How the USA’s activist foreign policy is failing Ethiopia

Addisu Lashitew
By Addisu Lashitew

David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution

Posted on Monday, 24 January 2022 15:43

FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden speaks about the September jobs report from the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus in Washington. Biden is set to hold his first bilateral talks as president with an African leader on Thursday, hosting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta as war and a humanitarian crisis roil neighboring Ethiopia, according to the White House. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

One of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy challenges is helping resolve a disastrous civil war in Ethiopia, a country that has long been a key US ally in East Africa.

Since the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) took arms to challenge central rule more than a year ago, this large country of more than 110 million people has been teetering on the brink. The US has tried to broker peace, but its efforts have achieved little success.

Part of the problem appears to be a very poor relationship and lack of trust between the Biden administration and the Ethiopian government.

Ethiopian officials, and much of the public, are convinced that President Biden’s foreign policy is rooting for the rebels. Indeed, given a series of US economic sanctions and political pressure on the government, it is hard to believe the claim of America’s impartiality. If anything, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID chief Samantha Power, who were known for their interventionist foreign policy position during their tenure under President Obama, seem to be pursuing an activist foreign policy that has turned one of the most promising economies of Africa into a pariah state.

Is there evidence?

A series of recent events attest to this. Early in December, the Ethiopian army got the upper hand in the conflict, repulsing an offensive by the rebels that threatened the Ethiopian capital. Soon after the rebels lost ground, America’s high-level envoy to East Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, flew to Ankara to put Turkey on notice for purportedly selling military drones to the Ethiopian army, which seemingly helped change the tide of war.

America’s ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, tweeted a warning to other countries against “providing arms to any of the warring parties in the Ethiopian conflict”.

For most Ethiopians, this implied American sympathy towards the rebels, and a preference that the Ethiopian capital fall into rebel hands than seeing the rebels lose the war. In late November, the US had repeatedly and loudly crowed that Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, was about to fall into rebel hands. The embassy in Addis Ababa issued a series of announcements calling for all American citizens to immediately leave the country.

Yet, Washington did not seem to be concerned with the impending collapse of Ethiopia’s central government, which was almost sure to catalyze horrendous bloodshed and set the scene for the country’s fragmentation. If it was, the retreat of the rebel forces to their own homeland would have been a source of relief rather than angst. Instead, US officials seemed to exhibit remorse at the military loss of the rebels.

A leaked video of a Zoom meeting showed diplomats of the US and other western countries lending a sympathetic ear to a senior TPLF official at the height of their military advance, seemingly grooming the rebels for an imminent role as the new rulers of Ethiopia. Perhaps the US sees the insurgents as bellwethers of regional security. By aligning itself with the rebels, however, the US is showing a shocking level of indifference to public sentiment in Ethiopia, which is highly inimical towards the rebels.

In what appeared to be a drive to tighten political pressure on Ethiopia, the US recently orchestrated the formation of a contentious UN-led investigation into human rights abuses in the conflict.

To be sure, civilians in Ethiopia’s Afar, Amhara and Tigray regions have paid a terrible price in this horrendous conflict. It is only right that perpetrators of crime from both sides in the conflict must be held to account. A top-down, externally-sponsored process of allocating blame that is not directly linked to a process of reconciliation is bound to do more harm than good. Its main effect will be providing an armoury of evidence that will cement political grievances, potentially justifying future conflicts.

Economic pressure

American economic pressure that is intended to bring the government to its knees is inflicting severe pain to the poor. The US has gone so far as to suspend Ethiopia’s eligibility to AGOA, an Africa-wide duty-free programme that attracted investment into the country, effectively killing the sole source of livelihood for hundreds of thousands of textile workers, the vast majority of whom are women.

Cutting off the poor from their livelihoods in the name of advancing human rights is, to say the least, grotesquely illogical. It is also a testament to a failed foreign policy; the US has apparently exhausted all of its leverage without anything to show for it. China, which sent its foreign minister to Addis Ababa even as the US was pulling out its embassy staff, seems eager to fill in the void left by America’s retreat. At the annual China-Africa Cooperation Forum in early December, it pledged to increase imports from Africa to over $300bn in three years – a volume of trade that is fifteen times greater than AGOA-related trade flows.

Bottom line

The recent collapse of the peace process in Sudan despite wholehearted American support demonstrates the impotence of an externally-sponsored political settlement that lacks robust domestic roots. To have any chance of success, US foreign policy should abandon its activist ambition, be pragmatic and modest, and, most of all, be painfully aware that the US does not always know what is best for another country.

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