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Trump or Biden: Why Ethiopians should pay attention for the sake of the #GERD

As the 2020 US presidential elections approach it is likely that it will amass interest from all corners of the world. The global power of the US – even though some argue that this is quickly dwindling – makes the US presidential elections a point of interest for different actors including governments, international and regional inter-state organizations and other members of the global community.

In the 2020 instalment of the presidential election the sitting president Donald J. Trump faces off against democrat candidate and former vice president Joe Biden. The world’s most infected state by the pandemic will either choose to grant the controversial billionaire turned politician or go with Joe Biden who previously failed to secure the Democratic nomination for the presidential race on two different occasions in 1988 and 2008. Biden ran against the unsuccessful presidential candidates Michael Dukakis in 1988 while he lost the race to secure the democratic candidacy in 2008 against the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. Biden beat several candidates to represent the Democratic party in the presidential race to be held in November 2020. Among them were 77 year old Bernie Sanders, Oklahoma born Senator Elizibeth Warren as well as the mayor of New York, Micheal Bloomberg.

As the elections – which are usually full of twists and shocking stories from the past – approaches the whole world will tune in. That may be why the president of the US is usually referred to as “The most powerful man in the world.” Because even though the election takes place in the US, there are many reasons prompting everyone to pay close attention to the outcomes of the result. Ethiopians are not immune from this. The country and its inhabitants have a lot to gain or lose depending on who wins the election. This is put in clear context when one considers the role of the US in the negotiations surrounding Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam. Let’s explore why it may be important to pay attention to the course and outcomes of the elections in the US. 

Background

Donald John Trump: The incumbent 

The US elections in 2018 gave us one of the world’s biggest shocks. The election of Donald J Trump. Since then the continent of the country spent four interesting years under the real estate mogul. Sworn into office on January 20, 2017 as the 45th president of the United States alongside his conservative republican running mate, Vice President Mike Pence. The inauguration of the controversial president was quickly followed by a Women’s march on the very next day. The march which was the largest single day protest in US history set the tone for Donald Trump’s presidency. The army of executive orders that introduced the Muslim Ban, the Muller investigation, the controvercy surrounding the border wall, the controversial appointment and dismissal of his staff were some of the things Trump’s administration showed us since 2017.

Trump was elected after he won the electoral college despite losing the popular votes. He became the president of the United States as the president elect with the lowest approval ratings for an incoming president in the history of the United States. He also had the lowest approval ratings of any president at the 100 day mark. His approval ratings currently stand at 45% according to Gallup (a global analytics and consultancy firm). The ever controversial leader is known for his tweets. He has chosen the platform as his primary means of communications. In 2018 alone he tweeted and retweeted on the platform around 3,578 times while this number rose to 4,934 in 2019 (nearly doubling the number of tweets in the previous year). Until the end of May 2020, Donald Trump had tweeted 4,474 times.

He tweeted over 17,000 times since he announced his candidacy in 2017 up until his first two and a half years of his presidency.

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr: the Confirmed

Biden features a rather long political career compared to Trump. Born November 20, 1942, the former vice president has served in the Senate representing Delaware from 1974 to 2009. The current candidate of the Democratic party served in the New Castle County Council between 1970 and 1972 before being elected to senate as the seventh youngest senator at the time. At the time of winning the election Biden was 29 years old while he was 30 when being sworn in. The democratic party member describes himself aAs a center-left when it comes to his policies. This term is usually used to describe politicians inclined towards the politics of the left, while at the same time not being as radical as the far-left politicians.

Biden announced his bid for the 2020 US elections in April 2019. He has since become the presidential nominee of the Democratic party after contention with various new and existing faces in the party. His association with the Patriot Act and different Affirmative action give him significantly higher approval ratings than his adversary, Donald Trump. According to Financial Times, his bid for the presidency would be successful if the elections were held today. It is in this context that the election is set to take place in November 2020, just three months from now.

The US and the GERD

There are so many indicators one could use in making this point. This article will use two. A generic argument that the US government plays a strong role in any geopolitical issue. And the context of the #GERD and the effect of policies by the US regarding Ethiopia’s #MegaDam. 

In the context of any geo-political issue the US – which has been one of the key actors in world politics for several centuries- is a very important ally as well as a serious adversary depending on which side you are on. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the US has the VETO power only held by five other countries. This is a very key tool that the United States possesses, and also the same reason any country would love to have the US by its side in any geopolitical issue. 

In addition to the power, however, the US is also the most “interfering” nation in the world. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the US’s role in international politics since the end of the second world war is mainly in four areas (i.e. Global leadership, the promotion of international order, promotion of human rights and the prevention of hegemonic regimes in the Eurasia region). It is therefore customary to see US involvement in the major geopolitical issues of the world. For instance, the US is at the heart of peace negotiations in the middle-east while at the same time playing a central role in the negotiations surrounding the #GERD as we speak. 

The role of the US in the #GERD is also very important. Thus far, the United States has played (or at least tried to play) an integral part in the negotiations surrounding Ethiopia’s megadam. From its recurrent role as a mediator in the negotiations to the threats of cutting aid given to Ethiopia over the lack of an agreement regarding the #GERD, the United States has participated actively in the negotiations. The Trump administration was even criticized for being unjustly one sided in the negotiations when news of the cut-aid strategy surfaced last July. The controversial tweet by the US National Security Council on June 17, 2020 tweeted around the time Ethiopia was planning to fill its megadam is a great indicator of the above argument:

257 million people in east #Africa are relying on #Ethiopia to show strong leadership, which means striking a fair deal. Technical issues have been resolved – time to get the GERD deal done before filling it with Nile River water!

— NSC (@WHNSC) June 17, 2020

It is for this and many reasons that this article asserts that the US plays an integral role in international politics as well as in the context of Ethiopia’s GERD project. But what specific aspects of the geopolitics of the dam make US interests important. And what current realities make US policies not as significant as earlier times. Let’s explore this briefly below. 

But the above argument is by no means meant to suggest neither that the faith of the GERD depends on who is elected nor that the US influence in the international arena is unchecked. This is because of many geopolitical reasons. For the sake of brevity let us consider two. One is that the GERD never had an enthusiastic international backing. The project lacked financial and political support since its construction began in April 2011 until the initial filling of the dam in July 2020. One can argue that the 4.5 Billion dollar project reached its current stage because of the resilience of the Ethiopian people and the commitment of the government despite changes in personnel. Nonetheless, the geopolitical relevance of the US in the politics surrounding the GERD is  .

The consensus over America First 

Could one confidently say that a president from democratic party would benefit the GERD? Probably not. Even though Biden might appeal to most people over Trump, he might not necessarily take a neutral side let alone allying with Ethiopia. This is because the two parties are really not different from one another. In an Op-Ed article on the Crimson White, Carter Yancey claims that the two parties are essentially the same. The author forwards the lack of ideological differences between the parties as his justification. Yancey writes:

the reason both political parties are hypocritical in how they deal with virtually every issue is because politics has moved away from its root in philosophy. the founding fathers were academics, lawyers and philosophers. politicians nowadays are…well, politicians.

Even though both parties have ideologies on certain issues such as abortion, taxation and the so called american values when it comes to foriegn policy the two parties are really not that different from one another.  This is because the cornerstone of US politics is securing the political, economic and cultural interest of the country. Public opinion is integral to US politics. Presidents have shifted policies they advocated for during campaigns to meet public needs when it comes to foriegn policy in the US. Obama expanded the “war on terror” despite his campaign promise to exercise more restraint in US military operation, while Trump has increased the military budget while in office despite his rhetoric over the need to minimize US troops in different countries. 

For these reasons, there is a serious chance that even if the policies of Biden might seem more favorable to Ethiopia at first glance (much research needs to be done to assert this), he might take similar approaches to the Nile issue. Therefore, the change in personnel and even the change in the incumbent party might not result in a significant shift in US policy over the GERD. 

Abeselom Samson – co-founder of Shengo Global and peace and security expert  – believes in the above rhetoric. When asked how important the elections in November could be, he said that:

when it comes to america – and most other states honestly – the primary consideration is national interest. that’s the rule of diplomacy. and america is the primal example of this. what will ultimately matter is the leverage we have as opposed to the leverage the egyptians hold. in contemporary geo-politics egypt is still a strong ally for the us while the ethiopian influence has dwindled with the east and horn of africa region relatively stabilizing.

Abeselom believes Ethiopia must increase its relevance in the region and the continent in order to salvage US support or atleast US neutrality over the GERD negotiations. This is an integral component of the discussion in question; be it Trump or Biden the interest of the nation is the driving force of the country. And currently Sisi simply has more leverage than Abiy. 

The #BLM and its relevance to the GERD

Possibly one of the key events during Trump’s presidency, the recent wave of the #blacklivesmatter movement in the United States swept across the world following the tragic killing of 46 year old George Floyd on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After a video of George’s asphyxiation went viral, protests swept the major cities in the United States and other parts of the world. Strong political victories came in the form of proposals to reform the police, budgetary decisions regarding the police, the destruction of colonial monuments in and out of America and many more forms. The greatest, however, maybe the contribution it is expected to have on black voting. CNBC reported that black voter registration surged amid the protests following Floyd’s killing asserting that black and latino votes could play a critical role in tipping the election towards Biden. Biden’s endorsement of the movement and Trump’s questionable strategy with regards to the same may play a key role as well.

The letter by the Congressional Black Caucus calling on the African Union to take a central role last June coupled with the recent surge in political involvement of minorities could play a key role in the United States involvement in the GERD negotiations. Trump was criticized for taking a biased position when it comes to the negotiations following the speculations that he was considering cutting aid if Ethiopia fails to agree terms over the GERD’s operation. This coupled with a possible increase in the representation of minority voices could play a critical role in defining the policy of the US around the GERD for the next four years. 

In this context, the election of Joe Biden in November 2020 looks like the most favorable outcome for Ethiopia when it comes to the GERD. This is because Biden has a better reputation when it comes to race politics than Donald Trump. 

The relevance of individual temperaments of US Presidents in informing US foriegn policy

This is not unique to the US. However, it is best seen in the US political topography. Even though demcratic systems such as the US have legal systems in place to make sure actions of heads of state are checked, the individual temperament of the US president is quite important nonetheless. Thankfully, Trump has demonstrated this more clearly than much of the other US presidents. Even though his executive orders repealing anything Obama signed met deadly ends in congress on several occasions, the personal temperament of Donald Trump has definitely affected US internal politics and global influence on metrioric levels. From his immensely fluid cabinet to his tendency to act independent of the other branches of government, Trump’s personal character has been instrumental in the past four years of his presidency.

To better demonstrate this, let us see the efforts of the US – the most affected nation by the corona pandemic – to deal with the COVID19 pandemic and how Trump’s personal traits affected these efforts. On an episode of the Daily Show with Trevor Noah that attempts to compare the 1918 Spanish Flu with the current global pandemic, Trevor puts this reality in context brilliantly. He starts his segment with the words “In both eras the pandemic spread even further because of the mismanagement of the Federal government”. He shows the striking similarity between the messages of both Trump and the US president during the Spanish Flu, President Woodrow Wilson. Both encouraged public gatherings. Both downplayed the epidemics. Trump tweeted in March 2020 that the coronavirus pandemic was not as deadly as the common flu arguing against lockdowns. Like Trevor, many believe that the lack of leadership has cost the US more lives and resources than it would have had under a different administration.

Mekdelawit Messay – a freelance water sciences researcher and in her own words a nile enthusiast – believes this translates to the GERD negotiations and the role of the US in them. She recalls the decision by Donald Trump to appoint the treasury department as opposed to the State Department. Because the staff at the Treasury department was not familiar with the matter a significant amount of time was wasted trying to explain the GERD and all its diplomatic pitfalls. “I don’t think the results of the election would affect the negotiations substantively. But the tendency to make rash decisions by Trump could contribute to the negotiations being halted.” Mekdelawit also stresses even though Biden might not offer significant shifts in the policies of the US when it comes to Ethiopia’s mega-dam, his long political career and experience would at least contribute to the US becoming a more predictable actor in the matter. 

Mekdelawit does not stand alone in this. Different critics from the democratic party as well as Trump’s republican party have spoken out on Trump for his biased position over the issue of the dam. The Congressional Black Caucus asked Trump’s administration to allow the regional organization, the African Union, to assume the role of mediator in the absence of impartiality by Trump.

Conclusion

After 75 days the people of the United States will go out to vote for either the incumbent Trump or the confirmed democratic nominee Joe Biden. Debates are scheduled to take place on September 29 and October 22 and the voting will take place on November 3, 2020. Naturally, citizens of the US have the most to lose or gain in the upcoming elections. But so does the whole world. The above article has tried to show the different political realities that are determinant of the possible effect of the upcoming elections on US policy surrounding the GERD. There is no definitive answer for this. One can simply speculate. Within reason that is what this article has attempted to do; reasonable speculate

Before pulling the plug on this article, however, let us talk about one more thing. Would anyone want Trump on the wheels? It is understandable that the supporters of the Make America Great Again camp have their own political ideals that drive their support to the Trump administration. That is neither the concern of this article nor relevant to the conversation around the #GERD. To the contrary, the article are asking the question from a diplomacy point of view. And the answer is most likely no if you are an Ethiopian. Trump’s role in the current Israel-Palestine peace negotiations is a perfect example for this. Let’s finish this article on this thought. 

Source: Addis Zeybe

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