Ever since the founding of modern Ethiopia in the late 19th century, the strategic pillars of its foreign policy have by and large been anchored in the principles of ensuring respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity; pursuance of mutual interest and recognition of equality of states; non-alignment; and forging an environment fostering fraternal relations with other nations and their people. While these principles have been articulated in one form or another in various nationally adopted documents, they are explicitly provided for in the current constitution of Ethiopia and expounded further in its foreign and national security policies and strategies. The manner in which the nation’s foreign policy was implemented was dictated by global geo-political realities and the ideological camp to which it belonged. Consequently, the actions of successive Ethiopian governments did not necessarily hew to the tenets embraced in official foreign policy instruments.
Ethiopia’s foreign relations were relatively independent for decades after the end of the “bi-polar global order” that had been reigning since the end of World War Two. The emergence of a multi-polar, poly-centric global order following the demise of the Cold War brought about a new power configuration that enabled Ethiopia to perform a juggling act in its relations with competing powers. This “Win-Win” scenario allowed it to avail itself of improved access to foreign assistance and enhanced its international standing. At the same time, events that triggered tectonic geopolitical shifts post-Cold War engendered the collapse of states inimical to Ethiopia including Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen while they weakened adversaries like Egypt. Since the advent to power Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) to power in April 2018 though Ethiopia’s external relations, particularly with the West, have been blowing hot and cold on account of a bevy of primarily locally-driven factors.
Soon after the premiere assumed office, his administration introduced a series of reforms that the West had been urging the Ethiopian government to undertake. From releasing political prisoners to inviting exiled Ethiopians to return home, replacing draconian laws throttling the democratic space with enabling legislation, liberalizing the telecom sector and ending the twenty-year old with neighboring Eritrea, the measures the administration took made Ethiopia the darling of the West even as it caught China, towards which Ethiopia was increasingly pivoting prior to the commencement of Abiy’s tenure, off-guard. The resulting dramatic improvement of the ties between the two sides entailed not only political benefits for Ethiopia, but also economic dividends in the form of billions of dollars of aid and loans from international financial institutions.
This cozy relationship did not last long however. It began to cool when the West chose to side with Sudan and Egypt over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD. In mid-2020, Ethiopia rebuffed the U.S. government’s attempt to coerce it into signing a binding agreement on the filling period, saying it did not accept the 12-21 years proposed by Egypt and had the right to fill the dam at its own pace. The repeated convening of the Security Council at the behest of Egypt and Sudan, albeit unsuccessful,]to consider a resolution calling on Ethiopia to cease filling the GERD’s reservoir and pushing for a binding agreement between the three sides on the operation of the dam strained the relationship further.
Things came to the boil though when the West put its thumb on the scale in favor of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) following the commencement of a military operation by Prime Minister Abiy’s administration in Tigray in November 2020 in response to TPLF’s attacks on federal army bases in the region. Soon after the war broke out Ethiopia has been subjected to unprecedented pressure at the hands of Western governments, the U.N., mainstream media, think-tanks and rights groups. The U.S. particularly imposed a slew of sanctions on Ethiopia, scaled back its economic assistance, and terminated the tariff-free African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for Ethiopia while it gave the TPLF a slap on the wrist. Furthermore, the U.S. and its allies at the U.N. Security Council have tried over a dozen times to formally admonish Ethiopia but to no avail. The West also waged a coordinated information warfare against Ethiopia through the mainstream media, think tanks and so-called rights advocacy organizations. These measures brought the relationship between the two parties to one of their lowest points in recent memory.
Fortunately, the diplomatic freeze was short-lived. The conclusion in November 2022 of a surprise deal between the federal government of Ethiopia and the TPLF that ended the deadly two-year war they fought has brought Ethiopia back in the West’s graces. In a sign that relations between Ethiopia and the West are on the mend, a delegation led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) met with senior U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, in December 2022cin which they agreed to ramp up their century-old bilateral ties. Moreover, the delegation held productive talks with top officials of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group (WBG) on the institutions’ support for the ongoing reform in Ethiopia as well as the need for debt resolution. Both institutions as well as the European Union and various European nations have pledged to provide it economic support to Ethiopia as humanitarian aid flows expand to Tigray and such services as electricity, telecom and flights to the region resume. The gradual return of Ethiopia’s pursuit of balanced foreign relations is the right way going forward at a time it is confronted with a plethora of testing challenges it needs to navigate smartly.