Hussein Solomon, Senior Researcher, Human Security Project, Institute for Security Studies

Published in Monograph No 13, Fairy Godmother, Hegemon or Partner? May 1997


South Africa occupies an ambiguous position within the international political economy. It is the most developed state on the continent of Africa. Within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, its Gross National Product (GNP) contributes 84 per cent to the regional GNP.1 In the context of the North-South debate, does this make South Africa a 'Northern' state on a 'Southern' continent, or does this make Pretoria the leader of the South? There are some sections of world opinion who would argue that South Africa is the natural leader of Africa. Consider in this regard, the following statement by Angela King,2 who headed the United Nations Observer Mission in South Africa (UNOMSA) in 1994: "... this country [South Africa] will soon become a catalyst for the rapid development of not only the southern African region but the rest of the continent."

This view is also subscribed to by several South African academics. In a recent article entitled Global Dialogue, Human Rights and Foreign Policy: Will South Africa Please Lead, Vernon Seymour3 noted that "[t]he world expects more from a democratic South Africa ... After a long struggle for human rights in this country, our new democracy is viewed as a natural leader, especially with a president like Nelson Mandela whose integrity and commitment to democracy and human rights are beyond question."

Often, this role has been couched in terms of middle power leadership which is seen as the antithesis of the national self-interest foreign policies which dominate realpolitik. Is this really so? Do middle powers conduct their foreign policies in a more altruistic way than do other states caught up in the realism of E H Carr and the power politics of Hans Morgenthau? What exactly is middle power leadership? Does South Africa have the capability or the will to fulfil such a role? Should Pretoria pursue such a leadership role, can it balance the attendant international responsibilities against the various and tremendous domestic challenges facing the 'Rainbow' nation? These are some of the questions which will be addressed in this article.


In a world increasingly characterised by growing interdependence, all countries now have global interests. In a world characterised by transnational security threats – global warming, mass migrations, narco-trafficking and small arms proliferation, to name but a few – there is an increasing need for multilateral management.4 Such multilateral management, however, is not forthcoming due to the fact that international institutions, are generally moribund or in a state of disrepute. In addition, the number of governments which could effectively confront the problems attached to global interdependence and multilateral co-operation are few. Thus, Barbara Ward5 commented that "[t]he superpowers are too vast, unwieldy, too locked in their own responsibilities. The great mass of new states are too poor and too shaky. It is the middle powers ... who occupy about the right position on the scale of influence."

Supporting this view, Robert Cox6 notes that middle powers are to be found in the middle rank of material capabilities, both military and economic, and that they seek to bolster international institutions for co-operative management. In the same vein, Cooper, Higgott and Nossal7 note that middle power leadership in the contemporary period is intimately related to the "hiatus in structural leadership in the international order" following the end of the Cold War. As great powers turn inward, following their own brand of the Monroe Doctrine, this opens up more opportunities for smaller powers with sufficient capabilities – the middle powers – to exercise certain forms of leadership. This leadership is seen in benign terms, as it is thought that the "... interests of the middle powers coincide more with the general interest than do the interests of the small powers or of the great powers."8 Hence, it is thought that in pursuing their national interests, middle powers are also pursuing the general interest which leads to a more stable world order.

By itself, a middle power is unlikely to have overwhelming influence on the international stage. As such, middle power leadership is, in essence, multilateralist in approach.9

Various authors note that middle powers have certain distinct national role conceptions. According to Holsti10 national role conceptions are "... the policy-makers' definitions of the general kinds of decisions, commitments, rules, and actions suitable to their state and of the functions their state should perform in a variety of geographic and issue settings." Some of these include the role of regional or subregional leader, and the role of bridge or mediator.11 Within the context of the Cold War, this latter role was seen in terms of the East-West divide. With the end of global bipolarity, the role of bridge or mediator is increasingly seen in terms of the North-South divide. Another important role ascribed to by middle powers is the role of manager. This emphasises institution-building which is seen in broader terms than just formal organisations and regimes. Rather, it includes the development of conventions and norms.12

Middle powers are generally active in what some writers have termed low politics or second order issues on the international agenda. Several reasons account for this. Firstly, great powers largely have a monopoly over first order issues. Secondly, Cooper, Higgott and Nossal13 note that middle powers do not feel themselves threatened by the issues on the first agenda of international politics – for example, the territorial integrity of the Scandinavian states is not threatened from outside. Rather, middle powers are concerned with threats emanating from second order issues which threaten their traditionally high standards of living. Consider here, "... the Australian economy being hurt by a subsidy war between the United States and the European Community or the quality of the environment in Canada being under jeopardy from American pollution."14

It should be noted, however, that with the easing of interstate warfare which has accompanied the end of the Cold War, first order issues on the international agenda concerning the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states, are increasingly marginalised by issues traditionally seen as low politics. This has found expression in the theoretical discourse of new security thinking which emphasises the importance of non-military security issues – international foreign trade, environmental degradation, population growth – to a nation's survival. This widening of the security agenda, resulting in low politics issues becoming first agenda issues, could result in the further marginalisation of middle powers as the great powers take over these issues as well.

There is a fierce, and as yet unresolved, debate among academics and policy-makers on the criteria needed for states to qualify for middle power leadership. While it is accepted that middle powers generally are in the middle range of power capabilities, proponents of middle power leadership are unsure of how to assess these power capabilities.

Some proponents of middle power leadership use Gross National Product (GNP) as the best general indicator of national power. Thus, Wood15 argues, "GNP automatically captures aggregate economic power, wealth and/or population size, and to a substantial extent, military potential ..." On the basis of using GNP as a criterion for identifying middle powers, Wood arrives at a list of states which includes:

1  Italy  2  China  3
 4  Brazil
 5  Spain  6  Netherlands  7  India  8  Poland
 9  Australia  10  Mexico  11  Belgium  12  Sweden
 13  Switzerland  14  Saudi Arabia  15  Czech Republic  16  Nigeria
 17  Austria  18  Denmark  19  Turkey  20  Argentina
 21  South Korea  22  South Africa  23  Indonesia  24  Venezuela
 25  Romania  26  Norway  27  Finland  28  Hungary
 29  Pakistan  30  Algeria  31  Iran  

A second area of contention is: which China is Wood referring to? If the reference is to the People's Republic of China, then it could convincingly be argued that it is more a great power and a nascent superpower than a middle power. If Wood is referring to Taiwan, his classification is similarly problematic, as Taiwan is not recognised as an independent sovereign state by international law.

Thirdly, several academics have problems with this list on normative grounds and they object to certain states with poor human rights records being granted the status of middle power which, for many, is viewed as one of moral leadership. On this basis, Cooper, Higgott and Nossal16 suggest certain behavioural criteria which middle powers should subscribe to. These are closely related to whether or not a particular state is a good global citizen. These judgemental criteria, however, are value-based and are specific to certain cultures. As such, the behavioural requirements for middle power leadership are the subject of great controversy.

It has also been noted that different kinds of middle power leadership require different criteria. Essentially, there are two kinds of middle power leadership: subregional or regional leadership, which is seen in spatial terms, and functional leadership which is viewed in terms of leadership in a specific issue area.19 Thus, while regional leadership requires certain military and economic capabilities, functional leadership requires expertise in a specific issue area, for example nuclear non-proliferation or environmental degradation.

It should be noted that even these seemingly objective criteria for middle power leadership are not unproblematic. For instance, to what extent was South Africa's election to the chair of SADC related to the prestige of its President, Nelson Mandela, as opposed to certain military or economic requirements of leadership? Similarly, there are other variables impacting on a leadership role which are unaccounted for in the literature on middle power leadership. This, in turn, raises doubts as to the analytical usefulness of the middle power concept.


Not all analysts view middle powers in benign terms. They argue that, despite claims to the contrary, national self-interest and realpolitik concerns still largely influence the foreign policies of these states.

While middle powers seem to be committed to collective interests, at least at the rhetorical level where such interests conflict with the national interest, it is the latter which prevails. For example, while the Canadian Government under the administration of Pierre Trudeau placed a high priority on global economic development, it was also sensitive to the local needs and interests of Canadian industries. Hence, the Canadian Government embarked on a policy of protectionism which witnessed the imposition of quotas on the imports of clothing and footwear from low-cost countries. Similarly, Australia responded with greater protectionism when faced with stiffer competition.20

Middle powers' excessive concern with stability and order in the international system often results in their being supportive of the hegemonic status quo. Thus, one Canadian diplomat was quoted as saying, "Pax Americana is better than no Pax at all."21

A concomitant of this is that some analysts have noted that Western middle powers, in particular, are not overly anxious to strengthen universal 'egalitarian' bodies where minor powers might gain excessive influence. A good example of this is the resistance displayed on the part of Western middle powers to calls from Third World states for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). In a penetrating examination, David Black22 comments: "... some middle-sized Western states ... had a strong interest in supporting the norms and institutions of the post-war 'liberal economic order' – the Bretton Woods Institutions and the GATT. Their, and their dominant classes' strong interest in maintaining a relatively open, liberal and stable international economy also contributed to the development of internationalist interests and behavioural patterns, through active support for, and participation in, the major institutions of this economy. Later, when the stability of the international economy seemed threatened by 'Southern' dissatisfaction and demands for a New International Economic Order, some of these states (notably the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden) were particularly active in seeking to forge a reformist response which would allow the international economy to meet the challenges, while retaining its essential continuity and viability."

The above illustrates that, far from reflecting the collective interests of humanity, Western middle powers are prone to supporting the interests of the North at the expense of the South.

In the same vein, other commentators have viewed middle powers as little more than status-seekers: basically those powers that do not qualify for a place in the ranks of the great powers, but are unwilling to be classified with the 'mediocre rest', seeking alternative roles to exercise leadership. Thus, Touval and Zartman23 notes that "[m]ediation by the medium-sized states appears to have been motivated by the desire to enhance their influence and prestige. There should be little wonder that small and medium-sized states seek to enhance their international standing by assuming the role of mediator - they have few ways in which to do so. Moreover, mediating often saves them from having to take sides when pressed to do so in a conflict."

Reluctance on the part of middle powers to take a stance in a conflict situation is intimately related to their national role conceptions of mediator, bridge or conciliator; and has led to the charge of 'fence-sitting' often levelled against them. Coupled with this is the charge often made by the United States that such middle powers are shirking their international responsibilities and are not engaged in burden sharing.24

Black25 notes that middle power leadership is often based on implicit or explicit assumptions of moral superiority. However, critical examination of middle power foreign policies often contradicts these assumptions of occupying the moral high ground. In this regard, Cooper, Higgott and Nossal26 effectively illustrate this moral relativism by comparing Australian and Canadian rhetoric on Kuwait's sovereignty in the Gulf conflict of 1990-1991 with their silence on Indonesia's invasion and annexation of East Timor in 1975.

In short, middle power leadership is an extremely ambiguous theoretical construct. There is a fierce debate as to what middle powers are and whether they play a positive or negative role in the international system. Given this ambiguity and the fact that theory impacts on policy; it is hardly surprising that Cox27 holds a pessimistic view as to the utility of middle powers in practice: "Through most of the period between World War II and the present, the middle-power thesis has been more of an idea, a potentiality, than a realised and effective strategy of world politics."


Despite the ambiguous nature of middle power leadership in theory and practice, it has been noted that certain academics have called on Pretoria to play such a role. In this regard, perhaps the first question should be whether South Africa qualifies for such a role according to the various criteria listed above.

On the basis of its GNP, South Africa certainly qualifies for middle power leadership. However, it is also true that this aggregate figure hides wide discrepancies between rich and poor within the country. According to Ellen Sirleaf of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), South Africa is two nations in one: a minority of the population with a per capita income far in excess of US $3 000 a year, and a majority with US $300 a year like much of Africa.28

In this context, some commentators have suggested that South Africa should not pursue the role of regional leader, as this leadership would come with certain responsibilities. Sirleaf, for instance, further commented that it is imperative that South African resources should not be used outside the country until the lot of its own citizens, who had so long been denied, is improved.

Similarly problematic are the behavioural criteria for middle power leadership and whether Pretoria can be construed as a well-behaved global citizen.

On the one hand, numerous examples can be cited where South Africa played the role of a good global citizen. For example, in July 1994, President Mandela convened a meeting in Pretoria with the Heads of State of Angola, Mozambique and Zaire to act as a facilitator between Angola and Zaire on the issue of alleged Zairian support for Jonas Savimbi's Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). This resulted in a follow-up meeting which witnessed the revival of the Joint Security Commission (JSC) between the two countries.29

On the other hand, South Africa's friendship with Cuba and Libya is seen by the US, in particular, as not in keeping with being a good international citizen. This is further compounded by Pretoria's proposed sale of weapons technology to countries such as Syria. But these behavioural criteria for middle power leadership are extremely problematic, since one might ask whose values are employed to judge whether this is a bad or a good state. After all, US support for some of the world's most malevolent dictators – Somoza, Batista and Mobutu to name a few – are well-documented.

While South Africa's meeting of GNP and behavioural criteria for middle power leadership may be seen as unresolved at best, it should be noted that Pretoria has demonstrated that it has the material capability and the technical expertise to function as a middle power at both the spatial and the functional levels. This was revealed during the Lesotho constitutional crisis in October 1994, and during the negotiations for the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995.30


More important than having the capabilities is whether South Africa has the political will to take on the mantle of leader in both regional and functional terms. The ability to make a sound judgement on this aspect is confounded by the ambiguity generated by the contradictory statements emanating from this country's leadership.

On the one hand, South Africa's leaders seem distinctly reticent about taking on a leadership role on a crisis-ridden continent. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in June 1994,31 Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo stated: "Uppermost in our minds, however, are the responsibilities which our Government of National Unity has towards the people of South Africa. Our primary goal is to strive to create a better life for all our people ... [as a result] South Africa will have extremely limited resources for anything which falls outside the Reconstruction and Development Programme."

This view was further entrenched by Pierre Dietrichsen,31 a senior Department of Foreign Affairs official, who wrote that "South Africa is a medium military power with limited resources at its disposal for use in the international arena, for example for peacekeeping operations. Although South Africa's foreign debt is low by world standards, the country's own development needs are such that South Africa could not become a substantial donor of development assistance." At the same time, Mr Aziz Pahad, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, was quoted as saying that a leadership role was being thrust upon South Africa, and South Africa could no longer sit on the sidelines.33

It is imperative that for a successful and coherent South African foreign policy to develop, this ambivalence among policy-makers needs to end.


Cooper, Higgott and Nossal34 have argued that leadership is based on some measure of consent among followers. However, the level of consent among South Africa's neighbours on the issue of its leadership has also been characterised by ambiguity.

Consider, in this regard, the case of Nigeria. In late 1995, President Mandela led a one-man campaign against Nigeria on account of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists. Abacha was unmoved. Africa was embarrassed, and distanced itself from Pretoria's stance, both at the levels of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The Commonwealth fudged. By April 1996, South Africa's ambassador was back in Abuja; while his bosses joined African resistance to a UN resolution that would have appointed an international human rights watchdog over Nigeria.35 Clearly, the lesson is that the world will not simply follow because Madiba and the Rainbow nation is blowing the whistle. This view is further entrenched if one considers South African foreign policy reversals on the questions of dual recognition in the 'Two Chinas' dilemma and Pretoria's failed attempts to mediate in Angola, Zambia and Algeria.

On the other hand, these 'failures' must be balanced by the leading role Pretoria is playing to resolve the crisis in Zaire, and by calls from Namibia, Mozambique and Tanzania for the South African Navy to protect their maritime resources, South Africa's election to chair SADC, and soon also the Non-Aligned Movement.36

How does one account for this ambiguity among so-called followers? South Africa's level of development, the stature of its leadership and its relative military and economic strength are being called upon to aid the continent. At the same time, there are real fears about South Africa and middle power leadership. These revolve around the fact that Pretoria's foreign policy is characterised more by continuity than change; that the coercive diplomacy which characterised South African foreign policy during the destabilisation years of the 1980s has been replaced by the assertive diplomacy of the 1990s under the new mantle of middle power leadership. This, generally, is seen in terms of a benevolent leadership by Pretoria. But a concomitant of this, is that our neighbours are accorded a rather passive role: the relationship is characterised more by paternalism than by partnership.


Given the ambiguities of middle power leadership – both as an academic construct and in practice, and because of the real fears among our neighbours – it is imperative that middle power leadership, as a foreign policy orientation, needs to be eschewed in favour of what could be termed co-operative leadership. Here, leadership is more diffuse and the emphasis is on consensus-seeking among the various players. This kind of leadership, which the Department of Foreign Affairs has embarked upon, has already borne fruit. Consider in this regard, South Africa's active participation in OAU efforts at bringing conflict to an end in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi and Somalia.37 It should also be noted that the constitutional crisis in Lesotho in October 1994 was defused by South Africa, acting in alliance with Zimbabwe and Botswana.

To be sure, co-operative leadership does have its down-side. For instance, the search for consensus might slow attempts to act quickly as and when a crisis develops. This, however, has to be balanced against addressing regional fears of South African domination. For example, no charge of status-seeker can be levelled against this form of leadership. Moreover, historical experience has indicated that where such regional fears are left unchecked – Kenya's role within the East African Community, Chile's hegemonic role in the Andean League and Nigeria's leadership position within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) come to mind – the entire regional project may be scuppered.

The principle of co-operative leadership, moreover, has deep roots within the African National Congress: "... the construction of a new regional order will be a collective endeavour of all the free peoples of Southern Africa and cannot be imposed either by extra-regional forces or any self-appointed 'regional power' ... a democratic South Africa should therefore explicitly renounce all hegemonic ambitions in the region. It should resist all pressure to become the 'regional power' at the expense of the rest of the sub-continent; instead it should seek to create a new form of economic interaction in Southern Africa based on the principles of mutual benefit and interdependence."38

Co-operative leadership is also leadership by example. One senior Department of Foreign Affairs official, Johan Marx,39 puts its succinctly: "... the greatest contribution which South Africa can make to the development of Africa is by demonstrating that effective and corruption-free administration, constant maintenance of existing infrastructure, and in the long run, a democratic system in one form or another are essential prerequisites for sustained development. If South Africa could render that service to Africa, it would be a leadership role of which all Africa could be proud."


  1. H Solomon and J Cilliers, Sources of Southern African Insecurity and the Quest for Regional Integration, in H Solomon and J Cilliers, People, Poverty and Peace: Human Security in Southern Africa, IDP Monograph Series, 4, 1996, p. 24.
  2. A King, Keynote Address, Paper presented to the Seminar on the Image of the United Nations in South Africa, UN Department of Public Information and the Centre for Southern African Studies, University of Western Cape, Somerset-West, 8-10 February 1994, p. 8.
  3. V Seymour, Global Dialogue, Human Rights and Foreign Policy: Will South Africa Please Lead, Southern African Perspectives, 55, Centre For Southern African Studies, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, 1996, p. 1.
  4. B Wood, The Middle Powers and the General Interest, Middle Powers and the International System, 1, The North-South Institute, Ottawa, Canada, 1988, p. 1.
  5. B Ward, The First International Nation, in W Kilbourne (ed.), Canada: A Guide to the Peaceable Kingdom, Macmillan and Company, Toronto, 1970, p. 46.
  6. R W Cox, Middlepowermanship, Japan and the Future World Order, International Journal, 44, Autumn 1989, pp. 826-827.
  7. A F Cooper, R R A Higgott and K R Nossal, Relocating Middle Powers, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 1993, p. 16.
  8. E Reid, On Duty: A Canadian at the Making of the United Nations, 1945-1946, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1983, p. 161.
  9. Cooper, Higgott and Nossal, op. cit., p. 19.
  10. K J Holsti, International Politics: A Framework for Analysis, Prentice-Hall International, United States of America, 1983, p. 116.
  11. Wood, op. cit., p. 21.
  12. Cooper, Higgott and Nossal, op. cit., p. 25.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Wood, op. cit., p. 17.
  16. Quoted in G Evans and J Newnham, The Dictionary of World Politics: A Reference Guide to Concepts, Ideas and Institutions, Harvester-Wheatsheaf, New York, 1992, pp. 193-194.
  17. Ibid., p. 194.
  18. Cooper, Higgott and Nossal, op. cit., p. 19.
  19. Wood, op. cit., p. 3.
  20. Cooper, Higgott and Nossal, op. cit., p. 22.
  21. Cox, op. cit., p. 826.
  22. D Black, Addressing Apartheid: Lessons from Australian, Canadian and Swedish Policies in Southern Africa, in A Cooper (ed.), Niche Diplomacy: Middle Power Diplomacy After the Cold War, Macmillan, London, 1997, p. 2.
  23. S Touval and I I W Zartman, International Mediation in Theory and Practice, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1985, pp. 252-253.
  24. Wood, op. cit., pp. 21-23.
  25. Black, op. cit., p. 1.
  26. Cooper, Higgott and Nossal, op. cit., p. 17.
  27. Cox, op. cit., p. 828.
  28. SA Must Equalise Before It Can Help, The Star, 21 February 1996.
  29. J Marx, South African Foreign Policy in the New Era: Priority in Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands, The South African Journal of International Affairs, 2(2), Winter 1995, p. 8.
  30. Z Masiza and C Landsberg, Fission for Compliments? South Africa in the 1995 Extension of Nuclear Non-Proliferation?, Policy Issues and Actors, 9(3), Centre for Policy Studies, Johannesburg, 1996.
  31. A Nzo, Address to the Forty-Eight Session, Ninety-Fifth Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 23 June 1994.
  32. P Dietrichsen, Views from the Practitioners – A Framework for 1994, in G Mills (ed.), From Pariah to Participant: South Africa's Evolving Foreign Relations, 1990-1994, SAIIA, Johannesburg, 1994, p. 212.
  33. R Simpson-Anderson, Annual Policy Review of the South African Navy, 1996, in J Cilliers (ed.) Diplomats and Defenders: South Africa and the Utility of Naval Power, ISS Monograph Series, 9, Halfway House, February 1997, p. 37.
  34. Cooper, Higgott and Nossal, op. cit., p. 15.
  35. P Bell, Steering an Erratic Course Through Foreign Waters, Africa Today, 3(2), March-April 1997, p. 16.
  36. Simpson-Anderson, op. cit., p. 37.
  37. Marx, op. cit., p. 8.
  38. ANC Working Group on International Affairs, Foreign Policy in a New Democratic South Africa, in Mills, op. cit., p. 227.
  39. Marx, op. cit., p. 9.
Hussein Solomon Senior Researcher