South Africa's Sad Descent and the Implications for Democracy Promotion
Posted by Michael Cohen
There is a very sad story out of South Africa today about the troubled state of that nation's commitment to democracy. Apparently, the government has rejected a visa for the Dalai Lama to attend a peace conference of Nobel Laureates. According to a a government spokesman, "Dalai Lama's presence was not in South Africa's best interest at the moment." And when he refers to best interest, this is no doubt a reference to South Africa's burgeoning political and economic relationship with China, which invests about $6 billion a year in the country.
Now, of course from a symbolic standpoint this is pretty bad. Considering how hard many countries fought to see the yoke of apartheid lifted from black South Africans - and considering the plight of Tibet -- this is pretty objectionable behavior.
But I suppose in the country's partial defense, nations act in their economic self-interest all the time. But what is really worrisome here is that this fits a disturbing pattern. On the Security Council, South Africa has hardly been a passionate voice for democracy, siding with authoritarian leaders in Burma and others.
Its response to the crisis in Zimbabwe has been horrible, not only in its failure to put pressure on the Mugabe regime, but in its acceptance of naked and obvious un-democratic behavior. If anything, South Africa has not only been asleep at the wheel in resolving the political stalemate there, they've helped drive the car into the ditch. They are perhaps the most important country in sub-Saharan Africa and their commitment to democracy is less than stellar.
Now in a vacuum this might just seem like bad behavior from a wayward country, but there are larger implications here for US policymakers. First, the inclination among Chinese leaders to spread an anti-democratic political model cannot be underestimated. There is emerging an alternative political and economic model to liberal democracy - its semi-authoritarian in nature and its being backed by China's vast economic leverage. If the United States is to be serious about spreading democracy we need to recognize this threat and be prepared to combat it, both rhetorically and financially.
Second, there will always be feckless politicians who will place economic assistance over democratic promulgation. What that means for US leaders is they need to stop looking to leaders - both ones we like and ones we don't like - as the harbinger of democratic outcomes. If we want to seed democracy around the world and support democratic movement then we need to be looking more to private groups, NGOs etc as the focal point of our efforts and focus on institution building rather than individuals.