Multilateralism among the Brics countries hides a number of ulterior motives from members big and small, says Peter Fabricius.
Pretoria - The Presidency seems very chuffed that Russian President Vladimir Putin singled out President Jacob Zuma for special praise at the G20 summit in St Petersburg last week, as a champion of small nations opposing US-led Western plans to attack Syria militarily.
Putin told reporters that Zuma had done a “remarkable thing” at the summit by highlighting the unintended consequences of a unilateral military strike on Syria. Zuma had said small nations felt increasingly vulnerable and unprotected because, “It seems like a more powerful country can use force at any time at its own discretion”.
“And he is right,” Putin added. “That is the direction things are going.”
Zuma’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, told City Press that Zuma had appealed to the G20 leaders to “respect the international institutions”. After that, “everybody felt free from the other countries to take that side”.
So, Zuma told Obama, Hollande and the rest where to get off. And inspired a revolt of the smaller countries. Which maybe – it’s not quite clear if the implication goes that far – prevented Obama from winning G20 support for his Syrian plans.
Well. That’s certainly powerful diplomacy.
Forget, for a moment, though, that South Africa was already firmly in the Russian camp before the G20 summit, not only through their joint membership of Brics but also because of what seems to be a growing affinity between the Russian and South African governments and between Zuma and the strongman Putin in particular.
Brics – the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa forum or bloc of emerging nations – has, as perhaps its primary raison d’etre, a strongly felt need to counterbalance what it perceives as the dominance of the US and its Western allies in world affairs.
It is likely that South Africa decided to join Brics when Russia elevated the grouping to summit level in 2008 and gave it a political profile, as a force to challenge the West.
Frustrating an American move to bomb Syria would be a textbook Brics manoeuvre and so it is hard to imagine that the Brics leaders – who met separately, in St Petersburg, as they do at all G20 summits – did not caucus Zuma’s intervention. In any case, it should have come as no surprise.
Zuma and Putin’s invocation of multilateralism to oppose Obama’s Syrian attack is of course a powerful argument in itself. But it does not take deep insight into diplomacy to observe that a resort to multilateralism often masks national interests. In Russia’s case, as we know, that national interest is that Syria is a strategic ally, providing Moscow, for instance, with its only warm-water military port.
It is somewhat ironic that at the first Brics summit in Russia in 2008, the leaders all duly intoned that, “We reiterate the importance we attach to the status of India and Brazil in international affairs, and understand and support their aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations”.
That was an oblique reference to the aspirations of India and Brazil to get permanent seats on an expanded UN Security Council, an aspiration South Africa shares. Similar declarations have been issued at all subsequent Brics summits – but all couched in the same fuzzy language, because, of course, Russia and China, the two current permanent Security Council members in Brics, have no intention of diluting their power there by admitting any other countries to the charmed circle.
So much for multilateralism.
For the ANC government, too, multilaterism can be something of a mask. Putin, who is growing increasingly assertive in world affairs, is the world leader the ANC has long been waiting for, to stand up to the US and the West.
He also embodies for some, one suspects, nostalgia for the old Soviet Union, which was the ANC’s military and ideological mentor – but only the demise of which, ironically, cleared its path to power.
Presumably the ANC will not follow Putin too far down the road of nostalgia, by imitating the strongarm tactics he uses to maintain complete control at home.
* Peter Fabricius is foreign editor of Independent Newspapers.