Botswana's US Foreign Policy 

SHARE   |   Monday, 08 May 2017   |   By Ditiro Motlhabane
Botswana's US Foreign Policy 

Key among the recent Heads of Missions Conference held in Gaborone was a panel discussion on Botswana's foreign policy which evoked strong divergent views. STAFF WRITER DITIRO MOTLHABANE argues that the country’s foreign policy appears to have been heavily influenced by the West. 

Botswana's foreign policy or lack thereof once again polarised debates recently at a  Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation panel discussion themed "50 years of Botswana Foreign policy: Celebrate, Reflect and Advance”. Botswana has been largely criticised for not having a coherent foreign policy, both by internal critics of the government as well as by regional critics. The Government counters such criticism but stating that its foreign policy is governed by “ethical foreign policy” considerations. University of Botswana (UB) History Professor Mpho Molomo complained that lack of a template for foreign policy creates a haphazard approach where the current administration often makes reference to a speech made the first President Seretse Khama in the 1970s. Depending on such utterances does not reflect the dynamism in the country’s foreign policy and runs the risk of being archaic or irrelevant to current developments, he opined. He, therefore, suggests that the country should develop some guidelines on an approach to be adopted when expressing Botswana's foreign policy and response to developments on the global front. In defense, International Affairs and Cooperation Minister Dr Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi says government has chosen not to have a written foreign policy document, owing to unprecedented shifts in policies as well as the dynamic and turbulent nature of world politics. Responding to a Parliamentary question in the just ended session Venson-Moitoi said while Botswana does not have a written foreign policy, it should not be misconstrued to imply that the country does not have one. She said government adopted guiding principles as articulated by the First President, Sir Seretse Khama in March 1970 that served as reference point for Members of Parliament. The initial principles include democracy, development, self-reliance, unity, good neighbour-liness, peaceful resolution of conflicts, territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations. 

Written policy not always best option

"They give us the necessary flexibility to respond to the ever changing, dynamic and complex environment of global politics. (Our foreign policy) has to constantly evolve in response to challenges and opportunities in the context of a country’s interaction with the international community. It follows that a written foreign policy is not always the best option,” she said. As Botswana’s engagement with the international community continued to increase, such principles were later expanded to include respect for human rights, respect for the rule of law and good governance, commitment to regional integration and multilateralism and promotion of just and equitable international economic and political order, she said. Academics led by Dr Gladys Mokhawa, and diplomats appear to lean towards government position. Agreed that the simple approach to foreign policy is the reflection of local policy on foreign countries, diplomats insist that they are well vested with policies of government and are qualified to pursue and reflect them in their missions abroad. 

Rooftop diplomacy 

In fact Dr Mokhawa does not see anything wrong with controversial positions and open criticism of other states or head of states which often breaks ranks with her neighbours. Botswana's recently acquired rooftop diplomacy is not as bad as it is depicted by detractors, the scholar argues. She posits that diplomacy is multifaceted, designed to suit the current developments, events and needs of a particular state. This is so because foreign policy is not built on abstracts but a result of practical conceptions of national interest. "In essence practical diplomacy demonstrates that states act in a pragmatic manner, pursuing short-term and long-term objectives in their external relations; mixing ethical and normative principles into what is essentially the country’s pursuit of self-interest,” she sums her argument. Both criticism and the defence of Botswana’s foreign policy fails to take into account the rise of President Ian Khama and American influence on his foreign policy decisions and the perception of opportunism that such a relationship creates. Since independence in 1966 Botswana, out of necessity adopted a foreign policy of “quiet diplomacy”, necessitated not only out of choice but the recognition of its position of weakness relative to Apartheid South Africa. Wikileaks communique reveals that whilst officially non-aligned during the cold war Botswana was perceived by the United States as an important bulwark to communist expansion in Africa, in particular as a preventative measure against Cuban and Soviet influence in the region through their involvement in the Angolan war of independence. It was this relationship with the United States that was to grow and develop culminating in a silent entente between the two countries with the rise to power in 1998 of Khama.

The shift 

In 2009 President Khama held various meetings with former United States Ambassador Nolan in which he reiterated his 2003 position of his intention to become more actively involved in international affairs and move away from Botswana’s traditional foreign policy of quiet diplomacy. The disclosure of intent by Khama was met with both scepticism and opportunism by the US Ambassador. In leaked communique to Washington (wikileaks: confidential communique), the former US Ambassador to Botswana noted Botswana’s traditional nonaligned status and the government’s willingness to work with the US and advance its foreign policy objectives. The communique revealed that the best way to attain and influence Khama’s support for US policy was for high level direct communication, as this would appeal to both Khama’s inexperience in foreign affairs and to his personality. It is against this background that Botswana’s foreign policy is considered culminating in the unsuccessful campaign by Venson-Moitoi to be the chair of the African Union. Venson-Moitoi’s loss in attaining the African Union Commission Chair in January 2017 came as a shock to most Batswana who had been led to believe she was well positioned to replace South Africa's Dr Nkosazana Dlamini- Zuma. For the rest of the continent she was never in the running. The African Union sets out its objectives as a pan-African body, a focus geared towards African social and political development. Among its prime objectives, it seeks to achieve greater unity and solidarity between the African countries and Africans, to defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of its Member States, to accelerate the political and social-economic integration of the continent and to promote and defend African common positions on issues of interest to the continent and its peoples. In seeking to achieve these objectives Africa’s cold war nonaligned status still plays a considerable influence in the fulfillment of its policies. African countries would and do frown upon an African country that puts western agendas before continental aspirations, let alone positions that are inconsistent with common “African positions”. 


As a general principle African countries avoid foreign policy positions that may be interpreted as interfering with the internal affairs of other countries. Emphasis in foreign policy is placed instead on sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nation states. According to Dr. S. Malila and Robert M. Molebatsi (University of Botswana-Southern African Peace and Security Studies 2013) – “This might explain in part why African regional organisations as well as the AU tend to react slowly to serious and cataclysmic events which often turn out to have serious long term implications for the security and stability of the continent. Western countries are much less reticent. Even so, in recent times, the idea that a country’s foreign policy should be explicitly guided by ethical considerations (re)surfaced among leading western nations in the 1990s after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe (Chandler 2003). Hammer has suggested that “ethical foreign policy” maybe conceived in broad terms as a “policy which defines the principles and practices of international relations based on the respect for human rights, international obligations, transparency and accountability” (Hammer 2007:6). Ethical concerns supposedly informed interventions in a number of countries including Yugoslavia, Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone”, none of which have received international criticism by Botswana as part of an “ethical foreign policy”. 

Botswana, US deal 

In 2003, Botswana signed a bilateral agreement with the United States that would prevent the extradition from Botswana of US citizens to the International Criminal Court (ICC) under the Rome Convention. Botswana is the only country in Africa to have entered into such an agreement with the US. This was despite widespread international condemnation of the United States for failing to join the ICC. The agreement is in compliance with US foreign policy of protecting its sovereign integrity by engaging in its so-called “pre-emptive wars” on foreign countries. In stark contrast to the bi-lateral agreement with the US, Botswana has condemned its immediate neighbour and economic partner South Africa as well as other African nations that have advised of their intention to leave the ICC. Further afield Botswana recognised the State of Palestine in 1988, as confirmed in Parliament in 2015 by Eric Molale, then Minister for Presidential Affairs and Public Administration (BOPA 4th February 2015), in so doing Botswana however adopted the US approach to the Israel and Palestine conflict, noting that “It is important to highlight the fact that formal recognition of Palestine enables Botswana and the rest of the international community to be in a stronger position to help the peace process by applying pressure on two equally accountable parties. This recognition encourages Palestinians to act responsibly on dealing with Israel.” The call for “Palestinians to act responsibly” is consistent with US policy that perceives Palestinians as the aggressors in the conflict, and is a position contrary to that of the African Union that recognises Israel as an “occupier of Palestinian territory”. Additionally, consistent with US foreign policy, Botswana has failed to condemn the apartheid system of segregation adopted by Israel nor does it recognise the term as applicable to the country in spite of increasing international recognition of it. The US and Botswana did not condemn Israeli use of phosphorous bombs during its bombing of Gaza in December of 2008, but Botswana did however support a United Nations resolution calling for the United Nations General Assembly to “pass a resolution requesting its agencies to update their positions on the health and environmental effects of uranium weapons”. This resolution passed though vetoed by the US. The effect of the resolution is, however, immaterial as Israel continued to use such weapons without condemnation by Botswana; notably the resolution was not a condemnation on the use of the weapons but rather to assess their impact on “health and the environment”. Botswana’s close ties with Israel in respect of the diamond trade and links to the DISS further parts ways with the African Union position that shuns close relationships with Israel. On the 23rd December 2007 the Obama administration amid a growing fall out with the Israeli government, for the first time abstained on United Nations Resolution 2334, calling for the condemnation of Israeli settlements in "Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem". The resolution was passed by a 14-0 vote of members forming the UN Security Council (UNSC). Notably Angola and Egypt both having temporary seats on the Security Council voted in favour of the resolution in accordance with African Union policy. Botswana has remained silent on its support for the position adopted by its fellow African countries under resolution 2334. Botswana has not publically condemned the recent violation by the Israeli government of its occupation of Palestinian land in violation of Resolution 2334, a position which is now consistent with the Trump administration.

Botswana on China

There is consistency in Botswana’s international posturing. China’s expansion in the South China Seas has received condemnation by the Botswana government. A position that has no direct or indirect benefit to the country, but which is nevertheless consistent with American policy in the region. On the contrary, China is Botswana’s third largest importer of goods after South Africa and the United Kingdom, a break in relations would be detrimental to the national economy. Other international concerns within the same area have received no similar treatment by Botswana as foreign policy issues for instance, the increasing calls for greater democracy in China, autonomy for Hong Kong receive no condemnation. The recognition and conformity to the US, “One China Policy” preventing Botswana’s condemnation of China’s authoritarian style of government which authoritarianism is condemned  when it comes to Zimbabwe and South Sudan. Botswana’s policy is not therefore one of “ethical foreign policy” considerations.  At the general debate of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly (2013), Phandu Skelemani then Botswana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs called for “punitive action in whatever form” to be taken against the Syrian government over the continuing civil war. A position adopted by the United States. Skelemani condemned members of the Security Council, that were in Botswana’s view frustrating efforts to find a lasting solution to the Syrian conflict, “a pointed criticism of Russia and China. He could only have been referring to these countries because he had on a previous occasion summoned the Chinese and Russian ambassadors in Botswana to chide them over their countries’ use of veto powers in relation to Syria” (Dr. S. Malila and Robert M. Molebatsi- Southern African Peace and Security Studies 2013). The regional and international refugee crisis marks another considerable parting point in Botswana’s own foreign policy and its appeasement to conform to US policy. Speaking in July of 2014 Botswana’s then Minister of Defence, Justice and Security, Ramadeluka Seretse stated in respect of Zimbabwean refugees “that Botswana currently only gives status to refugees due to political crisis. Botswana does not consider economic situation as a criteria to give an individual an asylum status”. By 2016 in accordance once again with US policy, Botswana was moved to accept Zimbabweans, amongst other refugees invoking the US Ambassador at the time Miller to state “We call on our friends and partners to rise to the challenge and honour their commitment on protecting refugees’ right to life. One of those friends is Botswana. Botswana currently hosts roughly 3,000 refugees at Dukwi Camp who have fled a wide array of conflicts and violence from as far away as Somalia to as close as neighbouring Zimbabwe.” (Editorials 24th June 2016). 


Venson-Moitoi and AU

Venson-Moitoi’s chances of success in obtaining the AU Commission Chair were not based solely on international policy, or lack of it. Moitoi required the support of the SADC block. It was within this block that the key to 15 critical votes were contained. Botswana had just relinquished its Chair of SADC. Botswana’s successor as chair of the regional organisation, as determined by SADC was King Mswati III of Swaziland. A foreign policy based on the principles of “ethical foreign policy” considerations would have demanded condemnation by Khama of the autocratic Monarchy that has little or no regard for human rights and the rule of law. Botswana instead offered no condemnation of King Mswati III and instead obtained an undertaking by SADC heads of States that they would support Botswana’s candidate for the AU commission Chair, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi. The opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) immediately condemned the appointment of Swaziland – Africa's last absolute monarchy led by King Mswati III – as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) chairperson despite a poor human rights record under the king. "There is no constitutional democracy in Swaziland as elections are not free and fair. King Mswati and his Queen mother Ntombi have absolute authority over the judiciary, legislature and cabinet. There are serious restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association and expression," stated Justin Hunyepa, BNF Publicity Secretary. A foreign policy predicated on internationally recognised “ethical policies” would have demanded of Botswana to condemn the human rights violations occurring in Swaziland. The situation in Swaziland is however parallel to that occurring on Khama’s home front; a clamp down on trade unionists, journalists and civil society activists have been harassed, arbitrarily arrested and imprisonment and extra judicial killings. The ethical considerations for a condemnation could not be made. 

Turning blind eye 


As the outgoing SADC chairman, Khama came under heavy criticism for the country's inconsistent foreign policy and diplomacy. Academics at a University of Botswana (UB) public lecture on “Botswana As A Global Player - International Relations And Diplomacy” on September 01, 2016 took turns to pour scorn on the silence by the Khama administration on the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland.  Professor Balefi Tsie – a former Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) chairman and a Political Science lecturer at UB – expressed concern that while Botswana has been vocal about the arrest of Sudan's Al Bashir and the Zimbabwe elections outcome of 2008 it has failed to do the same with Swaziland where there are no democratic elections. Further noting that Botswana has remained silent as their northern neighbour Zimbabwe implodes while crisis escalates in Mozambique and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Professor Tsie said this conduct demonstrates glaring inconsistency in Botswana's foreign policy. Khama avoided the crisis in SADC when handing over of the chairmanship to King Mswati III. With just over a year left in his term as President of Botswana, and the just elapsed SADC chairmanship the opportunity called for Khama to entrench his legacy and establish an truly “ethically based foreign policy approach”. It was envisaged that Khama would crack the whip as he promised on numerous occasions. At the SADC summit in Lozitha, Khama sounded apologetic and made a feeble attempt to sweep the rot in the region – dished by his peers – under the carpet while turning a blind eye on clear violations of democratic rights of citizens even by the man he was about to  entrust with leading the regional bloc, Mswati III. Unlike his father, the late first President Sir Seretse Khama, who emphasised that in order to attain democracy “such a struggle must have a strategy. A programme of economic, social and political advancement must be based on certain principles or it will lose its way and relapse into opportunism and the mere pursuit of an expanding Gross National Product” (A Developing Democracy in Southern Africa- Seretse Khama, Sweden 1970) Khama instead focused on gross domestic product. He emphasised that the overall economic performance for the region in 2015 showed marginal growth.  The concern was that the regional average Real GDP continued to slowdown averaging 2.8 per cent in 2015 compared to 3.3 per cent in 2014. Only DRC and Tanzania recorded real GDP growth rates above the regional target of 7 per cent. Economic growth in the SADC region for 2016 is expected to be at the same level of 2015. Performance of the external sector was unsatisfactory in 2015. This was largely on account of declining commodity prices on the international market. In addition, export volumes declined, generally because of low demand due to weak global economic recovery, whilst import volumes increased marginally.

The region's cereal demand and supply analysis shows that the region recorded an overall cereal deficit of 9.3 million tonnes for 2016/17 marketing year and that only one country, Zambia recorded a cereal surplus. Currently, about 40.0 million people in the region are food insecure. It is therefore critical that the region should rise to the occasion and institute the necessary mitigation and recovery measures. "In light of the above, I wrote letters to all SADC Heads of State and Government on the declaration of drought. I also launched a Humanitarian Appeal to close a US$ 2.4 billion gap for the SADC region on 26 July 2016, and I am confident that with the support of our partners, we can overcome this challenge. I am also pleased to note that the region is united in coordinating the systems and institutional requirements for an effective importation and distribution programme of food and non-food commodities. I therefore wish to call upon our International Cooperating Partners to continue to support SADC in this endeavour and to render the necessary humanitarian and material support to meet the requirements of the region," said Khama avoiding the international foreign policy considerations that had driven his government and AU position on human rights. The Obama administration in the US had placed emphasis on global warming and climate change, a policy consideration known to be of personal importance to Khama. “Climate change as we all know is a reality that we need to face. In a strategic context, the region has developed the "SADC Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan" which I wish to encourage Member States to adopt and domesticate for collective implementation. The region also associates itself with the outcomes of the "Paris Agreement” adopted in 2015, as a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. It is encouraging that following the adoption, some Member States have proceeded to sign the Paris Agreement. I therefore wish to call upon all Member States to ratify this statute, so that our collective efforts to protect the planet can bear fruit and sustain the generations to come. However, there still remains a critical period of 2020 which is the deadline for the global mechanism for operationalisation of the Agreement.” For a foreign policy based on “international ethical consideration” to have credence it must be supported by the implementation of domestic internal policy. A key consideration in domestic security is the credibility and transparency of national elections. Botswana has recently introduced the electronic voting machines (EVMs); it did do without the benefit of a voter verifiable paper trail and without disclosure to the public of international condemnation in their use.  



The conflated foreign policy in respect of elections and their results was highlighted both at the SADC handing over ceremony and further with the recent involvement of ECOWAS in the Gambia. In respect of the Lesotho crisis Khama said SADC has continued with mediation efforts in the Kingdom of Lesotho.  "I convened the Double Troika Summit twice in January and June 2016 to assess progress made since the August 2015 Summit in Gaborone, Botswana. The Double Troika Summit on Lesotho decided on the need for the country to prepare a time-bound roadmap and implement SADC Decisions expeditiously. The Double Troika further approved the operationalisation of the Oversight Committee. A progress report will be presented to this Summit meeting” in stark contrast to the interventionist calls to remove former President Jammeh in the Gambia. In the Gambia, ECOWAS, on the back of Botswana’s call for Jammeh to step down, removed Jammeh after The Gambian Parliament declared a state of emergency and installed the elected and now President Adama Barrow. The ECOWAS agreement that protected Jammeh from effective prosecution and allowed for his flight to Equatorial Guinea in possession of considerable state assets has received no “ethical” condemnation and foreign policy intervention by Gaborone. The overtly apparent double standards in Botswana’s foreign policy are neither principled “ethical” considerations nor based on policies in accordance with African Union values. They underlie instead the basis of mistrust the continent has for a state that is perceived to favour US policy over the advancement of African policy consideration. Policies that are consistent with national policies of increasing the wealth of the political elite as opposed to the beneficiation of a larger African continent. These self-serving policies appealing as they may be at home do not appeal to either the SADC community or the African continent as a whole.