South Africa may be "collateral damage" in the trade war launched by Donald Trump – but its much more ominous-sounding labelling of SA as an adversary in the United Nations is largely meaningless, says a former US diplomat.
Because foreign aid is not as simple a quid-pro-quo as the Trump administration seems to be suggesting.
Last week the US State Department published "Voting Practices in the United Nations 2017", an analysis that divided the world into those who voted with the US, and those who voted against it.
South Africa made the top 10 list of those who had voted against the US most often.
These were US adversaries, in the language of the report.
Although SA made the top 10, the report shows a remarkable unwillingness by even staunch allies to vote with the US in the UN. Decades-old ally Germany had a "voting coincidence" with the US of only 53%. Mexico's voted with the US only 31% of the time, despite is economic dependence on its suddenly belligerent neighbour. Kuwait, once counter-invaded by the US, voted with it 22% of the time – and Iraq and Afghanistan only 21% of the time.
That is at least partially due to the US' unusual approach to some of the issues that were before the UN in 2017. In a vote on the "prevention of an arms race in outer space", for instance, there were just three abstentions: the US, Israel, and the tiny island state of Palau.
The US has suggested that such failures to vote with it will come with consequences to foreign aid – but realistically speaking that is a pretty empty threat, says Brooks Spector, a retired US diplomat, American foreign policy expert, and associate editor with Daily Maverick.
"This is the equivalent of saying 'if you don't pay attention, there will be no television tonight'," Spector told Business Insider South Africa.
The complexity of foreign aid is well illustrated by the fact that countries like Poland received small America appropriations during the Cold War, says Spector.
Such aid "is calculated on a range of different things including strategic interest [and the] intensity of a particular kind of problem", he says.
Adding another metric – faithfulness in voting in the UN – may dilute other factors, but do not negate them.
It also does nothing to sway the various powerful people in American politics who act as "sponsors, friends and supporters" of various causes in Washington, Spector says.
That makes it unlikely that aid and support programmes important to SA, such as the President's Emergency Plan For Aids Relief (Pepfar) will be affected by the friends-and-foes calculation.