Context matters for a proper foreign policy stance… The Jerusalem switch

By Titani Chalira*

Decisions made by the President have the capacity of making or breaking a Country. This makes it reasonable for the citizenry to question what the President does. Recently, Malawi established diplomatic ties with Israel. Many probed this stance. The views were divergent. Some were arguing that as a Country we should be independent in every sense of the word, even if it means going against common practice in issues of foreign policy. Others were saying that the implications of such a position are negative for the Country.

Historically, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda made a number of foreign policy decisions whose consequences are still being felt in the present day. Likewise all the leaders that have been there after him have made their own decisions, which have had a significant bearing on the Country’s trajectory. Before appreciating what some of the former Malawi leaders did in terms of foreign policy, it is good to have a fair picture of what foreign policy means.

Malawi’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eisenhower Mkaka and Israel Prime Minister. Benjamin Netanyahu

Rafiq Hajat summarily defines foreign policy as ‘having national objectives to be achieved and the means of achieving them through international relations’. This happens through a plan put in place by the state. Foreign policy has objectives and there are four significant ones as outlined by Hajat. These objectives are; national security, economic growth and development, safeguarding or augmenting national power in relation to other states and international prestige.

Foreign policy is also influenced by external and internal factors. With regard to external factors the structure of the international system whether bipolar or global has a bearing on foreign policy direction which a state takes. Interests and actions of other state actors affect the manner a state makes foreign policy positions. The character of the world economy pushes states to adopt certain foreign policy positions. International or regional issues, international law/organisations and multinational corporations also externally influence foreign policy positions of states.

Internal factors that do influence foreign policy include; geographic and topographic features, government structure and ideology, economic conditions, socio-economic conditions, public opinion and leadership perceptions. 

Dr. Kamuzu Banda as President made a number of foreign policy decisions and some of the prominent ones were; establishment of relations with the apartheid South African government, Mozambique and Taiwan instead of mainland China. The international system was bipolar then, with the western and eastern blocks which were capitalist and communist in ideology respectively. Malawi was pro-western and needed economic resources.

This influenced the decision to side with the apartheid government in South Africa. The western powers tolerated this arrangement to avoid losing Malawi to communist influence. Dr. Kamuzu Banda was also aware of our geographical position as a landlocked Country and the economic conditions prevailing at the time. Switching to South Africa brought forth resources that helped in a number of projects in the building of the capital Lilongwe.

In return he was not supportive of the activities of the African National Congress (ANC) who were fighting apartheid in the frontline states which essentially were the neighboring countries. With Mozambique at first, Dr. Kamuzu Banda was promised a huge chunk of land with access to the Indian Ocean by the Salazar administration. He had to stop the Frelimo fighters from passing through Malawi. Samora Machel then planted SMAM missiles on the common borders with Malawi in anger.

After independence in Mozambique, Dr. Kamuzu Banda supported the RENAMO bandits due to his ties with South Africa. These bandits were a tool to destabilize Mozambique because a stable Mozambique meant more support for the ANC fighting against the apartheid government. Relations with People’s Republic of China were rejected and instead he opted for Taiwan because of the pro-western stance. The TAZARA railway line built by communist China, connecting Tanzania and Zambia which could have been our viable alternative route to access goods became a missed opportunity.

Disputed: City of Jerusalem

All these foreign policy decisions achieved some level of security, economic development and augmented state relations. At the same time strained relations were a result especially with our neighboring countries that had been frontline states and were not pro-western in ideology. Malawi still has it hard with her neighbors because of these historical foreign relations positions. Economically, the TAZARA railway line could have brought some level of economic development and some level of isolation in trade related activities could have been avoided.

Dr. Bakili Muluzi came as a successor at a time when the international system was becoming global due to the fall of communism. A liberal stance was adopted unlike that of his predecessor and relations were made with even Middle Eastern and Asian nations which Dr. Kamuzu Banda had avoided.

Dr. Bingu Wa Mutharika influenced by prestige and the need not to be undermined chased the British High Commissioner to Malawi Fegus Cochrane-Dyet and this decision negatively affected our aid in flow as a country and many projects stalled. Ties with the People’s Republic of China became an option to get the much need economic resources the British could not give.

Before looking at the decision made by the incumbent President a snippet of what Zionism means could be proper. Zionism is a religious and nationalist ideology that focuses on the nationality of Israel which consequently puts Palestinians at a disadvantage among others by ousting them in the land they know as home.

The preamble of the African Charter on Human and People’s rights which has been ratified by 53 African countries as of 2014 includes an undertaking to eliminate Zionism together with other practices including colonialism, neo-colonialism, apartheid, aggressive foreign military bases and all forms of discrimination. It is therefore a regional commitment African states must consider when making foreign policy decision that would mean establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Dr. Chakwera the current President might be influenced by his own perceptions as a leader which border on a conservative evangelical pro-Israeli ideology and fails to consider other factors. His decision would be negative if African states are to unite and retaliate to get back at him. Considering our land locked status and our dependence on other African states for trade it would be disastrous. Furthermore, global politics do not pose any danger necessitating our move to Jerusalem for diplomatic ties. There are no serious economic implications in the relationship and international law is not largely favorable to the Zionist stance of Israel. Geographically our position would not benefit from such ties.

Generally, arguing that historically leaders in this Country were not thoughtful in some diplomatic ties they established is important.  It may profit Dr. Chakwera and the government to avoid establishing ties made on the basis of mere whims. There must always be serious scrutiny of factors and objectives that influence the foreign policy decision making process.

It is better not to strain our regional commitment as espoused by the African Charter in the fight against Zionism. We would also avoid repeating Dr. Kamuzu Banda’s mistakes of having strained relations with our neighbors and other African states. Dr. Chakwera would be frustrating his own efforts made recently to strengthen ties with our neighbors and South Africa. This decision is inconsistent to the purpose of those state funded trips to these countries. 

*Chalira is a freelance contributor to The Lamp magazine