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No Offensive Realism is Needed to Quell Eritrea’s Threat: A Critical Overview of Haile Tessema’s Thought-provoking Article on Aiga Forum


Adal Isaw

January 3, 2016

I read Haile’s thought-provoking article on Aiga Forum[1], titled “A Lesson for Ethiopia to Learn from Russia–Ukraine Relations to Deter the Looming Threat from Eritrea,” which prompted me to write this critical overview.  And the article is indeed thought-provoking for a number of good reasons:

First; it’s written in a fitting format and content for mass Ethiopian public consumption—at a time when a thought-provoking leaderless world appears to have emerged.  Not only that, it is also written at a time when a limited unrest is affecting the Oromo and Amara Regions of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. 

Second and most importantly; the article has a sincere nationalist tone—a tone immersed in fervor to protect Ethiopia from perceived or real national security threats.  Highlighting this very point is a report by Global Research, dated November 18, 2015, which argues that the recent military activities of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) is not only about Yemen but it is also as much about Ethiopia as well.[2]

Third; the article uses the said looming national security threat as a diagnosis—to prescribe a thought-provoking military action against Eritrea—in the form of subjugating Assab.  It does this by taking a bipartisan stance that goes beyond political bickering.  In other words, the article is mainly about the looming national security concerns, directed at Ethiopia under the context of, what a realist calls, the anarchic international political system. 

It appears that Haile wrote the article to initiate a dialogue and/or a debate at the think tank level and, to help Ethiopia formulate a new foreign policy that he proposes is necessary.  I vehemently disagree with his latter proposition. 

I have no serious disagreement on the evidence the author uses to formulate his argument, but I vehemently disagree with the theoretical tool he employs to reach his though-provoking conclusion of subjugating Assab from Eritrea.  Haile is suggesting a forceful annexation of Assab, by tacitly classifying Ethiopia as a rising power and, after being informed by Mearsheimer’s offensive realist theory that he cites in his piece.  And according to Mearsheimer, “…given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive.”[3]  And this is pretty much what Haile had in mind when he boldly suggested that Ethiopia better subjugate Assab from Eritrea now.  Because, not to do so makes Ethiopia “…a misguided state [that] would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive.   I should note here that this theory lacks the empirical data and the ability to predict whether a war is to unfold, except to suggest that it should if a state is not misguided “…to pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon.”  And according to Pashakhanlou, such theorizing is flawed since it cannot "…generate the vicious and dangerous world it presupposes on basis of its underlying assumptions, fear or the security dilemma…”[4]

Furthermore, Mearsheimer’s theory of international relation fails to take domestic politics into consideration.  That is, no attention is given to the internal political, economic, and social dynamics that play a role in the decision making process and that which in turn dictates as to how the state behaves in an international setting.[5] Moreover, as Snyder argues, the  utmost emphasis given to security by Mearsheimer willfully ignores non-security interests of the state such as ideology, national unification, and human rights as an essential aspect of international politics alongside power competition.[6] Additionally, Toft asserts that Mearsheimer’s overemphasis on military capabilities and issuing state capacity for territorial conquest "implies a risk that his analyses miss a host of other ways of gaining and exercising influence."[7] Similarly, political scientists whose primary focus is bargaining models of international conflict note that offensive realism ignores the fact that war is costly.[8] And much like the theory of offensive realism that willfully ignores the cost of war, Haile’s article, in a similar fashion, ignores to consider and discuss the validity or lack thereof  of any other contending worldview of international relations—including liberalism—the archrival worldview of realism.  And by extension, it fails to show the validity of its own worldview relative to others and especially to liberalism.

That said about offensive realism, some aspects of the theory of realism are not necessarily weak, especially at a time when a thought-provoking leaderless world appears to have emerged.  This is to say that it is now time for one worldview of international relations, realism, to meet again the real world that it has foreboded millenniums back.  And the more so prevalent worldview of liberalism will have to succumb to what the hard realities of the world are unfolding to be the case—realpolitik. 

Some points among many illuminating this very point and informing part of the author’s realist perspective are:

·         The recent and projected military activities of the Gulf Co-operation Council in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

·         A middle east riddled with violence of proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen that radiates across the globe.

·         A Sunni/Shia divide that terminally is tearing the social, economic and political fabric of the Arab and Non-Arab world.

·         A possible Israeli military strike against Iran and the implications thereafter.

·         The international entanglement with North Korea and Iran over issues of nuclear proliferation.

·         The threat posed by a quasi-state actor named ISIS and many other non-state actors.

·         The daunting political friction of EU.

·         A possible large-scale attack on U.S. homeland and/or its ally and the implication thereafter, especially considering the military actions taken by the U.S. after 9/11.

·         A likely international financial meltdown.

·         Weaponization of finance by the U.S. to impact world trade in ways fitting to its own political and economic ideology.

·         A cyberattack on critical infrastructures of developed and developing countries.

·         China’s economic slowdown and a possible armed confrontation in South China Sea (the South China Sea is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world and it’s believed to have major untapped natural energy deposits).

·         Russia’s military assertiveness for the right or wrong reasons.

·         NATO’s insatiable want to form a building block of allied nations in key geopolitical areas for better or worse.

·         Global environmental degradation that may extinct the human race if the recent and future non-binding international environmental agreements fail to materialize.

Imagine all the above mentioned countries going to war to solve these aforementioned international problems and ask yourself the consequences that a country will be left with in the aftermath. Imagine Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Japan, and the U.S. making a war of choice to quell a real and/or perceived threat posed by China’s reported expansion in China Sea.  Imagine Russia doing a war of choice against Ukraine, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and another twenty-three countries including U.S., to quell the real and/or perceived threat posed by NATO’s expansion.  And finally, imagine Ethiopia, a country known for its tenacity to stay sovereign not only by defending itself but also by not violating the sovereignty of other countries—doing a war of choice. 

Ethiopia almost never had a war of choice but a war of necessity.  Those who chose to violate the sovereignty of Ethiopia have learned that the only outcome of choosing to engage Ethiopia in a war of their own choice is their own inevitable defeat.  And those who advise Ethiopia to go to a war of choice fail miserably to understand the validity of Ethiopia’s long-lived foreign policy, whose doctrine is primarily premised on co-operation but not on the might of its defense forces.  And what is suggested by Haile in his article not only misses this very point but compares the incomparable—a “war of choice” by nuclear arsenal brandishing country, with a war of choice of a country whose only peerless deadly arsenal to date is a very hard work pointed at defeating poverty. 

International conflicts don’t necessarily require war; they’re more likely to require co-operative actions of mending fences.  Co-operative actions and wars unfortunately are coiled by nature.  And by extension, the coiled actions of states and non-state actors don’t lend themselves to a meaningful analysis—only based on a singular worldview of international relations.  Hence, analyzing the actions of state and non-state actors requires the application of more than one contending worldview.  This approach in turn leads us to identify the more so valid theoretical worldview of international relations. However, validity of a worldview of international relations is contingent on empirically proven political and economic findings that our world is manifesting.  For example, a political turmoil, followed by economic meltdown or vice versa and, a war of necessity and/or a war of choice may appear to suit one worldview of international relations (realism) to claim validity over another (liberalism).  Similarly, co-operation, peace, and sustainable development that radiate across national boundaries may appear to suit another worldview of international relations (liberalism) under the expense of some other (realism). 

That being the case and the nature of what we call appearance being relative at times, I contend that our world appears to lend itself to a less than complete analysis, by fluctuating between three worldviews of international relations; liberalism, realism and world-systems theory.  The time lapse of fluctuation may be longer for one and hence shorter for the others.  For this reason, one may see the international system as a dynamic pendulum of time—switching from sunset to sunrise and vice versa.  And today, for example, the sun has set for the world of liberalism while it has risen for the world of realism more so than the world-systems theory.  It is daylight so to speak and, one appears to see the world more clearly today—in light of realism but not liberalism.  And by extension, Haile sees the world as it appears and to an extent as any realist does—with the help of a theoretical binocular of international relations that highlights the bad and that which very much darkens the good in all human beings.

As far as we Ethiopians are concerned, we should at all times highlight the good about Ethiopia and any other country in our world.  But we should do so not under the expense of setting aside the real and impending national security threat that our country is facing. And as far as I am concerned, the real and impending national security threat that we should be highly concerned with today has been brought forth by the unmitigated corruption of our own making.  The corrupt men and women who join the front not so much for the love of their people and country but for their own calculated interest, have been vitiating the planned objectives of EPRDF.  And, if these men and women aren’t dealt with resolute form of legal seriousness, they may end up hurting our people and country more so than an entire Eritrean army alongside the Gulf Co-operation Council can.  The crimes that these men and women are committing are convoluted for they are shielded by many layers of organizational and some other formal covers.  Less of a resolute, tangible and transparent action by the EPRDF lead government to uncover the shields that these criminals are using, corruption in our country will be braided into a crushing chain of economic, political and social disaster.  Today, no threat is as impending as corruption is for Ethiopia.  And overcoming this very threat is what disempowers those state and non-state actors who wish Ethiopia ill.  Therefore, no offensive realism is needed to quell Eritrea’s threat to ascertain Ethiopia’s survival.  But the need to deal with corruption resolutely in a transparent manner is.


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[3] Mearsheimer, John (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 35. ISBN 0-393-02025-8

[4] Arash Heydarian Pashakhanlou, “Back to the Drawing Board: A Critique of Offensive Realism”, International Relations 27: 202 (2013): 209-210.

[5]David C. Hendrickson, “The Lion and the Lamb: Realism and Liberalism Reconsidered”, World Policy Journal 20:1 (2003): 97; Snyder, Mearsheimer’s World, 172.

[6] See Snyder, Mearsheimer’s World, 171-172

[7] See Toft, John J. Mearsheimer, 384.

[8] On Bargaining Theory see David A. Lake, “Two Cheers for Bargaining Theory: Assessing Rationalist Explanations of the Iraq War,” International Security 35:3 (2010/11): 15.