Southern Africa: Eight Years Later

Courtesy Reuters

In the winter of 1980-81 I analyzed the question of American involvement in southern Africa in the pages of this journal.1 I discussed a set of concepts-"constructive engagement in the region as a whole"-as a possible basis for pursuing American interests in southern Africa. It seemed to me at the time that this phrase was self-evidently consistent with mainstream U.S. internationalism and essential to the very meaning of activist diplomacy.

I recognized that there was a major risk in suggesting that the United States was prepared to deal seriously and substantively with a distant foreign policy minefield with which Americans were overwhelmingly unfamiliar. The risk, in other words, seemed to lie in its very ambition, its commitment to a realistic and sustained pursuit of U.S. goals in the region as a whole (the concept was not proposed as the basis of policy toward South Africa alone).

If we were to undertake such a commitment, I argued, we would need to base our actions on a solid grasp of the region's dynamics and to have the ability to interpret its actors and their motives. We would require an adequate internal consensus to prevent Americans and South Africans from exploiting each other's internal debates and conflicts. Finally, we would need to recognize the sharp limits on U.S. influence and to focus carefully on the likely consequences of possible U.S. actions.

In describing the possibilities for constructive Western statesmanship, the 1980 article painted a sober picture of a deeply troubled region. Regarding South Africa, it underscored the ambiguity of political trends within Afrikanerdom. It was far from certain what the newly emerged coalition of "modernizers" and "reformers" assembled by then Prime Minister P. W. Botha would attempt to do with its more streamlined and centralized decision-making apparatus. The article foresaw both "autocratic political change" imposed from above and "continued and even gradually increasing political conflict and violence."

Beyond South Africa itself, the 1980 article foresaw an aggressive external posture by

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