The issue of gay rights has reared its ugly head in Malawi again – threatening the already fragile economy. But why does the western diplomatic community get so excited with this issue: quickly making statements en masse and strong ones at that? Tying aid to minority rights.
Various attempts by local structures (churches, governments and cultural groupings) to assert Malawi’s sovereignty in the face of western moral pressure have registered no success. Attempts to put the gay question before a national referendum have been vehemently rejected.
This western interest on this matter has left many Malawians baffled: surely the world has more worthwhile problems (than meddling into privacy of some individuals). On another hand the miserable failure of the local structures to defend our right to sovereignty and self determination has left many people severely frustrated.
Here is the answer to this puzzle. Be warned: the answer is neither short nor straightforward. To begin with, in international politics there is anarchy. Every country is sovereign and above that country’s government there is no greater power/authority (except God, if you will). All countries however small or big, weak or powerful, are equal on the table of global politics. On this table all presidents are equal, there is no leader, no president-of-presidents, there is no seat of power. This lack of “seat of power/authority” is called Anarchy. Yes, there is anarchy at international level.
Since people are good at fixing problems, this anarchy is mitigated by signing multi country, regional or global charters, conventions, treaties or agreements, e.g., the several declarations on human rights, the environment, protection of civilians, etc. The archetype of this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Another means of fixing this anarchy is forming structures, regional groupings, unions and the archetype of this is the United Nations. This type of fixing can alternatively be seen as voluntary dilution of sovereignty by governments.
Basically a country is saying: even though am sovereign I chose to tie myself to this agreement or grouping. It is for these reasons that compliance is obtained from unwilling governments by reminding them that they are signatory to such and such a document. They may also feel compelled to act in a certain way due to their membership to particular bodies.
Unfortunately these voluntary dilution of sovereignty do not fix the problem, meaning that global anarchy still prevails. And this is where it gets messy, and fluid, and complicated. And this is where we go to the second point.
In the world of global anarchy (due to sovereignty of each country) countries still want to exert influence one over the other. This is irrespective of the earlier solution. In other words people are also good at creating problems.
This influence is required to advance, protect or defend interests of countries. This is also required to sort out the rest of the world’s problems that treaties, conventions and unions fail to resolve. And they are many. Unfortunately, yes another unfortunately, in this second category of handling global anarchy there are only three options: diplomatic, economic and military, in that order of escalation.
Countries will always try to resolve their differences through diplomatic engagement. When this fails they inflict economic sanctions, and military interventions are always a last resort. Similarly friendships between two countries begin with diplomatic relations (e.g. state visits) and economic benefits follow, e.g. aid, preferential trade benefits.
When the friendship matures the two countries will extend military support one to the other, e.g. giving or selling each other military hardware and expertise. If however the friendship deteriorates it would do so in a similar step-wise fashion – ceasing to share military intelligence or hardware would be the first, then stopping economic cooperation and finally severing diplomatic ties if the problem remains unresolved.
Since countries only have these options they are very limited when it comes to resolving conflicts and also exerting their influence. It is for this reason that a totally unrelated issue would be evoked in an attempt to address or promote something. For example: we will buy your tobacco if you stop child labour – all the while child labour may have no bearing on the quality of the produce. Another one is: coffee grown by women farmers will be given preference over others.
Here economic arrangements are used either to encourage what is seen as good practice or discourage what is seen as bad practice. And here is the trouble: economic arrangements may also be used to promote something which the partner/recipient country does not value, despises, opposes or rejects (different levels of severity). This mismatch inevitably leads to conflict and the severity of the conflict depends on one hand, on how forceful the exporting country is, and on the other hand, on the level of resistance by the recipient country.
And this is where our second point ends and we go to the third point, which is about power.
Why are some countries more powerful than others? How can we measure this power?
It is easier to categorise power into the same: diplomatic, economic and military power. A country that has more of these at its disposal is obviously more powerful that another with less. Malawi is therefore less powerful because it has less military capacity and no capacity to offer economic benefit or sanctions to another country. It thus relies solely on diplomacy. A government with more capacity in the three areas therefore has more leverage, more influence, more power.
This ranking based on capacity assessment is however inadequate. Two countries with similar economic and military capabilities may have different powers. Indeed one with less economic or military capacity may be more powerful in international politics. For example Israel vs Australia, USA vs China.
The final dimension of power is a measure of a country’s appetite to use it’s diplomatic, economic or military power over another. Diplomatically, a president who is not afraid to speak his mind and rebuke others is generally more powerful than the timid ones (e.g. Robert Mugabe vs presidents of Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, all of which are bigger economies than Zimbabwe). Economically, a country with a bigger economy but less prone to imposing economic sanctions on others will be seen as less powerful than another that is quick to suspend aid, tie conditions to aid or effect sanctions. On the military level, a country that does not hesitate to attack its enemies militarily, or is quick to contribute military hardware or manpower in international conflicts, such a country will generally be more powerful in global politics than another with a big arsenal but little appetite to deploy it.
In summary we live in a global political world where countries’ sovereignty is challenged. Countries use diplomatic, economic and/or military power to exert influence on others. The more power a country has the easier it is to defend its interests and promote its values.
Powerful countries can easily influence others, for better or for worse. And the less power a country has the more difficult it is to defend its interests and values and the more prone it is to external interference. Finally, the limited options in international politics force countries to use tools that may look unrelated to the matter at hand.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :