Seven Things the New Ethiopian Ambassador Should Know About the United States

By The Strathink Editorial Team

  1. The United States is undergoing a crisis. This poses both challenges and opportunities for diplomacy.

These are not ordinary times in the United States. The upending of the status quo in American politics with the election of Donald Trump has exposed the cracks in its democratic foundation. The U.S. Congress is polarized and civil society is polarized. This means both opportunities and challenges for conducting diplomacy.

Overall, the domestic agenda is overpowering the foreign policy agenda. The President has not appointed many of the Assistant Secretaries of State, who craft and implement foreign policy. There is an astonishing lack of leadership at the highest levels of government. There is no coherent foreign policy on China, Russia, Africa or the Middle East. The State Department has no guidance from the administration on policy because Assistant Secretary of State positions—where policy is crafted—are vacant.

The administration has not appointed an Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. The odds on favorite is Dr. Peter Pham from the Atlantic Council. Dr. Pham is generally positive towards Ethiopia. He recognizes the critical role Ethiopia plays in the region as an anchor state in the Horn. Moreover, he sees Ethiopia as moving forward in democracy and economic growth, acknowledging the challenges of the country in eradicating poverty and institutionalizing a democratic system in a very rough neighborhood. The challenge is usually at the mid-level of the State Department. Desk officers tend to engage more with the large and vocal Ethiopian diaspora in the Washington, DC area.

In the legislature, Congressman Chris Smith and his allies continue to push punitive legislation against Ethiopia. However, there was a noticeable shift in tone with an amendment added to HR 128. The House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committees are focusing on counterterrorism—an opportunity for Ambassador Kassa to make friends.

The current polarization of the two parties requires a two-pronged approach to the current Congress. Although it is always a best practice to engage both parties, it is especially important today when the longstanding tradition of bipartisan support for U.S. national interests has been sacrificed to party loyalty.

The Pentagon continues to maintain support for the Ethiopian government through its partnership on counterterrorism. However, Congress controls the budget and Ambassador Kassa will need to target the appropriations committee, the intelligence committee and the armed services committee into his congressional strategy.

The takeaway message here is that it will serve Ambassador Kassa well to develop a deep and nuanced understanding of the American political system and the context within which it is operating today.

  1. The power of social media in the United States is incontrovertible. Social media can be the Ambassador’s best friend or worst enemy.

For some, social media is their downfall. Witness the negative role Twitter plays for President Trump. Unable to control himself, the President tweets messages that consistently put him at odds with his government and compromises his own integrity—and even the Presidency.

Social media has taken over public discourse.

The technology is simple. It is the message that is challenging. In order to use social media as an effective tool of diplomacy, the new Ambassador needs to think carefully about the kinds of messages he needs to promote that appeals to broad constituencies in the United States—the U.S. government, the foreign policy community, the military, the media, the broader American public and the Ethiopian diaspora.

Content-driven social media can tell Ethiopia’s story to different audiences. Content-driven social media can make a real difference in shifting America’s perception. It needs to be carefully crafted, nuanced and directed at the right audience. It is not a job for amateurs.

  1. The Ethiopian Embassy has made a mistake in choosing its lobby firm. The FBI’s Special Counsel investigating the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with the Russian government, particularly former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, has subpoenaed SGR. It is time to cut ties.

The Ethiopian government has enough problems with its image without associating itself with Michael Flynn. The former National Security Advisor is facing prison time for a number of serious federal offenses—colluding with a foreign government to influence an election being the most significant of these.

Michael Flynn’s lobbying firm, Intel Group, hired SGR to, on paper, “promote a good business climate in Turkey.” This is the same deliverable spelled out in the contract signed with the Ethiopian Embassy. The real reason SGR was hired was to “raise concerns” to the US about Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric currently living in exile in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan has blamed for mounting a failed coup against his government and fomenting dissent within Turkey. SGR was working with a Dutch company, also hired by Michael Flynn, linked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There are many, many reputable lobby firms in Washington, DC that can work with the Embassy. SGR has spoiled its name in Washington, DC by associating with Michael Flynn and concealing the real work it was doing against the Turkish people. It is time to find a new lobby firm.

  1. There are powerful American constituencies that can support Ethiopia, particularly with the U.S. Congress and Administration.

Although the Ethiopian diaspora is an important constituency, there are other constituencies in the United States that are equally important. The Ethiopian embassy has a tendency to focus on the diaspora community. However, these efforts too often eclipse building constituencies with other segments of American society.

A Congressional strategy is just a piece a paper without the support of various interest groups to make their voices heard with Members of Congress. The two most natural American constituencies on which to build a base are the African American and Jewish communities. From 2006-2010, under Ambassador Samuel Assefa, the Ethiopian Embassy developed close relations with interests groups representing African and Jewish Americans. These interest groups were able to promote Ethiopian interests within the Congress, Administration and Defense Department, using its large and powerful membership as well as its considerable funding resources.

The takeaway message for Ambassador Kassa is to take the time to cultivate relationships with U.S. constituencies that can advance Ethiopian interests in the United States.

  1. The U.S. media is not friendly towards the Government of Ethiopia.

Ethiopian contemporary history and politics is difficult to understand by even scholars. Journalists, driven by deadlines and the quest for sensational news depend on a quick read and a few willing sources, including other journalists, to construct a story that will sell to their editor. There is little space for nuance or ambiguity. Hence, the Prime Minister,is characterized as shrewd, wily and thoroughly repressive. The Ethiopian people are characterized as “noble” in their suffering, both from an oppressive government and hunger. “Rebels”, such as the OLF and ONLF, are characterized as “freedom fighters” struggling against an ethnically monolithic authoritarian state.

Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times exemplifies this lazy approach to journalism. It would behoove the new Ambassador to read the reports written by Mr. Gettleman to get a sense of how the media thinks and reports on Ethiopian politics.

Changing the media paradigm on Ethiopia is not easy. There are many factors working against a shift in perception, not the least of which is the communications skills of the Ethiopian government. However, the takeaway for the Ambassador is that establishing an open and transparent relationship with a few key media figures would do a great deal to change the conversation about Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a wonderful story to tell. However, the government is a very poor storyteller. Ambassador Kassa can change Ethiopia’s narrative by building a good relationship with the press.

  1. Think tanks play a powerful role in influencing U.S. policy.

Foreign policy in the United States, until recently, has been driven by the intellectual pursuit of what is best for the national interest. Policy, when not purely political, has been driven by evidence-based research conducted by some of the finest scholars in the country, along with a revolving door of former and future government policymakers. Think tanks are where views are shaped and policy is made.

Panels on Ethiopian issues rise up periodically at think dates such as the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the Wilson Center. The panels are invariably one-sided with representatives of Ethiopia’s many opposition groups and their American allies. Rarely is a perspective reflecting the Ethiopian government on that panel—rarely.

The takeaway here is that think tanks cannot be ignored. The ambassador and his diplomats should develop and nurture relationships with academics and researchers to add a new voice to the debate—the voice of the Ethiopian government. There should be no panel discussion on Ethiopia without the participation of the Ambassador or a senior diplomat. There should be no panel on Ethiopia without diplomats in the audience to answer questions about Ethiopian issues.

  1. The NGO community in the U.S. is well organized and exerts a great deal of influence on U.S. policymakers.

Ethiopia has long had a love-hate relationship with international NGOs operating in Ethiopia. There are many good reasons to explain the negative relationship. For many years in many places, international NGOs have played an outsized role in the developing world—sometimes operating as kingdoms unto themselves, not answering to the host country government and making their own rules.

However, for the time being, NGOs are there to stay and many partner with the government to serve the Ethiopian people in a number of critical sectors—health, education, and food security. Most U.S.-based NGOs are headquartered in Washington, D.C. and there are opportunities to engage them in a meaningful way.

Conclusion

Washington, DC is not an easy assignment, particularly for a new Ambassador. Managing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, managing the Embassy, and conducting public diplomacy in a whole new environment has innumerable challenges—but the payoff is enormous. Ethiopia needs a new narrative in the United States that reflects the reality of the country—not the fairy tale Ethiopia invented by the diaspora opposition and perpetrated by the media.

The road to success, however, is paved by a more active and transparent engagement by the Ambassador and diplomatic staff. In a city of 177 embassies during a time of political crisis on America’s domestic front, success depends on the political imagination of the new Ambassador and his ability to re-shape the narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Responses to “Seven Things the New Ethiopian Ambassador Should Know About the United States”

  1. Michael Brunny says:

    The best advice to be offered for the new ambassador must come from Ex-ambassadors of Ethiopia which will be based on experience only. Other advises are based simply on theory.

  2. Tesfu says:

    Its well written advise i also like to suport the above comment the best advise can came directly from ambassader girma biru.

  3. dagmawi says:

    The new ambassador should focus on bringing investment from the US. The poisnes diasporas are to divide and weak to bring any meaningful change to the country and the article is well researched,analyzed and informative keep up the good work.

  4. Deraw says:

    Great!
    Hopefully, the new Ambassador Dr. Kassa knows more than this and of course the pints are relevant and would be adapted by him.

  5. Bulcha says:

    Our new Ambassador Kassa Teklebrhan, is well experience in all materess because he was engaged in all matters of challeng in his lifetime starting from youth upto now. So he could lead also the nation in every corner. Americans are Americans, no more change in their ideolgy they have commenly for their own benefit.

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