When in doubt, dispatch an envoy. That’s become an old diplomatic standby, and it is currently under consideration for the Horn of Africa, where a civil war rages in Ethiopia and has ensnared neighboring Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. The conflict, which broke out in November 2020, has left millions in dire need of lifesaving humanitarian assistance. The U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide recently warned that “the risk of atrocity crimes in Ethiopia remains high and likely to get worse.” If the crisis continues to fester, it will have grave consequences for U.S. interests in a region situated on the crossroads between Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.

Ethiopian refugees wait for relief supplies at a United Nations compound in Hamdayet, Sudan, on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Ethiopian refugees wait for relief supplies at a United Nations compound in Hamdayet, Sudan, on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

There is certainly merit to urgently deploying a point person to stitch together a coordinated response in the face of a complicated, multi-faceted, and urgent crisis. The challenge, however, is getting it right, and too often the U.S. government doesn’t. With war clouds darkening in the Horn of Africa, it is imperative to tightly scope the mission of a prospective regional envoy, ensure the support of the president or secretary of state, and arm the envoy with enough resources to do the job.

The Envoy Shuffle

The United States has a long history of appointing envoys to troubled spots in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1969, President Nixon named Clarence “Clyde” Ferguson as the U.S. special coordinator on relief to the civilian victims of the Nigerian civil war. President Bill Clinton appointed three envoys during his presidency: Jesse Jackson as special envoy for the president and the secretary of state for the promotion of democracy in Africa; diplomat Paul Hare as U.S. special representative for the Angolan peace process; and former representative Howard Wolpe as special envoy to Africa's Great Lakes. President George W. Bush asked former Senator John Danforth to serve as special envoy to the Sudan, a position later filled by Andrew Natsios, Richard Williamson, Scott Gration, Princeton Lyman, and Donald Booth. President Barack Obama resurrected the special envoy for the Great Lakes position, asking Wolpe to return to his post and a few years later appointing former Senator Russ Feingold and former representative Tom Perriello to carry the torch. President Donald Trump brought in Peter Pham as Great Lakes envoy and later shifted him to the newly-created special envoy for the Sahel position.

The record of these envoys, however, has been uneven at best. Too often, the U.S. government has established these positions as concessions to domestic and foreign pressure. At a National Security Council meeting in 1969, participants fretted that the naming of a relief coordinator would “embody more form than substance.” The envoys tend to have vague mandates, and their responsibilities overlap with U.S. ambassadors in the field and regional bureaus back in Washington, D.C. It is not a surprise that many envoys find themselves in constant battle over access, authorities, and resources. Representative Wolpe, in his study of the Burundi peace process, bemoaned that severe resource constraints—combined with a risk-averse bureaucratic culture and divergent views from regional embassies—posed considerable hurdles to successful negotiations.

Form Follows Function

In the Horn of Africa, there is a pressing need to address several interlocking challenges, including opening humanitarian access; preventing further atrocities; demobilizing ethnic militias; expelling Eritrean (and possibly Somali) troops from Ethiopia’s Tigray region; de-escalating the border conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia; negotiating a peaceful resolution to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute; and steering Ethiopia back toward the path of inclusive elections. In a recent article, Hardin Lang and David Del Conte argued that an envoy could “help coordinate efforts of the African Union, the European Union, and Ethiopia’s bilateral benefactors to bring concerted pressure” on Ethiopia’s belligerents. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told U.S. senators that he would consider such an appointment.

Instead of rushing to an appointment, it is essential to consider—and determine—what the specific mission is and why an envoy is required. It is unwise and plainly unmanageable to delegate all of the aforementioned tasks to a special envoy. However, it is eminently sensible to tap an envoy to apply diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia and its neighbors to walk back from the brink of a regional conflict. The State Department only has chargés d'affaires posted in Asmara, Eritrea and Khartoum, Sudan. While the Biden administration should move quickly to appoint and confirm an ambassador to Sudan (the United States has not had an ambassador to Eritrea since 2010 due to human rights concerns), the United States would also benefit immediately from a Washington heavy-hitter to deal with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and the civilian-military transitional government in Sudan. The U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and the Africa Bureau’s senior officials would work closely with an envoy and their team in negotiating humanitarian access, preventing mass atrocities, and salvaging the country’s elections. It will certainly require a politician’s tact and gravitas—not always in the diplomat’s DNA—to go toe-to-toe with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Finally, an envoy could transcend the bureaucratic seams between the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) and Bureau of African Affairs (AF) to deal with Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the GERD and the Gulf States’ increasing influence across the region.

Making It Work

As the Biden administration considers whether or not to appoint an envoy for the Horn—and if so, who that person should be and how to structure his/her role—policymakers should consider five critical factors in determining an envoy’s success in driving U.S. policy and exerting influence in the region and with partners:

  1. Access to Power: The bureaucratic processes that turn the wheels of foreign policy boil down to competing ideas, personalities, and egos, and the most effective envoys have been able to speed up—or even run an end around—those processes through direct access to the highest levels of government. The ability to engineer a shift in U.S. policy, tee up a call from President Biden to another head of state, or put a sharply worded statement at the front end of a White House or State Department press briefing will flow directly from the access an envoy has and the relationship s/he builds with key officials, including Secretary Blinken and other seventh floor principals; the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator (Biden’s nominee is Ambassador Samantha Power); the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (Biden’s nominee, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is awaiting Senate confirmation); key National Security Council Staff, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer; and the president himself. And just as important, the perception of an envoy’s closeness to the real levers of power will be critical to an envoy’s influence with the key actors in the region and in forging multilateral consensus on a given issue. Foreign governments are, for the most part, savvy enough to figure out who has policymaking juice in Washington and who doesn’t. An envoy who is understood to speak with the voice of the most powerful officials in U.S. foreign policy will be in the best position to succeed.
  2. Solid working relationships at the State Department and USAID: While the influence of the White House in determining foreign policy has ebbed and flowed, the implementation of U.S. policy comes down to the national security agencies and the bureaucracies. The State Department, where an envoy would likely sit, will be the most important of these agencies in dealing with the challenges in the Horn. Within the department, regional bureaus have the biggest voices on policy and the most resources—including management of U.S. embassies—to bring to bear on a given issue. An envoy for the Horn who does not enjoy a strong partnership with the assistant secretary for African affairs and the assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs will end up fighting internecine bureaucratic battles instead of marshalling the full weight of the State Department to develop and implement a cohesive set of policies. And given the catastrophic humanitarian situation unfolding in Tigray and USAID’s role in leading U.S. humanitarian response and providing development assistance (a key point of leverage), any envoy will need a close relationship with senior officials in the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance and other relevant USAID bureaus.
  3. Ownership of the policy within the interagency: A successful envoy will need to be fully engaged in the often messy, frequently combative policymaking process known as “the Interagency.” These National Security Council-chaired meetings—from the working level up to meetings led by the president—are where the details of foreign policy priorities are hammered out and ultimately stamped for approval. Absent policy coordination within the State Department facilitated by the working relationships outlined above, interagency meetings can frequently devolve into various officials from the department arguing about what its policy should be rather than presenting a united front. An envoy will have to be the driving force at these meetings, representing a unified State Department position in meetings at the assistant secretary level and drafting the department’s position papers for and participating in deputies- or principals-level meetings. An envoy who tries to sidestep this process will be operating without the full understanding of polity deliberations—including appreciating trade-offs and unintended consequences—of a particular course of action.
  4. Robust staffing: Coordinating and executing U.S. policy toward the range of crises—political, security, and humanitarian—in the Horn is a big job and an important responsibility, and any envoy must have a large, strong staff including recognized experts on the region. S/he must also staff up quickly, and, given the slow pace of traditional government hiring, make use of as many traditional and non-traditional hiring mechanisms as possible to get the right team in place. An envoy’s office can secure “detailees” from within AF and NEA, other bureaus at the State Department (the Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, or CSO, has helped staff previous envoys), other national security agencies (including area and functional experts from USAID and the intelligence community), non-competitive civil service appointments to bring in security and regional affairs experts (called Schedule Bs), and outside contractors.
  5. Control over resources: As noted above, regional bureaus at the State Department have a major say in how the United States spends various pots of money—from development and capacity building to security assistance. To fully empower an envoy, AF and NEA should cede control over at least some of these funds—ideally in the most flexible accounts, such as Economic Support Funds (ESF) and Peacekeeping Operations (PKO)—to give the envoy additional leverage in negotiations with regional actors and international partners.

The mounting external and internal pressure for a special envoy to the Horn of Africa is understandable. The urgency of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Ethiopia demands that the U.S. government move quickly, but the administration must carefully consider the requirements of the job in filling the position. Only an empowered individual with strong relationships at the highest levels in D.C. and the region and a clear mandate with corresponding staff and resources will succeed in addressing the interconnected crises that threaten to plunge the Horn of Africa into a full-blown regional conflagration.

This article was originally published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on February 10, 2021.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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