Yonas Biru, PhD
July 31, 2021
After the September 11, 2001, attack in the US homeland, public diplomacy became a “top priority” of U.S. foreign policy. In an excellent 2005 article in the Institute for Policy Studies, John Gershman and R.S. Zaharna took note that “The perceptions of foreign audiences have domestic consequences, and public diplomacy, a government’s tool for communicating with foreign publics and changing negative perceptions, quickly became the buzz in Washington after the attacks.”
The two authors further added: “Fighting information battles by disseminating messages over mass media channels has become the communication equivalent of conventional warfare… Controlling the airwaves through saturation [of information] to effectively isolate and discredit the opponent. A government’s persuasive power rested on quantity rather than quality of information; volume was more important than credibility.” I hope the Abiy administration pays heed to this wisdom. Evidently, TPLF has. Truth and right are helpful where they apply. But being truthful and right should not be seen as unimpeachable virtues. We must play by the rule of the geopolitical game, good, bad, or ugly. You do not play American football with a soccer uniform or play basketball with soccer shoes.
Understanding the US’s strategic interest and the role that public diplomacy plays in our geopolitical engagement are critical to understanding Biden’s apparent counterintuitive policy on Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is the anchor nation for peace and security in the Horn of Africa – one of the most critical geopolitical lands in the world. If for whatever reason Ethiopia collapses or finds itself into an intractable civil war, the entire Horn of Africa will go down the tube. This has enormous geopolitical consequences. Whether we like it or not, the US and other geopolitical powers will intervene in Ethiopia’s politics. They have vested interest in doing so.
Ethiopia has two choices. The first is to position itself at the nexus of the emerging global geopolitics to leverage our privileged position to our advantage. This requires developing a multifaceted strategic policy along with a savvy public diplomacy ecosystem that is both robust and agile. We need to win the confidence of the international community that we are in control of our country in a way that does not undermine the peace, stability, and security of the Horn of Africa.
The second option is to decry in vain their intervention in our affairs. The Ethiopian diaspora intelligentsia and its political scientists have proven utterly useless to inform and guide their birth land in the international public diplomacy arena. They have chosen instead to engaged themselves in እንቶፈንቶ and አቱቶ ቡቱቶ, stuck in a bipolar mindset in a multipolar geopolitical world. Blame it on our culture marinated with conspiracy prophecy and dominated by recycled communists and orthopraxic and liturgical historians.
The recycled communists could not free themselves from their cold war view of the US as an expansionist imperialist. Their orthopraxic and liturgical historian brethren see the US as wary of Ethiopia as the apex of Africa that can rival the West.
What Drives US’s Interest in Ethiopia’s Politics
As I have noted in my July 5 blog, the nature and extent of US’s intervention in Ethiopia depends on two factors: Clear and well-developed national and international strategy, and a robust public diplomacy ecosystem to articulate and communicate its strategy.
Ethiopia must manage national and regional political conflicts using strategic, prudent, and flexible policies. In this regard, our conflict with Sudan and Egypt cannot be seen independent of the internal conflict with TPLF. A country such as ours with limited military and economic power needs to strategize and prioritize its policies.
Our position vis a vis Egypt, Sudan and TPLF may be right when seen independently. But being right is not enough. We must be seen as a country capable of resolving conflicts in judicious, nuanced and diplomatically innovative ways. This is not to say Ethiopia needs to relinquish its sovereign rights or undermine its strategic interests. This is partly a strategic issue of how best to handle our challenges and partly a public diplomacy issue of communicating and articulating our strategy to defuse our enemy’s propaganda and win the confidence of geopolitical powers.
Sadly, the predominant view both in our government’s corridors and our intellectual clan is that the US and Europe are out to destroy Ethiopia and/or bring TPLF back to power and believe the silver bullet evidence is Biden’s counterintuitive policy and a recent article titled to “Basma to Ethiopia – How C2FC is Using Lethal Journalism…” The article in reference is a propaganda piece most likely produced by TPLF agents. I will not waste time on it.
Before I explain Biden’s counter intuitive policy, let me repeat the following 9 questions I have raised in my earlier blogs. Those who suggest the US is interested in regime change or in destroying Ethiopia need to answer the following questions.
- In February 2020, an article appeared on the Atlantic Council website under the headline “The US Should Adopt a Marshall Plan for Ethiopia.” Atlantic Council is one of America’s top think tanks focused on international security and global economic prosperity. It was created by “moderate internationalist wings of both the Democratic and Republican parties.” The article on Ethiopia was republished in major American newspapers including the Hill (widely read at “the Hill” – also known as the US Congress) and the World News. The question is: If the US is bent on destroying Ethiopia how does Ethiopia get such positive attention?
- If the US favors TPLF, why was it quiet during the first three weeks of the war, when TPLF was being demolished and annihilated? Eritrea was involved soon after TPLF invaded the Northern Command. Why was the US quite on this for the first month or so?
- If US’s strategic policy is to undermine Ethiopia’s interest vis a vis Egypt and to bring TPLF back to power, why do Egypt and TPLF spend millions on lobbyists? Why not sit and observe as the US implements its strategic goal?
- If the US’s interest was to avoid the creation of a united and strong Ethiopia or to break up Ethiopia into tribal components, why did it play a significant role in dethroning TPLF in 2018? There is no party that could have happily worked with the US to dismantle Ethiopia than TPLF.
- From the time he took power, PM Abiy has been promoting Pan Ethiopianism. It is within the first three months after he took office that he attributed Ethiopia’s political problem to the nation’s tribal constitution. Why did the US support him for two years without any equivocation? Remember what Herman Cohen advised the PM via twitter in April 2018: “Do not be reluctant to take bold steps toward democratic reform. TPLF politico-economic monopolists have been revealed as frauds and will not be able to restrain you. International community is with you.” Remember also that Cohen was one of the people who nominated the PM for the Nobel Prize.
- The US knows that TPLF is the most hated party not only in the entire Ethiopia, but also in Kenya, Djibouti, Somalia, and most of all Eritrea. They know TPLF will not be able to govern Ethiopia. If the US wishes a regime change, it will not pick a party that is totally rejected by 100 million people of Ethiopia and by all its neighboring countries in a region that is considered one of the world’s most strategic lands.
- Though the pressure on Ethiopia was ratcheted up under Biden, the pressure started in full earnest during Trump. The question is why did Biden ratchet up the pressure? Remember Trump was in office for 10 weeks after the TPLF triggered a war. The last five weeks of his presidency Trump was pressuring Ethiopia to find a peaceful resolution.
- The US has been threatening Ethiopia to block US aid since December 2019. Why has it not done it? In fact, why has it been increasing its aid to Ethiopia? Remember the US DFC $5 billion was approved in April 2020, after Ethiopia rejected US’s foolish order not to start filling the dam.
- Obviously, the US would not offer billions to a country whose destruction it seeks. Obviously, also the US would not hesitate to block US aid to a country whose government it seeks to get rid of. How can one explain this if US’s interest is undermining Ethiopia?
- Why did the US pressure Ethiopia not to conduct its election, including with a stern threat to block funding, but accepted the election results after Ethiopia conducted its election as planned?
What Explains Biden’s Counter Intuitive Policies?
In discussing Ethiopia’s current problems, we must look at the international community’s interests. The US is worried about Ethiopia on two fronts. First is the Nile issue with Sudan and Egypt and the second is the war with TPLF.
The Nile issue is of grave concern to geopolitical powers, most importantly the US and EU. If not handled judiciously it can lead to a full-blown war. This is how Alexander Rondos, the EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa put the importance of Ethiopia for regional, and, by implication, world security.
“This is a country that is at a very very delicate moment. Not only for its own sake but for the security of the wider region. This is a country that is so important that if the dam breaks all the discussions about the Horn of Africa are moot. This is as simple as that. This is not Yugoslavia which imploded. Ethiopia straddles every other country around it. That is a core strategic question.”
The second issue is the war with the TPLF. Once again, the international community’s interest is to avoid a civil war that can destabilize the country and lead to Ethiopia’s disintegration. Remember Libya and Somalia. People who believe the US is interested in disintegrating Ethiopia need to explain what the US gains from it. The cost of a disintegrated Ethiopia is incalculable.
Ethiopia can disintegrate if it fails to develop its economy and employ its tribally charged unemployed youth. That is why the US and Europe are pouring billions into Ethiopia. Ethiopia can also disintegrate because of internal or external political conflicts. The US and Europe have vested interest in mitigating both possible scenarios. They love his economic policy. But the PM has neither articulated nor communicated what the endgame is in the political conflict with Egypt and Sudan on the one hand and TPLF on the other. The international community fears the political conflict undermines the country’s economic progress and undermines the nation’s stability, peace and prosperity.
Let Us Break the Issue into Digestible Components: The Strategic and the Tactical
At a strategic level, the US sees Ethiopia as one of the most strategic lands on planet earth. It wants it to be stable and prosperous. That is why Ethiopia was the highest recipient of US aid in 2020. That is also why the US has been bluffing to block foreign aid but has not done so on a scale that can create pressure on Ethiopia.
Now let us go to the technical. The US wants a peaceful resolution. How it goes about leveraging its influence and geopolitical power is a different matter altogether. Officials from the State Department to the White House have some leeway in exerting pressure both on TPLF and the Federal government. This is the entry point for lobbyists. Lobbyists cannot change the US’s strategic position, but they can influence how the policy is implemented.
On TPLF, the US was fully in support of the PM until the war started. For the first four to five weeks of the war the US was silent, hoping ENDF/Amhara/Eritrea forces would destroy the TPLF beyond redemption. After taking over Mekele, the PM promised that the ENDF will finish TPLF in two weeks. That did not happen. After six months there was no clear endgame communicated to the international community.
TPLF started to gain momentum and it became clear that the war was not sustainable. The US started to push the PM to find a peaceful way out. The more TPLF showed strength, the more the US ratcheted its pressure on Ethiopia. This is partly because the US has more leverage over the Ethiopian government than over TPLF.
We also need to keep in mind that there is the proverbial Fifth Column within the Biden administration working for TPLF. A fifth column is any group of people who use their positions to influence to the extent possible the government’s policy instruments. Such people within the Biden administration can make the case that pressuring Ethiopia is the most viable and the only option for the US to achieve its strategic goal of maintaining its political stability and economic progress. This is partly why we see a policy that favors TPLF in terms of creating pressure on Ethiopia, without doing anything that will undermine US’s strategic interest. That is why they bluff about blocking US aid, but not doing it.
Even in the absence of the proverbial Fifth Column, such policies can happen. This is where lobbying matters. This is where galvanizing international support matters. This is where public diplomacy matters. This is where TPLF is beating us.
Let us ask ourselves why the US treated Ethiopia differently during Meles’ and Abiy’s times?
To start with Meles had a powerful lobbyist that was paid $150,000 per month ($1.8 million per year). Even more importantly, Meles was good at nurturing personal relationships with key and strategically picked American officials and academicians who defended TPLF.
From the policy space, Susan Rice and Francis Fukuyama were Meles’ personal friends. There were many more at lower level, for example Gayle Smith. On the academic front, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz was both Meles’ friend and cheerleader. Stiglitz was the chief economist of the World Bank and my former boss. I know how Meles struck and nurtured friendship with him. It was a brilliant PR move. Another prominent academician on Meles’ address book included Jeffrey Sachs. Collectively, these are as influential as a $200,000 per month lobbying powerhouse.
That was not all. TPLF under Meles built a plethora of mercenary foot soldiers, including the likes of Martin Plaut, Alex de Waal and Kjetil Tronvoll. Add to this the editors of major newspapers and media outlets that TPLF kept under contract.
Egypt’s Minister of Finance is traveling from one country to another to lobby world leaders from Africa to Europe and North America. Have we mobilized support in Arica and AU to aggressively defend our interest? How much have we done to mobilize African Americans? By we, I am referring to our government. Public diplomacy is the purview of our government and a key instrument of its international diplomacy.
Currently, our government has no government paid lobbyists. We also lack a robust public diplomacy strategy. In fairness, it is only three years since Abiy took power and cannot be expected to achieve what Meles achieved over two decades. Nonetheless, the paucity of attention paid to the power and influence of lobbyists and the virtual absence of a well-developed and executed public diplomacy and a clear endgame in our war with TPLF have proven detrimental to Ethiopia. The entire world seems to be against Ethiopia. The fact is that we are not defending our interest where it matters the most.
Ethiopian political scientists and diaspora analysts have failed to see where the contour between US’s strategic and tactical policies lies. They tend to mix the two until the center of gravity of their brain spins out of whack and their geopolitical calculus melts into a pedantic if not outright archaic hocus pocus. The archaic Ethiopian diaspora intellectual clan that has shown utter ignorance on the matter should shut the hell up. I hope it will take my message in the spirit it is delivered: With Utmost Respect.