The relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea and how it affects U.S. interests

There are several reasons for the protracted and continuing conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two countries that are situated in the horn of Africa. While Eritrea had been formerly part of the larger Ethiopia, it won its independence in 1993 after thirty years of struggle. Ever since, there have been contentions over territory, trade rules and the usage of common currency. Lack of whole-hearted diplomatic efforts to resolve these issues led to a major war in 1998 which raged on for another two years. As is the norm with international disputes, the International Court in Hague took up the case and conducted a trial. It emerged that Eritrea was the primary culprit in acting aggressively against their neighbor; not only did it break international law but was also the chief provocateur in the conflict. But in subsequent court proceedings, Eritrea had managed successfully to argue its claims for the disputed Badme region. But despite the UN Boundary Commission’s verdict granting Eritrea the Badme region, Ethiopia continues to occupy the region in violation of international consensus.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict had led to the loss of tens of thousands of combatant lives. It had also caused massive internal displacement of the civilian population. Considering that both these countries are amongst the poorest in the world, the burgeoning military expenses had depleted their economies and severely undermined prospects for recovery. In this context, it is pertinent to question the role and responsibility of global leadership in intervening in the matter. The United States, for example, by being the only superpower in the world and the self-proclaimed arbiter of justice and democracy in the world, could have made significant contributions to bring a peaceful end to the continuing conflict. But sadly, but quite expectedly, the United States has shown no real concern to bring an amicable resolution to the matter. Apart from the presence of UN peacekeeping forces, there has not been significant third-party diplomatic and military intervention. There are some obvious reasons why the strained relation between Ethiopia and Eritrea has not attracted much attention from the international community. Ideally, whenever the lives of thousands of people are at stake, it is expected of the United Nations and other prominent nations to intervene and resolve the crisis. But irrespective of the official rhetoric, the issues and conflicts in Africa do not get due attention from the international community and the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict is no exception to this rule.

One could extend this observation to the U.S. bombing of a Sudanese medicine factory in 1998 as well as the Rwandan civil war and genocide of the last decade. In the same period when the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict was simmering and moving toward full-fledged war, the Clinton Administration was busy making preparations to bomb a non-military target in Sudan. Going back in recent history, the continued trade and diplomatic relations between the West and South Africa, even when the latter’s practice of apartheid was at its peak, is illustrative of the broad foreign policy framework adopted by the U.S. and other major powers. In these examples, thousands upon thousands of innocent human lives are lost due to indifference and lack of political will from the rest of the world. The United States is more culpable than others by virtue of being the leading economic and military power in the world. If one applies the same standard of reasoning that the U.S. and its allies gave their constituency before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it becomes obvious what the real motivations for U.S. military interventions are. As the U.S. State Department observed in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Middle East region is of strategic importance to the United States, for it is rich in energy resources. Hence the control of oil resources is obtained under the veneer of War on Terror and promotion of democracy. The corollary to this foreign policy doctrine is that those regions of the world that do not possess material wealth or business interests will be neglected by default. This is why there is little attention being paid to the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict even when the already impoverished people of these two nations were pushed into greater misery.

One could claim that Nation-States, including the United States, are not agents of morality and justice, that the state is an institution dispensing in power more than anything else. While this is certainly true, not just at present but throughout recorded history, there is no reason why it should remain so. For example, it would indeed be a refreshing change to see the United States act true to its official rhetoric of ‘promoting democracy’, ‘waging war on terror’, etc. The terrorism suffered by Ethiopian and Eritrean civilians caught in the crossfire of combat is as real as those suffered by the victims of September 11 2001 attacks. Similarly, there is a case to be made that restoration of functioning democracy to Ethiopia and Eritrea is equally important as liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein. But as President Eisenhower famously remarked in his farewell address, the influence and entrenchment of the military-industrial complex is so deep in major institutions of the United States that it clearly reflects in the foreign policy framework. According to this framework of analysis, there are worthy targets and unworthy ones. While Iraq was a worthy target due to its material wealth and strategic importance, Eritrea is clearly not so due to its impoverished economy and lack of natural resources.


Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (Eastern African Series) by T. Negash, K. Tronvoll, Ohio University Press, ISBN 0-8214-1372-4.

Gilkes, Patrick and Plaut, Martin., The War Between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Foreign Policy in Focus Volume 5, Number 25 August 2000.

ESCALATION OF VIOLENCE IN THE HORN OF AFRICA, Ethiopia-Eritrea, an absurd war, Le Monde, July 1998 Retrieved from <>