Oscar van Heerden reflects on a recent ultimatum to the US Congress, that questions South Africa’s stance on Russia and China, writing that we will not be bullied.
Resorting to bullying tactics is the clearest sign yet of an ailing empire.
It was Francis Fukuyama that famously declared “the end of history”. This he did in his now famous book titled, The End of History and the Last Man. He argued that with the ascendency of Western liberal democracy, which happened after the end of the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, humanity reached what he calls not just the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history.
In other words, the end of humankind’s ideological evolution and the universality of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government.
We now know that he was a tad too hasty when making such bold declarations. He famously drew on philosophers such as Georg Hegel and Karl Marx who define human history as a linear progression from one socioeconomic epoch to another.
Another epoch moment
Well, it seems as a globe, we have arrived at yet another such epoch moments. The war in Ukraine will decisively determine whether we are indeed progressing from one socioeconomic epoch to another. From a unipolar Western liberal democracy world where there is only one global hegemon or a multi-polar world where sovereign nation-states co-exist with mutual respect.
READ | Francis Fukuyama: Putin’s war on the liberal order
Now, as for the veiled threat from Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina in the United States, I can only but think of the Peloponnesian war that occurred in 416 BC. This was a war that was fought between Athens and Sparta.
Melos, was a island in the Aegean Sea roughly 110km east of mainland Greece. Though the Melians had ancestral and historical ties with Sparta, they were essentially neutral in the war. The story goes that Athens invaded Melos and demanded that the Melians surrender and pay tribute to Athens or face annihilation. The Melians refused, so the Athenians laid siege to their city.
Melos surrendered in the winter, and the Athenians executed the men of Melos and enslaved the women and children.
No justification for invasion
This history we get from the Athenian historian Thucydides. He tells us that during the negotiations, the Athenians offered no moral justification for their invasion, but instead bluntly told the Melians that Athens needed Melos for its own ends and that the only thing Melians stood to gain in submitting without a fight was self-preservation.
It is taught as a classic case study these days in political realism to illustrate that selfish and pragmatic concerns motivate a country at war. In other words, the Athenians offered the Melians an ultimatum, surrender and pay tribute to Athens, or be destroyed. The Athenians do not wish to waste time arguing over the morality of the situation because, in practice, might makes right – or, in their own words, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
How history repeats itself, with the US (Athens), through this ridiculous submission to Congress, puts an ultimatum to the South Africans (Melos): Surrender and pay tribute to the US, condemn Russia, stop any further contact with the Chinese Communist Party or be destroyed. And before any of you want to argue that I’m being melodramatic, well, take a look at the threats the US have made against China, Brazil, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now South Africa. The resolution from Senator Graham goes further to state that on several fronts (too extortive to mention all here), the Biden administration must thoroughly review the US–SA relationship.
READ | Dirco unmoved by US resolution questioning SA stance on China and Russia
Among other matters, it mentions our bilateral trade arrangement and questions South Africa’s inclusion and accommodation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act. It speaks to the trade and investment framework agreement facilitating two-way trade. It conveniently reminds us that the US is the largest source of foreign direct investment in South Africa and that there are more than 600 American companies operating in the country.
It states all this with the sole purpose of saying to the Biden administration these are the pertinent matters to consider as you conduct the comprehensive review of US–SA relationship.
In short, everything is on the table or off the table, depending on which way you look at it.
Fallen prey to power and money
There was a time when the world genuinely admired the US. Its innovation and advances technologically, socially and indeed economically far surpassed any in the world. Silicon Valley remains the heartbeat of all the internet of things.
Its soft power influence through Hollywood, beverages like Coke and Pepsi, is everyday life for most global citizens. And yet, it fell prey, like most empires before it, to the lure of power and money.
It made the same mistakes as the former empires, overextending itself, and wanting more and more, unable to satisfy its insatiable need for greed. It has more than 800 military bases around the globe, an economy that is so overstretched, and it relies and functions largely on debt.
The socioeconomic conditions of a large proportion of its own population are dire, and those who live in squalor are unfathomable. And yet it insists on wanting to tell others how to conduct their own affairs and how they should or should not execute their foreign policy objectives. Mind your own business.
This once admired people whose anthem boldly professes,
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free
And the home of the brave?
All I can say is, how far the empire has fallen.
No good Sir, Lindsay Graham, your bully tactics will not alter the course of history.
Best you accept this reality, difficult as it must be.
In a world where it’s the US against China/Russia, I would remind you of Thucydides, Senator, when he said, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”. This is one of those moments that Fukuyama spoke of, moving from one socioeconomic epoch to another. It’s complicated, I know, but we, as South Africans (Melians), are not the guys you should be picking on.
This is not our war. This bullying constitutes the violation of the most fundamental of laws in the international system, that of the sovereignty of nation-states.
I need not remind you that in the end, it would be another decade of warfare before Spartan General Lysander defeated the Athenian fleet. This defeat led to Athenian surrender. As a result, the Peloponnesian war was concluded. And here’s the kicker: simultaneous to the end of this conflict came the end of the golden age of ancient Greece and its indomitable role and posture in global affairs. Ponder that, if you will.
– Dr Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of international relations (IR), where he focuses on international political economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular.
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