Vijay Makhan: “Mauritius has always entertained a policy and attitude of ‘Friends to all’”

Interview Vijay Makhan
US Elections & Mauritius

 ‘I hardly see any reason for us to depart from that stance. It is our permanent interests that will have to prime at all times

* ‘We would hope that a Biden administration would pay heed to the position of the international community on the Chagos issue’

* ‘We should never lose sight of the fact that we are an African nation and that we need to play the role that is expected of us’

Vijay Makhan, former Commissioner of African Union, and Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Mauritius, give us his views on the elections in the US, and the likely scenarios should either of the candidates win. He discusses America’s changing role in the geopolitical system as a result of the moves made by Trump and speculates on what may happened if Biden wins. He also comments on the USA’s relations with Africa and the issue of Diego Garcia.

Mauritius Times: According to the latest figures, at the time of speaking, it would seem that Donald Trump would defy the polls for a second time and beat challenger Joe Biden in his bid to win the 2020 US presidential election. It should not come as a surprise, isn’t it, given the complexity of the American electoral system?

Vijay Makhan: As you say, at the time of speaking (Wed 4 Nov), the outcome could belie the projections of the polls, but we are not there yet and I am not prepared to join the camp that gives Donald Trump a victory, precisely on account of the complexity of the US electoral system.

In the states where the figures so far are too close to call or make a projection as to the likely winner, the absentee votes and postal votes are yet to be counted. While Joe Biden has stated that the election is not over until every vote is counted, Trump has come out to say that he has won the election and he will move the Supreme Court to have the counting stopped for they, meaning the Democrats, are in the process of stealing the election, besides accusing them of fraud. This is not substantiated and is quite telling.

But, be that as it may, neither candidate has yet garnered the 270 electoral college votes required to be declared the winner. Legal battles appear unavoidable. Let’s see.

* One interesting finding of a poll by CBS/YouGov, conducted a few weeks back, to name the most important presidential characteristic, 46% of Americans mention leadership, while 35% cite management and executive skills. Only 16% mentioned personal morality as the most important feature of the presidency. This seems to echo much of what’s happening elsewhere in many countries: ethics do not really matter to voters. What do you think?

That is indeed a sorry state of affairs. It is the democratic system itself that appears to be weakening. It is failing the very people it is supposed to serve. Instead of plugging the loopholes that exist, the political leadership, in general, is happy, in and for its own interests, to let that system run and exploit the advantages that the loopholes provide.

Regrettably, the electorate seems equally happy to allow such a system to run its course and chooses its representatives not necessarily on sound leadership characteristics that one would expect, but more in accordance with other considerations, including what it considers to be of immediate material benefit to it as well as other generous promises.

In certain places, it is ethnic politics that comes into play. Such characteristics as high personal morality are unfortunately secondary for the voter in general to the extent that even management and leadership skills often count for little in his considerations at the time of election. Our own country is no exception.

* Whatever his ethics, when you look at it from a foreign policy perspective, would you say however that Trump had been right on the fundamentals as regards the US foreign policy decisions or trade?

As you may be aware, Donald Trump made the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ coupled with ‘America First’ as his battle cries for the 2016 election. From an international perspective, in the four years that have elapsed since his election, the US does not seem to have attained either target. Quite the contrary, one would be tempted to say. But these were catchy targets that resonated very well with the American voter and got translated in Trump’s election.

On the other hand, the ‘America First’ policy has not amused the traditional partners of the US, especially within the European Union. You will recall, for example, how against the reservations of his partners, Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord on Climate Change, he unilaterally banged the door on the Iran nuclear agreement despite his partners’ plea not to tread that path.

While pursuing such policies, I think he has alienated a number of countries and disturbed the geopolitical system as it had existed. While I agree with the view that he has adopted a foreign policy primarily motivated by domestic concerns, he has managed to more or less isolate the USA on the international front.

His all-out trade war with China and to a lesser extent his blow hot blow cold relationship with Russia, not to mention his handling of North Korea, have not helped to maintain the level of leadership that the USA had hitherto held on the international scene. The same goes for his rather abrasive approach to the Middle East issues.

* Given the central place the United States still holds in the global system what would a win by either of the two presidential candidates mean for the rest of the world in relation to issues that affect all countries like climate change, public health, trade, etc.?

There is a lot of reconsideration or reconstruction of American policy to be undertaken in the next four years. Should Trump win a second term, there will be need to reconsider his approach to all the issues I have just mentioned including those that you raise in your question. As a matter of fact, corrective measures will have to be taken to return America to the pole position it had hitherto held.

Besides, it appears that the Democrats are maintaining their majority in the House of Representatives and will possibly have a stronger voice in the Senate. That should help such a reconsideration of policies arising from the checks and balances instrument that prevails in the American system.

On the other hand, a Biden victory will necessarily mean a systemic reconstruction of American policy – both domestic and foreign. Biden is on record to have said that the US will immediately rejoin the World Health Organisation from which the Trump administration had pulled out. Similarly with the Climate Change Accord.

While a Biden administration doesn’t necessarily mean an immediate warming up of relations with China or Russia, the approach will most certainly be softer, I guess. And of course, the democratic system as it exists in the US at this time and which is permitting the ongoing electoral tussle will have to be reviewed and consolidated to avoid such situations, though that is easier said than done.

* The world’s geopolitical centre of gravity is shifting towards the Indian Ocean and given the regional aspirations of both India and China in this part of the world and the ongoing conflicts and tensions in the Gulf region, one could expect an intensification of security polarisation if Trump is re-elected. What if Biden get elected?

As I have just said under Biden, the approach will certainly be softer. Having said that, the USA objectives will continue to be dominated by its security concerns and naturally it will continue to strengthen its position within the regions that you mention. Besides, let me just reiterate that when it comes to foreign policy objectives and US security considerations, these are established by the two major departments which are the State Department, that is foreign affairs, and the Pentagon, that is defence.

Obviously, any American administration will follow keenly the India-China glaring ongoing competition in the region, and Washington will continue to scrutinise, analyse and assess the aspirations of both these countries and determine its policy accordingly. I do not see a Biden administration changing the status quo except in its approach.

* What do you think could be the implications for Mauritius in a revisited Cold War environment?

I suspect that you are referring to the frigid environment that has emerged in the US-China relations over the past four years since the advent of Trump in the White House.

Mauritius has always entertained a policy and attitude of ‘Friends to all’. I hardly see any reason for us to depart from that stance. On the contrary, we will have to be very careful and maintain that approach. We should always be conscious of the fact that we are a small nation, highly dependent on the outside world for our economic progress and development.

It would hardly serve us to choose one camp or another. We have no alternative than to continue to pursue a more or less neutral path, that is, from the geo-strategic point of view. It is our permanent interests that will have to prime at all times.

* How about the rest of Africa? We know that that the Clinton administration was responsible for initiating a new era in US-Africa relations, but succeeding administrations have not shown the same interest, isn’t it?

Let us be candid. US policy towards Africa has always been a kind of footnote in their foreign relations.

It is true that since Ronald Reagan, every American president has lent his signature to what Washington has effectively qualified as US Africa policy. All such policies remained rather superficial, without any deep and presidential commitment, so to say. That is until the election of Bill Clinton who, to his credit, gave personal attention to the African continent by facilitating and indeed signing the bill that brought in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act – the AGOA.

Under his two-term mandate, this was consolidated, and American investments in certain African countries given a boost. AGOA has survived a few presidencies and is still operational but its demise is announced for 2025.

Barack Obama came up with his ‘Power Africa’ and ‘Feed the Future’ initiatives, which were designed to address the chronic electricity and food shortages on the continent. His predecessor George W Bush had established initiatives for AIDS relief, to fight malaria and to support girls’ education.

Trump initially had no time for Africa and in fact, provoked ire in Africa when a couple of years ago, he described certain countries of the continent as ‘shithole’ countries. But soon thereafter, the mandarins of the State Department got to work and ‘Prosper Africa’ was elaborated under his signature. But then, this instrument, launched in Mozambique by his then adviser, John Bolton, was not meant merely to placate Africa but in response also to China’s heavy investments in the continent.

It should also be borne in mind that Trump has not set foot in Africa. Let it also be underscored that all American initiatives towards Africa have had a bipartisan approach in the US Congress. As far as Biden is concerned, I am afraid I have not seen or read an Africa policy per se enunciated by his campaign.

So, I do not know whether Africa will yet again be a footnote in America’s foreign relations, its military and security concerns aside.

* Take the Chagos issue: the US has conveniently passed the buck to the UK. Is that likely to remain the same should Biden win?

Well, the American stand concerning our sovereignty dispute over the Chagos Archipelago was that this was an issue that should be determined by the UK.

Every time successive Mauritian governments raised the matter in Washington, we were always told that we needed to discuss with the UK and the latter conveniently always said that they will have to check with the US, especially when it came to the proposal to surrender the outer islands while Diego Garcia would be kept on the negotiating table.

But then, as soon as Mauritius made it known that it would take the issue to the United Nations, the US changed its stance thereon to say that as far as it was concerned, it is the UK that has sovereignty. This was clearly demonstrated at the International Court of Justice at The Hague as well as in New York at the United Nations when the relevant resolutions were tabled on the question of our sovereignty, including referral of the matter to the ICJ.

We would hope that a Biden administration would pay heed to the position of the international community on the question as well as the conclusion of the International Court of Justice and of the UN. But for that to happen, Mauritius will have to develop an appropriate lobbying strategy in Washington.

I cannot say at this point whether we have established contact with the Biden campaign as we should have done.

* Besides increasing convergence of interests between India and the US, it is said that the personal relationship of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Donald Trump also allowed the two countries to deepen their defence and trade links. Does that indeed help in the conduct of foreign policy?

Indeed, that is true. There is a personal relationship that has been established between the two leaders. Again, as your question suggests the interests of both the US and India appear to converge at this given point, the common denominator being China as both countries are wary about the latter’s attempt to assert supremacy in this region. Indeed, India-US trade links have been strengthened as well as American investments in the subcontinent.

One should also not disregard the fact that the Indian diaspora is consequential in the US and has been so for a number of decades. In the scientific fields as also in the technological fields, the Indians in the USA are well established. Besides, the democratic ticket for the current elections has Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian, running for the vice-presidency.

It is absolutely essential in international relations and diplomatic practice to establish a rapport at a personal level with one’s interlocutors. It certainly helps when you know who you are dealing with and if, on top of that, there is an established chemistry between the two, it is easier to iron out differences and dovetail common actions.

* We, and so it is for many of its member-states as well, appear to have quietly moved away from the Non-Aligned Movement of yesteryears. What’s the way forward for Mauritius?

It is not that we have quietly moved away from the Non-Aligned movement and neither have others for that matter. It’s just that the geopolitical set-up has changed over the years especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the former USSR. The Non-Aligned Movement has more or less lost its relevance within the international system, when the two distinct blocs, East and West existed, spearheading two different doctrines.

The movement then assembled within its fold States which supposedly professed an independent approach to issues of international concern without joining one camp or the other. It should also be recognised that over the past few decades some of its leading members have emerged in their own right as lead players in their respective regions and on the international scene as such.

As I said earlier, Mauritius has no option than to continue to nurture the relationships that it has established with its major partners over the years since independence. It also requires to concert more within the region, with the other independent islands and take its commitment within Africa to higher levels. It has to engage itself more actively and at all levels with the institutions of the continent, principally the African Union as well as with the sub-regional organisations like SADC and COMESA.

We should never lose sight of the fact that we are an African nation and that in consequence we need to play the role that we need to and indeed that is expected of us. Hence the need for us to consult regularly and be more pro-active and participative in the deliberations of the African institutions.

* Published in print edition on 6 November 2020

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