Trump’s recklessness in foreign policy, or rather an absence of policy, has, once again, been put on display. Following the reprobate “deal” he forced on Sudan to recognize Israel through extortion and blackmail, Trump is now keen on strengthening his friendship with his “favorite dictator”, al-Sisi of Egypt, in the wake of what has clearly become a Peace for My Profit Plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump publicly suggested Egypt could “blow up” the $4.6bn Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.
This is, for all practical purposes, what Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has called “an incitement to war” over the Blue Nile’s water, a prerequisite for livelihood and survival for the 230 million people who live in the Horn of Africa and 95% of Egypt’s population, or 92,217,684 people. Instead of honoring America’s role as an independent and neutral observer, Trump decided to swing over to being a power broker for Egypt over Ethiopia.
From neutral observer to warmongering power broker
The tensions between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, who is essentially caught in the middle, are not new. The Blue Nile has been a bone of contention for centuries. But the dispute over the dam is centered not on the dam itself but on the process of filling and operating the reservoir.
According to an article by Addisu Lashitew in the Brookings Institution’s Africa in Focus (“Why Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan should ditch a rushed, Washington-brokered Nile Treaty”), “the hydro project will not lead to additional water consumption in Ethiopia, but will reduce the flow of the Nile until its reservoir is filled.” Negotiations focus on the pace of filling it.
Ethiopia, a close U.S. ally now on the Trump line of destruction, will be better served by not rushing into a new Nile Treaty under threats from the U.S. Following suspension of $130 million in aid earmarked to support Ethiopia’s defense and anti-terrorism efforts, the costs of doing so, according to Lashitew, would be monumental and can carry unintended future risks for all parties involved, including the U.S.
Push for cooperation not confrontation
Agreement must be founded on cooperation, not confrontation. It should be reached with strong buy-in from all signatories, not as a result of an ignorant and belligerent external negotiation-crasher seeking a “win” for his image at home at the expense of the blood and life of Africans.
If Trump were truly interested in brokering peace and prosperity, he would approach the GERD issue with informed comprehension and knowledgeable comprehensiveness to provide a cooperative framework. He could, for example, learn from the lessons and best practices of the Mekong River Commission, a trans-boundary river in East Asia and Southeast Asia, to create a platform to: jointly coordinate enforcement of agreements; accommodate responses to unanticipated changes, including those resulting from climate change; advance stipulations of scope and conditions for future initiatives; and legitimately frame the Nile issue as a challenge of managing shared rights and responsibilities, rather than apportioning water quotas.
The goal of a mediator is not to use Africa as a wrecking ball to split the Arab world from Africa. The "divide and conquer" strategy doesn't work in this context. Nor is the goal to use Africa to carry out a campaign stunt by playing political hardball with one party (Ethiopia) and straining its relations further with another party (Egypt). Such an approach will backfire in America's face.
The goal of an experienced and savvy negotiator is to reach a win-win-win agreement so that it works for all parties concerned in a way that advances their common long-term interests.
Trump’s a failure
The U.S. should not take sides and do the bidding of one side (Egypt) against another party (Ethiopia) with backroom deals, such as Egypt signing the draft agreement without Ethiopia being present, and then signal the financial costs of recalcitrance for the “non-compliant” and “disobedient” party (Ethiopia), whose interests are clearly being short-changed under American duress. The objective should be to help the parties compromise.
Trump may think commanding a bully pulpit is “awesome”, but his accent on “bully” evidences a more familiar meaning: the glorification of violence by “a blustering or browbeating person… habitually cruel, insulting or threatening to those who are weaker, smaller or in some way vulnerable.” By mediating undiplomatically and pushing Egypt and Ethiopia to lock horns, Trump has failed to broker a “deal”.
He has not only ended up fueling tensions between nations and regions. He has, as Addisu Lashitew writes in Foreign Policy, also squandered American soft power in the Horn of Africa in an overture to appease Egypt in the context of a peace plan that is roundly rejected by Arab nations.
Inciting war is a high crime
Belligerence and warmongering don’t work to broker peace. They are misguided, unproductive, and lead to violations of international law (not that Trump cares). They are also the best way, in the words of Sudan’s former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi (The Washington Post, “Ethiopia calls Trump’s dam comments an ‘incitement of war’, 10/25/20), to prepare” for the ignition of a new war”.
Pursuing a political quick-fix by bullying others into submission in pursuit of one’s personal benefit, rather than facilitating a process of consensus building, is nothing less than a high-crime.