SMART DIPLOMACY: Why Obama is Right to Visit Ethiopia



Engagement, not estrangement, is the best policy for influencing African states.

Much of the commentary surrounding President Obama’s trip to Kenya and Ethiopia, which begins on Friday, has focused on the countries’ uneven democratic performances. In the case of Kenya, some have questioned whether the President should grace with his presence a country whose President and Vice President have been indicted by the International Criminal Court. But it is the visit to Ethiopia that strikes some analysts as especially galling, given Addis’s dubiously free and almost certainly unfair legislative elections this past May and its tendency to jail those who voice opposition to its long-time ruling party. Some believe Obama’s visit to Ethiopia sends a message that the United States approves of how Addis conducts its politics. A few even asserted that the Ethiopia leg should be cancelled.

There is an understandable discomfort when our leaders seem to cozy up to regimes that eschew the rights and liberties we feel are essential to democracy. Such a debate is a perennial one in U.S. foreign affairs, and not just with regards to Africa. What is the right balance between advocacy for our values and partnership on mutual interests? How far should we push countries to reform, especially when our agenda with a partner is large and complex? When we want to maintain a relationship, what are the best means for holding partners accountable?

These questions are especially salient when it comes to the provision of security and economic assistance to semi-democratic regimes. American policymakers should rightly ask questions about the end-use of U.S. aid. But it would be a mistake to let these concerns prevent continued engagement, least of all high-level political exchanges. Refusing to visit or meet with international interlocutors only sends the message that the United States is not interested in the future of a country. And the U.S. should be interested in Ethiopia.

Consider Ethiopia’s rising economic profile. One of the “African lions,” Ethiopia’s GDP growth hovers around 10 percent a year; on a per capita basis, it has increased nearly five-fold in the last ten years. And this growing income seems to be improving the well-being of the people: according to the World Bank, in the past two decades, poverty and child mortality rates have dropped significantly while primary school enrollments have quadrupled and the number of people with access to clean water has more than doubled. In some ways, the choice of Addis as host to last week’s high-profile UN-sponsored Third International Conference on Financing for Development is a tribute to these successes.
According to the IMF, part of Ethiopia’s overall performance is linked to its capable governance in the welfare and education sectors. The African Development Bank also credits Ethiopia’s government with keeping inflation low and reducing unemployment. Exports are strong, but imports are stronger, giving the Ethiopian market robust connections to Asian and European markets; it is in ongoing negotiations to secure an Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU. And if the dip in the Chinese economy interrupts Beijing’s impressive activities in Ethiopia, now may be a fortuitous time for the U.S. to follow up on the infrastructure and business initiatives launched at the Africa Leaders Summit in Washington last year.
Ethiopia is also a cornerstone of U.S. interests in African stability. As home to the African Union and the only polity never subject to European colonization, Ethiopia is both the diplomatic capital of Africa and a leader in indigenous governance. And as one of few African governments with the ability to project military power beyond its borders, it plays a key role in efforts to end the conflict in South Sudan as well as the AU’s ongoing efforts to stabilize Somalia and counter the rise of terrorism in Africa. Indeed, Addis Ababa is the most logical place for President Obama to reach out to multiple African countries at once, expanding upon the progress made at last summer’s Summit. An address to the AU by the first sitting president to visit Ethiopia would be an historic step toward greater U.S. engagement with Africa.
To point out Ethiopia’s strengths and its diplomatic importance is not to counter or downplay concerns about the state of its domestic politics. Such concerns should be a clear part of the President’s message in public and in private. In public, the President should call attention to the suppression of free speech and political activism, and advocate for continued improvements in the democratic processes of the oldest state under continuous African governance. With last week’s release of five jailed journalists and bloggers, there are some signs that Ethiopia is responding to the global attention of a U.S. presidential visit, at least in the short term.In private, Obama should be even more pointed about the difficulties such abuses pose for the bilateral relationship, not to mention for Ethiopia’s future. The African Development Bank, for example, has pointed out that government bias toward state- and party-owned firms in Ethiopia encumbers private sector investment and competition. To be effective, such difficult conversations should be conducted in person, and should not lose sight of the progress both countries can make together. Ethiopia’s role in its region is great and growing. Critics are right to call attention to its serious political shortcomings. But U.S. policymakers should also encourage its successes and be mindful of its potential.

As President Obama carves out a foreign policy legacy in his final term, he has shown an audacious optimism for what dogged diplomacy can achieve—from last week’s agreement with Iran over its nuclear program to the re-opening of relations with Cuba. His visit to Ethiopia and Kenya is another opportunity for the United States to demonstrate that it both understands Africa’s growing importance in global affairs and takes African politics seriously. Instead of sending a passive message of disapproval via estrangement, the United States is engaging with these key states. In the African marketplace of influence, reaching out is much more likely to achieve desired results.

Alice Hunt Friend is the former Principal Director for African Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. She is a senior affiliate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security, and a doctoral student at American University’s School of International Service. Dane Erickson is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver and recently completed a year-long analysis of political and security issues in West Africa in partnership with a network of leading African and American scholars. The opinions expressed are their own.