Putin the Great
Russia’s Imperial Impostor
Amid conservative hopes for a settlement and liberal fears of a sell-out, Harold Wilson arrived dramatically at Gibraltar at midnight on October 8, 1968, prepared to meet Ian Smith aboard HMS Fearless to discuss the three- year-old Rhodesian crisis. Thus one more move was made in the contest that has been stalemated ever since it began on November 11, 1965, when the white minority government in Rhodesia made a unilateral declaration of the territory's independence (UDI). Despite the hopes and fears surrounding the Wilson-Smith meeting, the Fearless talks left the situation virtually unchanged. What turned out to be more significant than the talks themselves were the national and international pressures which lay behind the decision of the two sides to meet.
British efforts to force a "return to legality" in Rhodesia have been rendered largely ineffective from the outset by the British announcement well before independence had been declared that force would not be used to bring down the Smith régime and maintain Rhodesia as a British territory. Given the domestic political climate in Britain at the time, the decision against the use of force was probably the only realistic course open to Wilson; yet the public announcement of this policy before the threat of force had been used to full strategic advantage was a serious blunder.
Once force had been ruled out, the only recourse left to the Labor Government at the time of UDI was the imposition of economic sanctions. These included the prohibition of arms exports to Rhodesia, a ban on exports of British capital, a denial of access to the London capital market, a denial of all Commonwealth trade preferences and export credits, and a ban on the importation of Rhodesian tobacco and sugar, which together represented more than one-third of Rhodesia's exports. Although these selective measures hardly lived up to Wilson's promise to "throw the book" at Mr. Smith, they were as far as Wilson was prepared to go.
A Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in September 1966 set November 30 of that year as the final date for a Rhodesian solution, and gained British assurances that if no settlement was reached by then an appeal would be made to the United Nations for selective mandatory economic sanctions. Moreover, all offers for a settlement would be withdrawn and replaced by insistence that there would be no independence before majority rule (NIBMAR).
This led to the earlier face-to-face encounter between Wilson and Smith aboard HMS Tiger in early December 1966. The terms offered by Wilson were much more favorable to the whites of Rhodesia than most observers thought Wilson was prepared to offer, for they provided that Rhodesia would continue to be controlled by the white minority. Wilson defended his offer by maintaining that it was consistent with these six principles, which he considered essential to an acceptable agreement:
1. The principle and intention of unimpeded progress to majority rule . . . would have to be maintained and guaranteed.
2. There would also have to be guarantees against retrogressive amendment of the Constitution.
3. There would have to be immediate improvement in the political status of the African population.
4. There would have to be progress toward ending racial discrimination.
5. The British Government would need to be satisfied that any basis proposed for independence was acceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole.
6. It would be necessary to ensure that, regardless of race, there was no oppression of majority by minority or of minority by majority.
The British proposal was offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, with Smith being given 48 hours to accept it and call off the rebellion. After Smith had returned to Salisbury and indicated that these terms were unacceptable to his government, Wilson declared, in keeping with the undertakings given at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference, that there would be no independence before majority rule. Despite British insistence in previous U.N. debates that Rhodesia was solely a British responsibility and not a legitimate concern of the United Nations, Wilson also asked the Security Council to impose selective mandatory sanctions. By Security Council action, member states of the United Nations were prohibited from importing key Rhodesian exports and were required to prevent their nations from assisting with the importation of oil or oil products, arms and military equipment, aircraft and motor vehicles to Rhodesia.
The selective character of the sanctions and their open violation by South Africa and Portugal, plus the covert violation by various French, German, Swiss and Japanese firms, have meant that the sanctions program has failed to bring Rhodesia to her knees.
It has been impossible to assess the actual impact of the sanctions program on the Rhodesian economy, largely because the Rhodesian government has been unwilling to release accurate economic statistics. It is likely that the curtailment of real economic growth since 1965 and the precarious state of Rhodesia's foreign reserves, plus the feared consequences of the comprehensive U.N. sanctions imposed in May 1968, were of some significance in inducing Smith to meet with Wilson on the Fearless. However, many other factors were also involved in this decision, and the fact that he turned down the terms then offered is indicative that the economic squeeze is not great enough to force many concessions.
Despite Wilson's pledge at the 1966 Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference that there would be no granting of independence before majority rule, the terms Wilson offered on the Fearless allowed for continued white control. They were largely a restatement of the Tiger proposals, although in some respects they were even more attractive-for example, the concession to Smith that only a token return to legality would be required before the granting of full independence. Despite the 1-20 ratio of whites to Africans in Rhodesia, the whites would have little difficulty maintaining control and forming an all-white government as a result of stiff voter qualifications and reserved seats for Europeans. Wilson committed a British contribution of up to $120 million for African education in Rhodesia, on the condition that it be matched by the Smith régime. This was to be Britain's effort to bring Africans into the mainstream of a society in which white domination is defended on the basis of low educational achievement by Africans.
The parts of the British proposal which Smith and his government found the least palatable were the safeguards against retrogressive amendment of the "entrenched clauses" in the Constitution, which include such key items as the Declaration of Rights and the statement of franchise qualifications. One such safeguard is the requirement that at least one-fourth of the legislature be composed of popularly elected Africans, with the concurrent requirement that the entrenched clauses can only be amended by a vote of at least three-quarters of the legislature; this is the so-called "blocking quarter." The other safeguard is the requirement that amendments to entrenched clauses be reviewed by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, a provision Smith argues allows for only incomplete sovereignty.
At the conclusion of the Fearless talks. Smith summed up his government's position with the statement, "There is no doubt that we can improve on these terms from the Rhodesian point of view and I will certainly not allow myself to be deviated from this objective." Hoping there might still be grounds for a settlement, Wilson sent George Thomson, Minister Without Portfolio in charge of Rhodesian Affairs, to Salisbury for further talks, but after two weeks there he returned to London and the Fearless chapter came to an end. Talks may reopen again, but the crisis is far from being resolved.
The question remains why Wilson and Smith agreed to meet on the Fearless. To some extent each side miscalculated the readiness of the other to make new concessions. Wilson felt that Smith's position in Rhodesia had been significantly strengthened over the summer. He had succeeded in ousting some of his severest critics from the Rhodesian Front, the ruling party, and had emerged from the party congress in September with new strength and bargaining power. Moreover, a visit to Salisbury by Sir Alec Douglas-Home in March 1968 led him to announce that Smith was prepared to make concessions in order to arrive at a settlement. Although envoys sent by Wilson to Salisbury in September did not return with such optimistic reports as those of Sir Alec, they did report that the time might be propitious for productive talks.
Part of Smith's conflict with the conservative wing of the Rhodesian Front has been over the question of whether it was possible and judicious to reach a settlement at all. To some degree Smith was bound by the logic of his own rhetoric to make an effort to reach a settlement if the opportunity presented itself. Moreover, in addition to the pressures exerted by economic sanctions, there was the increasing guerrilla activity within the country, which may have been of greater importance to Smith.
The first sustained battle between guerrilla fighters and Rhodesian forces occurred in August 1967, and the level of guerrilla activity has grown steadily since then. Some raids are probably launched from bases across the border in Zambia, but most appear to originate from bases within Rhodesia itself. South African Prime Minister Vorster considers the guerrilla threat sufficiently serious to send substantial military aid to Rhodesia, including men as well as arms. Noting the increased level of military activity, the Johannesburg Sunday Times has stated, "The guerrilla campaign against Rhodesia is now a full-scale war of attrition." The level of military activity still falls short of that in neighboring Mozambique and Angola, but its development must certainly play an important role in Smith's calculations. The concessions which the Rhodesian Front is prepared to make concerning "unimpeded progress to majority rule" are so insignificant that a settlement with the British made on such terms would certainly not satisfy the leaders of the two nationalist parties, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), and thus would not bring an end to guerrilla activity. However, support for the guerrillas among villagers and the urban proletariat would probably be less enthusiastic and energetic if a settlement were reached.
Domestic political considerations loom large as factors shaping Wilson's various positions and policies regarding Rhodesia. Probably to a greater extent than on any other significant policy issue facing him since he took office, Wilson has assiduously sought the support of the Conservative Party on the Rhodesian issue. Until the general election in March 1966, the Labor Party's four-seat majority led Wilson to fear that Conservative opposition combined with some backbench Labor opposition to a British confrontation with the Rhodesians would bring his government down. In the wake of the talks on the Fearless, Wilson could face serious opposition from within his own party with the assurance that, if a showdown came in the House of Commons, he could count on most Conservative MPs to side with him.
The growing political embarrassment created by Conservative claims that Smith was ready to talk and reach an honorable settlement, if Wilson would only arrange talks, was one reason Wilson agreed to meet Smith. These claims arose from the conversations of Sir Alec Douglas-Home and other Conservative leaders with Smith in Salisbury over the previous twelve months. The rejection of the terms offered by Wilson on the Fearless undercut the political capital which the Conservatives were making from these charges. Moreover, the timing of the talks enabled Wilson to upstage the Conservatives at their annual conference, which took place at the same time Wilson and Smith were meeting.
In the process of pacifying the Conservatives, Wilson has alienated many Labor backbenchers and local party leaders. At the annual Labor Party conference at Blackpool in early October, the delegates passed a motion criticizing the Government's Rhodesian policy. Observers in London estimate that 100 Labor MPs would have been prepared to vote against the terms offered in October if they had been presented in Parliament for endorsement, and that some non-cabinet ministers would have resigned if the terms had proved to be acceptable to Smith. One might argue that to arouse such opposition within his own party was more costly politically than to alienate the Opposition, but Wilson seems to have decided that it was easier on this issue to weld a coalition between the Conservatives and the right wing of his own party than to try to devise a policy which would be acceptable to all parts of the Labor Party.
Despite the fact that by going to Gibraltar for the Fearless talks Wilson undercut Conservative criticism and by not reaching a settlement he was able to pacify Labor dissidents, Wilson did not arrange the meeting simply as a political man?uvre: he wanted a settlement. The sanctions imposed on Rhodesia take their toll of Britain's economy through loss of export sales and increased cost of certain imports. More importantly, the Rhodesian crisis is straining British relations with South Africa, whose role as a trading partner is much more important than Rhodesia's.
The psychological burden of confronting such a prolonged crisis has also been an important stimulus to reaching a settlement. Colin Legum in a recent article in the Observer writes, "Scuttling out of Southern Africa- and thus avoiding involvement in its seemingly unresolvable problems-is now a fashionable element of British foreign policy. It appeals as much to the realpolitik instincts of Labor's managers as it does to the Tories." The inability of the British to find a solution, or to force a solution on the Rhodesians, is also a sharp reminder of Britain's growing impotence in international affairs. Moreover, the bungling of this last episode in Britain's colonial history, in contrast to the remarkable ease with which earlier chapters have been closed, is not something for which Harold Wilson would like to be remembered.
Britain's offer of such favorable terms to the whites of Rhodesia also reflects the lack of support Wilson could count on from other major world powers in a confrontation with Rhodesia and South Africa. The United States is certainly not prepared to offer military support for such a confrontation, either during the Viet Nam war or after. Nor could the British count on major support for economic sanctions against Portugal and South Africa, which is the only possible way of making economic sanctions against Rhodesia effective. This point, however, is academic, since Wilson has asserted from the outset that no steps against Rhodesia will be taken at the risk of a confrontation, either military or economic, with South Africa. In fact, the Board of Trade is vigorously pushing a program to expand British trade with South Africa, Wilson's efforts to avoid offending South Africa take the economic sting out of the sanctions, and take the moral sting out of Wilson's rather pious condemnations of racism in Rhodesia.
Despite South Africa's active military and economic support of Rhodesia, Vorster does not appear willing to prop up the Smith régime indefinitely. In fact, he is the person most likely to be able to effect an agreement between Smith and Wilson. His pressure on Smith and his assurance to Wilson of possible success in negotiations were major factors leading Wilson and Smith to meet at Gibraltar. Although Vorster claims he is proposing no formula for a settlement and that the character of a settlement should be determined by the British and the Rhodesians, he has made no secret of his desire for some sort of resolution of the situation.
A major concern of Vorster is the guerrilla activity in Rhodesia. As an advocate of the domino theory, his sending of military support to Rhodesia is based on the fear that guerrilla successes in Rhodesia would pave the way for guerrilla attacks on South Africa. His fears are compounded by the fact that guerrilla activity in Rhodesia is a joint effort by ZAPU and the African National Congress (ANC), a South African nationalist organization. The threat to South Africa was dramatized in August by the killing of a South African soldier by the guerrillas in Rhodesia. One South African newspaper described it as the first shot in communism's war of conquest on South Africa. In August 1968, war games were staged in South Africa, and were described as being in preparation for a possible "terrorist invasion." These exercises constituted South Africa's most significant military operation since World War II. Vorster probably does not believe that a settlement in Rhodesia would end guerrilla activity, but he does think that the chances of its success would be reduced.
South African leaders are also concerned about the sanctions imposed against Rhodesia. In economic terms, South Africa has benefited from the sanctions, because of the profits involved in supplying Rhodesia with prohibited goods and the increase in trade with Zambia resulting from that country's efforts to lessen its economic ties with Rhodesia. (Between 1965 and 1967 Zambian purchases of South African goods jumped from $56 million to $90 million.) South Africa fears the possibility that world pressure might lead to sanctions being imposed against itself for violating the sanctions imposed on Rhodesia.
The Rhodesian situation and South Africa's support for Smith have also placed South Africa once again in the uncomfortable position of being in the international limelight. Once the South West Africa case had been disposed of by the World Court, South Africa hoped to avoid international attention and criticism. She feels that a settlement in Rhodesia might finally enable her to do so. Of equal importance is Vorster's fear that continued South African support for the rebellious white government in Rhodesia will endanger the success of his new "outward-looking" policy, the intention of which is to improve South Africa's relations with her black neighbors. Buoyed by the coöperative spirit being demonstrated by the three former High Commission Territories (Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland) and by Malawi, Vorster feels there is a good chance he can buy the coöperation of countries such as Zambia as well, thereby creating a cushion of black buffer states whose coöperation would be secured through aid and economic dependence. Similarly, Vorster seems ready to accept the possibility of eventual African control of Rhodesia, for he feels that Rhodesian economic dependence on South Africa will assure coöperation by that country's government, whether the leadership is black or white. If eventual African control in Salisbury is likely, a peaceful settlement between the British and the Rhodesians would be preferred by South Africa because there is greater likelihood of a black government being coöperative if control is passed into African hands through peaceful settlement than if it is the result of military success by ZAPU's guerrilla forces.
Preposterous as it may appear to observers familiar with Zambia for South Africans to believe that the Zambian leadership would permit their country to become a South African satellite, Vorster believes it is possible, and rightly feels that Zambia is the key to the success or failure of South Africa's outward policy. P. M. Botha, South Africa's Minister of Defense, said recently of President Kaunda's efforts to buy weapons in Britain, "If he would be realistic and seek true friendship, it would not be necessary to look for weapons against Southern Africa. He should rather expel the terrorists from his country and together with the rest of Southern Africa build up a strong force against communism, which aims to subject Zambia and the other countries in Southern Africa to slavery. Kaunda is looking for his friends in the wrong places." South Africans feel that the longer they are seen to be propping up the Smith régime, the less likelihood there is that Zambia can be enticed into an attitude like Malawi's.
Kaunda has not been responsive to these overtures. In October 1968 he replied, "In South Africa the Prime Minister, Mr. Vorster, has of late consistently declared that he favored friendship with Zambia. This declaration is welcome; but I have to say quite clearly that nothing stands between South Africa and Zambia in fostering friendship and coöperation except that Government's policy of apartheid which, frankly, is the policy of oppression and exploitation. . . . Let Afrikaners show respect to Africans in South Africa and manifest genuinely the spirit of coöperation among all sections of the South African community including the African majority. Then I will be more than ready to extend in full my hand of friendship on the basis of true equality and for mutual advantage." Zambia fortunately has sufficient economic strength to enable her to stand beyond South Africa's reach.
If Vorster decides that a Rhodesian settlement is highly desirable, he can exert considerable leverage. Although the sanctions imposed have not hurt sufficiently to bring Rhodesia to her knees, this has been largely due to the assistance rendered by South Africa. Smith knows that if South Africa stops the flow of goods in and out of his country he will be in serious trouble. The question remains of how much leverage Vorster is prepared to use to force the Smith government to agree to a settlement that it finds distasteful. Vorster reportedly promised Wilson before the Fearless talks that he could assure Britain of Smith's readiness to sign an agreement if the British did not insist upon the Privy Council's right to pass on constitutional amendments. Now that Wilson has insisted on retaining this blocking mechanism, it remains to be seen whether Vorster is prepared to force a concession by Smith on this issue. If Wilson is prepared to make some concessions on the South African arms embargo, Vorster might be willing to exert the necessary pressure on Smith to accept the British terms, including the right of review by the Privy Council.
The history of Rhodesia is closely intertwined with that of South Africa. It was colonized from South Africa, many Rhodesians have been educated there and it is economically dependent upon the Republic. In 1923 Rhodesian whites voted down by only a slim margin a proposal that Rhodesia be incorporated into South Africa. However, one must be careful not to exaggerate the importance of these ties in assessing South Africa's motives and in predicting her strategy. An important factor to be borne in mind is that South Africans do not generally view Rhodesian whites as being their equals. They think they are rather crude and lack sophistication, as a result of their predominantly lower middle-class background. Moreover, an Afrikaner government is ever aware that the Rhodesians are of British origin.
As Rhodesia's neighbor and former partner in the Central African Federation, Zambia probably has more at stake in the Rhodesian crisis than any other country. Although the Zambian diplomat who characterized Britain as a "toothless bulldog" was not speaking with authorization he was offering a fairly accurate description of Zambia's assessment of Britain's Rhodesia policy. President Kaunda has consistently, and accurately, maintained that economic sanctions will not achieve their purpose, and that British military action is the only means of achieving a return to legality. Zambia, even with support from African and Western allies, is not sufficiently strong to consider a confrontation of its own with Rhodesia. Kaunda has, however, apparently allowed the ZAPU-ANC guerrilla bands to maintain bases in Zambia.
Even this limited support for ZAPU's military efforts has proved to be risky for Zambia. South African military reconnaissance planes occasionally fly over Zambian territory and talk of an attack against Zambia is heard with increasing frequency in Salisbury and Pretoria. The Israeli military strategy in the Six Day War is seen by many Rhodesians and South Africans as the best means of wiping out guerrilla bases in Zambia and of teaching Zambia a lesson concerning the balance of power in southern Africa. The lingering hope in South Africa that Zambia can be won over to a coöperative position by other means is the principal deterrent to quick and decisive military action.
To forestall such a possibility, Zambia has recently sought to build up an air force and purchase and install a defensive missile system. Although this constitutes a sizeable investment for a country of Zambia's size and level of development, Kaunda feels that the risks entailed in remaining defenseless against an attack from the south justify the costs.
The investment in a defense system constitutes only a fraction of the costs to Zambia resulting from UDI and from her efforts to break economic ties with Rhodesia. In addition to having to open road routes to the sea through Tanzania, construct a petroleum pipeline to Dar es Salaam, open new coal mines and organize a separate railway operation, Zambia has been forced to become more economically dependent upon South Africa. As a long-term solution to its transportation needs, Zambia and Tanzania plan to build a 1200-mile rail link between the Copperbelt and Dar es Salaam at an estimated cost of $300 million. This is to be done through loans and technical assistance from the Chinese. Added to the economic costs of these projects are the obvious political costs of these new ties with South Africa and China.
Aside from whatever hospitality Zambia offers the guerrilla forces, her leverage on Britain and Rhodesia to reach an acceptable settlement is not very great. Kaunda's principal weapon in fighting a British sellout to the Rhodesian whites is a threat to pull Zambia out of the Commonwealth and encourage other members to do the same. Wilson considers the Commonwealth an important institution to preserve, if only as a last reminder of the glories of Britain's imperial past. However, he has felt that a settlement based on the six principles, reached at the right moment, and defended persuasively, would keep the Commonwealth intact. British businessmen have recently accused the Zambian government of discriminating against them in the award of contracts, but even if the charge is true, this sort of economic pressure is unlikely to be of much significance. In fact, Zambia's purchases of British goods have risen substantially since UDI, and it would be very difficult for Zambia to loosen the economic ties between the two countries.
There has been some uncertainty concerning the role the new Portuguese leaders might want Portugal and Mozambique to play vis-à-vis Rhodesia. There was speculation that Lisbon might loosen its grip on Mozambique and Angola, and also that there might be a move by the settlers to strike a bargain with nationalist leaders and declare the independence of the two territories. The new Portuguese President, Dr. Caetano, now appears to be continuing Salazar's African policies, which will probably mean continued coöperation with Smith in seeing that such essential imports as petroleum reach Rhodesia. A declaration of independence by a multiracial government in Mozambique seems unlikely, but if it happened and was successful, then a serious economic blow would be struck against the Rhodesians.
Although the Rhodesian crisis was one of the two central topics of discussion at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in January, no important shifts in position followed. Twenty-three of the 28 Commonwealth nations represented urged Wilson to return to the NIBMAR position he took following the 1966 conference, but Wilson clung to his declaration that the Fearless terms were still "on the table."
It became obvious that a British settlement with Rhodesia could not be forestalled by Commonwealth pressures, although Wilson did seem to be impressed by the argument made by several heads of state that teeth would have to be put into his fifth principle concerning the test of acceptability. In other words, the Royal Commission which would be set up to determine whether the terms of a settlement were acceptable to Rhodesians would have to do more than seek the opinions of government- appointed chiefs. In what was claimed by many to be the most forceful speech of the Conference, President Nyerere of Tanzania is reported to have said that on only two occasions in the past has the British Government relinquished control of a colony to a government not based on the clear will of the majority. One of these was South Africa, where the Africans are still suffering the consequences, and the other is Zanzibar, where the minority government was soon overturned.
With the Commonwealth Conference out of the way, a final attempt to reach a settlement will probably be made this coming spring. Both Wilson and Smith seem eager for one last try. Those whose interests will be least represented will again be the four million Africans who make up 95 percent of Rhodesia's population. Although in his discussions with Smith on the Fearless Wilson claimed to be their representative, the real determinants of British policy are the economic and political implications for Britain of various types of settlements. South Africa's position is not based on any concern for the welfare of Rhodesia's Africans, and this is true for Portugal as well. Those who are concerned are either not sufficiently concerned or not powerful enough to force a solution favorable to the Africans; hence the final outcome will be dictated primarily by what are thought to be the national interests of Britain and South Africa, rather than the interest of the vast majority of Rhodesia's population.