Since the conclusion of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2000, the Government of Eritrea has become increasingly isolated, militarized and, many would argue, misunderstood on the world stage. A focal point for violent insecurity across the region, Eritrea is vital to the stability of the east and northeast Africa and beyond. Eritrea's relationship with the West is complicated, although it has developed relations with the United States on the latter's on-going war with terrorism. Eritrea's relations with its neighbors have been stained from a series of conflicts and disputes. On Friday, January 22, 2009, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a book discussion Eritrea's External Relations: Understanding Its Regional Role and Foreign Policy. Presented by book editor Richard Reid from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and discussant Bereket Habte Selassie, Department of African Studies, University of North Carolina and moderated by Steve McDonald, Consulting Director for the Africa Program and Leadership Project. This publication represents the first significant analysis of Eritrea's international relations and the internal and regional dynamics which lie behind them, by bringing together the insights of several international analyst and scholars.
Reid began his presentation by pointing out that what little attention Eritrea gets is mostly negative. Recently, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on the Eritrean government for their support of the Somali insurgents, the first imposed on a government since 2006. Reid discussed the Eritrean dilemma - that it is often perceived as the region's spoiler, while the sentencing to death of several dissident politicians by Ethiopia's government wins the applause of Western governments. Reid's analysis of Eritrean foreign policy is depicted in the collection of essays; his overarching argument contends that foreign policy decisions are made in the context of Eritrea's historic experience. Therefore, the conflict with the National Islamic Front of Sudan, war with Yemen, problems with Djibouti and the conflict with Ethiopia and other historic conflicts with neighboring states fundamentally influence the decisions of the Afwerki government. Moreover, Eritrea has faced internal struggles, tumultuous relations with the members of the African Union, problematic relations with the West, and a relationship with NGOs based on suspicion and poor cooperation. Reid interjected to point out Eritrea has friends such as China and Libya but the relationship he describes is transient and superficial.
Reid also presented the current regime in a historical perspective. He stated that the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) now the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) resulted from a long frontier war beginning in 1950. The evolution of the EPLF is characterized by a deep seated militarism and has thus developed isolationist tendencies. The U.S.-Eritrean relationship is also perceived by many Eritreans as a sense of betrayal, with little assistance over the long military struggle. Relations worsened in October 2008 when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Jendayi Frazer, called the nation a "state sponsor of terrorism". Reid urged the Obama Administration to address these issues and start a new relationship, seeing as both countries share common interests in the War on Terror. He encouraged engagement and the adoption of a holistic approach, which considers historical implications, curbs perceptions of giving favors to Ethiopia and stops depicting Eritrea as the "bad boy" of the region.
Responding to Reid's comments, Bereket Habte Selassie began by agreeing with Reid on the importance of engagement, but argued that the failure is on the part of the international community, with insufficient pressure put on Ethiopia to implement the international tribunal in The Hague decision on the two country's border impasse. Selassie also pointed out that the perception of a militarized Eritrea is nothing new and has been a historical problem. He stated that one cannot blame history, but the examination of current realities should be the basis of explanation for the state of the region. He presented a historical argument for Eritrea's militarism as being influenced by outside factors, such as the annexation by Halie Selassie. The lack of support from the United Nations and other international organizations lead in part to a sense of betrayal and isolation. Selassie made the distinction in his analysis that Eritrea's militarization can be explained in historical terms but that the current leadership's doggedly militant approach to armed confrontation in 1998 is a function of the current government and Afwerki's leadership style. Selassie's underlining argument is that engagement is not feasible unless the current leadership changes their approach and the international community reciprocates and takes Eritrea's interest into consideration.
Audience intervention was largely centered on the feasibility of engagement. Reid suggested that engagement is possible if it is applied by balancing two approaches; demonstrating the U.S. doesn't condone authoritarianism but also pressures the Isaias government to democratize. He also provided examples showing that Eritrea has had some diplomatic success without the use of force. Selassie was less optimistic and argues that diplomacy cannot be successful without a fundamental change in leadership. Addressing negative local perceptions of the United States' and Ethiopia's responsibility in accepting the boundary commission, Reid held that the personal relationships in many Western countries with the Zenawi government made it impossible for Eritrea to gain any favors over their rivals. Eritrea is also perceived as a bunker state according to Reid, making it less easy to control but reiterated a balanced engagement between isolation and limited engagement. Selassie argued that engagement policy, if approached by imposing sanctions, could have negative consequences because it takes time for sanctions to be repealed. Steve McDonald pointed out that the current U.S. administration has engaged in all other important sectors such as health and trade but has failed to institute widespread policy changes on political relations.