Balancing Traditional and Emerging Foreign Policy Partners: The Ethiopian Experience

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The fall of the military regime in 1991 led to the beginning of a new chapter in the foreign relation of Ethiopia. During the seventeen year long military regime, Ethiopia fully detached itself from the Western world and aligned with the Eastern Bloc countries of the Cold War Era. In fact, the foreign policy behaviour of Ethiopia during the military regime was highly influenced by the Cold War environment. Due to its geo-strategic significance; near to the Middle East, the Ethiopian region and Horn of Africa it was a centre of attraction for both contestants of the Cold War Era. Due to its ideological alliance with the Soviet-led Socialist countries, Ethiopia had obtained massive military and technical support throughout the Cold War era.

Since the late 1980’s, however, this relation started to occupy a new direction. The introduction of new perspectives named economic restructuring and political openness among the Socialist bloc countries had resulted in a shift in the behaviour of the Cold War Era foreign policy making. The decline of the military support provided by the Socialist countries led to subversion of the military regime and its replacement by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

The 1991 regime change in Ethiopia has also resulted in a shift in the country’s foreign policy partner. As compared to the military regime, the foreign policy making of post-military Ethiopia can be characterised by an effort to diversify its foreign policy partners. Maintaining a balanced approach among the traditional and emerging foreign policy partners was identified as one of the fundamental feature of post-Cold War Era Ethiopians foreign policy and strategy. This interest of pluralizing foreign policy partner, basically stemmed from the foundations of the country’s foreign policy goals. Securing sustainable development and building a democratic system is one of the three important foundations of post-Cold War Ethiopian foreign policy making.

Many of the civil wars and social unrests of the past are associated with public policy makings that disrespects the interest of the masses. The same was true in foreign policy making. Hence, upholding rapid development that secures the interest of the masses is regarded as a guarantee of national survival. Together with assuring accelerated development, maintaining a democratic order that safeguards the prevalence of individual rights, rule of law and good governance is also pointed as the rationale of Ethiopia’s foreign policy making.

These foreign policy objectives serve as an important criterion in selecting the country’s foreign relation partners. Ethiopia tries to consolidate its relation with governmental and non-governmental organisations which could help its democratisation process. In this respect, Ethiopia’s close ties with the US is an important illustration. Washington has clearly stated that promotion of democracy is its prominent foreign policy agenda. In their dialogue with Ethiopia’s foreign policy decision makers, US diplomats clearly asserted that no democracy means no cooperation. This stance of the US government has a strong influence in improving Ethiopia’s democratisation process in the post-Cold War Era. The relative existence of press freedom, periodic election, multiparty system, rule of law and other values during the post-Cold War Era Ethiopia clearly assert this proposition.

Together with the effort of consolidating the country’s democratisation process, foreign policy decision makers of Ethiopia have postulated special attention to strengthen relations with the emerging powers. This relation basically aims to achieve economic cooperation and sustainable development. In doing so, relations with China, India, Turkey, Brazil and the Gulf states are worth to mention.

The course of diversifying Ethiopia’s foreign policy partners also aims to alleviate over-dependence on specific external actors. Ethiopia properly understands the problem associated with extreme reliance on few foreign policy partners. In such a situation, states lose their capacity to offer policy alternatives and are obliged to accept and implement policies which hardly address their national interest. The Strategic Adjustment Policy (SAP) of the 1980s and 1990s can be taken as a good example in this regard. The policy, proposed by the World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Organization (IMF), aimed to address economic underdevelopment and political instability in many Sub-Saharan African countries, including Ethiopia. Despite the effort administered by various governmental institutions in Ethiopia to implement the proposal, SAP failed to achieve its intended goal. One of the fundamental reason for the failure was the top-down approach of the policy recommendations. It was a mere imposition of the international organisation without the consideration of the existing economic as well as political institutional arrangements of Ethiopia.

Highlighting the experiences of some Asian countries might provide several insights on the issue under investigation. Despite the strong pressure posed by the IMF and the WB to adopt neoliberal economic reforms, Asian countries such as China, India, Vietnam and Malaysia decided to maintain more protectionist economic strategies. For them, local economic institutional arrangements are not compatible with the policy recommendations of the international organisations. This strategic decision led them to score remarkable economic growths while many developing countries suffered from the failure induced by neo-liberal economic reforms.

In their negotiations with both the long-established and contemporary foreign policy partners, Ethiopian diplomats endeavour to underline the need to consider local contexts in providing policy recommendations. The antecedent prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, often highlighted the lessons that should be taken from the success of Asian countries. This insight finally led to the adoption of the ‘Developmental State’ model to address the economic crisis and related problems in Ethiopia.

Although this policy shift of the EPRDF faces strong criticism from WB, IMF and many Western governments, Ethiopia successfully balances it by approaching emerging powers who advocate identical policy orientations. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ethiopian foreign policy decision makers have actively engaged with new development partners. The new actors are especially important for Ethiopia in providing policy spaces which enable the latter to come up with alternative development strategies. This enables Ethiopia to further consolidate its interactions in trade, foreign direct investment and aid and concessional credits. These strategic sectors potentially benefit Ethiopia to maintain sustainable development and subsequently addresses its national interest.

In short, the Post-Cold War Era foreign policy and strategy of Ethiopia is characterised by a balanced and constructive engagement with both the traditional and new foreign policy partners. This pragmatic approach enables Ethiopia to maintain its foreign policy objectives in a relatively better and coordinated manner as compared to the previous periods.

Dr. Muzeyen Hawas SEBSEBE
Muzeyen Hawas Sebsebe was born in 1977, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He attended his primary, junior and highschool education at Addis Ababa. In 1999 he has joined Bahir Dar University, History Department. In July 2002 he has defended his thesis entitled the Biography of Aklilu Habtewold and grduated İn BED degree. In 2008 he has obtained his MA degree in Social Anthropology from Addis Ababa University. He wrote His MA thesis on the Provision of Household Food Security and Womens Pivotal Role. From 2009-2011 he has worked as lecturer at Dilla University, School of Social Science and Humanities, Department of Anthropology. During his stay at Dilla University, he has provided various Anthropological courses. Currently, he is writing his PhD dissertation entitled Diversification of Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy: Post-Cold War era Ethio-Turkish Relation as a case Analysis. His research interest areas includes foreign policy, regional integration, regional and international organizations. Together with his academic activities, he is also active on various Ethiopian students activities in Turkey. He actively engages in founding organizations such as Habeshistan Development and Cooperation Association and Horn of Africa Strategic Study Center