Sun, Aug 05, 2001 - Page 9 News List

More taking, less conflict

The US Secretary of State's comments that he prefers fewer punitive sanctions and more dialogue hints that this US administration may leave behind it a healthier political map

By Jonathan Power

It was a well-kept secret during the Clinton Administration that his one great foreign policy success was when he chose to engage rather than confront. It was the agreement negotiated with North Korea that led to this "rogue" country putting on ice its nuclear weapons programme in return for a US pledge to help it build a civilian nuclear power industry and, in the interim, to give it a reasonable supply of crude oil. The alternative, war, had been counselled against by the brass at the Pentagon because of the uncertainty that the US air force could locate and destroy the North's nuclear weapons, if indeed it had them. If North Korea did have a nuclear weapon it could retaliate with it and there would be a high cost in dead US and South Korean soldiers if the North's army did cross the border.

In nearly every other situation, Clinton's instincts were to opt for confrontation or, at least, a lack of engagement: the expansion of Nato almost up to Russia's borders; the tussle with China for most of his term over human rights to the point of sacrificing increased trade and the political binding that goes with it; the embargo and air patrols against Iraq; the embargo of Iran; the introduction of American military advisers and much increased military aid to Colombia; and the maintenance of the quarantine of Cuba.

US President George W. Bush came into office with his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, quickly going on the record as saying the administration wanted to see rather less of sanctions as a tool of foreign policy and by implication suggesting that engagement was a better way to work.

Interestingly, it was the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan which coined the phrase constructive engagement" when it decided to drop the confrontation of its predecessor, Jimmy Carter, and adopt policies that were meant to sweeten South Africa into renouncing apartheid. It gave engagement a bad name and it was eventually sabotaged by Congress, which overwhelmingly voted to override Reagan's veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.

A better-crafted form of engagement lived on, not as an embrace of the power structure, which had existed before, but which introduced economic penalties that sought only to harm the interests of the elite. A widely followed investment code gave the private sector, both in South Africa and abroad, an active role in agitating for reform. This alongside the underreported work of the churches pushed South Africa down the road towards reform.

Engagement has many virtues over confrontation and sanctions. Sanctions have a poor record in achieving success. Often applied across the board they have tended to hurt the poor rather than the wealthy. Besides, they are unpopular with commercial interests at home that do not wish to see valuable markets put in cold storage. Moreover, while sanctions have only one tool, engagement has many: its incentives range from export credits, investment insurance, access to technology and trade, tariff reductions, aid, help with entry into the global economic arena and the institutions that govern it, diplomatic recognition, the scheduling of summits between leaders, military training, the funding of non-governmental organisations and the exchange of students and, if sanctions are already in place as they were in North Korea, the promise of their removal.

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