Of Zim foreign policy and national interests

Tatenda Mashanda Correspondent
In 2012, Bowden Mbanje and Darlington Mahuku wrote an article in which they posited that Zimbabwean foreign policy should be a reflection of national interests. They argue that international politics is anarchical and foreign policy is decided by the government of the day. They further get into a specific explanation on what they considered key variables to Zimbabwean national interests and foreign policy. They, however, fail to succinctly define national interests, power, and foreign policy.

The purpose of this article is to argue for a strategic understanding of foreign policy considered through a prism of realpolitik.

Since Mbanje and Mahuku’s account is grounded in theoretical explanations, it is important that we set parameters correctly.

Their understanding of interests, power and what influences foreign policy are in line with constructivist and liberal institutionalism.

As John Mearsheimer argues, liberal institutionalists are not interested in addressing how to stop war from happening, but focus their energy on explaining why cooperation among states is more likely based on the role of institutions and common interests.

Constructivists argue for policies that are beyond material interests and realpolitik and ones that are ideational and compel one to look into the domestic black box.

Constructivists maintain that states’ goals, such as security or economic development, are generated by their social corporate identities or how they view themselves in relation to other actors in the international community.

What are national interests?
National interests are an aggregate of what states pursue in line with the elements of power and foreign policy.

I consider foreign policy as the desired end goal of national interests.

It is illogical to argue that there is a universal understanding of what all Zimbabwean national interests are.

Ideal interests are a response to structural dynamics in international politics, usually need for survival and security purposes.

This explains why Zimbabwe would be interested in fighting RENAMO rebels in Mozambique because they pose a security threat.

Actual interests are based on relative power and intervening variables.

This differentiation is important for Zimbabwe because it ensures that we do not make suboptimal foreign policy decisions.

So, what is power?
Power is herein defined as material possession by a state and other assets which are usable in foreign policy.

As Mearsheimer argues, power is the currency of international politics.

Great powers, the main actors in the realist account, pay careful attention to how much economic and military power they have relative to each other.

This applies as well to smaller states, they would do anything to maximise power and influence. Realists ignore cultural differences, domestic politics and regime types among states, mainly because the international system creates the same basic incentives.

The fact that the state is democratic or not has no bearing on how it acts towards other states. It also doesn’t matter who oversees foreign policy or domestic governance. This understanding of power is not absolute and is being used in fluid conceptualisations.

In Zimbabwean context, these are derived from our geostrategic location, population, military prowess, historical alliances and perceptions.

While Mbanje and Mahuku (because of their constructivist perspective) argue that Zimbabwe might have gone into an alliance with China during the liberation struggle due to similar ideologies and culture, I argue that China entered into an alliance with Zimbabwe because it furthered Beijing interests as a rising hegemon, while Zimbabwe was in it for security and military support for independence.

I make an argument that these Zimbabwean considerations were independent of a culture of sameness between the two partners. Chinese culture and domestic political makeup remain alien to our society today. As Stephen Walt noted, “(the) primary purpose of most alliances is to combine members’ capabilities in a way that furthers their respective interests”.

Zimbabwe provided the Chinese with a geostrategic location for them to ensure deterrence and increase their influence. We gained political and diplomatic support and bargaining power.

Constructivists like Alexander Wendt argued that international pressures are indeterminate: because politics are a social construction, structures acquire meaning through shared understandings. Mahuku and Mbanje’s understanding of international politics is derived from these norms and identities.

A constructivist understanding of foreign policy, just like Mbanje and Mahuku’s argument, emphasises the development of identity and domestic politics and how that shapes the way a state conducts itself in international politics.

The authors make an argument that to understand states, you need to consider their domestic culture and politics; thus one cannot understand international relations or how states situate themselves without this understanding. While I agree with the first part of their argument, it is the latter on which we disagree. Though the history and domestic variables are important, it doesn’t really dictate how states act in international politics. It is the anarchical structure of international politics which influences how states act.

While it is important for Zimbabwean policymakers to be cognisant of history at the end of the day, it is imperative for our foreign policy to be pragmatic and discussed through the prism of realpolitik. To that end, I agree with their main thesis that it is erroneous to argue that our foreign policy must be based on respect for international law. This is not only erroneous but dangerous in the long run.

I, however, disagree with their emphasis on domestic history and politics as a variable in foreign policy and international politics.

Their key consideration for domestic politics and histories to understand foreign policy and engagement is unsound. This is flawed because it does not explain the dynamics when domestic culture and politics change, while the foreign policy remain the same or vice versa.

Therefore, the domestic makeup of a state or politics is not a key driver of foreign policy. Understandably, they based their argument on a liberalist scholar Russet, who concluded that domestic actors and institutional settings are important and key drivers of foreign policy.

The argument here is that domestic political culture has a strong bearing on foreign policy, calling us to peer inside a black box of the state.

The problem with this is that it again does not explain when foreign policy tilt and the domestic politics remains the same or when domestic regimes radically change and maintain the same foreign policy.

What explains all this? Power (realpolitik) and structure of international politics are chief drivers of foreign policy; they shape and constrain how states interact.

Of course, one cannot discard all domestic politics and historical influences, but for me, these only serve as intervening variables.

So, what does this all mean? 

If Zimbabwe is developing a competent foreign policy in line with world order and changing African Geopolitics, we need to be pragmatic, which would require paying more attention to realpolitik and only treating domestic politics as intervening variables, not key drivers of foreign policy.

I believe this approach offers us an ability to analyse the big picture of power politics, how power shapes the parameters of foreign policy and how domestic factors can explain some specific choices.

A pragmatic approach helps in systemising foreign policy by conceptually separating power, security, influence, and differentiating ideal and actual Zimbabwean interests. This allows a rich and strategically informed explanation of foreign policy.

This approach is based on the acceptance that we might have national interests but we might pursue other avenues.

Domestic politics is just a filter between the international distribution of power and foreign policy outcome, not key drivers of state behaviour. Though not sufficient power shapes capabilities and intentions even though the link between intentions and capabilities is not rigid.

A country’s foreign policy is determined by its place in the international system and relative power. Foreign policy is very complex because this is a different animal that requires a game of power calculations and a set of rules which most of the times need to discern above domestic politics.

It exists within a realm where there is no 911 to call and norms of everyday society do not apply. This is a prism in which we should situate and imagine Zimbabwean foreign policy.

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  • Wilson Magaya

    Interesting. I read this and wonder why the Mbanje and Mahuku article is of interest now. I had to go through this twice, its complex for me but I did pick a part that I understood to mean that international relations are based on interests and therefore what might have been may no longer hold and should not necessarily guide what should be…

    I like all the reference to all walks of scholars, but what does the son/daughter of the soil say? What is his/her position? I would love to see that in the next offering , if there is going to be one.

  • Kuta Kinte

    Our foreign policy should be fulcrumed on Zimbabwe first and that will guide the way we use power, relations etc on an international plane. History, national interests and the politics of the day also play a significant role in the shaping of our foreign policy and by the way, a foreign policy is not necessarily a copy and paste practice.