Flavia Gasbarri

The United States, South Africa and the Constructive Engagement of the 1980s

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This paper presents an analysis of the relations between the United States and South Africa from the beginning of the Reagan Administration to the end of the Cold War. During the 1980s, under the umbrella of the so-called «constructive engagement» policy, the Reagan administration invested considerable efforts in the relations with its main ally in Southern Africa. This strategy had a twofold aim: addressing the problem of apartheid in South Africa and solving the broader regional conflict in which Pretoria was involved, and which included the issue of Namibia’s independence and the Angolan civil war. The United States thus brokered a complex negotiation that ended with the signature of a Tripartite Agreement among South Africa, Angola and Cuba in 1988. Through the analysis of the constructive engagement policy, the paper will show how the relations between the United States and South Africa throughout the 1980s were marked by an overlap between the «local» racial issue (which constituted South Africa’s main concern) and the «global» Cold War dynamics (which were instead the US primary concern). It will then show how the signature of the Tripartite Agreement in 1988 was a watershed that opened new scenarios and opportunities in USSouth African relations. The agreement had the effect of breaking that overlap between local and global dynamics and, consequently, it affected the process leading to both the end of apartheid and the resolution of the broader Cold War competition in Southern Africa.


  • Constructive Engagement
  • Apartheid
  • South Africa
  • United States
  • End of the Cold War


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