Decisions that build peace in an unpredictable world
SPEECH BY FORMER PRESIDENT F W DE KLERK
TO CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY, PORTLAND OREGON
29 FEBRUARY 2012
DECISIONS THAT BUILD PEACE IN AN UNPREDICTABLE WORLD
History is full of pivotal moments when a decision one way or the other has sent events in a dramatically different direction.
• How would Europe have developed during the 19th century had Napoleon not decided to invade Russia?
• What would have happened if the victorious allies had not imposed such a crippling peace treaty on the Germans at Versailles after the First Word War?
• How would the world look today if a hardliner - instead of Mikhail Gorbachev - had succeeded to the leadership of the Soviet Union in the early 80s?
This is interesting speculation - but it is all water under the historical bridge.
The challenge is to identify the pivotal issues that confront us today and to ensure that we now take the right decisions to build a peacful and sustainable future.
Twenty-five years ago we South Africans were confronted with need to make critical decisions.
By the beginning of the ‘eighties, it was becoming increasingly clear to many of us in leadership positions in South Africa’s ruling National Party that we were on the wrong course. We were becoming more and more isolated from the international community with each year that passed. The great majority of black South Africans were increasingly adamant in their rejection of our policies. As a result, we had become trapped in a downward spiral of resistance and repression that threatened at some stage in the not too distant future to erupt into full-scale conflict.
All of this was having an increasingly damaging effect on our economy and was threatening to shut down the engine of economic growth that was, and remains, our best hope of bringing all our people a better life.
My colleagues and I spent a great deal of time identifying our problems and wrestling with the need for fundamental change. In open and often brutally frank discussions we examined the hard and unpalatable facts that confronted us. We also struggled with the question of what was right and what was wrong within the framework of our values.
We knew that we could have clung to power for two or three decades - but we also knew that with every passing year our situation would become more desperate and our options more limited.
At the same time, we had genuine concerns about embarking on a process that would lead inevitably to our losing power.
What would become of the right of my people, the Afrikaners, to the national self-determination that had been the central theme of our history for almost two hundred years?
How could we be sure that change in South Africa would not lead to the chaos and tyranny that had unhappily accompanied the independence of so many African countries to the north of us?
Neither could we ignore the strategic threat posed by the Soviet Union and the influence of the South African Communist Party in the ANC.
• We knew that nearly all the members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee were also members of the South African Communist Party.
• We knew that SACP cadres controlled key functions within the ANC alliance, most notably its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe.
• We knew that the SACP proposed a two phased revolution – a national liberation phase that would include all forces opposed to apartheid during which the ANC would be the vanguard party; and a second ‘democratic’ liberation phase that would culminate, under the leadership of the SACP, in the achievement of the ‘democratic’ revolution and the establishment of a ‘people’s democracy’.
This, after all, was the classic formula that had been successfully followed in the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions.
Former South African governments did not feel that they were under any moral obligation to accept a one-man, one-vote process that would quickly lead to the demise of democracy and the establishment of a totalitarian communist regime – as had already happened in a number of neighbouring states.
This was not a question of ‘reds under beds’. The communist threat was very real. The contest between the free world and the Soviet bloc was taking place through third world liberation struggles. One of the main battlegrounds was southern Africa where South African forces had until as late as the end of 1987 been involved in large-scale battles with Cuban and Soviet-led forces in Angola.
We knew that we had to take decisions that would affect the future of country, our people and our families for generations to come. But we also knew that we would have to take those decisions in the context of a rapidly changing environment.
By the end of 1989 the situation in the world and in South Africa had changed and had begun to create circumstances that were conducive for transformation.
• By 1987 all the significant parties involved in the South African conflict had come to accept that there could be neither a military nor a revolutionary victory. They also knew that continuing conflict would simply turn South African into a wasteland.
• Economic growth from the 60s onwards had brought about significant economic and social changes. Between 1970 and 1994 the black share of personal disposable income increased from 28.9% to almost 50%. Millions of black South Africans moved to the cities and improved their standard of living and education. By 1989 they had begun to occupy key positions in the industrial and commercial sectors. Increasingly they were becoming indispensable in the white-collar professions. By 1994 there were more black South Africans at university than whites.
• Similar changes were taking place in the white Afrikaner community. In the decades following 1960 a whole generation of young Afrikaners moved from the working class to the middle class. They graduated from university and travelled abroad – and were inevitably influenced by global values. They no longer shared the fiery nationalism of their parents and grandparents and by the early ‘eighties they were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with apartheid. By 1989 they were ripe for change.
• The tripartite agreement between South Africa, Cuba and Angola in 1988 also played an important role. It led to the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola, the implementation of UN resolution 435 and the independence of Namibia. The negotiations and successful implementation of the UN independence plan during 1989 reassured the government that it could secure its core interests through negotiations with its opponents.
• The final – and critically important - factor was the collapse of global communism at the end of the 1980s. At a stroke, it removed the government’s primary strategic concern. The demise of international communism and the manifest success of the free market economies also meant that there was no longer any serious debate with regard to the economic policies that would be required to ensure economic growth in a future democratic South Africa
By the time I became president in September 1989 the National Party was already committed to fundamental transformation. However, the collapse of Soviet communism enabled us to accelerate the process. When history opens a window of opportunity it is wise to jump through it. We knew that the circumstances for a reasonable constitutional settlement would never again be so favourable. So we jumped.
We took the right decision. South Africa is now a functioning non-racial democracy. We have experienced steady economic growth since 1994. Relations between our communities are good and we are once again a respected member of the international community.
The question I would like to discuss today is, how can leaders like President Obama, David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkoszy possibly know what decisions to take to maintain peace and sustainable growth in our rapidly changing world? How can they know whether their decisions will lead to desired outcomes or whether they will culminate in falure?
Predicting the future is a difficult business at the best of times. The Greek oracles understood this and were usually careful to couch their prognostications in ambiguous terms - so that, whatever the outcome, they could claim to have been right. Thus their advice to Croesus that if he invaded Persia he would overthrow a great empire proved to be true: the trouble was that the empire that his invasion overthrew was his own.
The Oracle of Delphi was, however, operating in fairly predictable times because there was so little change. Technology hardly developed from one century to the next during the middle iron age and only a tiny number of new publications appeared each year. Now the sum total of technological knowledge doubles every two or three years. We are confronted with new technologies faster than we can ever hope to absorb the old ones that we cast away. Change is accelerating; it is fundamental; and unfortunately, it is unpredictable.
The world in which we live today is dominated by factors that no-one imagined a mere twenty-five years ago:
• If anyone in 1985 had predicted that within seven years the Soviet Union would have collapsed; Eastern Europe would be liberated and Germany would be reunited - all the greatest pundits of the era would have called that person mad.
• Nobody identified the looming threat from radical Islamic terrorists.
• Nobody foretold the coming of the PC revolution, the internet and cellphones.
Yet all these developments have fundamentally changes our lives.
Under these circumstances, prediction is virtually impossible.
Ironically, the best pointers to the future might lie in the broader factors that have driven the history of our species in the past.
The first of these factors is climate change. Our species really came to the fore when it had to survive recurrent ice ages - the last of which ended a mere 12 000 years ago. 74 000 years ago, the eruption of Mount Toba in Sumatra created a 6-year winter that some experts believe might have reduced the human population to only 12 000 individuals.
Today we are confronted with growing evidence of global warming, which if left unchecked, could contribute to catastrophic climate change. Regardless of whether or not mankind is primarily responsible for this phenomenon, one thing is clear: the present rate and nature of human development is unsustainable: there are simply too many of us and too few resources to go around. Whatever else happens, future human development will take place within a framework that will be dictated by our deteriorating environment. The environment might well prove to be the single most important determinant of our future during the coming century.
The second factor that will determine our future will be demographics. Much of human history has been driven by the movement of people. The first successful migrations from Africa between 60 000 and 70 000 years ago led to the population of most of the planet; to the extinction of our main competitor, the Neanderthals, and, in effect, to the beginning of history. Much of mankind’s history during the past 3 000 years has been driven by migrations:
• migrations of tribes from central Asia against the ramparts of the Roman Empire;
• migrations of the Huns and Mongols across the Eurasian landmass; and
• the huge migrations from Europe after the 16th century which dramatically changed the history and demography of much of the planet.
Now, once again, in our globalised world, people are on the move. Populations in many parts of the first world have started to shrink. People are living longer and longer with fewer and fewer productive workers to sustain them. Either the retirement age will have to be raised or more skilled immigrants will have to be recruited. All this means that populations everywhere are becoming more and more mixed. The days of the single ethnic group nation state are gone. One of the central challenges in the emerging multicultural world will be the accommodation of diversity. Large parts of the US South-West will soon have Spanish-speaking majorities. How will the United States with its traditionally unilingual consensus deal with this challenge?
Already, nearly all the conflicts in the world are within countries between ethnic, cultural and religious communities. There are now very few wars between countries. Perhaps, the greatest single threat to our security comes from unresolved clash between liberal western materialism and fundamental Islam. It lies at the root of the threat posed by Al Qaeda and is at the heart of the allied fear that - if left unchecked - the Taliban will recapture Afghanistan and pose a threat to Western security. The correct management of religious and cultural diversity will be one of the key challenges during the coming decades.
This also has far-reaching implications for the security challenges and the West will have to face during coming decades. It will still be necessary for the United States and Europe to maintain strong military forces and to be able to project them to any part of the world when crises arise. However, the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan will, one hopes, be learned. NATOS’s reluctance to become involved in ground operations in the recent fighting in Libya – and to get involved in any way in the current uprising in Syria - are indications of how much strategic doctrines are already beginning to change.
The West will, in future, do everything that it can to avoid prolonged involvement in ground struggles in countries where its core interests are not involved. It is simply not possible for Western democracies to sustain lengthy campaigns in foreign countries in the full glare of the omnipresent media. Local civilians will inevitably be killed - so will Western soldiers. Each British death in Afghanistan now receives more media coverage than the deaths of thousands of men in a single hour of a First World War battle.
Nor should the West try to recreate quite different societies in its own liberal democratic image. Other strategies should be followed, including the lessening of dependence on oil from the Middle East and the intensified search for lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.
Yet another factor which has traditionally driven human history is technology. Indeed, we describe the various phases through which we have progressed as a species in terms of the technology that they used: hence the Neolithic age, the bronze age and the iron age, the steam age, the atom age and now the information age. Each new technology - the further expansion of the internet and information technology; nano-technology and our ability to decode the human genome - can have fundamental implications for the future of our species.
What will the implications be for society, politics and the economy if emerging technologies succeed in increasing life expectation by another ten or twenty years? What impact will the electronic media have for traditional print media - and for advertising? Already circulations and advertising revenues are beginning to show a steady decline.
This geometric expansion of human knowledge and technology leaves us increasingly with one disturbing conclusion: virtually anything is possible.
A fourth historic determinant has been the competition between different systems of organising human society. If there was any point to the long and tragic story of war and conflict it may have been to illustrate which approach to government works best in beating its rivals and in promoting the interests of its citizens. The question should not be what factors caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire - but what systemic factors enabled it to last for a thousand years. Certainly its system of law and military organisation played important roles.
The question should also be asked how two relatively small European powers, Britain and Netherlands, managed to conquer far wealthier and populous societies in Asia from the seventeenth century onwards. An important part of the answer may be found in the fact that by the end of the seventeenth century both countries had successfully limited the power of their governments to arbitrarily interfere with the freedom and property of the emerging middle class. This meant that merchants could mobilise resources for the pursuit of trading ventures without the fear that despotic governments would seize a disproportionate part of their profits or interfere too onerously with their activities. Chinese and Indian merchants did not enjoy similar advantages.
During the last century there were further cataclysmic struggles between societies with different systems - between the western democracies on the one hand and the despotic racism of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, on the other; and subsequently between the Western democracies and communist totalitarianism. In both struggles, the free societies emerged victorious. By the ’nineties the victory of the American model was so complete that Francis Fukuyama was able to proclaim ‘the end of history’: after so many centuries of struggle mankind had finally found the right formula for governance: liberal democracy and free markets.
However, history never ends.
We have moved into a new era that is still reeling from the economic crisis of 2008 -2009 and that is characterised by increasing doubt about the ‘Washington consensus’ and the accepted wisdom of the ‘nineties.
A number of western democracies are experiencing serious problems with their social-democratic model. They are discovering that countries simply cannot keep on pumping out social benefits without producing the wealth to finance them. The result, inevitably, is bankruptcy. The larger the role of government in catering to the social needs of the people, the less scope there is for the productive sectors of the economy. In the eighteenth century rulers lavished the taxes of the productive sector of the economy on glorious palaces and conspicuous consumption. They now spend such taxes on ostensibly praiseworthy social programmes administered and regulated by armies of bureaucrats. The disempowering effect on the productive sector is often much the same.
The question is: how many federal bureaucrats lost their jobs in the recent economic down-turn? According to the Cato Institute in 2000 the average federal civilian compensation was $ 76 000 compared with private sector compensation of $45 700. By 2008 the income of the federal workers had climbed to $ 120 000 - more than double that of private sector workers. Do modern democracies really need all these bureaucrats? In the 1820s - Britain - the super power of the time, ran its global foreign policy with the Foreign Secretary and support staff of fewer than twenty clerks. Moreover, a reply was despatched within 24 hours to every letter received.
I mention this because one of the dominant factors during the coming decades will be growing competition between the emerging Asian giants - China and India, on the one hand - and the USA and Europe on the other. This will not be a violent competition between armies and air forces: it will be an equally deadly competition in world markets for customers and resources. Once again, the outcome will identify the social, political and economic system that is best able to prevail and to promote the interests of its people.
After four decades of stagnation in the dead-end street of Maoist communism, the Chinese leadership finally noticed that their countrymen in Hong Kong and Taiwan were out-performing most of the rest of the world in achieving spectacular economic growth. They must have seen that Hong Kong had one of the freest economies in the world with minimal state interference and maximum decision-making in the hands of producers and consumers. They must also have noted that although it was economically free, Hong Kong was not politically free. It was still a British Colony. So maybe it would be possible for the Chinese Communist Party to stay in control while liberalising the economy at the same time? The rest is history.
Similarly, at the end of the eighties, after three decades of independence, India finally managed to break free from the straight-jacket of Congress socialism. It is also reaping the benefits of dazzling economic growth.
All this is presenting the United States and Europe with a seminal challenge: will its social and economic model be able to compete with the challenge from India and China? If not - what will the consequences be? If the West decides to take on the challenge what will it have to do to ensure the success of its system? It is unlikely that there will be any painless solution. The question is this: will western democracies be able to take the pain of competing with the new Asian giants?
To sum up:
I believe that just as we South Africans had to take difficult and crucial decisions regarding our future in the early ‘nineties, Western leaders will have to take crucial decisions on the challenges that confront their countries now.
• They will have to decide how they are going to deal with present unsustainable patterns of development. They will have to confront the simple fact that the planet will not be able to support eight billion people who will be living here in fourteen years - particularly if global warming leads to harvest failures.
• They will have to decide how they are going to deal with the results of demographic changes. How will they manage their increasingly culturally diverse societies? What will they do about the waves of illegal migrants from third world countries? How will they support and care for their aging populations?
• They will have to manage the unpredictable impact of new technologies. These technologies have the capacity to accelerate fundamental changes that have been taking place in society - regarding, how we work, where we work, how we will be entertained, how we live - and for how long we will live.
• Finally, they will have to decide whether their societies have the will and the ability to meet the gathering challenge from Asia.
Each of the decisions they take in these important areas could be pivotal for the future peace and sustainable progress of their countries and the world.
There is no end to history.
As my compatriots in the ANC like to put it - the struggle continues - and always will.
Published in: FW de Klerk Foundation