Eroding the middle ground: the shift in foreign policy underpinning South African nuclear diplomacy

06 Dec 2012

In international relations states labelled as ‘middle powers’ are often responsible for crafting a middle way to bridge conflicting international interests. They typically favour multilateralism and cooperative international behaviour. Middle power diplomacy has played a crucial role in the establishment and maintenance of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. South Africa has played the role of a middle power in nuclear diplomacy since 1994, drawing on its moral position after giving up its nuclear weapons. This role has especially involved joining the efforts of middle powers in the North, such as Norway and Canada, to indefinitely extend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, South Africa’s foreign policy has shown a gradual shift away from a middle power orientation not least due to an increasing non-aligned position that calls for deep reforms to the perceived unfair world order tilted in the favour of the developed North. This shift is also visible in South African nuclear diplomacy and is eroding the middle ground that has so far sustained the nonproliferation regime. The paper argues that South Africa’s middle power diplomacy has allowed it to punch above its weight in the nuclear realm, but its pursuit of international reforms has resulted in the drawing of a fault line between developed and developing countries. It is in the interest of nuclear non-proliferation to regain the middle ground by forming broad coalitions amongst all actors interested in nuclear disarmament.