Foreign Policy and National Security

AdW: What is the strategic objective of Ethiopia’s foreign policy?

MZ: Ethiopia is proud and we feel our national humiliations deeply. The source of our country’s humiliation in our time is poverty and backwardness. National pride is not a policy objective in itself: we must realize it through realizing democracy and development.


Our national survival is not guaranteed unless we overcome poverty. Our national security and foreign policy are therefore based on our economy, specifically our fundamental goal of economic development. Every aspect of our foreign relations must be geared to this goal. This is the new element in our strategy and it is a departure from the old way of thinking about Ethiopia’s national security, which was to identify threats one by one and figure out how to defend ourselves. Our national security is now based on our own national goals, and that is achieving economic development.

Ethiopia can never rely on any external power. We have no guaranteed friends. This is an old principle and it won’t change. Even when we have conquered poverty and achieved middle-income status we will remain a weak country that could be prey to outside interference and destabilization. For that reason must avoid overdependence on any one power and instead must diversify our aid, trade and security relationships.

Ethiopia’s foreign policy has in fact been quite consistent on the principle of diversifying international links, with the exception of the period of the Dergue. That is also why we invest in the African Union and the United Nations and other multilateral organizations.

AdW: Why is the conflict with Eritrea so intractable?

MZ: At some point, we will find a way to live together with Eritrea: that is inevitable. The issues that divide us are entirely down to some idiotic posturing and not only on the Eritrean side. Isseyas needs a face-saving formula, and it shouldn’t be difficult to find one. He cannot forgive the Weyane for defeating his unconquerable army and so he is looking to punish them. One way he would like to this is to dismantle Ethiopia which is proving a lot more difficult than he thought. The other strategy is to hang on until he can find enough Ethiopians who can also demonize the Weyane. And for the time being the permanent state of tension is helpful to Isseyas, a reason for his survival. He knows that he won’t survive any democratization.

What we need are less emotional relations with Eritrea. A more sober policy.  The border question is irrelevant. The key is the normalization of economic and social relations. We need Eritrean ports: we will reach the capacity of Djibouti soon and we need to diversify our access to the sea. If normalization isn’t possible, we should avoid war, by deterring the other side. We think we have convinced them that war isn’t a feasible option.

In the long term, Eritrea has a high potential to be a developmental state, but it might be too late for EPLF to be part of it. It also makes no sense for Eritrea to be isolated from our strategy of regional infrastructural integration: Eritrea should be connected to our power grids and our transport network.

AdW: The 2002 White Paper on national security and foreign policy speaks of the importance of having a public discussion of defense strategy with the aim of forging a national consensus. Did this ever happen?

MZ: No. In  the event, we have had other priorities.

AdW: What is your greatest fear?

MZ: We need to look beyond our immediate issues such as Eritrea, Somalia and the problems of the two Sudans. Those issues we can handle though sometimes they are costly. We face two strategic adversaries.

One is Egypt. This is curious because Egypt has much in common with us and has the potential to be a truly developmental state and a partner in revolutionary democracy. But Egypt has found itself trapped in the scale of its historic ambition for regional dominance and its historic failure to achieve that ambition. Until it escapes that sense of disappointment it will never be able to develop, and it will instead be a negative force dragging down the region. Ethiopia plays a special role in Egypt’s sense of its historic hinterland because of the Nile. For Egypt, the Nile Water is seen as an existential issue, and Egyptian leaders will use every means at their disposal to prevent us from exploiting the Nile waters. What they fail to realize is that the Nile Waters are an existential issue for us too. At some point in the future, we will identify our common interests, on economic development, regional infrastructure and security, and achieve the technical formula for dividing the Nile Waters that satisfies all the states of the Nile Basin. But while Egypt remains in the grip of a counter-revolution, and unable to satisfy the demands of its people for a better life, it will not be able to achieve this strategic reorientation.

The second is Saudi Arabia and more generally the Gulf states. They possess a level of resources that we will never, ever match. And the manner in which they can use those resources is not subject to any constraint. In your terminology, they have vast political budgets and when they decide to spend them, they first of all purchase loyalties. That’s a tactical issue as they usually have a short attention span so the political product they purchase is highly discounted. But second and more importantly these political payments make the rent-seekers dream big. What follows is the most hegemonic manifestation of corruption: the corruption of the beggar who sits waiting for his benefactor, every single day, whether or not that benefactor actually shows up on any particular day.

My nightmare is that the two should combine: that we should have an Egyptian agenda that is financed by Gulf money. I used to fear that this would happen with Islamist revolutions in both countries. Today I fear that it will happen because the security and commercial interests of the Arab countries will converge on an agenda of imposing tight control over their southern perimeters. With instability throughout the Middle East, Egypt and the Gulf monarchies cannot afford to have trouble on their southern periphery, and when they can no longer rely on the Americans to keep order, they will club together to do it themselves. The entire Horn of Africa will become their buffer zone. Imagine how much weaker Ethiopia’s position will be with the UAE controlling every port we use and singing to the tune of Egyptian foreign affairs.

We cannot stop this from happening as the factors that would drive it are outside our control. But we can ensure that we have the leverage to minimize the damage and retain our autonomy.

AdW: How does Ethiopia retain its autonomy in the era of globalization?

MZ: Globalization is a reality that we have to live with. Managing this reality and turning it to our advantage where we can, is the final pillar of our foreign policy and security strategy. Even when we achieve middle-income status we will still be a weak player globally. We absolutely need our policy autonomy, or our gains will always be in danger of reversal. We could privatize our key economic assets and liberalize our land and food policies at any time. We would get some windfall financial gains from that, and those who bought up our assets would get even bigger windfall profits, but if we do that any time soon we will be the loser. Whoever buys up those assets, and without a doubt, they will be underpriced, will also buy a stake in our politics. And if we lose control of our land and food policies we will be exposed to global market forces that we cannot control but which can determine our destiny, at any time and without any warning.

Economic integration with the African continent is critical. All African economies, even South Africa, are too small to be truly developmental. They will always be susceptible to rent-seeking at the state level. In Ethiopia, we are not in a position to open our market to the rest of the continent, as our manufacturing is not yet competitive without protective measures. So our integration is driven by infrastructure. This is where we learn from the Chinese, both in the technical and the political-economic aspects. Then in time, we can gradually open our markets.

Multilateralism cannot cure our predicament but it is absolutely essential to alleviating it. Our foreign relations protect our autonomy to the degree that we conduct them in a multilateral fashion. The United Nations and the African Union are prone to making stupid decisions but it is much better that we are part of them, mitigating their stupidity and improving them where we can than we turn our backs on them and complain about our vulnerabilities.

Because we are the host country for the African Union, we try to be as discreet as we can in influencing the organization. We don’t want other African states to be resentful and suspect that we are abusing our privileges as host. This means that the AU doesn’t have the profile that it warrants in Ethiopia or indeed within the EPRDF itself.

Globalization is first and foremost a political process. Don’t underestimate the power of setting the agenda. One area in which we can lead is shaping the global agenda. We are doing this on climate change. We are planning to do it on biotech. We are doing it in a discreet way on peace and security, but it is important that we lead from behind because this is an area in which we can easily invoke jealousies. We also would like to lead on this topic of the democratic developmental state: it’s not an issue that I can speak about publicly, too loudly, when I am in the office, but the moment will come.

Agenda setting is the most elusive form of power, what Joe Nye calls ‘soft power’. It’s hard to achieve and so easy to lose. When Ethiopia becomes an agenda taker not an agenda-setter then that will be a signal that we will be in danger.


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