2 December 2012

Ethiopia: Soft Power Flourishes, When Communicated


Many things in the Ethiopian political arena are being referred to as the legacy of late Prime Minster Melese Zenawi. The trend is being considered as part of the Country's history that ought to be maintained.

Amongst the popular legacies of Meles is his use of soft power. He effectively deployed communication and exposure to the external world as tools to exercise his soft power.

His communication used to often be very detailed and focused on the bottom line of the national interest. This helped him establish enough influence, both internally and externally.

His major instruments of consolidating such a power were media and informal networking events, such as meetings of G-8 and G-20 countries, and the World Economic Forum (WEF). He effectively used the events for his purpose, which includes forwarding his vision, explaining his position and creating opportunities for others to understand the local reality.

Alike its innovator, the late premier, the Ethiopian foreign policy considers soft power as an important diplomatic tool. And Meles served it with his unparalleled communication skills. He used to direct foreign policy analysts to focus on the basis of the policy - development.

Relatively, theEthiopiagovernment, in general, is not communicative enough. This is still remains to be a serious problem.

The government is very reluctant to act proactively and use media to clarify its policy positions. Events related to the sickness and death of Meles rightly evidence such a lack of communication.

Why is the government reluctant to communicate with the public in a timely manner and be strategic enough to influence public opinion, internally and externally? What will be the effect of the shortfalls in communication?

Internally, lack of timely communications will lead to a conclusion that the government is not transparent and responsive. It also reduces trust on institutions. Externally, it reflects deficiency of institutional functions.

In its literal sense, soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others. Traditionally, it is associated with intangible resources such as culture or ideology.

But, as the renowned political scientist Joseph Nye explains, soft power is a means to success in world politics. And it largely depends on resources such as communication.

True, soft power creates inherent attraction towards its possessor. But, it is less communicated inEthiopia, although the nation has many political resources that it could capitalise on.

A soft power is useless unless it could be used to create a better image of a country. No doubt thatEthiopiahas untapped resources that could be deployed to create a positive image. Among the resources are its fast economic growth, relative peace and stability, multiculturalism, federalism, constitutionalism, and acclaimed religious tolerance.

It is in turning these resources in to deployable tools of soft power that communication comes to the scene. Instituting effective soft power needs exhaustive use of these resources.

Western countries, for example, use different tools of soft power. Their tools vary from movies and literary works to technological products.

Another important source of soft power is legitimacy. Citizens only subject themselves to the state's monopoly of forces only if they consider the state is legitimate.

Surely, an important progeny of legitimacy is trust. But the Ethiopian state has not been successful in building trust, and hence unable to consolidate legitimacy.

When it comes to foreign policy, however, soft power has a different face. A foreign policy enables a country to get what it wants through persuasion rather than interference.

It might be true that theEthiopiaforeign policy encourages working for the mutual benefits. But it often is not supported with vibrant public opinion. It is so because it is less communicated.

The reason that some falter to recognise Ethiopia as an emerging regional power is because its foreign policy that advocates for economic growth and mutual benefit is not communicated well.

Indeed,Ethiopiahas inherited a huge military, economic and political legacy from Meles. At the time, its external image seemed to even go beyond what Meles' leadership has left.

But that image could be sustained only if effective use of communication could be realised. The current experiences of failure to have a comprehensive communication strategy ought to change if the image that is projectingEthiopiaan emerging power could be sustained.

Virtually,Ethiopianeeds to position itself as a power house in the region. It ought to make use of its political and economic principles, which are built on the theory of the democratic developmental state, as tools of consolidating regional influence.

If seen in broader terms, the democratic developmental state ideology isEthiopia's response to the neoliberal ideology. It has helped it develop a unique vision of blending democracy with development. It surely is one element that could be sold as an instrument of soft power, if it could be effectively communicated.

Whatever political or economic advantages exist, however, it is only through effective communication that they could be used to establish soft power and hence be used to influence the outside world.

Abebe Aynete Is Senior Researcher At the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace & Development (eiipd).

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