JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — To hear U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher tell it, few nations are as important to Washington and the post-Cold War world as post-apartheid South Africa.
"When I look around the world, I see very few countries with greater potential to help shape the 21st century than the new South Africa," Christopher said Saturday in a wide-ranging speech here. "I see few relationships as vital to advancing our common interests as the U.S.-South African relationship."
But many here tell a different story. Antoinette Handley, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, which hosted Christopher's speech, says the United States is still widely distrusted and resented by members of President Nelson Mandela's government.
"There's a profound ambivalence," she said. "At one level, it's the glorious superpower. At the same time, there's this sense that we're David and the U.S. is Goliath. And there's a real solidarity with other poor nations. The result is a resentment of a power that is bigger, stronger and richer."
But sharp differences on foreign policy, such as South Africa's diplomatic support for what the United States considers renegade regimes in Cuba, Iran and Libya, were politely sidestepped or ignored Saturday on the first day of Christopher's weekend visit here, the fourth leg of his five-nation Africa swing.
Although Mandela drove U.S. diplomats frantic earlier last week by rescheduling a planned meeting with Christopher from Cape Town to Pretoria and finally back to Cape Town, the two men had what both sides described as a warm and productive session at Mandela's residence.
At a joint news conference later, however, Mandela offered only cautious support for a Clinton administration proposal to help organize, train, equip and fund an all-African force of as many as 10,000 soldiers to help defuse regional crises, such as Burundi's current conflict.
The United States has offered to pay as much as $20 million next year to help start up the force and a "fair share" of the $25 million to $45 million that would be needed to deploy it.
"It [the initiative] must not come from one country," Mandela said. "It should actually be the initiative of the United Nations. In such a case, it would receive widespread support."
Asked if he would accept U.S. funding for the African force, Mandela said, "I would like the whole process to come through the United Nations, including resources and equipment." He also shied away from pledging troops.
Christopher played down the apparent differences over the Africa Crisis Response Force, which the secretary formally proposed Thursday at the Organization of African Unity in Ethiopia. The top U.S. envoy said he was "not at all" disappointed by Mandela's reaction. "It's the kind of exploration that we want to have, to get views of the countries in the region," he said.
As he has done elsewhere during his African tour, Christopher also sought support for U.S. efforts to get African leaders to propose a successor to U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whose five-year term ends Dec. 31. But Mandela said African states support Boutros-Ghali in his quest for another term.
In his speech, Christopher offered an unusually harsh view of the United States' European allies. He said the time has passed when Africa could be "carved into spheres of influence or when outside power could view whole groups of states as their private domain."
Christopher's eight-day trip, his first to sub-Saharan Africa, has already created tension with France. Jacques Godfrain, France's minister for foreign affairs and cooperation, was quoted Friday as saying that Christopher's visit was linked to the U.S. presidential campaign.
"Since Bill Clinton hasn't been to Africa once . . . and since U.S. foreign development aid has diminished by 15%, I am delighted to see the president showing interest in Africa and making it a priority three weeks before the presidential elections," Godfrain said.
The Christopher delegation was predictably furious. "The French are upset because they consider Africa to be their private domain," a senior official said. "They feel threatened if others also want to make a contribution."