The Modus Operandi of Ethiopia’s Regional Diplomacy

Observers, commentators, and peoples of the region alike frequently misunderstand Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy and its peacekeeping activities. They often tend to think that the reality is hidden, and take an inverted view of Ethiopia’s role in the region, claiming that Ethiopia’s increasing presence in the name of peacekeeping and peace-making operations and missions is hardly innocent and conceals covert aims. I want here to challenge these claims made against the Ethiopia’s regional diplomatic role. To do that I will analyze the country’s regional diplomacy noting that in this context Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy means Ethiopia’s diplomacy in the Horn of Africa and with the member states of the Horn.

The most superficial reference to the standard operating procedures (SOPs) of the government reveals that the current government has laid down its firm convictions of the necessity of good neighborliness in its conduct of foreign relations. It bases its relationships on mutual benefits and principle of reciprocity. In sum, it underlines that Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy should be guided by principles of good neighborliness, non-interference, mutual respect, win-win formulation, collective security and responsibility.

While Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy is premised on a strong commitment to mutual development and cooperation, it is also, certainly in part, based on the view from Ethiopia itself. Ethiopia viewed the external environment from the prism of its national situation and condition, and this ensures that the policy and strategy have relevance to its national security and survival.

That doesn’t mean Ethiopia’s foreign policy towards countries of the region is merely the outcome of consideration of domestic conditions. Closer inspection of Ethiopia’s foreign policy decision making revealed that domestic conditions and situations are seen through the wider the prism of the global situation or globalization. In this connection, the efforts in our country to bring about rapid development, democracy and good governance cannot be seen outside the regional and global contexts.

These policy statements in face demonstrate that Ethiopia has synthesized domestic and international factors in its relations with neighboring countries and with other entities with which it has relations. It remains very careful to take into account the international distribution of power in relation to its own capability to effectively pursue its national interests. Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy is premised in part on the effect of regional distribution of power on the implementation of foreign policy decisions.

This is an excellent example of neo-classical realism in foreign policy theory which argues that domestic factors are needed to explain how systemic factors are actually translated into foreign policy decisions. Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy certainly falls into the purview of careful consideration of domestic capabilities and their relation to regional and international distribution of power.

The need for this is underlined by the situation in the Horn of Africa. This has gone from the firing pan into the fire. There is a failed Somalia state, a collapsed South Sudan, fragile states in Kenya and even more so in Sudan, numerous foreign super-power bases in Djibouti, and a rogue state in Eritrea which believes in aggression as the fundamental element of foreign policy. On top of that there has been the insertion of al-Qaida linked terrorism into Somalia and Kenya if not more widely.

State collapse, state failure, state fragility and the existential threat from terrorism have become the defining factors of the region. Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy has to work to maximize its desire for security, which lies at the center of defensive or neo-classical realism, in the midst of unpredictable behavior of regional actors and a highly complex regional insecurity.

The country’s foreign policy also lays down the regional parameters of Ethiopia’s economic-centered foreign policy. In the short and medium term, this involves a whole series of promising and incremental economic and trade relations associated with infrastructure links such as the new railway to Djibouti, highways to Sudan and Kenya, the sale of hydropower across the region and use of port services.

The longer-term possibilities are even more important in many respects. The region of the Horn is endowed with an exceptionally long coastline. It is strategically important to Ethiopia, even though Ethiopia no longer has a coastline, but the more so to the rest of the world with the Red Sea being one of the world’s major trade arteries, linking Europe to much of the Middle East and Asia.

A potential major area of development is water. Ethiopia shares considerable water resources with its neighbors. Trans-boundary Rivers, like the Nile to the Sudan and Egypt, the Omo to Kenya, and the Shabelle and Juba to Somalia, all originate in Ethiopia. Cooperation or conflict can depend upon their management or mismanagement.

The ramifications of Ethiopia’s developmental and hydro-political relations with these countries call for both conscious and careful handling and management of both the issues and the resources. Not surprisingly, Ethiopia always calls upon all countries to work together to jointly develop river utilization plans. Some countries, however, are not yet prepared or in a position to do so.

Certainly, various aspects of neighboring developments could have been very useful for Ethiopia if there had been no conflicts, no state collapses or failures. Ethiopia could have freely used no less than seven ports in Somalia, as well as ports in the Sudan, Eritrea or Kenya. These countries could all have benefitted substantially from the service payment that Ethiopia would have made. The problems of the region have made this largely impossible.

This has been underlined by the way the region has been a safe haven for terrorists for much of the last two decades. Somalia’s disintegration, Eritrea’s role in sponsoring terrorists, the Sudan a center of political Islam, Kenya threatened by terrorist activity from Somalia, the deteriorating situation in South Sudan have all provided ever-growing dangers to Ethiopia, and indeed to the Horn of Africa in general.

In addition to terrorism, the huge influx of refugees into Ethiopia has been a center of Ethiopia’s relationship with its neighboring countries. On the one hand, these huge numbers are of concern as they pose economic, political and security concerns. Equally, it should be possible to use large influx as an opportunity to change the misperceptions of neighboring states. Ethiopia is certainly able to demonstrate its good intentions towards neighboring peoples and to humanity in general. Ethiopia underlines the profound importance of people-to-people relations in all aspects. This is indeed one of the foundations of Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy.

To that end, Ethiopia is promoting strong educational and cultural ties and interdependence with its neighbors. This aspect of the policy direction is equivalent to what foreign policy analysts call the constructivist element of foreign policy in which emphasis is placed on the importance of increasing interaction through education and cultural ties and exchanges in order to construct an identity of good neighborliness and amicable relations.

Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy for centuries has been guided by defensive realism and the principle of maximization of security under which it maintains the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its neighbors on the one hand and also ensures Ethiopia’s right to safeguard its peace and stability on the other.

As part of this effort, together with the carrying out its UN responsibilities, Ethiopia has been much involved in the region’s peacekeeping and peace-making missions. Disregarding all the theoretical and practical facts and figures noted above, some commentators accuse Ethiopia of working to realize regional hegemony. This is the inverted view of reality, the “camera obscura”.

Ethiopia is working in collaboration with international and regional organizations and with the peoples of Somalia and of South Sudan to help provide for peaceful solutions in those countries. It has been working there with the AU and the UN, in AMISOM and in UNMISS in the international efforts to build strong and effective governments to provide for the sustainable stability, peace and development.

It is those examples that one can see the most obvious examples of the way Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy towards its neighbors in particular, and other countries in general, has been, and remains, dominated by defensive neo-classical realism, a policy which gives due consideration to both domestic and international issues in their own right. Any attempt to portray Ethiopia’s regional diplomacy as aiming for regional dominance or regional hegemony is a result of either misperceptions resulting from disregard of the principles of Ethiopia’s foreign policy or it is a deliberate conspiratorial inversion of the reality on the ground.

By Yohannes Gebeyehu
Yohannes Gebeyehu has a BA in Political Science and International Relations, did his graduate degrees in Diplomacy and International Relations. His areas of research interest ranges around public, foreign policy and institutional underpinnings.

Published on Nov 29,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 865]



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