Constructive engagement

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Constructive engagement was the name given to the policy of the Reagan administration towards the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1980s. It was promoted as an alternative to the economic sanctions and divestment from South Africa demanded by the UN General Assembly and the international anti-apartheid movement.[1]

Encouraging South Africa[edit]

The Reagan administration vetoed legislation from the United States Congress and blocked attempts by the United Nations to impose sanctions and to isolate South Africa.[2] Instead, advocates of constructive engagement sought to use incentives as a means of encouraging South Africa to gradually move away from apartheid.[3] The policy, echoed by the British government of Margaret Thatcher, came under criticism as South African government repression of the black population and anti-apartheid activism intensified.[4] The policy's architect, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, designed it to link the independence of South African–occupied Namibia to an easing of the arms embargo against South Africa and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.[5] Author/journalist Christopher Hitchens blamed constructive engagement and "the fearlessly soft attitude displayed by Chester Crocker towards apartheid" for the ten-year delay in implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 and securing Namibia's independence:[6]

Independence on these terms could have been won years ago if it were not for Crocker's procrastination and Reagan's attempt to change the subject to the presence of Cuban forces in Angola. Here again, the United States dogmatically extended diplomatic recognition to one side only – South Africa's. Here again, without 'neutral' mediators American policy would have deservedly become the victim of its own flagrant bias. An important participant was Bernt Carlsson, UN Commissioner for Namibia, who worked tirelessly for free elections in the colony and tried to isolate the racists diplomatically.

Influence of the Cold War[edit]

Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 offered the regime in Pretoria a conservative president who, in an early speech, declared his support for the white minority government of South Africa, and their support for the US in times of war.[7] After the administration of previous President Jimmy Carter had pledged to support majority rule in South Africa, South African President P. W. Botha saw in Reagan what he saw in Thatcher: a leader who would respect his regime's battle against communism in Southern Africa.[8] The Cold War and threat of Soviet influence in the region, Namibia in particular, enabled the South African government to appeal to the Reagan administration's fear of an African "domino effect." In light of this, South Africa received both economic and military aid during Reagan's first term.[9] The US Department of State also believed that "Constructive Engagement" would lead over time to a regime change. US policy feared a sudden revolution in South Africa as being a potential power vacuum, opening the door to a Marxist, Soviet-backed regime, like that in Angola.[10]

Override of presidential veto[edit]

The build-up to what was to become the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 can be traced to Archbishop Desmond Tutu who visited the United States in 1984. This visit occurred after President Reagan's comfortable re-election. Speaking on Capitol Hill Tutu delivered a speech, declaring "constructive engagement is an abomination, an unmitigated disaster."… "In my view, the Reagan administration's support and collaboration with it is equally immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian."[11] This speech was the turning point for the Reagan administration, and also the beginning of the end of "Constructive Engagement". In April 1985 President Reagan came under attack from within the Republican Party itself. The Republican majority in the Senate voted 89–4 on a resolution condemning apartheid.[12] The four "no" votes came from Republican senators Jesse Helms, Barry Goldwater, Chic Hecht, and Steve Symms.[13]

In October 1986, the United States Congress overrode President Reagan's veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (the Senate vote was 78 to 21, the House vote was 313 to 83). During the lead-up to the override, Reagan appointed Edward Perkins, who is black, ambassador to South Africa. Conservative Representative Dick Cheney was opposed to the override, saying that Nelson Mandela was the head of an organisation that the State Department had deemed "terrorist".[14][15] In the week leading up to the vote, President Reagan appealed to members of the Republican Party for support, but as Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. would state, "For this moment, at least, the President has become an irrelevancy to the ideals, heartfelt and spoken, of America."[16] The legislation, which banned all new US trade and investment in South Africa, also refused South African Airways flights landing permission at US airports. This legislation was seen as a catalyst for similar sanctions in Europe and Japan, and signalled the end of the constructive engagement policy.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Audie Klotz. 1999. Norms in International Relations: The Struggle Against Apartheid. Cornell University Press.
  • Audie Klotz. (1995). Norms reconstituting interests: Global racial equality and U.S. sanctions against South Africa. International Organization, 49(3), 451-478.
  • Culverson, D. R. (1996). The Politics of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the United States, 1969-1986. Political Science Quarterly, 111(1), 127.
  • Francis Njubi Nesbitt. Race for Sanctions: African Americans against Apartheid, 1946-1994. Indiana University Press.
  • Pauline Baker, The United States and South Africa: The Reagan Years (New York: Ford Foundation).
  • Robert Fatton, Jr., "The Reagan Policy Toward South Africa: Ideology and the New Cold War," African Studies Review 27 (March 1984)~ 57-82.


  1. ^ Ungar, Sanford J.; Vale, Peter (1985). "South Africa: Why Constructive Engagement Failed". Foreign Affairs. 64 (2): 234–258. doi:10.2307/20042571. JSTOR 20042571.
  2. ^ Manzo, Kate (1986). "U.S. South Africa Policy in the 1980s: Constructive Engagement and Beyond". Review of Policy Research. 6 (2): 212–221 [p. 212]. doi:10.1111/j.1541-1338.1986.tb00687.x.
  3. ^ Toler, Deborah (1982). "Constructive Engagement: Reactionary Pragmatism at Its Best". Issue: A Journal of Opinion. 12 (3/4): 11–18. doi:10.2307/1166712. JSTOR 1166712.
  4. ^ Hamill, James (July 1995). "South Africa and the Commonwealth part one: the years of acrimony – Commonwealth of Nations". Contemporary Review.
  5. ^ Davies, J. E. (2007). Constructive Engagement?: Chester Crocker & American Policy in South Africa, Namibia & Angola. Ohio University Press. ISBN 9781847013057.
  6. ^ Hitchens, Christopher (1993). For the sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports. Verso. p. 99. ISBN 0-86091-435-6.
  7. ^ Bell, Coral (1989). The Reagan Paradox: American foreign policy in the 1980s. Edward Elgar. p. 117. ISBN 185278203X.
  8. ^ Davies, J. E. (2007). Constructive Engagement?: Chester Crocker & American Policy in South Africa, Namibia & Angola. Ohio University Press. p. 72. ISBN 9781847013057.
  9. ^ Rotberg, Robert I. (1990). "Reagan Era in Africa". In Kyvig, David E. (ed.). Reagan and the World. New York: Greenwood Press. pp. 119–138 [p. 125]. ISBN 0313273413.
  10. ^ Davies, J. E. (2007). Constructive Engagement?: Chester Crocker & American Policy in South Africa, Namibia & Angola. Ohio University Press. p. 26. ISBN 9781847013057.
  11. ^ Jackson, Derrick Z. (9 June 2004). "Reagan's heart of darkness". Boston Globe. Retrieved 24 January 2009.
  12. ^ Coker, Christopher (1986). The United States and South Africa, 1968–1985: Constructive Engagement and its Critics. Durham: Duke University Press. p. 266. ISBN 0822306654.
  13. ^ Baldwin, Tom (4 April 1985). "Tutu leads priests' march for arrested colleague". Arizona Daily Star. p. 9. Retrieved 21 May 2022.
  14. ^ "Cheney and Mandela: Reconciling The Truth About Cheney's Vote". Archived from the original on 15 May 2008. Retrieved 18 May 2008.
  15. ^ Steven V. Roberts. "Reagan names a Black Diplomat Ambassador to South Africa". New York Times.
  16. ^ Roberts, Steven V. (3 October 1986). "Senate, 78 to 21, Overrides Reagan's Veto and Imposes Sanctions on South Africa". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 February 2009.