nation with a contemporary diplomacy history spanning over 116 years and a well-valued international presence shone brightly even during times much of the world faltered, finds itself struggling in piloting its diplomatic engagements through today’s global arena.
In 1920, amidst a sea of white nations, Ethiopia, the sole representative of the Black race, made history by becoming a founding member of the League of Nations, etching its name in practicing impactful diplomacy.
Ethiopia is also a nation that cannot be forgotten in history for the significant role it played in bringing together the Casablanca and Monrovia blocks. These two competing powers seemed destined to split Africa, but Ethiopia, through the efforts of its Emperor and the then Foreign Minister, played a significant role in bringing them to the table and establishing the Organization of African Unity –a realization outsiders were pessimistic about.
Moreover, Ethiopia has built a commendable reputation in its contribution to peace processes. It has participated in various peacekeeping missions and has mediated conflicts, especially with its neighbors. Its role in facilitating negotiations between conflicting parties, particularly in the region, is highly valued.
Ethiopia’s victories in the Battle of Adwa and other related deeds have made it a unifying force for Africa, embodying the spirit of Pan-Africanism. Being home to continental and international organizations such as the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and being the third-largest hub for diplomatic communities following New York and Geneva, Addis Ababa enjoys an excellent competitive advantage.
It is also a nation that was able to navigate the complex geopolitical landscape during the Cold War by adeptly articulating its national interests and engaging with both parties, defying the prevailing “with us or against us” mentality.
Diplomatic heroes like Tsehafi Tiezaz Aklilu Habtewold, Ketema Yifru, Goshu Woldie, and others left an indelible mark, achieving remarkable results that continue to resonate with pride. Figures like Amharic novelist Hadis Alemayehu also played their own part in shaping the nation’s diplomatic landscape.
Ethiopia’s rich diplomatic history affords it a level of respect and engagement from the international community that surpasses its economic standing. Retired senior diplomat Girum Abay emphasizes this historical capital as crucial to the nation’s current diplomatic engagements.
“In simple terms, these treasures allow us to play a key role and be at the center of action in our diplomatic engagements today. They hold significant value if we understand it properly and utilize it well,” Girum said.
“Our insights and opinions carry considerable weight in Africa. International actors value our positions and take them into account when making decisions, a privilege rarely granted to other African nations,” Girum told The Reporter.
While the rationale behind Ethiopia’s inclusion in the BRICS remains multifaceted, its rich diplomatic history likely played a significant role in this achievement.
During the opening remarks at the recently opened ‘Diplomacy Exhibition’ at the Science Museum, President Sahlework Zewde expressed her nostalgia, saying, “Stepping into this hall and meandering through the displays – memories flooded back for me.”
The President emphasized the need to embrace our history as it is and use it as a springboard to move forward.
However, there are at least two serious challenges preventing the nation from effectively utilizing its historical account and fostering diplomatic work.
First, there is a tendency to overlook or underestimate the significance of Ethiopia’s past accomplishments. And second, there is a tendency to rest on past laurels without taking adequate measures to preserve and build upon them. Both approaches prove ineffective.
“Sometimes, our people fail to acknowledge the previous accomplishments and fail to grasp the value they hold in our current diplomacy,” Girum noted. “Some barely know about or understand our heritage and its true meaning. It is essential for everyone, regardless of their political ideology, to be aware of and utilize our heritage in this regard.”
The President also echoed a similar concern in her speech: “I remain convinced that without facing our past, without knowing our history, we will not be in a position to adequately solve our problems. We will not be at peace with ourselves.”
“Those who bury their past,” she cautioned, “build their future on unstable ground. Only by facing our own history can we lay a foundation that won’t tremble.”
On the other hand, Ethiopia’s diplomatic journey is challenged by the risk of relying too heavily on past achievements instead of making the necessary efforts to excel today.
While sharing her experience and providing advice to aspiring Ethiopian diplomats in a consultative forum organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, President Sahlework once said, “Yes, our place in history is highly valued and elevates our standing on the world stage. However, laurels alone are insufficient. We must actively nurture relationships and invest effort in their continued cultivation.”
It is no secret that Ethiopia’s diplomacy has faced challenges from time to time, particularly in the past few years.
The Elcano Global Presence Index, a metric that quantifies and ranks a nation’s “external projection” and global influence, provides a measure of Ethiopia’s international clout. Unfortunately, the picture isn’t pretty for Ethiopia.
Its score plummeted from a respectable 62 in 2015 to a meager 36 in 2021, revealing a stark decline in just six years. This drop was further amplified by instability, with a 20-point plunge from 2020 to 2021 alone.
To put this in perspective, the top performers – the US and China – boast scores of 3,241 and 1,364, respectively, while the bottom of the barrel, Haiti and Somalia, languish at 0.78 and 0.42.
Ethiopia’s dismal performance is further underscored by its absence from most rankings in the “Global Diplomacy Index.” When it does appear, it firmly sits among the underperformers.
This sharp decline raises several questions about the effectiveness of Ethiopia’s diplomatic efforts. It is a clear indication that the nation’s historical achievements have not translated into contemporary success on the global stage.
In fact, it has been a while since Ethiopia’s diplomacy started suffering. The appointment of ambassadors is mostly politicized and marred by criteria that are not merit based, overlooking critical needs for mission-focused diplomats who can effectively advance a nation’s interests in individual host countries. The price is paid in missed opportunities and weakened relationships
In addition, particularly in the last six years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its 157 embassies and 43 consulates, seems to be taking a less prominent role in international relations, with some key engagements being handled directly by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Internal conflicts are behind the hardships faced by the country’s international relations, given that foreign diplomacy is, in one way or another, a reflection of internal situations.
“The foreign policy of a nation is a reflection of its internal situation. Our nation’s standing in the world rises and falls with the strength of our own bonds. We cannot forge a brighter future on the international stage while killing one another. Progress at home paves the way for progress abroad,” noted Sahlework.
The crisis in Ethiopian diplomatic engagement is also evident in certain incidents that speak volumes about the government’s approach to maintaining a good diplomatic position.
Two recent events stand out in this regard.
Last month, a troubling incident unfolded in Addis Ababa involving the detention and alleged assault of a senior official from the African Development Bank (AfDB)—a crucial financial partner for Ethiopia. Ethiopia holds the distinction of being a founding member and shareholder of the AfDB, an institution that has played a pivotal role in the country’s development efforts.
This incident serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of diplomatic relationships and the importance of upholding international norms. It is a test for Ethiopia, not just in terms of addressing this specific case with transparency and accountability, but also in rebuilding trust with the AfDB and the international community.
In light of this, the bank’s president, Akinwumi Adesina (PhD), who is regarded as a good friend and advocate for Ethiopia, had previously announced the withdrawal of all international staff from Addis Ababa.
The incident, which was eventually resolved, left a lasting negative impact on Addis Ababa, a city proud to host numerous continental and international organizations, including the African Union (AU), which some have expressed an interest in relocating.
Ethiopia, a nation with a rich history and a reputation for upholding diplomatic protocols, now finds itself grappling with a harsh reality. Accusations of violating the Vienna Convention, a fundamental principle of international diplomacy, have tarnished the country’s image and diminished its political influence on the global stage
The alleged mistreatment of a senior international official, widely regarded as a “disgracefully bad” incident, has sparked widespread condemnation and raised doubts about Ethiopia’s commitment to international norms.
Embassies such as those of the US, UK, Canada, and others swiftly expressed their disappointment, while the Ethiopian government remained silent, exacerbating the situation further.
Girum highlights the tendency to silently sweep mistakes under the rug, emphasizing the need to embrace a culture of learning from those mistakes.
Tekalign Gedamu, a respected senior banker who previously served as both a Minister of Planning under Emperor Haile-Selassie I and later as an official at the African Development Bank, stepped forward to offer a heartfelt apology for the wrongdoing by the government.
“At the risk of sounding presumptuous,” reads his letter to the AfDB president, “allow me to close by expressing my belief that, before long, you and other like-minded officials would find a resolution to the challenge that this most unwelcome of episodes has left in its train.”
This responsible citizen, who took the initiative to save his country’s diplomatic crisis, addressed the issue with kind words. “In recent years, you have been a remarkable champion of Ethiopia. It is my hope that under your leadership, the Bank will continue with its good work, such that the ultimate beneficiaries, the people of Ethiopia, could count on your leadership“
However, such a voice from the government was notably absent.
Another significant issue that recently generated attention in diplomatic circles was the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland regarding the lease of a coastal corridor.
The deal reportedly offered Somaliland a stake in successful Ethiopian businesses, such as Ethiopian Airlines, as well as a long-awaited recognition—a highly prized possession for Somaliland. However, this recognition poses a significant diplomatic risk for Ethiopia.
While some argue that it is merely an MoU and should not be considered a major concern, Dejen Messele, an international law and legal diplomacy researcher, emphasizes that intentions matter.
Dejen found Ethiopia’s recent move striking, a departure from its established reputation for adherence to disciplined diplomatic protocol. He pointed to Ethiopia’s history of championing the rights of others on the international stage as evidence of this shift.”
He notes, “Ethiopia has historically championed the rights of others. one good example is Ethiopia alongside Liberia, the two never colonized nations of Africa, took the initiative to seriously challenge the then Apartheid administration of South Africa in favor of the then Southwest Africa in the mid 1990s. Ethiopia is historically known for fostering positive relations. Recent actions seem to contradict its well-established image as a champion of diplomacy. “
Speaking anonymously, an expert in international relations shared his perspective with The Reporter, asserting that this move represents a “reckless foreign policy shift conducted without thorough research, resulting in a miscalculation of the gains and losses in the country’s national interest.”
The move, according to the expert, has unnecessarily risked its diplomatic reputation.
Dejene shares these concerns.
He believes that Ethiopia’s genuine quest for access to the sea could be achieved through lawful procedures. He sees possibilities for the nation to secure access to the sea legally. However, he laments that the “this move undertaken by the government has severely affected Ethiopia’s future requests, as it portrays the nation as an aggressor on the international stage.”
It is important to recognize that countries and international institutions are not oblivious to Somaliland’s self-administration over the past three decades and its existing bilateral ties. However, the complexities of the global political landscape and the potential disruption to the existing geopolitical order are key factors contributing to the hesitancy of many countries and institutions, including superpowers and organizations like the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU), to grant Somaliland the recognition it has long sought.
In contrast to formal embassies, many countries maintain “liaison offices” in Somaliland, engaging in diplomatic activities similar to those conducted with recognized countries around the world.
Girum explains that these offices function almost entirely like embassies and consulates, with the only difference being the official designation. “It’s primarily a matter of formality,” he clarifies, “as they operate fully even without the embassy label.”
However, Ethiopia failed to navigate this diplomatic landscape effectively, unlike other countries that maintain diplomatic correctness for appearances.
Dejen finds the government’s decision perplexing and something that Ethiopia cannot afford.
While some concerns have been raised, particularly from Egypt and the Arab League, Girum believes that the current pressure on Ethiopia is not overwhelming.
He strongly advises against retreating or reversing course, advocating for a proactive and assertive approach on the diplomatic front. “Once you’ve grabbed the tiger’s tail,” he warns, “letting go isn’t optional.”
Ethiopia’s bilateral relations with its neighbors, except for a few, remain problematic.
Sudan’s invasion of a significant portion of land in Ethiopia’s sovereign territory continues to strain relations. The relationship with Asmara was also strained following the 2022 Pretoria agreement. Signals indicate difficulties with other neighboring countries as well.
Ethiopia’s global image has been overshadowed by recent diplomatic challenges.
Experts and citizens alike recognize the reality that Ethiopia’s diplomatic strength has diminished, leaving the nation more vulnerable than ever before.
Ambassador Girum observes, “Some of those who threaten us now wouldn’t have dared years ago.” The reasons for this weakened position are multifaceted, involving both internal and external factors.
Amidst internal conflicts, ethnic tensions, severe drought, and mounting external debt, Ethiopia must navigate turbulent diplomatic waters. Effective management of international relations has become even more critical in the face of these pressures.
President Sahelework acknowledges the gravity of the situation, emphasizing the need for well-calculated responses.
“Our diplomatic efforts must adapt to the times,” she said calling on stakeholders. “These are no ordinary circumstances. They demand greater exertion, and we must be prepared to rise to the challenge. Remember, relationships, require constant cultivation to flourish.”