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by: H.E. Ambassador Professor Gilbert Morris
Karl Klemens von Metternich – perhaps the greatest diplomat ever to have lived – Prime Minister of Austria 1808–1848, master of the greatest diplomatic event, perhaps in history – The 1815 “Congress at Vienna” – had a saying: “Large nations are always right; small nations can only keep from being wrong”.
The challenge facing His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa – President of South Africa – on his recent leadership of a cohort of African Heads of State to Russia and Ukraine was to find a means to ‘keep from being wrong’.
Despite its gargantuan wealth, African nations control no global institutions or corporations, and neither singly or in concert have they fashioned leverage points that places Africa as a political force. in a position to cultivate, gain or exploit strategic advantages.
Let me say from the outset, I was not briefed officially on this Russia-Ukraine peace effort, nor its terms or deliverables. Those coordinates should have occurred within the context of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
That I was not briefed on the Africa-led Russia-Ukraine peace effort – sadly – makes my commentary more damning; as…from and by…mere observation, the effort seemed clumsy, unpractised, amateurish in spots and ultimately disappointing.
There is a general distinction between Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy. It will come as a surprise that 80% of the world’s nations lack a foreign policy; which means experience at strategic development and cultivation of leverage as advantage. Most nations lack the freedoms of information or intellectual freedom to permit the sorts of research in and presentation of findings that must undergird any credible stratagem.
Again, so much as this was made more and more obvious as the trip progressed; no pun intended.
Troubles seemed to emerge from the start:
The security detail for the cohort became stuck in Poland, leading to distracting provincial claims of racism.
All the leaders of the African cohort seemed to arrive in a single jet.
Protocol seemed uncertain and at times downright embarrassing.
And worst: President Putin – without intending – upstaged the entire escapade by presentation of a Peace Agreement which Ukraine failed to honour.
The only memorable comment from the African cohort was President Ramaphosa’s unfortunate, paternalistic statement to president Putin: “The war must end”.
Let’s establish a few things:
a. President Ramaphosa is a sophisticated man who is at ease in the most refined boardrooms anywhere in the world.
b. However, diplomacy is a different animal.
c. Mastery at this level requires practised institutional comfort…and knowing how to generate value and executable expectations.
Let’s consider some of the issues:
The Cohort ought not to have travelled together, if they did. If there were 6–7 leaders, for security and the purposes of protocol, they should have travelled on 6–7 separate jets, along with advisory and security details
By no means should the problems in Poland have arisen. All identities and weapons for the security detail should have been cleared 10 days in advance
The cohort of African leaders were chosen wrongly. Without discussing their availability or willingness, leaders who generated, facilitated or experienced some governance and sustainable successes should have been chosen to join Ramaphosa, namely, the Presidents of Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana, Egypt, Kenya and possibly even Ethiopia. Persons such as former Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, distinguished business leader, Mo Ibrahim and renowned Professor PLO Lumumba would’ve been appropriate additions.
The issues on the Russia-Ukraine exclusion exposed serious systemic flaws:
African – like Caribbean – leaders, are practised at foreign relations, not foreign policy: Routinely, we travel to meetings we didn’t call, for purposes which are not ours, with outcomes often prejudicial to our countries. Our leaders are used to meeting each other within our regional contexts…away from global media, where the consequences of our agreements or undertakings are meaningless to Western powers. Clumsiness or tardiness in our contexts are routine just because they have little consequence beyond ourselves.
There is another point: success in this diplomatic overture would mean global prestige for Africa and substance for BRICS. It would mean, this same diplomatic discipline could be applied at home, regionally and set a basis for future African engagement and strategic alignments with the rest of the world. It would mean, Ramaphosa would be the first African leader since His Excellency, Halle Selassie – Emperor of Ethiopia – to gain prestige for a diplomatic undertaking relative to but beyond the African continent with global implications.
It is for these reasons to enact this peace effort, the most skilled advance team ever assembled for African diplomacy, should have been assembled and deployed.
Such a team would have:
Developed a comprehensive logistics plan with the Special Services and National Security Departments of each relevant participating country…right down to where each leader would stand, sit and when they would speak and what in substance they would say.
The advanced team would have travelled to both Russia and Ukraine…holding comprehensive briefings with both leaders and would have discovered the previous Peace Agreement with which President Putin surprised everyone.
That team would have analysed that agreement, determining the marginal overlaps toward a potential agreement; so the African cohort would know where to place pressure to generate leverage.
In this last point, permit me some ground to expound:
a. The African Cohort should never have considered undertaking the mission to Russia-Ukraine without confirming a $100 billion dollar fund for the rebuilding of Ukraine.
b. Such a fund ought to have been the principal contribution of the BRICS’ New Development Bank anchored by China.
c. Since any agreement would have to include Ukraine giving up the Donbas, a rebuilding fund would have been both face-saving for Ukraine and extend the desire to end the conflict beyond Zelensky.
d. In my own diplomatic work, to maximise the projection of outcomes, I provide video animation of the new future so the disadvantaged side can envision what they are being asked to agree to; and that would have placed Zelensky in a strategic cul-d-sac, since he would have to explain why he would choose the further destruction of Ukraine over the new funded future an animated video would have depicted
e. Such a move would have maximised the credibility of the African cohort; showing them as visionary, and because the cohort – such as I have listed them – includes leaders who rebuilt their own nations…that too would’ve attested to the substance of the entire affair.
Instead, the meetings resulted in a stalemate on the question of peace, the conflict continues and Africa has diminished capacity for any such undertaking; as it appears that it can’t keep from being wrong.
Put in simplest possible terms: The African cohort arrived in Russia-Ukraine with zero capacity to apply pressure or to exploit or cultivate leverages; therefore, they arrived with an abject inability to change the status quo. As a first rule in foreign policy, one does not undertake such trips and meetings until one knows comprehensively the actual outcome. Second, one does not open the process to media or permit participants in conflicts to speak accords each other…as one must control the narratives; which one can achieve only through comprehensive advanced technical preparation.
What should happen now is the trip should be framed as Phase I.
Phase II requires:
The advanced technical team
The $100 billion rebuilding fund
An animated vision of a new Ukraine
Agreement with capacity to enforce against both sides
Incremental ‘Roadmap’ toward agreed outcome
The advanced team could use “back channels” and credible third parties – like Oman, Denmark, Singapore – to gain incremental agreements between Russia and Ukraine – particularly commercial arrangements/business opportunities for Ukrainians – toward peace.
In carrying out foreign relations, one needs good manners and a good suit. However, to enact foreign policy, one needs a ruthless capacity to formulate a stupendous vision of the future, get it funded and an ability to sell it to those in conflict…so that the vision is more immediately compelling than the conflict itself.
H.E. Ambassador Professor Gilbert Morris taught at George Mason University at Fairfax, VA, USA. He was Economic Advisor to Vice Premier of China, Madam Wu 2002 – 2003. He served as Special Envoy from the Office of the Premier of Turks and Caicos to the “All Party Committee” of the House of Lords, UK. He was Working Group Chief Strategist/Draughtsman for the proposed Turks and Caicos-Canada Friendship Treaty. Currently, he is Ambassador-at-Large and National Public Reader of The Bahamas.