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Optimizing U.S. Strategic Policy: A Regional Approach to Ethiopia – The Strategy Bridge

Andrew Lund and Will Turner
The world order that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union is fading. The economic, political, and security interests of the United States are being challenged globally. Between the war in Ukraine, heightened tensions in the South China Sea, hostile rhetoric and behavior from North Korea and Iran, and a “wildfire of terrorism” in Africa, policy development and resource management have become a bewildering exercise.[1] Within such a complex environment, the U.S. risks being caught off-guard by regions lower in policy priority that hold enormous potential to increase global instability.
Given this global context, the Horn of Africa’s chronic cycles of violent conflict and drought remain an enduring challenge to U.S. unilateral engagement. Government policies and military interventions confronting these related issues are further constrained by the larger regional humanitarian crisis. The U.S. government’s approach to the unresolved conflict and weaponization of hunger in Ethiopia highlights these dilemmas, frustrating interventions rather than resolving them. Nonetheless, the U.S. is uniquely postured to leverage its diplomatic and humanitarian mechanisms.
The opportunity exists in Ethiopia for the U.S. to change how it approaches foreign aid, conducts bilateral relationships, and facilitates regional security roles in Africa. U.S. policy should focus on enhancing the capacity of African-led regional bodies to moderate and reconcile closely linked political, economic, and security issues that often degenerate into humanitarian crises. A regional approach in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa can help to protect U.S. interests from hurried unilateralism and excessive burdens on limited national resources, if stewarded effectively. Ethiopia is a potential model and case study for the viability of regionally-led solutions to threats against U.S. interests abroad. 
The ongoing civil war between forces associated with the Ethiopian government, including the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), and those aligned with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has left approximately seven million people in the northern highland regions of Tigray, Afar, and Amhara in critical need of life-saving food aid.[2] A November 2021 statement from USAID assesses that 5.2 million people in Tigray alone are in need of assistance, with up to 900,000 facing “famine-like conditions.”[3] In January 2022, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network assessed much of the northern highland regions as Phase 4 (Emergency), defined as “very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality,” and further suggested that Tigray may be experiencing worse outcomes.[4] A de facto government blockade of Tigray, and a corresponding fuel shortage, severely limit food, medical, and other humanitarian deliveries.[5] Both sides of the civil war, including Eritrean forces operating in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s forces, are accused of interfering with or restricting aid distribution and other human rights violations.[6] A similar, devastating combination of drought and the weaponization of hunger by the Ethiopian government occurred from 1983-1985. During this period, 2.5 million people were displaced from their homes, 7.9 million suffered from starvation, and at least 600,000 perished.[7]U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock noted of the current situation in Ethiopia: “There’s not just an attempt to starve six million people but an attempt to cover up what’s going on.”[8] The Ethiopian government impedes aid delivery into Tigray, along with banking, telecommunication, and electricity services.[9] Persistent government rhetoric against aid workers and the denial of food security assessments compound these challenges.[10] Experts note that the Ethiopian regime is deeply suspicious of foreign interference because of its extensive cultural hagiography and successful resistance to historical Western imperialism.[11] These tendencies are manifesting in the regime’s resistance to outside influence and its propensity towards continued conflict with Tigray and others.[12]
USAID food aid delivery in Ethiopia (USAID)
Periods of drought are common to Ethiopia and the region. However, USAID notes that the driest conditions in four decades currently affect the Horn of Africa and that it is providing more than $39 million in FY22 in additional humanitarian aid to address the problem.[13] In Ethiopia alone, the U.S. government provided more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid since the beginning of FY21.[14] Despite this influx of financial assistance, the U.N. estimates a current shortfall of $1.2 billion for humanitarian response across the country.[15] This humanitarian crisis persists against a backdrop of a civil war characterized by atrocities that may constitute genocide. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “inflammatory rhetoric and ethnic profiling are tearing apart the social fabric of the country.”[16]
The current U.S. policy—using the carrot and stick at the same time—is counter-productive and has alienated the Ethiopian government.[17] Wielding the humanitarian aid “carrot” in tandem with the “stick” of targeted sanctions against Eritrean and Ethiopian leadership has only exacerbated the problems in Ethiopia, where resistance to external influence is a matter of historic and cultural pride.[18] Humanitarian assistance has been weaponized by the regime, which is disrupting and degrading attempts at both analysis and further program delivery by aid agencies.[19]
Ethiopia’s deteriorating humanitarian conditions destabilize a key U.S. regional security partner and undermine decades of U.S. investments in the country’s development. Ethiopia is the largest recipient of U.S. humanitarian assistance in the world, with the United States being Ethiopia’s top humanitarian aid donor.[20] Prior to the eruption of violence, the U.S. also looked to Ethiopia as a regional partner in promoting democracy. A 2020 Afrobarometer survey of 2,400 Ethiopian citizens noted that nearly 90% preferred democracy to any other form of government.[21] Although development aid and democracy programs are not subject to the current sanctions, the conflict has disrupted several planned or previously active pedestal trade initiatives and bilateral partnerships.[22]
Ethiopian soldiers deploy as members of AMISOM (AMISOM)
While U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa is less than one per cent of all U.S. trade in goods, Ethiopia’s ties with U.S.-allied Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states diversifies economic competition on the continent, providing a counter to Chinese commercial and political influence. A recent Eurostat report notes that the U.S. and U.A.E. import and export percentages in Africa have nearly reached parity. Ethiopia’s contributions to regional peacekeeping efforts have also facilitated U.S. security interests in Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan.[23]
Ethiopia had been one of the largest force providers to the U.S.-partnered African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) before recalling some of its troops in 2020 to support operations in Tigray, degrading AMISOM’s cohesion and effectiveness against Al-Shabab.[24] If the civil war spreads and extracts more state involvement, additional troop withdrawals may put AMISOM and its mission at risk.[25] The present conflict has already resulted in 5.8 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), and may also spill over into the porous and frequently contested borders of Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, adding additional destabilizing pressures to the Horn of Africa.[26] Increased instability in Ethiopia will also likely impact neighboring Djibouti, the location of the only permanent U.S. military installation on the continent, and a critical hub for counterterrorism operations and contingency response.[27]
Given the current lack of trust between the U.S. and Ethiopia, third parties hold the most potential. A regional approach already has momentum. The U.S. must take advantage of the progress being made through the GCC and the AU, bridging humanitarian norms and democratic initiatives to regional empowerment.[28] The GCC was integral to the 2018 peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia and has expressed growing desires for a larger diplomatic role in the region.[29] The AU’s achievements at conflict resolution are limited, but it has demonstrated nuanced political acumen in negotiating ceasefires.[30]
A ceasefire is an essential first step toward a durable political settlement. The AU’s High Representative for the Horn of Africa, Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo, and the GCC should be empowered to negotiate accordingly.[31] A true regional solution could be reinforced through encouraging the GCC to meet aid shortfalls and deepen investment into the Horn of Africa. The U.S. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Ambassador David Satterfield, should rely on these regional partners to craft solutions amenable to our interests instead of just steering incentives. Ideally, priority would be given to agricultural investments that cultivate long-term economic resilience to the shocks of repeated droughts.[32] Ending the conflict is a priority that underlies Ethiopia’s recent removal from African Growth and Opportunity Act trade preferences and the Millennium Challenge Corporation threshold program. For Ethiopia, readmittance to those programs is rightfully contingent upon negotiations and other factors. However, long-term U.S. policy must also strengthen the capacity of African-led regional bodies, such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), to reduce dependence on emergency aid. Experts assess that up to 30 million people can be lifted out of extreme poverty by 2035 through the AfCFTA alone.[33] These institutions not only offer collective economic incentives, but can also act as a lever for good governance.
In Ethiopia the U.S. can create a new pattern of U.S.-African engagement through empowering regional actors—a necessity when considering the increased breadth and magnitude of threats to U.S. global interests. A regional approach for policy in Africa stands in contrast to U.S. unilateral interventions on the continent. When conducted alone, these same interventions often neglect nuance, induce unintended responses, and incur perpetual costs. Internal conflicts often involve and destabilize the surrounding region, so any effective strategy towards resolving the conflict will encompass a balanced regional solution. Ethiopia provides a unique opportunity to strengthen and encourage regional institutions to act as arbiters in parallel with U.S. aims and strategic interests. Ultimately, a regional approach gives policymakers greater global flexibility to respond to the persistent challenges threatening U.S. interests in Africa while avoiding the pitfalls of unilateral engagement.
Andrew Lund and Will Turner are active-duty U.S. Army officers and graduate students at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The authors’ views do not reflect the position of Johns Hopkins SAIS, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
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Header Image: The flags of Ethiopia and the United States (Getty)
[1] Mosa’ab Elshamy, “Top US General in Africa: ‘Wildfire of Terrorism’ on March Here,” Associated Press via MilitaryTimes, June 19, 2021,
[2] USAID, “On One Year of Conflict in Northern Ethiopia: Statement by Administrator Samantha Power” (USAID, November 4, 2021),
[3] USAID. On One Year of Conflict in Northern Ethiopia: Statement by Administrator Samantha Power
[4] FEWS, “Deyr 2022 Rains End with Marked Deficits, Contributing, Alongside Conflict in the North, to High Needs” (Famine Early Warning System Network, January 2022),
[5] USAID, “On One Year of Conflict in Northern Ethiopia: Statement by Administrator Samantha Power.”
[6] USAID, “On One Year of Conflict in Northern Ethiopia: Statement by Administrator Samantha Power
[7] Gill, Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid, 99
[8] Alex de Waal, “Tigray Is Starving, It Is Time for the UN to Act,” Al Jazeera, 04NOV2021,
[9] Lauren Ploch Blanchard, “Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict” (Congressional Research Service, September 8, 2021), 12.
[10] Blanchard, Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict, 13.
[11] International Crisis Group, “S3 Episode 3: Ethiopia’s Historic Turning Point,” The Horn, 17NOV21.
[12] Blanchard, “Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict, 22–23.
[13] USAID, “USAID Providing More than $39 Million in Humanitarian Assistance to Respond to Drought in Ethiopia,” February 14, 2022,
[14] USAID. “USAID Providing More than $39 Million in Humanitarian Assistance to Respond to Drought in Ethiopia”
[15] Peter Mwai, “Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis: What’s Stopping Aid Getting In?,” 14JAN22,
[16] Blanchard, Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict, 1.
[17] Alex de Waal and Rakiya Omaar, “Can Military Intervention Be ‘Humanitarian’?” MER187,
[18] Blanchard, Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict, ii, 23.
[19] The New Humanitarian, “The Politicisation of Aid in Ethiopia,” Rethinking Humanitarianism Podcast, 10NOV21.
[20] Blanchard, Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict, 25.
[21] Mulu Teka, “Afrobarometer Round 8: Survey in Ethiopia, 2020” (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Afrobarometer, May 2020).
[22] Blanchard, “Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict,” 8.
[23] Blanchard, Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict, 20.
[24] Blanchard, “Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict;” Vanda Felbab-Brown, “What Ethiopia’s Crisis Means for Somalia,” Brookings Institution (blog), November 20, 2020,
[25] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “What Ethiopia’s Crisis Means for Somalia,” Brookings Institution (blog), November 20, 2020,
[26] European Union, “Ethiopia: Factsheet” (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, February 14, 2022),
[27] AFRICOM, “AFRICOM: Camp Lemonnier,” AFRICOM: Camp Lemonnier (blog), accessed February 16, 2022,
[28] Blanchard, Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict, 22–23.
[29] Toddman, The Gulf Scramble: GCC States’ Foreign Policy Laboratory, 1.
[30] Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (Pantheon Books, 2010), 38–39.
[31] Toddman, The Gulf Scramble: GCC States’ Foreign Policy Laboratory, 2.
[32] Blanchard, Ethiopia’s Transition and the Tigray Conflict, 20.
[33] Caroline Kende-Robb, “6 Reasons Why Africa’s New Free Trade Area Is a Global Game Changer,” World Economic Forum, 09FEB2021,
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