I Once Was Lost, But Now I’m Found: A Conversation with Harry Verhoeven

Harry Verhoeven is Senior Research Scholar at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University and the convener of the Oxford University China-Africa Network. His books include “Why Comrades Go to War”, “Civilization and Power in Sudan”, and “Beyond Liberal Order: States, Societies and Markets in the Global Indian Ocean”. He is Senior Advisor to the European Institute of Peace, and has moonlighted in the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry’s School of Public Studies.

His most recent scholarly output, written in collaboration with Michael Woldemariam, an Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for International & Security Studies at Maryland, describes itself as the first ‘robust treatment of the international origins of the Ethiopian crisis to date.’ Published in 2022, ‘Who Lost Ethiopia?’  The unmaking of an African anchor state and U.S foreign policy?’ has already been widely cited by fellow scholars and generated more media attention than is usually paid to academic papers.

There is little about the story woven by the authors that is shocking or revelatory for those who follow developments in Ethiopia. Its real significance is that the admissions offered by a wide variety of Western diplomatic and security sources converts public speculation to fact.

Gimgema started interviewing Verhoeven by asking about a tendency within Africanist academia to offer proximity scholarship which can, at times, come across as little more than collections of water-cooler talk from corridors of power across various countries.


Verhoeven: Very good, very important question (he chuckles). I think you’re right to highlight that this is a charge in a lot of scholarship, in a lot of different places. And this is perhaps particularly the case in contexts that are difficult to access or where it is difficult to try and speak to everyone and to draw on a comprehensive set of archival documents, almost inevitably people cultivate ties with particular actors within the state, or within a particular company, or whatever they’re trying to study and then foreground these. Where it’s difficult to draw on a comprehensive set of archival documents, [and] the judgment is made that it’s better to write than not to write, you indeed get very partial accounts.

Even though scholars try to correct for this and signal some awareness that there is another side to this, or perhaps many sides to this, but nonetheless here are our two cents on this particular event, or that decision, or whatever, I think this is a real dilemma.

I think it’s something that as Africanists, that we do well to explain to people who work in other parts of the world where similar dilemmas may exist but perhaps not to the same extent. As we (Africanist scholars) try to show nonetheless, despite these constraints serious theorization, but also a serious and rigorous collection of empirical evidence, is possible. In my own case, in the different countries I’ve worked on, I usually try to learn and strengthen the maturing of my arguments by taking quite a bit of time before I write things up. Because, even if it is true that you may get the basic outline, for example, of an important decision — say, why did Ethiopia go into Somalia in late 2006, early 2007 – or why does this person decide to run for president in this particular election rather than that election — even if you can get the basic outline right, the all-important details of that often take a long time not only to clarify but to try to evidence.

The need to gain access to different types of people, not to speak to them once, but often several times to make sure that, so to speak, it wasn’t one particularly bad day that influenced the way they spoke to you, or the politics of the moment, or something going on with their family, whatever it may be, but that it’s actually to the best of their recollection as to what happened. And for that, very often, you need time.

So, if you look for example at the book I wrote together with Professor Philip Roessler in 2016, “Why Comrades Go to War”, which is centrally focused on the Great African War and the extremely violent events after the genocide in Rwanda, both in Rwanda itself and in Congo. That took us close to a decade to research and to write. There were strong incentives to try and publish sooner, but we tried to resist the temptation of doing that as much as we could. And ultimately, at the end of the day, I think the book’s better for it; more nuanced, able to provide a fuller picture, almost certainly not the full picture but a fuller picture, but that’s hard.

It becomes even harder when you consider that we both were in an extraordinarily privileged situation in which we had good research funding, we had support from our institutions, we had an ability to travel to many different places, and to stay safe in those places. Needless to say those are conditions which are all too rare. For many people, only being able to render a partial account is not so much a matter of choice as a matter of condition. That’s also important to remember.

I think this is again a challenge when it comes to scholarship about Africa, because the question becomes do we only write up this very one-sided, or as you said kind of watercooler anecdotes analysis — is that better than nothing? Or does that actually damage our understanding of the thing? That’s a genuinely hard dilemma and you could argue it in different ways, but, hopefully, people spend some time thinking about those tradeoffs.

Gimgema: There are a number of interesting things in the book you mention that I would have loved to discuss but, going back to “Who Lost Ethiopia”, I’d like to better understand your description of the global division of labour as being underpinned by bilateral agreements and anchor states. At the same time, in your broad overview of Ethiopian foreign policy imperatives and the U.S’s foreign policy imperatives, you, I think correctly, identify that successive Ethiopian agreements have eschewed bilateralism in favour of multilateralism. So, how, in your conceptualization of what I would describe as the global division of labour — but you know, globalization, or imperialism, or whatever you want to call it — how do those two things kind of sit together or work together with each other?

Verhoeven: Again, good question. In this context, Mike Woldemariam and I try to really understand how U.S. policy, as pursued by different parts of the U.S. government, contributed to the extraordinary set of events in Ethiopia preceding 2018, but especially from 2018 onwards, and the election of Abiy Ahmed as head of EPRDF, and later of course as prime minister.

For the purposes of thinking about that we thought it was quite important that we try to explain, in our understanding, how people who make foreign policy or national security policy in the U.S. see themselves and see the environment around them. So in the paper we argue that regardless of whether you see the U.S. as a so-called liberal hegemony, as typically people among the Democrats do, as well as in parts of the old school U.S. Republican party, or whether you see the U.S., ultimately, just as the most powerful state in the international system that engages with other states on reasons that have very little to do with ideology but are essentially a function of the protection of its national interests and minimization of any form of threats — whether military, economic, or political to its power and authority.

Regardless of whether you see it in either of those terms, there is, nonetheless, this powerful idea that what is different about U.S. hegemony at this moment in time and, essentially from 1945 onwards, is that this is pursued not by the U.S. alone, but by a set of allies, a set of strategic partners, in different parts of the world. This is really quite important to the way U.S. diplomats, people in the army, people in the intelligence community, talk about that. You almost always hear them say ‘of course this is in U.S. interests and we’re pursuing this with our allies, with our allies in Europe, or our allies in East Asia, the Middle East or wherever’, and so, you know, being struck by that, the paper tries to understand what it is in relations with allies? Supposedly these are the people who see the world like you do, or, if they don’t necessarily see the world like you do, have a number of interests which converge with yours. That, nonetheless, can mean that you get very different outcomes than the ones you said you, as a U.S. policymaker, were pursuing or hoping to pursue.

And so, in the case of Ethiopia of course, in this time period that we look at, how is it that on the one hand you have Trump administration senior officials who get incredibly excited about the prospect of radical change in Ethiopia after the March 2018 promises of political liberalization, economic liberalization, major departures in foreign policy. Yet, as that is seemingly pursued by the man they identified as the key partner, the prime minister Abiy Ahmed, actually the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship would later, particularly in 2021, go into crisis and you get a lot of acrimony between both sides and a lot of blaming.

Gimgema: Sorry to interrupt you, I did want to speak about that separately. I’m not sure I’m as convinced as you are in your paper that, in fact, the relationship is in crisis. But before I go there, one of the reasons I asked about the bilateral versus multilateral thing is that in some senses I feel that approach obscures certain global trends that we haven’t really seen since 1945. Even during the Cold War period we had an attachment to a particular type of multilateralism, a particular set of values and so on that were going to underpin the international system; one of the things that’s happened since the financial crisis is a pulling away – we keep hearing about globalization in retreat – and you can kind of see some of those effects, for instance, in the new role the Gulf countries have in the Horn. It’s a new type of deputization, I think, rather than[the] kind of deputization that you were talking about in the post 1945 period, I wanted to go back to that before…

Verhoeven: Yeah, yeah, this is a good point..

Gimgema: Again, sorry to interrupt, just to add to that, I also think this relates to some of your descriptions of how EPRDF started to feel pressure in the 2010s and was beginning to rethink its foreign policy.

This relates also, I think, to Abiy’s first big speech on foreign policy, in early 2018 if I remember correctly, where he kept talking about ‘we need an ally system and we need allies’. Yet if you look at the EPRDF, on paper at least, in terms of its stated foreign policy I would argue until 2014-2015 you had a real go at working through multilateral institutions, be it in kind of converting the AU into a solid voting block in terms of the climate crisis, be it in relationship to the GERD, where the 2015 tripartite agreement is really about the three countries directly involved and, so to speak, takes the upper riparian nations out of the game, which wasn’t the standing policy. The standing policy was very much about galvanizing Sub-Saharan Africa, and that too I think is a move towards a more bilateral position, both in terms of EPRDF policy and changes there, and in terms of the U.S., particularly during the Trump administration, so perhaps the question is how is the retreat of globalization visible in your analysis?

Verhoeven: Yeah, well look, perhaps it’s a useful way to think indeed about globalization’s heyday as actually not just being before 2008 but I think really being in the 1990s and 2005. You can see this in things like the GlenEagles (held in 2005) summit of the G7 and G8 and the subsequent decision from the Paris Club to cancel the significant amount of debt held by African countries, and also a number of other low-income countries.

This idea of liberal globalization both, very conventionally understood of course, was seen as an ever greater amount of freedom for capital to move around the world but also a relatively permissive attitude to certain types of migration and the idea indeed that states are converging, more or less, on some kind of common economic or political endpoint, and belief that multilateral organizations will foster consensus about the ways in which you can get there.
And indeed, as you said, as a way to perhaps jointly address problems like climate change, poverty, and HIV, all of those kinds of things. I think it ran into problems for a number of reasons. It would take a very long time to dissect all of them, but first of all the intrinsic contradictions in that project.

This broad-brush stroke explanation that I’ve given clearly relies on a number of assumptions, some of them very heroic, about the actual ability for example of the freedom of capital to reduce poverty, or, for example, about whether the freedom to move capital around the world in that way is not at odds with what we’re trying to achieve, for instance, on the climate side. Or indeed the way that also creates insecurity within countries for very specific groups of people and sometimes even between countries of course because we do know globalization at a very very macro-level, at a global level, in nominal terms reduced inequality between states, mostly because of the catch-up we saw in places like East Asia, and to a lesser extent in South Asia.

Gimgema: Yeah, that data really changes if you take China out of the equation.

Verhoeven: Totally, totally of course. Certainly if you talk about the multiplier effect of China on other places, absolutely. More or less, the statistical picture is one of declining inequality between states. But you see inequality increasing in two other very important ways. One is within states, including of course in China and many of the Asian states that did very well in the decades after 1950, including after 1989.

But secondly, if you just look at the global population as a whole, independent of national borders, there is still growing inequality between those people. And arguably that doesn’t just lead to economic and social dislocation but, potentially, also to political and military dislocation.

So again, if we’re thinking here about the ways in which some of the illusions around the assumptions on which this idea of institutions of globalization were built, it’s perhaps not that surprising that you got a backlash against it; Trump, Brexit, the rise of nationalist leaders in Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, and many other places, the Philippines, or even the change of course in China itself.

Gimgema: Or perhaps Ethiopia?

Verhoeven: Right, the other thing of course that is an important thing to point out for countries like Ethiopia and their global engagement, but also for my country Belgium and its global engagement, is the idea that institutions of globalization can help make the world less unpredictable, right? Less uncertain, more that you can get a handle on, a grip on what these big macro forces are doing. And importantly, not only these forces but also individual countries, i.e binding of the United States or Russia, or China, or whatever other big countries you might potentially be worried about.

In practice of course we saw that many of these countries continued to do whatever they liked, most infamously of course the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But we can also give examples of course when you look at Russian foreign policy, including its invasion of Georgia in 2008, and later of course in Crimea in 2014, and from there onwards. So clearly this project of globalization, whatever its potential merits, was struggling with these kinds of in-built contradictions. And I think actually your question about Ethiopian foreign policy in that regard is very interesting because you’re absolutely right.

In Ethiopia there is a very long tradition, certainly of interest, in a kind of global multilateralism very much on evidence with Ethiopia’s early joining of the League of Nations. Of course a very disappointing experience for Ethiopia, but nonetheless a very formative experience for the why of how Ethiopia sees itself as it does, sees ideas of statehood, of international respectability, of its own role in Africa, and indeed the world, and of course this was carried on throughout important parts of the post-war imperial period after 1945. Ethiopia’s contributions in places like Korea for example, also, not many people know this, but sending troops to the India-Pakistan border in a multilateral mission. As you rightly said, after a period of de-prioritization under the Derg, this commitment to multilateralism was taken up again under the EPRDF where again it became a very important part of its international identity. Now the interesting thing for a scholar of the Horn of Africa is that Ethiopia’s global identity, its commitment to multilateralism, has historically been very much at odds with its regional policies, especially in the Horn.

Gimgema: I’d like to talk about that separately if you don’t mind because there are a number of, I think, contradictory statements you make in the paper regarding EPRDF’s role within the region but I’m not sure your explanation actually answers my question. I think you did a great job of explaining what you could have written about globalization, but I’m not sure it answers my question about the things conceptually left out, and what was brought in, and how you made those decisions?

Verhoeven: Right, so the question is always what the purpose of the paper is. As I said, we thought that it was really important to document what we did, in part, because of the privileged access that Mike and I have had over the years within the Horn of Africa and specifically within Ethiopia. But also, if you want to think of the region in broader terms, including in the Gulf and other parts of the Middle East, and finally, and very importantly, within Europe and the United States where we have done a lot of work too.

Our idea was, given that we’ve spoken to such a range of people over the years, including specifically for the purposes of this project, of trying to understand how we end up in early 2021 with this incredibly catastrophic situation inside Ethiopia with immediate spillover on all its neighbors and how external actors may have contributed to that? There was a sense, at least at that point in time, in 2021, that there was a real crisis also with Ethiopia’s relationship with its traditional partners at the global level — the European Union but especially the United States — so how do we account for this? And there are many different ways in which we could answer that question but, as we tried to explain in the paper, we tried to focus very much on the decision making that actually leads certain actors in the U.S. government, but also in the Ethiopian government, to make decisions that have the kind of outcomes that we saw. And though potentially, yes, we could have brought this to a higher level of abstraction, including by weighing in more strongly some of the global and structural elements, but we thought for the purposes of the people we were writing this for that this was the approach that was most pertinent.

Gimgema: But those approaches are an abstraction of sorts. You’re also offering a conceptual framework by looking at it as a series of bilateral agreements that are underpinned by particular relationships with anchor states. I ask that question because, as you correctly said, there are underlying assumptions, some quite heroic, as you were saying about the neoliberal assumptions that are usually made are peppered throughout the paper. Particularly so in your use of moral hazard, which I thought was quite interesting, so let me ask about that .Why did you borrow from economics? What was it about moral hazard that you found to be a generous enough concept for explaining what happened in terms of the disaster that happened in 2021?

Verhoeven: Look, we use the idea of moral hazard because we found it useful in this particular case; Moral hazard is ultimately a concept that actually emerges from the study of decision-making. It’s not necessarily tied to economics. It might have applicability in economics, for example on how certain companies come to certain decisions or engage in particular types of behavior; but there was no intrinsic reason for why you can’t apply it to other — non-monetary if you like — contexts. And we found it particularly apt in the case of Ethiopia, based on our discussions with people. I think it might, methodologically, be worth explaining our thinking. I never write my papers saying, ‘well this is my set of ideas, this is what I’m trying to prove, and now I’m going to conduct interviews to actually prove what I think’. That’s quite problematic ethically, but it’s also, I think ,bad scholarship. What we were really struck by in a lot of the interview material that we collected from Ethiopia, from the international partners in the region as well as outside of it, was this sense of a conscious choice being made by certain actors in response to what others, especially within the U.S. government, had signaled was possible or was not possible.

So, in very concrete terms, if we’re trying to understand the ways in which the United States, the signals that it sent out, the statements that it made, the financial aid decisions it took, etc might have enabled the road to war, the concept of moral hazard – which of course refers to the idea that certain decisions I take may encourage riskier behavior on your part – was quite apt. Because there is a widely shared, and I think correct, belief that the U.S. Embassy in Addis Abeba, parts of the U.S. State Department, the Trump White House in particular, by taking a historically very unusual stance actually encouraged the consolidation of authoritarianism in Ethiopia and the choice for war rather than the other way round.

We thought that that’s a very important point to bring out and actually evidence, rather than just ‘know’ or ‘believe’. That rather than dealing, as I said, with a very macro-level understanding that war in Ethiopia was just kind of the outcome of global forces and therefore is not the responsibility of individual choices made by individual people or by institutions, we thought in light of the seriousness, the gravity of what has transpired inside Ethiopia, in Tigray, but also in many other places in the country, that emphasis of individual responsibility or institutional responsibility needed to be highlighted. We made this determination as scholars, again in light of the evidence, but also in light of what is at stake here.

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