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City and Takoma Park are among such in Maryland), restrictions against trade and investment in South Africa are being rescinded at a lightning speed after just a few magic words from Nelson Mandela.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.
Among the communities that have already heeded Mr. Mandela's call is Annapolis, where the City Council quietly lifted a seven-year-old law barring the city from investing its police and fire pension fund or depositing its other accounts in banks or businesses that operate within South Africa.
This non-controversial action was in stark contrast to 1986, when the introduction of the anti-apartheid measure ignited heated debate.
Some argued the bill would not hurt South Africa's big businesses but would end up hurting the black majority. Others felt a local government had no business getting entangled in faraway foreign policy stands.
Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a sponsor of the 1986 bill, says subsequent developments have vindicated all those who voted for it. "It's probably the best example of non-violent tactics used to promote change and reform in South Africa," he said.
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.