By Aesop

Nowadays, Tigreans are forced to think globally in order to avert a transnationally orchestrated extinction/genocidal campaign launched against them. Circumstances oblige Tigreans to quickly grasp the dynamics of foreign policy decision making process global actors undergo concerning Tigrai. Many say advanced countries promote their national interest. I call this a ‘common-sense’ level of understanding anyone can utter, not decision makers. It is not enough to assert countries promote national interest abroad and remain content.

One must ask how and why these countries formulate their policies. Afterall, administrations in advanced countries do really break down “national interest” into concrete elements, in turn, translated into actionable programs. And they have institutions manned with high caliber professionals trained and matured in this craft. I will drop my two cents on this realm. Here, I will: 1) explore how this world is ordered; 2) try to make sense of how advanced countries make foreign policy decisions, and 3) the identify the four/five distinct US foreign policy traditions in history.

First, foreign policy decisions are made by countries cued/positioned in a world order tallied by their power index (primarily military and economic might). So, their assessment of this global world order, where they really stand, and how they wish to act in this order affects their decisions. It is also worthy of note that not all great powers are the same. The so called “advanced or great powers” are divided into super and middle powers. The best analogy to understand this order is to think of the court system. The court system has three tiers: the supreme, the federal, and the local courts.

Superpowers, in this case the US and, to some extent, Russia and China, are like supreme court judges. They have limitless outreach and operational autonomy, hence global power.  The middle powers, on the other hand, are often aligned beneath one superpower. For example, in the real world, the US Army and Navy protects European (Germany, Poland, etc.) and East Asian (Japan, South Korea, etc.) powers from Russia and China respectively. The US presence in these countries (military bases) also prevents these middle powers from fighting each other. Hence, these middle powers (Germany, Japan, Canada, UK, France, Scandinavians, etc.) seek to find a niche to influence global affairs. This niche, in case of Western middle powers, is the use of soft power, i.e., participating in development and peacebuilding projects superpowers overlook. Other non-Western middle powers, like Israel, Turkey, Iran, the Gulf countries; on the other hand, also resort to the use of force to influence global affairs they suspect the US approves or won’t disapprove, treading carefully lest they invite US backlash as witnessed in the Suez Crisis. Finally, we have the majority of states, members of the UN General Assembly, led by those receiving aid and bodyguards from great powers. We live in a three-tiered pecking order akin to Organski’s Power Transition Theory.

Now, Tigrai is dealing with a three storied ordered. The role of superpowers, especially, the US is too obvious to discuss here- although there is one aspect worth reflecting (US foreign policy traditions). Russia’s entanglement with Eritrea and China’s drone contribution (including operators) to Ethiopia is also well known. What is confusing here is the role of middle powers. The role of middle powers in Tigrai’s genocidal campaign is bewildering.

When we think about Tigrai we observe Western middle powers trying to squash the conflict with little bloodshed. By contrast, we note middle powers in the middle east trying their best to subdue Tigrai by aiding and abating its enemies. What is most interesting here is one hardly notices these middle powers confronting each other. None of them seem to accuse each other of meddling in the peace or war effort pertaining Tigrai. Why is EU not condemning Turkey? Why is Britain quiet about UAE? Or, vice versa??  These parallel actions draw one to a conclusion that these middle powers are probably playing “good cop, bad cop” game detectives employ against crime suspects. Afterall, the diplomatic and ammunition (including drone supply) based initiatives ended up claiming Tigreans more than anyone else in the conflict. This leads one to ask whether the middle powers are interested in ending the conflict ASAP, i.e., whichever means leads to quiet fast? One wonders whether these middle powers pursuing a swift means regardless of the means (moral/legal grounds)? Browsing Robert Cooper’s: The New Liberal Imperialism, Canada’s Lloyd Axworthy’s Navigating a New World, and Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoglu’s Strategic Depth . all top diplomats, suggests ambition. Perhaps, these middle powers are competing for influence in ending the conflict, regardless of its moral and legal ramifications. This middle power ambition, for Tigrai, is unacceptable because Tigreans want to see another day. Tigrai must show the world, whether it likes it or not, that it intends to and will survive.

Second, it is necessary to explore how advanced countries craft and implement their respective foreign policies on the ground. This is more complicated quest that begs a systematic approach. Perhaps, the best way is: a) to classify world order; b) national instruments, and c) political psychology/leadership personality. The kind of world/context we live in, the interaction among bureaucracies within great powers, and the personality of the top leader/s are key ingredients mixing up foreign policy decisions. If we are checking political psychology traits to see if we are dealing with a Trump or a Biden personality, we are in the domain of political psychology. One useful trait in political, for example, is cognitive complexity. It checks whether the key leader sees a problem as good/bad (white/black) or complicated (gray). The second tier is:  for example, is the administration principally dominated by the Vice President/Defense (e.g. Bush’s Cheney/Rumsfeld), by the State Department (e.g. Obama’s Kerry), or by the intelligence establishment (e.g. Trump’s Pompeo)? This is the realm of bureaucracy analysis masterfully depicted in Graham Alison’s Essence of Decision.

By the way, the most successful bureaucratic institution (defense, diplomacy, or intelligence) that will dominate decisions will be the one that will bring more results. For example, depending on whether Tigrai listens to threats, blackmail, or reason more will dictate which branch will have greater sway in decision making. If Tigrai can be appeased with diplomatic talks than threats, the diplomatic bureaucracy will be heard at home; if it listens to threats it will be others who will bring results, hence dominate.

Third, is all of this drama happening in a bipolar (e.g. Cold War), unipolar (e.g. US in the 1990s), or a multipolar (e.g. 21st Century) world. This is the international relations (from E.H Carr/Morgenthau/esp. Waltz’s (Man, State, and War) realism (James Burnham’s Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedoms- in depth intellectual odyssey on realism) to Nye/Keohane’s liberalism). We are no longer living in a 1991 unipolar world where the US dominates the globe. There are powerful nations challenging American clout. Now that we are talking international relations here, it is important to realize that realism and liberalism are not the only schools of international relations out there. Intellectuals on the side of poor people such as Marxist analyses (e.g. Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Nkrumah’s Neocolonialism: the Highest Stage of Imperialism, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa), World System by E. Wallerstein, and W.E. Du Bois’s The World and Africa: Color and Democracy provide alternative perspectives on international relations intended to enlighten the downtrodden.

All of the above factors (leadership psychology, bureaucratic turf battle, and international relations schools) mix up in explaining the foreign policy decision making in advanced countries. Of course, we must include cognitive biases in decisions that Trevesky and Kahneman masterfully penned in Thinking Fast and Slow in order to accommodate mistakes and go over Taleb’s Skin in the Game to understand why decision makers readily pass verdict on stuff that does not affect them personally. Bearing all of this in mind, it is, therefore, very important for Tigrai’s leaders to avoid making hasty generalizations (including mixing up geopolitics and military strategy with foreign policy) and adopt the flexibility to zoom in and out of the subject like a helicopter.

Third, deciphering foreign policy decisions is a daunting task. The good news is historians of foreign policy have managed to derive traditions of US foreign policy. My go to scholar, also an authority on the subject, is Walter Russell Mead. In his book, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, Mead divided American Foreign Policy traditions into five categories: Jeffersonians (isolationists), Hamiltonians (economic nationalists), Wilsonians (idealistic internationalists), and Jacksonians (populist nationalists). After the Cold War, Mead coined, a fifth tradition, revivalists. The revivalists reject Jeffersonian isolationism and enhanced the Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, and Jacksonian perspectives. Here’s a summary of US foreign policy traditions in history.

  • Hamiltonians: forging alliance with big businesses and integration in global economy. Foreign policy examples: privatization, investment, and other neo liberal agendas.
  • Wilsonians: Spreading American cultural and governance values globally to ensure the world accepts the rule of law. Foreign policy examples: League of Nations, United Nations.
  • Jeffersonians: Avoid spreading American values and meddle in external affairs but focus on domestic affairs. Resist Wilsonians and Hamiltonians adventures. Foreign policy examples: limit foreign aid, avoid atrocities abroad, etc.
  • Jacksonians: Prioritize military strength and economic preeminence. Defeat any challenger that threatens the U.S. Foreign policy example: war against terrorism, measures against Iran and North Korea.  

In sum, circumstances have forced Tigrai to deal with global actors, including advanced countries. This is a great opportunity for Tigrai to lay foundation to establish a world class diplomatic corps in the long haul. Tigrai’s diplomats should avoid making hasty generalization (common sense conclusions) and try their best to explore the concepts/theories and history of international relations. This, combined with Tigrai’s unique circumstance, will create a world class diplomatic corps in the long haul- akin to the TDF. This, of course, requires Tigrai to avoid resorting common sense (assuming national interest/international relations/foreign policy is too obvious an area to seriously study), conduct due diligence, distinguish geopolitics (Mahan’s/US navy/whale, and Mackinder’s/China’s road & belt/elephant strategy) and military strategy (Von Calusewitz’s, L. Hart’s, Van Creveld’s expertise) from international relations (IR) field, and expelore intellectual contributions of IR scholars the world has not necessarily listened to. Doing so will enable Tigrai to effectively hack foreign policy on its counterparts and attain its just cause now and in the long run.

By aiga