographical position, import dependency and other vulnerabilities.
These factors may not have totally derailed Botswana’s foreign policy train, but they surely tempered with some of her cargo. For example, the country maintained technical level contacts with racist South Africa through SACU (Southern African Customs Union), but had no formal diplomatic relations with the apartheid regime.
Botswana’s foreign policy achievements should thus be assessed in the context of this unconducive domestic and external environment, elements of which still encumber Botswana’s foreign policy choices today.
Third, foreign policy makers can perceive the outside world in many ways, for example, as realists who generally believe that states will always use their economic power and political influence to pursue narrow national interest at the expense of others, or liberals who contend that shared common objectives can moderate states’ parochialism in favour of the larger collective good.
Many other shades of philosophical belief exist in between. In my humble view, Botswana’s foreign policy practitioners wore and indeed still wear today these and other conceptual lenses simultaneously, and saw the world as it really was, not as a static, predictable monolith, but an ever changing phenomenon, requiring that you adapt your tactics, within the parameters of your core principles, to situations as they arise, to protect national interest. This made the policy makers pragmatists.
As realists, they knew that national power (economic/military etc) was critical to guarantee physical and economic security, but as liberals they knew that additional leverage from regional and international mechanisms such as Southern African Development Community (SADC), African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN), was essential to succeed. As liberals they believed, in principle, in the moderating influence of international institutions over rogue states’ behaviour, but as realists they knew that it was unrealistic to expect the UN or the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to protect their country from neighbouring rogue states on a daily basis, and that a pragmatic foreign policy to help safeguard national security was needed. We therefore see a general trajectory in the period under review where practical considerations often trumped political orthodoxy in foreign policy making and execution.
As a small country, Botswana placed a high premium on multilateralism to protect and promote her national interest in the international system. For small countries, multilateralism comes naturally as an effective tool for survival in international politics. This is so because small nations, acting individually or unilaterally, do not possess adequate material resources and power to influence international relations in their favour. Their international leverage derives largely from solidarity acting together.