Local governments deal with local affairs. That used to be the ironclad rule everywhere in America outside the radical citadel of Berkeley, Calif., which ever since the Vietnam War has been trying to run the world.
All that changed in the mid-1980s, though, when two foreign policy issues became so compelling that hundreds of other local governments felt they, too, had to take a stand. One of those issues was South Africa's segregationist apartheid system; the other was nuclear weaponry.
While "nuclear free zones" still exist (Baltimore City and Takoma Park are among such in Maryland), restrictions against trade and investment in South Africa are being rescinded at a lightning speed after just a few magic words from Nelson Mandela.
"We believe the time has come when the international community should lift all economic sanctions against South Africa," the president of the African National Congress said at a United Nations meeting last month.
Howard County recently heeded that advice by lifting a tough seven-year-old law barring the county government from accepting bids from anyone doing business with South Africa, or from anyone whose supplier was doing business with that country. As a result of the restriction, the county was forced to turn to a more expensive bidder in numerous contracts.
But the Howard policy apparently also persuaded one large computer manufacturer to terminate its involvement in South Africa so that it could win a multi-million-dollar contract.
"It served its purpose," county Councilman C. Vernon Gray said of the anti-apartheid measure. "We've seen that South Africa is moving toward a democratic form of government.
"In terms of Howard County, the impact the restriction had may have been symbolic. But it showed solidarity," the councilman added.
If South Africa is to move from a minority government to a truly democratic society, it will need plenty of foreign investment. Stopping something was easy. It is far more difficult to channel investments to corporations and purposes that will promote stability in South Africa and also be devoid of excessive risks.