Mandela’s style versus Kissinger’s

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    Nat Quinn

    Who would be better at ending the Russo-Ukrainian war, a Kissinger type of negotiator or someone with a Mandela-like leadership style? Why is this relevant to South Africa’s political and economic malaise?

    Mandela personified morally resplendent leadership. His courage, conviction and magnanimity encouraged us to indulge aspirational values. It is natural to admire a role-model type of leader over one known for strategising and negotiating. If the war in Ukraine ended definitively while symbolising good triumphing over evil, this would be more satisfying than prolonged negotiations amid tenuous ceasefires.

    Ending the war resembles unclogging South Africa’s many blockages. These are largely technical exercises, whereas media outlets and politicians connect with their constituencies by invoking values while fueling emotions. Kissinger-style negotiators seek less rickety, more durable solutions. These frequently have muted payoff value for politicians and those seeking to shape public opinion.

    Becoming well informed about complex issues is hard work and it demands much humility. Making value judgements is easy and it encourages people to insist that they are right. This was less of a problem when democratic forms of government were new. When Mandela and Kissinger were young, survival pressures still tethered governance and voting to pragmatic considerations.

    Eventually, the likelihood of dying from famine, or violently, plunged. More recently, the Covid pandemic demonstrated how today’s media and politics cope poorly with freedom-versus-health clashes. Ukraine’s war involves broadly similar tradeoffs.

    Whereas few governments have mishandled their response to Russia’s brutal aggression as badly as ours has, nearly all countries stumbled badly at managing the pandemic’s medical challenges and societal tradeoffs. All decent people should be shocked and appalled by Russia’s numerous “war crimes”. But is it constructive for many news reporters and politicians to insist that Putin be held accountable? How likely can that be? How can it be worth risking a third world war with the most nuclear-armed country in order to prosecute an old man?

    Many public voices have emphasised that Putin must go. Various intelligence experts caution that his replacement would likely be even more savage. The goal should be a negotiated end to the war whereby sanctions are eased in response to Russia becoming far more supportive of a rules-based international order. Diplomats, lawyers and economists must negotiate a peace that impresses generals and CEOs.

    The world would be far safer if Russia could be induced to accept significant limits to its “no limits” alignment with China. A half century ago Kissinger helped China’s leadership to accept that it would benefit from being less close to Moscow.

    While Chairman Mao seemed unmoved by the tens of millions of deaths he caused, Kissinger resisted the urge to judge; rather, he sought to understand China and its leadership. Kissinger’s style of negotiations helped set the stage for many hundreds of millions to escape dire poverty.

    Candidate Biden was encouraged by his supporters to vow that he would make the crown prince of Saudi Arabia an international pariah for the death and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. When later, as president, he met with the prince to seek his cooperation, Biden was rebuffed.

    In everyday language, calling something a “crime” implies that there is potential to prosecute. Yearning to prosecute someone who controls over five thousand nuclear warheads should be checked. There is also the very complicated, yet central, issue of whether Ukraine’s sovereignty can be secure if Russia controls Crimea.

    The relevance of “international law” is diluted by our living in a world structured around national sovereignty. Countries respect international laws when they are induced to do so.

    Nations have laws and enforcement mechanisms. Many international laws are not “enforceable” in any normal sense of the term. Kissinger is often associated with the “realist” school of international relations which holds that nations are compelled to respect international agreements through alignments and a balancing of interests.

    Many nations, most of them in the West, have sought through sanctions to dissuade Russia from continuing its invasion. As Russia has abundant natural resources and its patronage-reliant leadership is not focused on advancing its people’s interests, such sanctions, thus far, have yielded modest results. Yet, if those sanctions last, they and Russia’s alignment choices will shape that nation’s growth prospects for decades.

    Mandela’s personal qualities and his leadership style were critical for smoothing South Africa’s difficult political transition. He and his counterparts found a path to engage each other respectfully. All-race elections and an impressive Constitution were successfully negotiated.

    Many among us want a Mandela-like good-triumphs-over-evil outcome without being realistic about the big-picture challenges or acknowledging the prospective advantages of negotiating with Putin. They want their values validated; prosecuting Putin as a war criminal would do exactly that. Such thinking – as indulgent as it is prevalent – tempts a massive war.

    Zelensky is a Mandela-style leader in that he has courageously unified the nation in pursuit of a just cause. With his international standing similarly elevated, he seems to have convinced key NATO leaders that Ukraine’s ongoing security requires Russian forces to leave Crimea.

    As no Russian leader could agree to such a withdrawal, this would need to be achieved militarily. Putin is very different from South Africa’s pre-1994 leadership, and Russia’s challenges are predominantly international whereas ours have long been domestic. Yet, given today’s evolving but very integrated global economy, resource-reliant economies must transition in such a way that many of their young workers add value within global supply chains.

    Whatever one thinks of Mandela and Kissinger as people, they symbolise very different leadership styles. Kissinger helped link much of Asia to the West. Would a younger President Mandela have been sufficiently pragmatic to similarly advance this corner of the world?


    Mandela’s style versus Kissinger’s  – Daily Friend

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