Foreign Policy when Push Comes to Shove

Feb 23 , 2019

Western countries, led by the United States, have been uncontested in their exercise of global power, playing the chief role in geopolitics. The rest of us, including Asians, were living in America’s world.

But no empire is bound to last forever. With the ascendancy of China and the insistence of Russia on playing a global role no matter the consequence to its domestic economy, the West is no longer the sole source of political, social and economic influence in the world. It is not just the matter of Russia and China asserting themselves in the international scene, it is also the fact that both the United States and the European Union seem to be unraveling from the inside.

And as global power dynamics reshape itself, countries across the world are trying to reorient their foreign policies accordingly. Ethiopia is also trying to adapt to the new reality, with the current foreign policy strategy, which had been introduced in 2002, under review.

The recommendation from analysts and veteran diplomats such as Takeda Alemu (PhD), former envoy to the United Nations, is that the nation has to maintain its neutrality and retain positive diplomatic relationships between the superpowers.

If Ethiopia can remain neutral at a time when global rivalries can potentially turn into conflict, and then after, it would be the most ideal of scenarios. It should also be the first path of recourse the nation should consider when global powers come knocking for alliances.

But the current discussion on the need for neutrality bases itself on the assumption that the major powers will ask nicely, or that the chief means of baiting countries such as Ethiopia is through foreign direct investment (FDI) and trade.

If one goes by how previous rivalries have culminated, most poor nations were never given a chance of choosing neutrality. For Ethiopia, the 1930s led to an invasion by one of the Axis powers, and the 70s and 80s saw a government propped up by the Soviet Union and rebel armies financed by Western nations. Non-alignment is impossible under such circumstances.

But, some would wonder, if the Swiss can maintain their neutrality through two World Wars, why can Ethiopia not manage the same in a state of intense global rivalry?

What is not mentioned about Switzerland’s neutrality was the fact that it was a heavily armed nation, perhaps unable to defeat a German Nazi army, but substantially wear it down. It was also a factor that, while the country was always on Hitler’s chopping list, the war ended in six years with his defeat.

Ethiopia will not be as lucky. It is not a country that will be able to assert any serious resistance if, say, the US holds back aid. And neither is it a country that will be given lesser attention than its neighbours, as was the case with Switzerland, but finds itself at the centre of one of the most strategic regions in the world.

Pragmatism should be the way forward in foreign policy. Pundits have stressed that Ethiopia should not punch above its weight when it comes to international affairs, and this may be a suggestion that rules out neutrality.

Largely dependent on how intense the rivalry between global powers becomes, non-alignment could be an ideal aspiration in non-ideal circumstances. It has already become dangerous to maintain neutral positions on the China-Taiwan, US-Iran and Israel-Palestine relations, and it is likely to only get worse.

There needs to be a plan to fall back on for nations such as Ethiopia. Choices may have to be made, and sides may have to be taken. Under such circumstances, a nation should choose to side with those that are democracies with a record of upholding political and human rights.

There is a certain uniformity in how alliances are made across the world, and they are usually between countries that subscribe to similar principles and ideologies, helping to further fortify these views.

A country like Ethiopia, an aspiring democracy, should thus look to republics if push comes to shove and a choice needs to be made. Republics, not always, but mostly, consider the well being of an ally’s citizens as an important factor for diplomatic and economic relations.

Autocracies are less likely to be concerned about how citizens are treated in an allied country. This would feed all the wrong impulses of governments in countries without established democracies. Alliances with non-republics should be avoided whatever the economic opportunities that may be gotten.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 23,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 982]

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