Navigating Through a Geopolitical Upheaval and Opportunity

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      By Rebuma Dejene*

      Recently, Hagos Gebreamlak published an essay titled, “Ethiopia in a Geopolitical Crisis”. This thought-provoking work is an important contribution to the contemporary debate about the survival of Ethiopia and its future in the new era of global geopolitical competition. The essay boldly asserts that “Ethiopia is now in a geopolitical crisis and decline in its geopolitical relevance.”  As for the current situation, there is no denying that Ethiopia is facing a political turmoil, economic crisis and external challenge in its international relations. However, bringing a more balanced perspective based on a historically grounded approach and long-term view is critically needed. In his essay, Hagos has importantly argued that the domestic political-economic landscape of Ethiopia has been facing a paramount crisis for the past few years since the start of popular protests against the EPRDF-led government.  He further argues that the global geopolitical competition and international disorder has been leading to Ethiopia’s geopolitical crisis in both internal and external realms of the state. The writer appreciably and rightly highlights some of the great perils and pitfalls Ethiopia is currently going through which we need to face with the right dose of courage, humility and wisdom.

      However, I principally disagree with the analysis of the essay on four important grounds. Firstly, the presentist and ahistorical nature of the overall argument with the excessive focus on current issues and developments. Secondly, the predominantly declinist narrative of the essay that emphasizes (over) the “geopolitical decline” of Ethiopia.  Thirdly, the commentary on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is analytically problematic. It has ended up misplacing important details and lacking wider contextual perspective that is imperative for the discussion. Finally, the problematical analysis of American and Chinese foreign policy towards Ethiopia and the Horn region.

      Coming to my first counter-argument to the essay, the writer has disproportionately focused on current issues and news in the overall examination of the geopolitical situation of Ethiopia in the domestic, regional and international realms. Yes, I agree that we need to observe and understand the current realities that affect the dynamics of political economy and geopolitics. However, failure to frame recent developments in a historical context is highly problematic given the huge role the past plays in determining domestic and external geopolitical changes in Ethiopia and the Horn region.  If the experience of the 1960s, 70s and early 90s offers any guidance to political analysts and observers, it is not to take the huge role and legacy of history for granted whenever we make big analysis on the questions of survival and continuity of a state. Ethiopia’s contemporary predicaments and political quagmires are rooted in its complex history of state formation and its subsequent political development since the 1960s. The rise of ethnic nationalism, causes of wars and conflicts, external interventions, the quest for democracy, peace and development are all deeply entrenched in the modern history of Ethiopia. Therefore, I believe that any geopolitical examination of Ethiopia that fails to take into account the considerable influence of history is inherently dubious and misleading.

      Secondly, the predominantly declinist narrative of the essay that emphasizes (over) the “geopolitical decline” of Ethiopia raises many more serious questions than explanations. The argument about the geopolitical decline of Ethiopia in the face of a bloody and dirty civil war and economic woes seriously makes sense given the very presentist nature of the argument. It is perhaps the most popular political argument across a diverse political spectrum of Ethiopia. And the problem is that there is an ever-present analysis and commentary explaining from short terms dynamics to make sweeping generalizations about the future course of history. However, this bold assertion failed to consider the complex other side of the story in a balanced way. Ethiopia’s continued geo-strategic importance in Africa, societal resilience, the capacity for self-correction and reform, cultural heritage, huge economic potentials, demographics, historical legacy of state continuity, and robust diplomacy is a significant asset in determining the geopolitical future of the state. The point here is not to deny the unquestionably true existential challenges the Ethiopian state faces, but to provide a more nuanced and complex approach contrary to increasingly popular declinist narratives. Although I don’t necessarily agree with the selective reading of history by Robert D. Kaplan, he rightly makes an important argument in his recent expert argument for the Foreign Policy magazine: “To understand why Ethiopia is too substantial to fall apart, it is necessary to explore Ethiopia as a geographical, cultural, and political concept, in all its considerable uniqueness.”

      The other equally misleading analysis in the essay on GERD is that the writer provides analytically problematic conclusions and offers a largely decontextualized perspective. The author has focused on the role of international financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF as part of the Trump administration’s pressure tactics. However, successive governments have always asserted that they will not require external assistance to complete the flagship hydroelectric dam given the already unfavourable global financial environment before its inception. Here it is also important to note that despite the biased, partisan and one-sided role of the Trump administration, the Biden administration has already brought a foreign policy shift that had delinked foreign aid to Ethiopia vis-à-vis GERD clearly showing a more balanced and neutral policy. For any matured foreign policy analysis and political economy arguments concerning Ethiopia’s long-term interests on the Nile, GERD presents enormous economic opportunities and promises despite the predictable external challenges. Thus, the argument that the current regional dispute over the dam contributes to the geopolitical decline and crisis of Ethiopia is essentially myopic and short-termist in its very nature. The medium and long-term benefits of GERD far outweigh any associated pressure campaigns Ethiopia faces in multiple fronts.

      In addition, the author’s suggestion that “Ethiopia has to recognize the geopolitical concerns of America and Egypt over the Nile River” is unrealistic, illogical and deeply problematic to say the least. Ethiopia is playing a constructive role in hydro-diplomacy by taking into account the rational interests of all riparian countries in its bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. The problem comes from the age-old attempts to securitise and often militarize the utilization of water resources. Ethiopia’s GERD does not pose any significant harm to either Egypt, Sudan or any other global power.

      Finally, the close scrutiny of American and Chinese foreign policy towards Ethiopia and the Horn region from both long-term strategic perspective and current dynamics suggests a fairly different picture than what the author suggests. Hagos argues that the American foreign policy focus in the Horn of Africa and the Red sea region has significantly shifted towards the Indo-pacific and “contributing to Ethiopia’s geopolitical crisis making the country no longer strategically important to the US.”  However, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region continues to enjoy a substantial geo-strategic relevance despite some media narrative of US disengagement from the region. President Biden’s decision to appoint US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, extensive engagements in the conflict in Ethiopia, recent  approval to redeploy several hundred ground forces into Somalia, US military presence in Djibouti and other important strategic factors all indicate the continued geo-political significance of the region and Ethiopia in particular to US national security and foreign policy.

      When it comes to China and its diplomatic engagements with Ethiopia, despite increasingly low loan commitment volumes in the face of western debt-trap accusations and domestic factors, Chinese financial commitments with Ethiopia is still substantial. As Sany and Sheehy recently noted, “Ethiopia is a central hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Currently, there are about 400 Chinese construction and manufacturing projects in Ethiopia, valued at over $4 billion.”

      In 2021, bilateral trade volume reached 2.66 billion U.S. dollars, of which, China imported commodities of nearly 370 million U.S. dollars from Ethiopia, a year-on-year increase of 8.1 percent. The Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC’s) increasing prominence and strategic importance in the Sino-Africa relations in general and that of Ethiopia in particular is also another important example of the continued geo-political significance of the region including its support in global multilateral organizations. Ethiopia continues to be a key strategic partner for China’s Africa policy and has long been considered the gateway to Africa given its huge significance and place in the continent.

      After presenting my four main counterarguments on the essay focusing on the nexus between internal and external determinants of Ethiopia’s geopolitics and foreign policy, this essay outlines four key arguments and ways on the future of the Ethiopian state in the face of domestic quagmires, regional and global shifting geopolitics without in the process endorsing the declinist, fatalist and self-defeating narrative.

      Geopolitics and Foreign Policy Begins at Home: Putting Ethiopia’s House in Order First

      I agree with Hagos’s assessment that a protracted civil war and conflict in Ethiopia coupled with massive economic crisis presents an existential national security challenge for the survival of Ethiopia as a state. Thus, finding an inclusive, political and negotiated settlement to the political and security crisis in large parts of Ethiopia is a fundamental precondition to bring lasting stability and development in Ethiopia. Richard Haass in his important book titled, “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order boldly asserts that the biggest threat to the United States comes not from abroad but from within. This huge statement also rightly applies to Ethiopia. The biggest and most dangerous threat to Ethiopia comes from within in terms of the persistence war, poverty, and absence of strong and democratic institutions and the problematic nature of rule of law. Without putting our own house in order, Ethiopia will continue to face cycles of crisis and conflict both domestically and externally.

      I firmly believe that the survival of Ethiopia as a multi-national, democratic and federal republic is a geopolitical necessity to bring about lasting peace, development and democracy.  Preserving Ethiopia’s decades-old success and gains in economic development and reviving the war-torn economy after COVID-19 is also essentially needed for any future continuity of the state. Therefore, any art of diplomacy, geopolitics and statecraft must begin by seriously taking into the paramount role of ensuring a stable political order in Ethiopia.

      Continued Strategy of Re-engagement with the West and Robust Relations with China

      Historically speaking, since the beginning of the modern history of Ethiopia, the Western world has always been one of the most important actors in shaping the domestic political development and geopolitical environment of Ethiopia. However, the war in Ethiopia has once again led to the deterioration of relations with the Western world characterized by policy of maximum pressure campaigns, economic sanctions and worseningofdiplomatic relations with Ethiopia. The announcement of ceasefire, the progress in humanitarian access to the Tigray and the possibility of a political settlement to the war is improving the relations between the West and Ethiopia. Keeping the strategic momentum and continued strategic re-engagement with the West should be an important pillar for Ethiopia’s foreign policy. Ending the protracted process of sanctions and restrictions on Ethiopia and re-establishing important relations with the West should be given a foreign policy priority. Reversing the deterioration of relations between Ethiopia and the West through a sustained diplomatic engagements and carefully calibrated approach is in the best interests of both sides.

      Finding a balancing act between the West’s genuine concerns of ending a bloody and dirty war, respect for human rights and humanitarian access and Ethiopia’s concern for national security and state survival is essentially imperative. A one-sided “maximum pressure” campaign from the West will only exacerbate the crisis and may further lead to more chaos.

      Equally significant relation of Ethiopia is with China. This strong Sino-Ethiopia relation in the economy, trade, investment, infrastructure, political, diplomatic and other important sectors is crucial. As one of China’s strongest African partners, Ethiopia has a special place in China’s Africa policy. Maintaining a robust and strong relations with China in all vital economic, political, and diplomatic areas by increasing comprehensive strategic diplomacy should be the sine qua non of our diplomacy.

      GERD as a geopolitical game-changer in the Nile basin region

      GERD is not only a mega hydroelectric infrastructure in Ethiopia but also a game-changer in the Nile basin region hydropolitcs. In geopolitical history of the region, the Renaissance dam marks a turning point in bringing a new model of power relations based on mutual cooperation and economic development. It ends Egypt’s long-standing hydro-hegemony and colonial dominance in the Nile Basin and heralds a new era of equitable and reasonable utilisation of shared water resources.  Strategically speaking, GERD will also make Ethiopia the next clean energy powerhouse and will be central for the realization of the regional economic integration in the Horn of Africa region and beyond.  The GERD also represents an all-encompassing unifying national development project for the young generation of Ethiopians with “yes we can” attitude and spirit.

      An emerging multipolar world order and the importance of Agency for Ethiopia

      The other important argument of my paper is that the emerging multipolar world order presents a huge a geopolitical opportunity in many economic, diplomatic and political realms despite the possible dangers associated with this system. This is not, however, to endorse an emerging cold-war 2.0 mentality among global powers and actors. Any cold war and great power competition that promotes division, conflict, fragmentation is not in the best interests of peace, security and development including for Ethiopia. The Ukraine-Russia crisis is an important case in point.

      Ethiopia needs neither a unipolar hegemony of a global superpower nor an unbridled super power competition. Thus, I believe that exploring the benefits and implications of a multipolar world order from an African perspective is critically important in fundamental areas of economic development, climate change, technological advancement, diplomatic engagements and many other important areas.

      For instance, after Beijing announced the BRI in 2013 under President Xi Jinping, the USA and the EU have recently come up with their own Build Back Better World Initiative and Global Gateway strategy respectively. It offers important alternatives and choices for Africa including Ethiopia in their development endeavours without necessarily involving in cold-war style blocks.  Without picking any side, Africa should carefully exploit and explore all feasible alternatives to fill its infrastructure gap, bring economic development and ensure better governance system.

      In conclusion, my central argument is that we must not view new geopolitical developments and upheavals at domestic, regional and global levels only through the predominant lens of crisis, decline and diminishing significance. I strongly believe that there are important geopolitical opportunities, and significant strategic resources that can positively impact the future trajectory of the Ethiopian state and Africa in general. We face important choices and decisions to make at a momentous crossroads in both our domestic and foreign affairs. In navigating through a geopolitical upheaval and opportunities of the age, we need to have a deep scrutiny at the promises, potentials and perils Ethiopia faces in all its forms, shapes and dynamism. Despite the current suffering and crisis, the young generation should make a courageous effort to see the future through the lens of hope, will and opportunity beyond our prime preoccupation with a geopolitical despair.

      *Rebuma Dejene has a B.A in Political Science and International Relations and M.A in International Relations and Diplomacy from Addis Ababa University.

      * Publisher’s Note: This contribution is part of a series of stories CARD publishes to encourage intellectual discourse among the youth in Ethiopia. If you want to make contributions or respond to this particular piece, please email your draft to us via info@cardeth.org.

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