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Ambassador to Ethiopia 1996-1999 Adjunct Professor, George Washington University 1 December 2010 Awramba Times: As we all know, you are a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. At that time, what was the focus of Ethio-American diplomatic relations? Is there anything new when comparing the diplomatic relationship at this time? Shinn: During my three years in Ethiopia from 1996 through 1999, there were both constant features in the relationship and an evolution in U.S. policy towards Ethiopia. The most important constant aspect of the relationship was an effort to remain a helpful development partner and to provide emergency food aid whenever it was needed. There was also a consistent effort to work closely with the Ethiopian government on crises in neighboring Sudan and Somalia. Another constant feature, from a personal point of view, was to travel throughout Ethiopia and learn as much about all regions of the country as I could. At the beginning of my assignment, there was an effort to support both local and international non-governmental organizations, encourage freedom of the press and strengthen the judiciary. To some extent, new priorities intervened. The attack by Eritrea on Badme in May 1998 significantly changed the nature of the U.S. relationship with Ethiopia. The United States decided at the beginning of the crisis to pursue a balanced policy towards both Ethiopia and Eritrea. For example, Washington ended all military training and assistance to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Washington removed the Peace Corps from both countries. Not surprisingly, U.S. policy pleased neither country as they both expected support from Washington. My position and that of my counterpart in Asmara became much more difficult. Following the al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in the summer of 1998, just months after the outbreak of conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, U.S. policy throughout the region emphasized the security of American personnel. Washington insisted on a drawdown of American personnel at the embassy. This made it more difficult to conduct relations with Ethiopia. The Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict largely consumed the bilateral dialogue until my departure from Addis Ababa in August 1999. After the outbreak of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, I decided to emphasize the HIV/AIDS question, an apolitical issue that I thought needed more attention from the United States as a partner government and from religious groups and the government of Ethiopia, which faced a growing problem. In some respects, this was the most productive part of my assignment to Ethiopia.
2 Comparing U.S. policy to Ethiopia during my time with the situation today, there are both constants and changes. The United States continues to be an important partner in Ethiopia¶s economic development and remains ready to provide emergency food aid when needed. Cooperation on conflicts in Somalia and Sudan also remain an important part of the policy agenda. The attacks on the United States in 2001 altered the foreign policy relationship with Ethiopia and other countries around the world. Cooperation on counterterrorism became a more important part of the dialogue. Regional stability also increased somewhat in importance. Although I am no longer part of the policy process, I have the impression that U.S. concerns about democratization in Ethiopia have become more important in the policy dialogue during the Obama administration. Awramba Times: The Ethiopian government is the best U.S. ally on the war against terrorism. These deep relationships in the war on terror have raised many questions. How do you evaluate the partnership between the U.S. and Ethiopia in the fight against terrorism? Shinn: Ethiopia is a strong U.S. ally in the effort to counter extremism but I would not agree that it is the ³best´ ally. There are other candidates for that title in Europe and perhaps even a few in Africa. Putting aside who is the ³best´ ally, however, the point of your question seems to suggest that the heavy U.S. emphasis on countering extremism in the region impacted other aspects of the Ethio-American relationship. I agree with that suggestion. There are numerous parts to the U.S-Ethiopian relationship. Washington looks at all of the policy issues as part of a package. It is impossible to isolate one part of the package, for example a U.S. desire for a stronger and freer private press in Ethiopia, and the support of the Ethiopian government in countering extremism in the region and promoting political stability. Conducting foreign policy is always a balancing act. In addition, the United States is not the only major international player in Ethiopia. Other countries and organizations such as the United Nations, African Union, Ethiopia¶s neighbors, European Union, China, Russia, just to name a few, impact the bilateral interaction between the United States and Ethiopia. No country or organization operates in a vacuum in its bilateral relationship with Ethiopia or any other country. Awramba Times: Many people believe that the Ethiopian government is violating human rights and press freedom in Ethiopia. What¶s your take on this issue and how much are you concerned? Shinn: Ethiopia has a long way to go in improving its human rights record and increasing press freedom before they reach an acceptable level. On the positive side, I am pleased that it is possible for papers such as Awramba Times to exist. Although the press is much freer in countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, at least Ethiopia allows newspapers that do not reflect the positions of the government. This is more than I can say for at least one of Ethiopia¶s neighbors.
3 Having said that, I am disappointed there has not been more positive movement on press freedom in Ethiopia since the period that I was ambassador to Ethiopia. The situation seems to be about the same and in some respects has moved backwards. It is my understanding, for example, that there is no opposition paper today published in Afan Oromo. There were several in the late 1990s. Some of the opposition press during that period was neither professional nor responsible. I assume that is not the situation today. Awramba Times: Many people participated in the 2005 election and expected that there was a possibility to change a government through democratic ways. However, certain groups believed that democracy is a process and has taken hundreds of years in America. Hence, it may even take more or the same in Ethiopia. What¶s your comment on this topic? Shinn: Democracy does take time to develop and it is a constantly evolving process to accommodate changing times. It does not, however, take hundreds of years to accept and implement the basic concepts such as free and fair elections, a responsible and strong private press, an independent judiciary, an active civil society and checks and balances on governance. No country, including the United States, has a monopoly on the best way to create democratic governance. To some extent, every country must adapt democracy to its own situation. But I believe it is hard to dismiss the advantages to society of the basic precepts of democracy, and it is just wrong to suggest that it takes hundreds of years to install them. Awramba Times: How do you describe Prime Minister Meles Zenawi? Shinn: He is exceptionally intelligent and reads widely, especially on economic issues. He can be a good listener. He marshals his own arguments clearly and effectively. He does not mince words when he is angry or disagrees with your position. He means what he says and says what he means. His command of colloquial English, even in the late 1990s, was amazing and it has improved over time. Elements of his guerrilla experience in the bush remain to the present day. He is tenacious and remains acutely conscious of security. Perhaps this latter concern has prevented him from travelling more frequently and widely around Ethiopia. He holds information closely and puts a premium on secrecy, which I concluded was a characteristic of highland Ethiopian society generally. Awramba Times: If you were to go back to your previous position as ambassador to Ethiopia, what do you think would be the best way to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Ethiopia? Shinn: Fortunately, no one needs to be concerned about my return to Ethiopia as ambassador. For the sake of discussion, however, I think the most important consideration is the need to move beyond the day-to-day and month-to-month issues that both countries must address. The United States should focus increasingly on the long-term nature of the ties. Where do the United States and Ethiopia see the relationship ten or twenty years from now and what do they want it to look
4 like? I would then work back from that point and try to figure out how both sides can get there. The United States is not very good about looking ahead ten to twenty years. Part of the problem is that we operate on the basis of four-year election cycles. Next, I would try to fit the Ethio-American relationship into the regional context and identify policies that not only help insure strong U.S. relations with Ethiopia but improve them throughout the region. As it is, U.S. policy is being nickel and dimed by never-ending conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, the Great Lakes region and the unresolved Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict. I must confess that it is much easier for Dr. Shinn to write this prescription with no responsibility for the outcome than it is for active duty personnel to implement it. Awramba Times: During your stay in Ethiopia as ambassador is there anything that you believe you didn¶t do right? If so, what is it and what are your regrets? Shinn: I am generally satisfied with what I did or tried to do to implement and improve the U.S.-Ethiopian relationship. Every American ambassador must act on numerous instructions from Washington. For the most part, I agreed with those instructions, but occasionally was somewhat troubled by something that came from Washington. In any event, only my superiors in Washington can judge my performance from their vantage point. I know that a few of my own actions and several instructions from Washington angered senior levels of the Ethiopian government because they told me so in unequivocal terms. This is not, however, the place to air those differences. Other actions or lack of action also irritated opposition parties and human rights activists. What would I do differently? Early during my tour in Addis Ababa I reached out to the opposition press without realizing that some elements of the press were not very responsible. I knew this effort would irritate the government, which it did, but it also had no positive effect on certain elements of the private press, which used contact with me for their own purpose and continued to be irresponsible. This experience has not, however, changed my believe in the need for a strong, professional and free private press. Nevertheless, I could have handled the situation better. Awramba Times: If you are president elect of the United States, what would be your priorities for U.S. foreign policy? Shinn: The first priority would be to take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the United States. That includes retaining a strong military, expanding the diplomatic service and building alliances with as many friendly countries as possible. The second priority would be greater emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, relying on unilateral action only as a last resort. The third priority would be a policy that underscores the need for greater tolerance in American society and a public diplomacy campaign that does the same throughout the rest of the world. The fourth priority would be greater attention to the needs of developing nations so that there is a
5 lessening of the gap between those nations that have a great deal and those that have little. Eventually, this gap, especially if it increases, will come back to haunt the developed world, including the United States. Awramba Times: Do you plan to visit Ethiopia in the near future? Shinn: I briefly visited Addis Ababa in August 2010. I don¶t have any immediate plans to return, but my international travel often takes place on short notice. In any event, I always enjoy returning to Ethiopia. Awramba Times: What can you do on your part to encourage the rule of law and press freedom in Ethiopia? Shinn: My role today is very limited. I am no longer part of the U.S. government. I can and do write about these issues in academic and policy journals and on my blog at http://davidshinn.blogspot.com. When I was in Ethiopia last August, I was disappointed to learn that I could not access my own blog. This interview with Awramba Times is one way to emphasize the importance of press freedom. Awramba Times: What are your hobbies? Shinn: I have collected postage stamps, including those of Ethiopia, since I was a teenager. In fact, this hobby encouraged an interest in world geography and eventually a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. I collect books, particularly about Africa. I have more than 1,000 books on Ethiopia alone. I regularly attend or participate in lectures and conferences around the world, usually on issues dealing with Africa. When I am in Washington, I go to the gym every other day for a resistance training program. Awramba Times: As a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, what is your message to Ethiopians and to the Ethio-American community in the United States? Shinn: As a foreigner, I am uncomfortable giving advice to the broader community inside Ethiopia. As a former member of the U.S. government, it is one thing to comment on the official relationship, but another to presume that I know what is best for 80 million people. As for the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States, I have seen in recent years a greater emphasis on promoting development and improving lives in Ethiopia and less attention to involvement in partisan politics. In my view, this has been a positive development.