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Turning dread into capital: South Africa’s AIDS diplomacy

Pieter Fourie

Author Affiliations

Department of Political Science, Stellenbosch University, Private Bag X1, 7602, Matieland, South Africa

Globalization and Health 2013, 9:8  doi:10.1186/1744-8603-9-8

Published: 5 March 2013



In much of the world, President George W. Bush was not admired for his foreign policy and diplomacy. It is therefore ironic that Bush’s single most uncontested foreign policy triumph was an instance of what has now become known as “health diplomacy”. In 2003 Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a five-year $15 billion initiative to fight HIV/AIDS, mostly in Africa. The president’s pragmatic health diplomacy may well save his foreign policy legacy. This article argues that a middle power such as South Africa should consider a similar instrumental AIDS diplomatic strategy, to rehabilitate its public health as well as foreign policy images.


This article reflects on the emergence and contemporary practice of health diplomacy. In particular, it explores the potential of niche areas within health diplomacy to become constructive focal points of emerging middle powers’ foreign policies. Middle powers often apply niche diplomacy to maximise their foreign policy impact, particularly by pursuing a multilateral agenda. The literature on middle powers indicates that such foreign policy ambitions and concomitant diplomacy mostly act to affirm the global status quo. Instead, this paper argues that there may well be niches within health diplomacy in particular that can be used to actually challenge the existing global order. Emerging middle powers in particular can use niche areas within health diplomacy in a critical theoretical manner, so that foreign policy and diplomacy become a project of emancipation and transformation, rather than an affirmation of the world as it is.


The article first describes the emergence and contemporary practice of health diplomacy; this is followed by a discussion of niche diplomacy, in particular as it applies to the foreign policy agendas of emerging middle powers. It then reviews South African foreign policy and diplomacy, before situating these policies within the context of emerging mechanisms of south-south multilateralism. The article concludes by synthesizing these elements and advocating for a South African AIDS diplomacy, emphasizing its potential to galvanize a global project of emancipation.

HIV; AIDS; South Africa; Niche diplomacy; Foreign policy; Middle power