Ethiopia: Abiy Ahmed Should Be a Natural Friend for the United States
ne of the defining stories of the past few years has been the rise of a wave of far-right demagogues and aspiring strongmen around the world.
But something very different is unfolding in Ethiopia: perhaps the greatest exception anywhere to the current democratic recession. In just 11 months, Africa’s youngest head of state, 42-year-old Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has introduced sweeping reforms to open up Ethiopia’s closed political system, released thousands of political prisoners, ended a 20-year state of war with neighboring Eritrea, and promised fair, competitive elections in 2020.
It has been widely argued that the United States shouldn’t seek its friends among demagogues like this week’s guest in the Oval Office, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—who was celebrated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton at his inauguration in January, even as Bolsonaro used his first day in office to roll back protections for racial minorities and LGBT people. Or like Poland’s right-wing government, which the Trump administration chose to host its Middle East summit last month despite the ruling government’s attempts to purge the country’s judiciary and criminalize speech recognizing Poles’ role in the Holocaust.
But seeking the right friends is just as important as avoiding the wrong ones. The United States needs to seize opportunities when they arise to help leaders and nations taking risks to achieve democratic progress. Instead of treating people’s democratic aspirations primarily as a cudgel to topple regimes or undercut enemies, the United States should also recognize the long-term potential to strengthen partnerships and friendships.