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 conducts multilateral diplomacy in the context of international organisations like the UN, AU, the Commonwealth as well as regional mechanisms such as SADC (which Botswana played a critical role in establishing), to promote national interest abroad.
The UN, the largest of these, confers universal legitimacy across the widest possible spectrum of collective human undertakings. Following the perennial instability and bloodshed visited on central Europe by their ancient era leaders “in pursuit of a mixture of personal, dynastic, imperial, and religious ambitions” (Kissinger, 2014), the Westphalian system (1648) created the nation state as the new source of sovereignty and legitimacy.
The new state system paved the way for liberal institutionalism (cooperation through international institutions using multilateral diplomacy as a modus operandi) as one of the global governance mechanisms of the liberal international order, aimed at enhancing dialogue, cooperation and peace among states.
This multilateral approach is anchored by rule-based international institutions tied together by shared interests of states (Ikenberry, 2011). Multilateralism or liberal institutionalism however has its critics, who strongly maintain that international politics is still primarily driven by individual states’ interests, and disproportionately influenced by the interests of more powerful nations, in these international institutions.
This critique notwithstanding, the opposite institutionalised international cooperation viewpoint, according to Keohane and Nye (1977), firmly holds that states, while primarily motivated by national interest, are also capable of pursuing common interest, where they see mutual benefit.
Pursuit of common endeavours (common security, economic integration e t c), has become even more imperative as a result of increased economic interdependence and globalisation generally. Multilateralism allows in principle, every nation, irrespective of size or resources, the legitimate right to be heard, and an expectation to have its plight addressed, if not resolved.
Having emerged as the antithesis of unilateralism, multilateralism has come to complement bilateralism and regionalism, which remain important channels for advancing interstate interests. For example, if a country did not find redress in bilateral or regional problem solving mechanisms, it could always approach the UN - the embodiment of multilateralism and universal dispenser of international legitimacy - for resolution.
Botswana has had recourse to the UN and other multilateral bodies—not as a substitute for bilateral or regional approaches, which she continues to maintain with her allies, but as the most appropriate tool for a specific purpose under given circumstances - to advance her foreign policy goals.
To make our assessment more comprehensive, we look at achievements in terms of Botswana’s benefits from, and contributions to, the international community, through multilateral diplomacy.I also wish to venture that achievements not be countenanced only in material terms. Indeed many would argue that Botswana’s greatest contribution to international relations, in the last 50 years, was in being a good example on issues of morality and governance, than in quantifiable ways.
Botswana embraced multilateral diplomacy due partly to her belief in a collective approach to international relations, and partly as an international strategy for national development.
The first President Sir Seretse Khama, speaking about the UN, said in September 1969: “The UN offers many advantages to a state like ours. The UN enables us to keep in touch with international opinion and to put our views before the world.... Together with its specialised agencies, it is also a major source of development Botswana’s foreign policy is predicated on multilateralism finance and technical assistance from which Botswana benefits greatly”.
In this, and other policy literature, Botswana’s enduring logic and vision for multilateralism had been firmly laid down. Multilateralism has afforded Botswana a broad array of opportunities political, economic and security on the international stage. First, the concept of peaceful resolution of conflicts in Botswana predates the country’s independence (ntwa kgolo ke ya molomo or we jaw-jaw not war-war). The espousal of this national precept and worldview by established multilateral bodies or international diplomacy, has served as both an inspiration for, and validation of, Botswana’s foreign policy on a major fundamental international principle. Second, Botswana’s resolute political stance on decolonisation and apartheid, earned her international respect on the world stage, including at the UN, OAU, NAM and the Commonwealth.
This stance however also made the country a target for various forms of retribution by the neighbouring minority regimes, including threats to her national sovereignty. But the endorsement and support of Botswana’s political position by these established international bodies, served as a moral deterrence against threats to her sovereignty, as well as a source of international legitimacy for - and moral vindication of - her political values, beliefs and indeed actions in support of human freedom beyond her borders.
Third, international institutions extended to the then poor nation much-needed resources to alleviate various economic challenges associated with her support for decolonisation and democratisation in southern Africa, such as the sustenance and protection of refugees in the country.
Sir Seretse said in 1969, “The financial burden of doing so (maintaining refugees) would have been heavy were it not for the generous assistance we have received from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”. Fourth, the country benefitted from vital development assistance from the UN system and many other international and regional entities. In those early years, Botswana relied heavily on external financial support just to balance her national budget.
Presenting the first National Development Plan (1968-73), Dr Q K J Masire (as Vice President and Minister of Development Planning), said, “Almost all the expenditure proposed in this Plan is dependent on finance being raised from friendly Governments and agencies abroad....Unless we are successful in securing the assistance required, there is a real danger that Botswana will continue to remain a burden on international charity and without the benefits of real independence which derives from self-sufficiency”.
* Lapologang C. Lekoa is a career diplomat and former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Relations and currently Botswana’s Ambassador to Australia. He writes in his persona capacity.