Changing Regional Dynamics Requires Updating Foreign Policy Matrix

It is common to hear the Revolutionary Democrats praising Ethiopia as an anchor of peace and stability in a region known for hostilities. It is a trademark phrase they use to magnify their achievement in pacifying the nation of 91 million people, after decades of popular revolts and armed resistance. But the line also shows the character of the region.

Indeed, the Horn of Africa is a region popularly identified with conflicts. It has been the hotbed of animosity, skirmishes and wars ever since the Colonial era. Even after the colonial powers left the region, the enmity continued. Partly, the state of affairs in the region relates to the negative externalities of the colonial era. In large part, however, it relates to the way countries of the region are governed and the nature of respective governments.

If one is to take signals from the latest news headlines, the Horn is changing. It is changing in strategic importance, structure of alliances, consolidation of interests and nature of investment. Saudi Arabia and Iran, two rival Middle Eastern powers, are competing to gain ground in the region. Embroiled in the crisis in Yemen, both are rushing to befriend as many countries in the neighborhood as possible.

Assisted with money power, built on petro-dollars, their competitive ground involves Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia. The luring is going fast; arguably, Saudi Arabia seems to be cashing out more and winning more friends.

Djibouti, a rather small nation in the region, is witnessing historic competition between global superpowers. China’s new military and naval base in the nation of less than one million people took the military competition to a new phase. The game is no more only about the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan. Instead, the deep-pocketed Chinese are investing aggressively in the country to assert their military might.

Somalia, a troubled nation fighting an armed extremist group, al-shabaab, has lately attracted the attention of Turkey. The rather heroic welcome President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey received in his visit of the nation last year and his pledge of support to Somalia shows the intensity of the interest from the Eurasian republic.

Sudan, led by the long-serving president, Omar al-Bashir, and Eritrea, run by an omnipotent president, Isaias Afeworki, are two other nations with changing affiliations. Squashed by sanctions from the global superpowers and the United Nations, respectively, for their sponsorship of terrorism and terrorist groups, both countries tend to go along the winds of money. Much as they try to prove the West that they are good to deal with, such as Eritrea’s recent effort with the European Union (EU), they largely rely on friends in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar and United Arab Emirates (UAE).

By and large, what is happening in the Horn is a reflection of global changes. The unipolar world of United States making or breaking everything has vanished. Power is becoming dispersed among different poles, including emerging nations, such as China and India. The fight against terrorism has become a global agenda. Marginalised subjects such as illicit financial flow, migration, piracy, religious extremism and drug trafficking have become crosscutting issues. Old forms of multilateralism lost their traction. A bulging global youth population, coupled with anemic global economic recovery, is putting considerable pressure on national, regional and global policymakers.

With the changing regional and global dynamics, therefore, Ethiopian rulers are facing a new matrix of risks. They are required to play their economic, political, military and security cards very well so that they can maintain their influence in the region. And much of this would depend on their foreign policy and security strategy.

Introduced 15 years ago, immediately after the split within the ruling coalition, Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy & Security Strategy is historic in its analytical framework. As opposed to the long overdue outward looking foreign policy approach, which considers Ethiopia as a nation essentially surrounded by enemies, EPRDF’s Foreign Policy & Security Strategy adopts an inward looking framework. Basically, the strategy argues that the vulnerability of Ethiopia emanates from its poverty. It, then, goes to say that the major way to reduce the vulnerability of the country is to facilitate economic growth and development.

The exogenous threat analysis of the strategy is largely country-based. Essentially, what the strategy does is reconstruction of historical relationships and fundamental analysis of sensitivities. In doing so, however, it overlooks the changing nature of affiliations. Further, the strategy fails to account for crosscutting agendas, such as terrorism.

There is no doubt that poverty is the major sensitivity for Ethiopia. Putting it as the major anchor of foreign policy is, therefore, justifiable. Equally, reversing the long overdue outward looking foreign policy approach with an inward looking one is appreciable. There is much for the ruling EPRDFites to take pride from these daring policy changes.

Had it not been for these policy changes, the growth of the past 13 years and the upward foreign direct investment (FDI) trend would have not happened. Certainly, the changes are rightful and courageous. However, they fail to fit to the changing regional dynamics.

The new reality in the Horn of Africa demands a foreign policy that sufficiently accounts for affiliations, alliances and competitions. A country-based analysis of threat cannot cover sensitivities, such as terrorism, illicit financial outflow and human trafficking. Neither would it enable authorities contain economic risks coming from shifts in cross-border investment structures, monetisation of politics and politicisation of aid.

Ethiopian policymakers, therefore, should revise their foreign threat matrix in line with the changing regional political and security landscape. They could no more take comfort in their swayed analytical matrix of associating threat with country relationships only.

As the ruling EPRDFites often proclaim, peace is a function of regional stability. Ethiopia cannot continue to be stable unless its neighborhood gets peaceful. With a fast-changing political and security landscape, not to mention new challenges, stability could only be ensured with upbeat sensitivity analysis and policy buffers.

As a government leading a country having inherent vulnerabilities, such as a large population of poor people, widespread unemployment, being landlocked and having a multicultural society with historical animosities, the ruling Revolutionary Democrats ought to be adoptive to the changing regional dynamics. They ought to know that they could not afford to overlook the changes in the region as they could easily diffuse and fuel chaos.

The best thing they could do is to take the courage to revise their Foreign Policy & Security Strategy in line with the new structural changes of politics and security in the region. Of course, they ought to also account for the changes in the global sphere and the linkages with the regional dynamics.

Praising achievements is one thing, but preparing for what is to come is a completely different thing. What the time demands from the Revolutionary Democrats is a capability to effectively project the future and put in place functional policies. And this starts in having a comprehensive analytical framework that accounts for changes.

Surely, the Horn of Africa is no more the region perceived in the current Foreign Policy & Security Strategy. It has changed so much. If it has to stay equally influential, therefore, Ethiopia ought to also change. So should its foreign threat analysis framework, policy matrix, focus and preparation.

Published on Apr 12,2016 [ Vol 16 ,No 832]



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