US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave from Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS
US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave from Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS

IT IS apposite to start with a note on Diplomacy 101. Ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to South Africa, some say the Americans are about to "invade" us — a possible reference to the huge entourage that will accompany the US "commander-in-chief".

The implication is that we are under attack, but we would do well to avoid using such sloppy language. Diplomacy 101 will teach you that Obama will be hosted by President Jacob Zuma, in response to an invitation following the latter’s visit to the US. Diplomatic pleasantries could have been exchanged then or at any UN summits over the past three years.

One thing is clear, however: the Obamas are coming because they have an agenda. Part of the aim is certainly to compete with the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China, alongside South Africa) in the scramble for African resources, and in particular to challenge China’s ascendency. Other political and economic motives are at play too.

How should South Africa respond? Let me pretend for a moment that I am Zuma’s international relations adviser, Lindiwe Zulu. What would I tell my boss? I would raise substantive issues and I would be forthright. I would tell him that his American guest’s long-awaited "historic" second trip to Africa comes at a time when the differences between Washington and Pretoria are real and palpable, yet in a curious sense it is a very cordial relationship.

So real are the differences from the fallout caused by recent developments — the illegal UN-sanctioned war against Libya, which came about in part because of South Africa’s support for UN Security Council resolution 1973; Zuma’s threat to "look east"; Washington’s chagrin at South Africa’s Brics membership — that the two presidents may struggle to reconcile their differences through diplomacy.

Obama has described South Africa as one of the US’s most important "strategic partners" in Africa, but is it? It is up to Zuma to show bold leadership and clarify to the Americans what it is that we want out of the relationship — but he should do so before they do it for us.

Start with our foreign policy, not just with the West but in general. A bit diffuse of late, our policy is difficult to figure out at times. On the extension of the US’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), I would be open with alliance partners the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, as well as broader organised civil society formations, to show that the government is in favour of it and not concede that "Uncle Sam" is foisting it on us.

Make plain our commitment to values of peace, human rights and resolution of conflicts. Emphasise our belief in the legitimacy of multilateral institutions and co-operation. Zuma should remind Obama of the need to give emerging powers and developing countries an enhanced role in world affairs, primarily through multilateralism. We favour global governance reform of political institutions such as the UN and financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The US should be at the forefront of restoring the credibility of multilateralism, not undermining it.

Since 1994 we have been in favour of a rules-based global order and we should take this opportunity to emphasise stability and democratisation, international partnership and sustainable development. Let the US know that we are expecting greater leadership, co-operation and support from it in this regard. The Group of 20, Brics, the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s chairmanship of the African Union (AU) Commission are all efforts to serve African interests. They are not Western preserves.

The US should offer more active support for the AU peace and security regime, and here I would remind Obama that it is our stated policy that the US Africa Command be used to help establish a "rapid reaction force" on the continent aimed at responding more effectively to conflicts. This would remind the US that the republic should not be expected to engage in heavy-handed tactics in the world. We believe in negotiations with all, whether the Myanmar government, Zanu (PF), the Taliban or both sides in Côte d’Ivoire.

We should also put the Middle East crises, particularly Israel-Palestine and Syria, on the agenda, as well as Iran and the broader issue of nuclear weapons proliferation. Zuma should suggest the US has a moral and global responsibility to show greater leadership and even-handedness on these issues. South Africa should express its strong preference for a diplomatic solution and reject military options, in line with its stated policy that Israel is behaving worse than the apartheid regime and that Iran has a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The US has a responsibility to show it is in favour of a civilian nuclear programme. Iran should not be made the scapegoat: India, Pakistan and especially Israel should come under pressure to give up their nuclear arsenals, while the permanent five members of the UN Security Council — the US, China, Russia, France and the UK — should all meet their obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons by reducing their nuclear arsenal and engaging in serious arms reduction. The nuclear weapons issue is one area, alongside the peaceful settlements of disputes, where South Africa has developed tremendous credibility and moral standing over the past 20 years.

I would end my half-hour meeting with Zuma by saying that the choice of a "town hall" meeting with young Africans — to be hosted by the University of Johannesburg with a focus on the theme of leadership — should not be taken lightly. We do not need Americans to remind us about the importance of leadership. Rather, as Africans, we have to recognise the value of strategic leadership. If we do not, the Americans, French, British, Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, Russians and others may just succeed in turning us into the "last frontier".

Zuma and Obama should note that few African countries are in the unique position to exercise an independent foreign policy backed up by a resolute diplomacy. South Africa is one of the few. Start to show some resolve!

• Landsberg is NRF SARChi chair: african diplomacy and foreign policy at the University of Johannesburg, and a senior associate at the UJ School of Leadership.