Personal diplomacy didn’t prevent straight-talking

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Former United States president George W. Bush. Picture: Mike Stone

The importance of personal diplomacy between leaders is not the end all, but is nevertheless important in relations between countries. It is something the great Winston Churchill believed in.

George HW Bush, the 41st president of the US and father to George W Bush, has highlighted how useful and productive it is. It is also something Nelson Mandela understood very well.

Former US presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Bush junior and current US President Barack Obama will be in South Africa this week to honour the late, great Mandela. They all had different relations with Madiba. Arguably, none were as strong as the relationship between Mandela and Clinton.

Clinton was the US president during Mandela’s entire South African presidency. This special relationship between the leaders almost gave a sense of friendship between both countries and led to a good feeling of support. Insiders speak of the special bond between the two men, with frequent phone calls and meetings both during and after their presidential terms.

Clinton and Mandela appeared to have almost a father-son relationship. And this positive relationship affected former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in her interactions with South Africa.

Nevertheless, they did not always see eye to eye on issues. This is why it is said that a personal friendship between leaders and therefore personal diplomacy, although important, may be only a temporary advantage.

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US President Barack Obama, former president Jimmy Carter, first lady Michelle Obama and former president Bill Clinton will all be attending Nelson Mandela's memorial service. Picture: Gary Cameron


Mandela was seen as critical of the US because of the perceived level of economic assistance offered to recover from apartheid. He was extremely unhappy when, in 1994, Clinton announced that the US’s initial assistance package to South Africa would be $600 million (about R2.1 billion at the time). Mandela wanted billions of dollars and was quoting as saying: “It’s peanuts. We would have expected from the US far more than that.”

One of the bigger issues raised between the two countries were questions around South Africa’s relations with Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and others.

When Iran’s president Akbar Hasjemi Rafsanjani visited South Africa in September 1996, Mandela said the enemies of the West were not necessarily also the enemies of South Africa.

He stressed that his country wanted to develop good relations with all countries, including the superpowers, but not at the cost of the ties that existed with good friends that supported the ANC against the apartheid regime when the superpowers supported the apartheid regime.

This was followed by Mandela’s trip to Libya to award Muammar Gaddafi the Order of Good Hope in October 1997, which made quite a stir from the West’s point of view. At the time, the award was the highest honour that South Africa could bestow on a citizen of another country.

The White House pronounced itself “disappointed” about Mandela’s trip, drawing an intense response from Mandela that he would not be dictated to about who he could visit. Mandela, who always spoke his mind, said: “Those who say I should not be here are without morals… This man helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who say we should not come here were helping the enemy.”

Mandela, like Clinton, was a great diplomat. In helping the US with the Lockerbie bombing negotiations, it was Mandela who gained Gaddafi’s support. Mandela spoke out against the US and emphasised that he was acting independently of the West. When you combine this with Mandela’s loyalty to old friends, he was able to play a key role in the negotiations.

Mandela realised it would better to have Gaddafi on his side than treat him as a crazy terrorist, like the US often did.

This approach helped Mandela secure Libya’s agreement to a trial of those allegedly responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, which marked the end of Libyan diplomatic isolation. This, in turn, also led to an improvement in US-Libyan relations.

While the Mandela-Clinton relationship continued in the 2000s and beyond, the relationship with George W Bush was nowhere near the same level.

It started off quite strong, with Mandela supporting US action in Afghanistan after the events of September 11, 2001. When the two presidents met at the White House in November 2001, Mandela stated that the US had “lost 5 000 people, innocent people, and it is quite correct for the president to ensure that the terrorists, those masterminds, as well as those who have executed the action and survived, are to be punished heavily”.

The meeting took place on the same day that an American Airlines flight bound for the Dominican Republic crashed on take-off from New York.

“It’s unfortunate that that would happen at this time, when the United States lost so many people on the 11th of September… But I know that you have quite a strong leader, and the people of the United States of America can face disaster, and I’m sure that they will overcome this unfortunate incident,” Mandela proclaimed.

It was in the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003 that Mandela began to become quite upset, first attacking then US vice-president Dick Cheney: “Quite clearly we are dealing with an arch-conservative in Dick Cheney… my impression of the president is that this is a man with whom you can do business. But it is the men around him who are dinosaurs, who do not want him to belong to the modern age.”

Cheney had in 1986 voted against a US resolution calling for Mandela’s release from prison.

This anger and disappointment soon turned on Bush as well. At one point, Bush would not take Mandela’s calls and he would have to speak to then secretary of state, Colin Powell. Leading up to the war, Mandela even asked George Bush senior to discourage his son from attacking Iraq.

Mandela made numerous comments against the US:

- “We must condemn that very strongly. No country, however strong, is entitled to comment adversely in the way the US has done. They think they’re the only power in the world. They’re not and they’re following a dangerous policy. One country wants to bully the world.”

- “If you look at these matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the US is a threat to world peace.”

- “When there were white secretaries-general, you didn’t find this question of the US and Britain going out of the UN. But now that you’ve had black secretaries-general, such as Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan, they do not respect the UN. This is not my view, but that is what is being said by many people.”

Do all these negative remarks mean Bush junior and Mandela were enemies? Absolutely not, and they did see eye to eye on a number of issues, such as the war against HIV/Aids.

Highlighting his diplomatic skills even years after stepping down as South Africa’s president, Mandela said this in the context of his friendship with Bush junior in 2005: “Such disagreements are not uncommon among friends. In fact they are a mark of strong, candid and honest friendship.”

A personal diplomatic relationship between Obama and Mandela was limited – for the most part because of Madiba’s age – but both were very fond of each other.

They first met in 2005, during a trip to Washington when Obama was a junior senator from Chicago.

A few years later, after another historic election, Mandela wrote a letter congratulating Obama on his victory. That the son of an African immigrant to the US could become the first black president of the world’s most powerful country demonstrated that every person had the potential to bring about change for a better world.

Obama had nothing but praise and well wishes for Mandela during his African tour earlier this year. Obama recalled his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, saying his maiden political speech as a 19-year-old at Occidental College in 1981 was against the apartheid government.

The apartheid regime had supported the US during the Cold War and had worked closely with both the Reagan and Nixon administrations to limit Soviet influence in the region. Many see the US as having joined the anti-apartheid struggle late in the day. And Mandela was left on the US terrorism watch list until 2008 – an absurd length of time after the end of the apartheid era.

Mandela as the champion of reconciliation was able to look past this and forge a lasting bond with many American leaders and with the country itself and its people.

Although Mandela is finally resting in peace and the main pillars of diplomacy have changed since his time as South African president, it was the diplomatic ritual and his personal diplomacy with countries such as the US that helped bring about stability in bilateral relationships.

* Dr Scott Firsing is an adjunct research fellow at Monash University, South Africa; the director of the North American International School in Pretoria; and a former South African Institute of International Affairs Bradlow Fellow (2012). He is also the founder and president of Young People in International Affairs.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Newspapers.

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