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James Joseph: How Mandela Broke New Ground in Diplomacy

Sanford professor discusses the legacy of Nelson Mandela and how he changed ideas of about what works in diplomacy

James Joseph, a former ambassador to South Africa and current professor in the Sanford Institute, gave the following address to Duke's Samuel DuBois Cook Society:

It was my great privilege to contribute an essay to the new book Nelson Mandela: From Freedom to the Future. The book begins with a tributes by Kofi Anaan and Bill Clinton and concludes with an essay by me on "Promoting peace and practicing diplomacy." It is through the careful reading of Nelson Mandela's own words that those who meet him in this new book will come to understand why even in retirement he remains so widely revered and respected around the world. The portrait that emerges from my essay is that of:

1) A statesman who defied conventional wisdom about the relationship between power, diplomacy and the state;

2) A diplomat who in a world of technocrats, bureaucrats and other intermediaries reveled in personal diplomacy while maintaining great respect for multi-lateral institutions;

3) An optimist whose capacity to win over his adversaries led him to believe that international conflicts, even those of long standing, could be resolved through "brains rather than blood;"

4) An international icon who was admired and honored by heads of state, royal families and social elites around the world, but whose commitment to "the poorest of the poor" never wavered;

5) An African with strong attachments to the continent and its people; and

6) A transforming leader who, like Gandhi and King, had an uncanny instinct for moving and persuading people, changing attitudes and appealing to the best in human nature.

Principled Diplomacy

The question future generations may well ask is how did an elderly African leader on the Southern tip of the African continent become so adept at using what is now called soft power - public diplomacy, moral messages, exemplar behavior and respect for differences - at a time when global influence was measured largely by military might and economic muscle. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once wrote "Every great power has its warrior caste." Mandela emerged from his long incarceration at a time in which the projection of state power beyond its borders had become the domain largely of the warrior caste. Yet, his standing at home and his influence abroad went far beyond the size of the military or the Gross Domestic Product of South Africa.

Even before the plethora of recent writings in the United States about soft power, Mandela understood that while hard power is the ability to get others to do what we want soft power is the ability to get others to want the same thing we do. The former is based on coercion and the latter is based on attraction.

Nelson Mandela is the prototype of soft power. His influence comes from the attractiveness of his ideals, the elegance of his humanity and the power of his personal story. He reminds us that despite the prevailing dominance of hard power, international influence in the future may well depend on a moral ecology that can not be found in hard power alone. While hard power may inflict and even prevent pain, it is soft power that is most likely to produce influence and goodwill that is enduring.

Principled diplomacy for Mandela was not a theory. It was a way of being. In getting to know him, one is struck by the fact that his extraordinary capacity to do the right thing has more to do with his natural disposition than it has to do with public relations techniques or good "spin doctors." I once congratulated his communications assistant on the way in which the staff always seemed to put Mr. Mandela in the right place at the right time with the right message. He looked at me in amazement and said "It is not us; it is Madiba himself."

Nelson Mandela promoted peaceful co-existence in international affairs with the same moral audacity and political tenacity that he promoted reconciliation in domestic affairs. He had no permanent enemies, only friends and those with the potential for becoming friends. He warned against the politics of vengeance and the moral pitfalls of selective national memory that focuses more on the barriers that once limited relationships rather than the potential for beginning anew.

The first time I was asked to meet with him to register my government's concern about a proposed visits to South Africa by the leader of one of the so-called pariah states, I delivered a carefully prepared demarche, as is the practice in such matters. He listened carefully and said "Tell your government that I negotiated with the representatives of the Apartheid State without compromising any of my values and there is no danger of my compromising them now." His commitment to universality in foreign affairs, and loyalty to the friends who had supported his cause when Western leaders considered the African National Congress (ANC) a terrorist organization, often caused alarm in Washington and London, but he remained true to his word and true to his basic values. Scholars in the realist tradition of internationally politics have usually raised a skeptical eye at the notion of placing ethical boundaries around diplomacy. They are the ones most likely to regard the idea of principled diplomacy as a conceptual contradiction that has no place in the real politick of the modern world. In asking not simply what is in the national interest but what is right, Nelson Mandela defied conventional wisdom, demonstrating that ethics in diplomacy is not only desirable, but also altogether feasible.


Nelson Mandela's leadership style was honed in the political culture of the African National Congress with its emphasis on cooperative and consultative leadership, so it should be no surprise to learn from his speeches and his life that in the international arena he sought, first, and wherever feasible, to work through multilateral organizations like the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of African Unity and the Southern African Development Community. While he became for a time the most important spokesperson for the developing world, he sought also to be a bridge builder between rich and poor nations.

In the international arena, he was an especially important voice in efforts to maintain the nuclear non-proliferation edifice. He had special credibility in this regard because one of his first acts as President of South Africa was to dismantle South Africa's nuclear capacity. He was also a strong supporter of a ban on chemical and biological weapons, the banning of small weapons and de-mining.

It was at the regional level, especially his efforts to work through the Southern African Development Community, that we first saw Nelson Mandela's commitment to multilateralism. But it was also at the regional level that we saw the difficulty of transforming leadership from an elected head of state when he/she moves outside national boundaries. Nelson Mandela found out very early that South Africa's dominance in the region, and on the continent, caused it to face the same problem with its African neighbors that the U.S. faces in the world. There is a natural suspicion of the intentions of the dominant power in any relationship, even when those intentions seek to serve a larger public good. The dilemma for Nelson Mandela was that if he spoke out, he ran the risk of being accused of throwing his weight around; but if he did not, he ran the risk of being accused of inaction and indifference.

This fear of big brother dominance actually robbed the region of the full potential of his leadership, but he increasingly found others, both on the continent and in other parts of the world, looking to him to help solve regional conflicts, ranging from his efforts to promote a non-violent end to the Mobuto regime in the Congo to his work for democratic evolution in Nigeria and his successful efforts to persuade Quadaffi to turn over the Libyans accused in the Lockerbie bombing. He was a champion of the notion of an African renaissance and a new Africa, but most importantly he was a role model for a new generation of leaders who have been building new democracies and opening markets while totally ignored by a Western press obsessed with failed states, coups and inefficient governance.

Much is made of the universality of Nelson Mandela's embrace, but he was an African who took pride in his African identity as well. In his 1994 speech in Tunis, he spoke of the responsibility to restore to the African continent its dignity. He said the great giants of Africa, "such as Abdul Gammar Nasser of Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Patrice Lumumba of Zaire, Augustino Neto of Angola, Samora Machel of Mozambique, W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King of America, Marcus Garvey of Jamaica, Albert Luthuli and Oliver Thambo of South Africa," had given him reasons for hope. He also celebrated African contributions to the condition of civilization, "like the pyramids of Egypt, the sculptures of the ancient kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Benin, like the temples of Ethiopia, the Zimbabwe ruins and the rock paintings of the Namib deserts."

He argued for African solutions to African problems and was a vigorous cheerleader for President Clinton's statement to the South African Parliament that the developed world had been asking the wrong question. "We have been asking what can we do for Africa, what can we do about Africa," President Clinton said. "We must now ask what can we do with Africa." This was a clear signal that the United States had heard and understood Nelson Mandela's plea for a partnership between rich and poor nations rather than benevolent big brother dominance.

For Nelson Mandela, globalization had its limits, but his reservations were not about the reality of economic interdependence, but about the way the game seemed to be rigged to favor the most competitive nations. As the leader of the non-aligned nations he felt it important to point out that even when governments wanted to do the right thing, to open markets and expand the architecture of democracy, AIDS, foreign debt and other impediments forced on them by globalization made it hard to reach the "lift off" stage that all parties desired. Kofi Anan, Secretary General of the United Nations re-echoed these concerns when he told a group of business executives "The unequal distribution of benefits and the imbalances in global rule-making, which characterizes globalization today, inevitably will produce backlash and protectionism."Conflict Resolution

Without doubt, it is the commitment to reconciliation that stands at the core of the Mandela legacy. It influenced both his efforts to build a new democracy at home and his contribution to the resolution of conflicts in the larger world. When others doubted whether it was still possible for old enemies to beat their swords into plowshares, he showed us how. He was a healer who understood that diversity need not divide. He was an astute observer of the human condition who believed with all his being that we diminish the preciousness and sacredness of life when we denigrate, disrespect or oppress people based on the color of their skin or their ethnicity or culture. He never allowed himself to be seduced by the trappings of power because like Robert Greenleaf's notion of the servant leader, his first choice was the choice to serve. Leadership is what followed.

While it is correct to emphasize Mandela's commitment to reconciliation, it would be a mistake to overlook how his notion of reconciliation also included justice. When most people think of justice, they tend to think of either retributive or distributive aspects. Mandela believed, however, that there is another understanding of justice - a restorative justice that is concerned with the restoration of broken relationships. Traditional African jurisprudence contends that the perpetrator must be given an opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he has injured by his offense. Thus, restorative justice is being served when efforts are made to work for healing, harmony, forgiveness and reconciliation. Members of royal families, heads of state, legislative leaders, and power brokers from every corner of the globe made their way to South Africa during Nelson Mandela's presidency in hopes of getting a photo opportunity for their family albums, political campaigns, company brochures or the national press; but Nelson Mandela is probably best remembered as the champion of the underdog, the people's president who brought the races together in a country where most of us the world had expected a blood bath rather than a democracy.

The adulation he received from the world's elite was in stark contrast to Margaret Thatcher's assertion in the late eighties that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and anyone who thought the African National Congress would someday form the government of South Africa was living in a "cloud-cuckoo land." I am not fully sure what this last phrase means, but it does not sound like a compliment.

Mandela's authorized biographer wrote later about Mandela's first state visit to England when the British monarchy was so under siege that even the royals were hoping to benefit from the mystique of their regal visitor. Lady Thatcher was up front basking in Mandela's glow and beaming about the magnanimous qualities of this great leader, but it was the Queen who seemed most at home and at ease in his company. One observer commented that she had a lot in common with Mandela because they had both spent a lot of time in prison.

It is not easy for an objective observer to get beyond the icon. The myth is usually so powerful that it blurs the reality, but in this case I found the reality to be even more appealing than the myth. Consider, for example, what he had to say during the state visit to Britain when he was surrounded by hundreds of years of pomp and circumstance: "The history of liberation heroes shows that when they come into office they interact with powerful groups; they can easily forget that they have been put in power by the poorest of the poor. They often lose their common touch, and turn against their own people." Mandela never lost the common touch, but what about Nelson Mandela the political animal? It has been said that as a politician he made the profession seem noble. While some are inclined to portray him as almost a saint he has been known to say "I am no angel." And when one considers that he survived in the political jungle for almost fifty years, it would be na¯ to assume that he did not bring to his international peace-making efforts the same pragmatism he demonstrated in domestic affairs.

His biographer Anthony Sampson makes the claim that as a politician he was both pre-modern and post-modern. He was pre-modern in that he was very much a product of the older tribal tradition in which he had been brought up, of a chief accountable to his people, settling their disputes with careful courtesy, making them all feel important and representing them with a dignity and bearing that was as regal as any thing we have seen in European royalty.

He was post-modern in that he had a brilliant sense of political texture and timing, a master of imagery who knew instinctively how to work the room or flatter an adversary. He was the master of the photo-op, the sound bite, the intimate handshake, the seductive smile and the disarming charm. The difference from so many other politicians is that this all comes naturally. It was not Nelson Mandela playing a role. It was simply Nelson Mandela being himself Transforming Leadership

We tend to romanticize transforming leadership as though it is distinct from what James Macgregor Burns called transactional leadership, but Nelson Mandela represented the best of both. He could have satisfied his conscience and accomplished nothing for his constituents if he had not been willing to get his hands dirty, to negotiate, make deals and engage occasionally in compromise in order to achieve a larger public good. Nelson Mandela may not be a saint, and, as he personally reminds us certainly no angel, but what makes him very special is that he always seems to understand the imperfections of our humanity as well as its potential. President Clinton had it right when he commented at a White House reception that every time Nelson Mandela walked into a room we all felt a little bigger, we all wanted to stand up. We all wanted to cheer because on our best day we all wanted to be like him.

Mandela's role as a transforming leader in international affairs extended to his personal relationship and standing with the leaders of the rich nations as well. But while he shared many of their public values and understood the importance of the developed nations to South Africa's developing economy, he did not hesitate to take an opposing stand on issues where he felt morally bound to speak out. He articulated a foreign policy of universality, espousing sympathetic positions to states regarded by the U.S. and Britain, for example, as pariahs. His support for Cuba in the United Nations and elsewhere, his meetings with Qadaffi and support for the OAU resolution opposing UNSC Lockerbie sanctions on Libya all reflected his independence, while posing problems requiring deft handling within private diplomatic channels. He did not hesitate to voice his unease with the idea of an African Crisis Response Force nor his concerns about conditionalities in the Africa Growth and Economic Opportunity Act as it was making its way through the United States Congress. In short, where other heads of state might have asked first what is in our national self-interest, he was more likely to ask what is right.

Nelson Mandela's transforming role in international affairs was grounded in several ethical norms and personal traits:

1) His belief in, and his ability to appeal to, people's better nature. He believes very strongly in the potential of individuals and even nation-states to change. This is not the naivetef an idle dreamer, but the convictions of a man who has been involved in causing major change, both publicly and behind the scenes.

2) His ability to connect with other people, even his adversaries. Scott Peck, the eminent psychiatrist, once wrote that we build community out of crisis and we build community by accident, but we do not know how to build community by design. That may be true, but there is a lot we can learn from Nelson Mandela in this regard.

3) His lack of bitterness after twenty-seven years of imprisonment. People throughout the world admired him, and saw him as evidence of the potential of the human spirit. They marveled at his ability to forgive and were often inspired to do the same.

4) His commitment to changing the practice of the adversary while maintaining respect for his/her humanity. This is what Martin Luther King called loving the enemy.

5) His commitment to reconciliation as a public value and a public process. This may be his most important contribution to international affairs, and not surprisingly, it may be the most important reason for comparing him to Burns' "transforming leader."

In international affairs, as in domestic leadership, Nelson Mandela remains an influential statesman even when he no longer has formal authority because his appeal has always been based on something deeper and more enduring than political position. In his last speech to the United Nations in September 1998, he spoke of quiet retirement where he would "sit in Qunu and grow as ancient as the hills," but while the pace of the long walk may have been slowed it is not surprising that he hardly seems to notice what he has called the changing season.