The Horn of Africa is a region fraught with complex geopolitical dynamics, historical disputes, and competing interests. In recent years, the United States’ approach to addressing the challenges in countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, and Egypt has been criticized for not reflecting reality on the ground. As tensions escalate over issues like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and territorial disputes, it is becoming increasingly clear that a more realistic and nuanced American policy is needed in the region.

In this article, the author will delve into the intricacies of the current dynamics in the Horn of Africa and analyze how Washington’s one-size-fits-all approach is falling short. From the longstanding disagreements between Egypt and Ethiopia to the evolving relationship between Somalia and its neighbors, there are myriad factors at play that require a more nuanced and pragmatic approach from the United States.

By examining the historical context and present-day developments in the region, the author will make a compelling case for a realist American policy that takes into account the unique circumstances and interests of each country in the Horn of Africa. It is time for Washington to engage in true-to-life diplomacy that reflects the complexities and realities on the ground in order to promote stability and cooperation in this critical region.

By Abren Editorial

Washington’s one Somalia stance is not based on the reality on the ground. It does not represent the fact Somaliland has by all accounts functioned as an independent state for over 30 years while Somalia remained “an anarchic rump state in that same period of time”, according to Ambassador Peter Pham, who represented the U.S. in several African countries over the years.

Seeing America’s reluctance to engage in true-to-life diplomacy in the HoA, regional actors have stepped up their activities. Given its long-running disagreement on the construction and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt has historically sought to leverage Ethiopia’s neighbors to rival Addis Ababa, which has now effectively completed the GERD and will likely continue to develop its extensive water resources in the Blue Nile basin.


Somalia’s quarrels with Ethiopia have historical roots, but the latest rendition is the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Somaliland and Ethiopia, an agreement that when implemented in full gives Ethiopia maritime access to naval as well as commercial ports on the Gulf of Aden. The MoU also puts Ethiopia on course to recognizing Somaliland’s statehood, a move Somalia views as an affront to its sovereignty.

While Egypt remains an important ally of the United States in the Arab world, its long-running dispute with Ethiopia over the Nile River, and specifically regarding the operation of the GERD remains unresolved. On purely geopolitical grounds, Washington has long prioritized Egypt, a country that has lobbied lawmakers in Washington. There has even been a corruption case involving Egyptian influence peddlers and Senator Bob Melendez of New Jersey.

However, ignoring Ethiopia’s interests will incur future costs. This nation of 120 million people stands at the cusp of an economic and population boom. While Egypt is a crucial center of Arab politics, Ethiopia will likely expand its influence and position in Africa, a continent America cannot afford to ignore in the years and decades ahead.

The Biden administration recently sought to critique Somaliland, denouncing what it perceived as “democratic backsliding”, even though Somaliland remains comparatively the most democratic and stable in the Horn of Africa. The state department’s “One Somalia” policy is reminiscent of Siad Barre’s 1977 invasion of Ethiopia’s Ogaden, which sought to unify Somalia, Somaliland, parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti into a single state—a disastrous approach that defies political common sense and reality. While Somaliland has largely achieved peace and security across its territory, Somalia is now on its fourth decade of civil war.

Underscoring a recurrence of ineffective foreign policy in the Horn of Africa, President Biden’s administration has notably thrown its weight behind the undemocratic and stumbling regime in Mogadishu, rather than supporting the more democratic leadership in Somaliland. Wrongly or rightly, this policy will no doubt be viewed as a planned containment of Ethiopia.

A Call For A Realist American Policy In The Horn Of Africa Regarding Ethiopia, Somalia And EgyptMoreover, while acknowledging Somaliland’s democratic shortcomings, the U.S. hesitates to forge a traditional economic and diplomatic relationship with Hargeisa, thereby limiting its ability to actively promote human rights and democratic processes in the strategic Horn of Africa.

The situation became even more complicated in March 2024, when Puntland, constituting around 15 percent of Somalia’s claimed territory, declared independence, amid disputes with the Mogadishu government over constitutional amendments. The further disintegration of Somalia is unfortunate and seemingly inexorable, despite the international community’s efforts to prevent it. While stabilizing Somalia is important to regional and global security, it should not come at the cost of denying Somaliland’s future.

Furthermore, the Biden administration seems to be copying its “One China” strategic ambiguity policy vis-à-vis Taiwan and pasting it to Somalia. But this conflating of the two misses key differences. Understanding these nuances should propel a distinct approach to the Horn of Africa. In addition to Ethiopia, Taiwan also has close links to Somaliland, recognizing similarity with its own semiautonomous status. A departure from the “One Somalia” policy is imperative to advance global democracy and prop up functional states amidst numerous international crises.

In northeastern Africa and the Horn, stretching from Cairo to Mogadishu, geopolitical flashpoints in a region inhabited by over three hundred million people and situated adjacent to one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes is a concern to U.S interests. Given the humanitarian and economic significance of this region, the United States’ foreign policy approach necessitates more than mere tactical retreats and aspirations for de-escalation. It needs to be engaged to broker a realistic outcome.

Washington should emulate its pivotal role in brokering the Abraham Accords by adopting a proactive strategy that addresses the interests of the region’s major players—Egypt and Ethiopia—while also lending support to the democratic government in Somaliland. One proposition recently made by Oliver McPherson-Smith, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institute, posits Ethiopian aspirational ascendency on the Nile River can been eased by credible support for its sea access ambitions via Somaliland.

Arriving at a long-term bargain on sharing the Nile between Egypt and Ethiopia by offering the latter unimpeded sea access via Somaliland is innovative. Doing so does not hurt Somalia, which has plenty of other sea outlet options. It also bolsters the burgeoning democratic government of Somaliland that emerged amidst the enduring tumult of Somalia. Lastly, strengthening Somaliland in partnership with Ethiopia could help secure the important Red Sea maritime route.

On the contrary, leaving the Egypt-Ethiopia rivalry over the Nile unresolved while regressing on Somaliland will have the unintended consequence of increasing regional instability. It will be perceived by Addis Ababa as a policy of containment and by Cairo as a permanent threat on its most important resource, the Nile River.

About Abren 

Abren means together in Amharic

Abren logoAbren is a group of Ethiopian Americans in the Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area who envision a strong and mutually beneficial relationship between the peoples of the United States, Ethiopia, and Africa.
Policy advocacy that ensures Ethiopia’s sovereignty, advances economic development, establishes good governance, democracy, and promotes peace in Ethiopia.
Information Awareness and media perspectives that center the voices of Ethiopians, combatting disinformation, and help shift public opinion concerning Ethiopia
Community Organizing to build a powerful chapter of Ethiopian Americans in the DMV that are civically engaged at local and national levels.
Build Strategic Alliances with like-minded Ethiopian American civic groups across the U.S. to advance common goals, in addition to bridge-building with key constituents outside of the Ethiopian American community.
Think Tank promoting new innovative ideas for international policy in the Horn of Africa