Personal Diplomacy Has Risks and Diminishing Returns


The situation in neighbouring Sudan can be confusing to anyone. When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) made a quick trip to Khartoum immediately after the military started shooting at protesters and seemed to have gotten the parties talking, most felt a great sense of relief. Regrettably, not long after he landed back in Addis Abeba, news broke that the very same opposition leaders that Abiy talked to were picked up by the army and thrown in jail.

That is a good example to show the limits of personal diplomacy. When leaders click and succeed to create tangible results, it is worth the time and effort they devote to personal diplomacy, and success in the venture brings along accolades and satisfaction. Precisely for that reason, it is tempting to rely on it too much.

Nonetheless, even the president of the most powerful nation in the world is learning the limits of personal diplomacy. When President Donald Trump took office a little over two years ago, the outgoing President, Barak Obama, counseled him that North Korea was the most challenging foreign policy issue that he was inheriting. However, Trump thought that if he could only sit down and talk with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, he could strike a deal. He was counting on his charm to get the job done.

Talk? They did alright. There were a lot of photo opportunities, but after everything was said and done, little of substance was achieved.

It is not to say personal diplomacy is necessarily a bad thing. It can be an indispensable instrument when used wisely. But in the absence of leverage, the result could be damaging to leaders’ reputations and the credibility of the countries they represent.

Despite a feel-good narrative by the public media, Abiy must have seen from his encounters in Khartoum that charm alone has little to do in changing the reality of the complicated situation in Sudan. His efforts may have been born out of folly, a desire to achieve quick results and a distaste for complexities.

Sudan presents a mindboggling complexity of political and diplomatic reality for an outsider to deal with and resolve. Sudan hosts perhaps the largest army of expats working for international NGOs and the biggest peacekeeping operations in the world, all trying to keep no less than 12 warring rebel groups at bay.

The army has always embodied Sudanese political life since its independence in 1956. Since independence, Sudan has seen seven leaders, four of whom were installed as heads of military juntas, and one elected civilian leader who stayed in power for a mere 18 days.

The last to be deposed by the army, Omar Al-Bashir (Col.), left the country bankrupt and its people desperate. The economy is in bad shape, with 30pc of the government budget going to the military and inflation running as high as 70pc. The popular demand for democracy and the rule of law runs deep. No less is the meddling by foreign powers worried that a Sudan that is peaceful and democratic could create precedents for the region.

The Horn of Africa attracts the attention of international powers, because it is a central passageway for several continents. It invites their involvement, because it is unstable.

The political dynamics in this part of the world is changing fast. There has been a lot of active interest from countries in the Gulf lately, and they are not alone. The growing interest by others such as Russia, China, Turkey, Qatar and Iran may have the potential to turn the Horn of Africa region into a battleground for proxy wars.

This shows that there is hardly anything that is entirely local anymore. Even a seemingly local decision such as picking a management firm for a port has international ramifications these days. Djibouti presents a good lesson in this respect.

It was certainly more than mere coincidence that the military leaders in Sudan started shooting at protesters - where more than 100 people are believed to have been killed, 19 of which are children - after they made a series of trips to Cairo and the capitals in the Gulf states.

The military may have little appetite to go back to the barracks now, leaving behind a garrisoned nation and trails of blood, that may trigger potential prosecutions in international courts.

The military’s hold on power is driven by its attempts to squash protesters who have locked down Khartoum, but they are also standing against several armed and unarmed parties contesting for power.

An understanding of such challenges and the appreciation of its complexity is necessary to help Sudan, and it is evident that there is no quick fix.

Ethiopia is a strategically essential country in the Horn, a region of the world that is gripped in perpetual instability. If its leaders are keen to be involved in the effort to calm down the turmoil, it is understandable. Already, the country is the largest contributor of peacekeeping forces inside Sudan.

However, its leaders should play a wise balancing act. They have to manoeuvre with great care. In this arena, there are no little mistakes. One misstep could be consequential.

One cause of concern is personal diplomacy at the highest level. True, it can be the icing on the cake for mediation efforts if it is laid on solid foundations of institutional diplomacy. Devoid of a well-studied, carefully considered plan and properly acknowledged leverage, personal diplomacy is like a bank account. The more it is drawn, the less remains. It is wise to use it sparingly, and with strategic objectives in mind for every time it is used without success, it brings diminishing returns.

The way to avoid the likelihood of such outcomes is to craft a grand foreign policy strategy. Indeed, the foreign policy hawks on Menelik II Avenue are busy working on revising the now outdated strategy. The administration should be commended for it while at the same time urged to expedite it, for these are turbulent times.

At a time of turbulence, it is especially prudent to follow carefully laid down designs that are drawn after long and careful deliberations with input from the broader foreign policy community. While updating and working on new initiatives, it is also useful not to disregard the accumulated wisdom and expertise of members of this community who have either left the foreign policy establishment on their own or been made to retire. Their institutional memory is not something to scoff at. It is an asset to be used in the service of the nation.

The big mistake past leaders have made could perhaps be their failure to strengthen institutions. They were too reliant on their sense of accomplishments and sidelined or bypassed expert views and institutional wisdom, leaving the country weak and vulnerable. This is one thing that Prime Minister Abiy may choose not to repeat.

Sudan will continue to confuse. The situation is so fluid that news gets outdated before newspapers are printed. It will be no surprise if it requires the Prime Minister to make another trip again. But hopefully this time around, he will weigh the leverage at his disposal before he puts his credibility on the line. It appears that there is little deposited in the account that can be drawn to influence the behaviour of Sudanese generals.


How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Put your comments here

N.B: A submit button will appear once you fill out all the required fields.

Editors' Pick

Fortune news