The Making of an African “Pariah”: Eritrea in the International System

Michael Woldemariam


Beginning in 2009, the State of Eritrea found itself increasingly isolated in international fora. The most significant indicators of this trend were UN Security Council sanctions and investigations sponsored by the UN Human Rights Council that ostensibly targeted the Eritrean state for its external and internal policies. What explains Eritrea’s slide into, for lack of a better term, “pariah” status? This article seeks to complicate, but not deny, approaches that situate pariah states as a product of their own ideological, institutional, and material characteristics. I argue that three major international political transformations produced a set of interlocking forces that propelled Eritrea’s international isolation. These were the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border War, the 9-11 attacks, and the rapid growth of Al Shabaab in 2007–2008. In so doing, I suggest that while the state of Eritrea has been no victim of circumstance, its emergence as an international pariah would not have been possible without important structural shifts in the international politics of the Horn of Africa.


What lessons does the Eritrean case offer scholars of international relations? In a field dominated by the study of Great and Middle Powers, can a country of six million people, just 26 years old, teach us something new about the practice of international politics in the contemporary age? The answer to this question, this essay argues, is a resounding yes.[1] When Eritrea entered the international system in 1993, it was embraced as a hopeful exemplar of what might be possible on the African continent. This was not only because of its remarkable history—and its long and unlikely road to independence—but because it had the opportunity many African states at the end of the Cold War did not; an ability to start from scratch, learn from Africa’s “mistakes,” and chart a new course towards rapid economic and political progress. Two decades later, of course, the standard narrative was much different. While Eritrea was once touted by the international community as a country pregnant with possibilities, it soon found itself on the margins of the international system, its government treated as “pariah” by many of the international institutions and gatekeepers of international political order that had earlier sang its praises. 

This reversal of Eritrea’s international fortunes, from poster child of promise, to international pariah, sits at the heart of this essay. International relations scholarship tends to treat the pariah state as a product of its own behavioral patterns, driven as it were, by its internal characteristics—its ideology, the nature of its ruling apparatus, or its material resources. I argue that such an approach is incomplete, and that Eritrea’s rapidly shifting international fortunes had as much to do with changes in the international political environment as they did with the internal characteristics of its party-state. In the Eritrean case, these changes in the “international political environment” turned on three important transformations, the first and third that were regional, and the second that was more global in nature: the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, the September 11th attacks, and the emergence of a rejuvenated and more radicalized Somali Islamist movement in 2009. These three transformations pushed the United States—the world’s preeminent global power—into increasing, if inadvertent, conflict with Eritrea’s party-state that would result in the international isolation of the latter. 

In this essay’s view, it is here that the true significance of the Eritrean case rests. By examining how the shifting strategic considerations of global powers have shaped Eritrea’s emergence as a pariah state, the Eritrean case forces us to consider the way in which pariah states in international politics are forged, rather than born. This reality has significant implications for how the international system should engage with, and seek to transform, those states that sit at its political margins. 

The next section lays out the conceptual basis of this essay, defining the concept of the pariah state and clarifying the theoretical approaches available in thinking about its emergence. The following section lays out what were the main features of Eritrea’s pariah status. The third part of the essay describes why the US was central to forging the political process that led to Eritrea’s international isolation. The fourth section describes how three international political shifts undermined the US-Eritrea relationship and led to Eritrea’s international isolation. The final section offers some concluding reflections about the significance of the Eritrean case to the broader literature on pariah states.

Pariah States in International Relations

In exploring Eritrea’s slide into pariah status, it is important to be concrete about what the term means. Although for some, the term “pariah” might possess normative overtones, evoking impressions of a state whose leadership is guided by sinister impulses, I strip the term of any value judgments. Instead, I view pariah status as an empirical condition, in which the balance of a state’s conduct, either domestically or internationally, is considered by a consensus within the international community to be outside the bounds of normal, acceptable behavior. This consensus is not simply rhetorical, but concrete, and reflected institutionally within international forums, through formal legal efforts to punish the state or exclude it from normal international relations.[2] 

It is also the case that pariah status is fundamentally about power: namely, who has it, and who doesn’t. Consensus in the international system on who should and should not be the target of international approbation, is often driven by Great Powers, who possess the means to establish global norms and expectations and insist when the international community recognize they have been violated. For this reason, pariahs tend be smaller states lacking Great Power backing.[3] 

In the context of the post-Cold War unipolar moment, it’s a simple fact that pariah states tend to be in direct political confrontation with the US. Indeed, smaller states generally don’t violate the global norms the US seeks to uphold, nor are they ostracized for that behavior, if they have productive ties with Washington. One consequence of this reality is that the concept of the pariah state has functionally merged with what the US foreign policy establishment came to view as the “rogue” state—a label introduced by the Clinton administration, but later popularized by the Bush administration’s effort to classify states that posed particularly alarming challenges to US strategic interests after 9-11.[4] This modified version of the pariah state, then, situates it as not simply isolated, but “revisionist,” pursuing a foreign policy deliberately designed to counter US strategic imperatives at the regional and global levels.[5] 

If contemporary pariahs are revisionist states, at least vis-à-vis the US, then explaining pariah status requires that we understand why. Why do these states commit themselves to countering US strategic imperatives when it often comes at the cost of international isolation? The literature on revisionist states, and particularly weak revisionist states, suggests that their behavior turns on the nature of the ruling regime: whether it is “revolutionary” and/or infused with an anti-American ideological current; whether it is subject to democratic constraints; and whether it has access to natural resources that it can parlay into a viable model of autarky.[6] 

The Eritrean case suggests that this perspective is limited. This is not because the internal characteristics of the PFDJ’s “party state” haven’t played a role in its revisionism and international isolation. What published work exists on Eritrean foreign policy suggests that the character of the PFDJ—its ideology, its centralization, and its personalism—has profoundly shaped the foreign policy behaviors that have contributed to the country’s troubled international relations.[7] Nothing in this essay is meant to suggest otherwise. However, the international context in which this small African state operates has also been an important and absolutely necessary factor in structuring its emergence as a pariah state. More specifically, it’s necessary to examine the shifting contours of the international political environment, and its impact on the strategic calculus of the United States—the world’s preeminent global power—in the Horn of Africa.

The Trappings of an African Pariah State

The Eritrean government often rejects the premise that it is, or has ever been, internationally isolated.[8] It does so by highlighting what it says are productive relations with states of the Global South, and by attributing any tensions in its relations with other countries to the pernicious influence of the US and Ethiopia. As will become clear in this essay, the latter point is not without merit, insofar as Ethiopia, and to a greater extent the US, have been crucial to forging the diplomatic consensus needed to isolate Eritrea in the international system. In and of itself, however, these realities did not, and do not, make the fact of Eritrea’s international isolation any less true. As has already been asserted, most pariah states are functionally rendered pariahs through the political will of Great Powers.[9] 

On the former point, there is little doubt that Eritrea retains increasingly productive, generally rancor free relations with non-traditional powers like China, Turkey, and South Africa.[10] China accounts for nearly 20 percent of Eritrean exports and 33 percent of its imports.[11] The Chinese state-owned port construction company, CHEC, holds the contract for the Massawa New Port Project—the largest infrastructure project in Eritrean history—that will produce port upgrades valued at USD 400 million. Chinese loans have been instrumental to improving Eritrean infrastructure in the areas of telecommunications, cement production, and health care. In 2007, the Chinese government lent Eritrea USD 60 million to finance Asmara’s purchase of a 40 percent stake in Nevsun’s Bisha mine—a mine that remains the single most productive economic asset in the country and is responsible for furnishing the Eritrean government with almost 1 billion in revenue since it was brought on line in 2011.[12] 

Eritrea’s relationships with Turkey and South Africa, while not as economically significant as its linkages with China, are also generally warm. Turkey played a critical role in meeting Asmara’s desperate need for regular air links between Eritrea and the outside world, when Turkish Airlines introduced three flights per week between Istanbul and Asmara in May 2014. This resolved an acute aviation crisis brought on by Lufthansa’s October 2013 decision to end flights servicing Asmara.[13] Eritrea’s relations with South Africa, for its part, involved some cooperation in the mining sector, and very close and collegial diplomatic linkages between the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice and the African National Congress.[14]

These ties sit alongside an evolving relationship with the Arab world. Eritrea had for some time close relations with Qaddafi’s Libya, as well as a diplomatic partnership with Qatar. The GCC’s (minus Oman) intervention in Yemen contributed to a deepening security partnership between Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, through which Asmara has likely traded access to Eritrean territory and airspace for economic assistance.[15] 

Even relations with the EU have expanded in recent years, propelled by European concerns over Eritrean migration. Despite significant controversy, by 2015, it was clear the EU would pursue an aid package to Eritrea under its 11th European Development Fund, to the tune of $229 million over six years.[16] Individual European states are now engaging Eritrea more intensely, with the objective of establishing a workable framework for reducing the flow of refugees and streamlining refoulement. 

Valuable though these relationships may be, they have not been converted into political capital Eritrea could employ in defending its interests where it has mattered most: in international fora where Eritrea has been repeatedly censured, sanctioned, and rebuked by the international community. Although there are some recent signs that this situation may be changing, as Eritrea broadens its diplomatic dealings and leverages them more adeptly at places like the UN, it is in exactly such settings that Eritrea’s international isolation has been thrown into sharpest relief. 

Eritrea is the target of two UN Security Council resolutions, the first that imposed sanctions, and the second that expanded them. The stated cause of these sanctions was Eritrea’s alleged involvement in Somalia via its support of the Islamist militant group, Al Shabaab—an express violation of the UN imposed Somalia arms embargo—and the Eritrean government’s failure to amicably resolve its border dispute with Djibouti. Although the latest evidence suggests that Eritrea’s involvement in Somalia is now inconsequential, its dispute with Djibouti remains unresolved, despite both countries’ accession to a Qatari mediated peace process. The main issue, according to Djibouti, appears to be Eritrea’s failure to account for Djiboutian prisoners of war. 

The legal basis of the Eritrea sanctions regime is UNSC 1907, which was adopted on December 23, 2009 and received near unanimous support, with 13 Security Council members voting in favor of the resolution. The two exceptions were Libya and China, the former voting against, and the latter abstaining. The most significant aspect of the sanctions regime was an arms embargo that prohibited Eritrea’s import and export of weapons and associated material. Although Eritrea maintains a capacity to import and export arms through black market trade, many UN member states actively enforce the arms embargo.[17] The other aspects of the sanctions regime were asset freezes and travel bans on Eritrean government officials involved in channeling Eritrean support to armed groups in Somalia, pending the identification of these officials by a relevant UN committee. However, at the present time, no names have forthcoming, rendering this dimension of the sanctions resolution inconsequential. 

Almost two years later, the UNSC expanded the Eritrea sanctions regime through the passage of UNSC 2023, which was adopted on December 5, 2011. Again, 13 Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution, with two countries, Russia and China, abstaining. Essentially, the resolution called on UN member states to more concretely regulate the two key sources of revenue of the Eritrean government: its burgeoning mining sector and its controversial two percent “diaspora tax.”[18] More specifically, it asked UN member states to ensure that revenues from these two sources were not used for illicit purposes, with illicit being effectively defined as anything that violated the arms embargo. In the case of the diaspora tax, UN member states were also called upon to ensure that the Eritrean government did not employ “extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means to collect taxes outside of Eritrea from its nationals or other individuals of Eritrean descent.”[19] 

Like UNSC 1907, 2023 was meant to be binding on member states. However, neither the resolution nor follow-up deliberations provided guidance about how to implement its provisions, beyond indicating that states should take “appropriate measures” in guaranteeing that the State of Eritrea’s operation of its mining sector and diaspora tax was in accord with the sanctions regime. The vague language of “appropriate measures” quickly became a significant problem for the Eritrean government, because it established an international legal basis for states to take their own initiative in defining what measures were required. For example, the UK and Canada, countries that are home to large Eritrean diasporas, mandated that the Eritrean government end collection of the diaspora tax within their borders. In the case of Canada, the Eritrean government’s failure to comply led Foreign Affairs Minister Jon Baird to expel the Eritrean Consul General in 2013.[20] Other countries, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, have considered similar action, although the Swedish Parliament declined to pursue further measures in early 2014. The mining sector has generally been the focus of less public scrutiny, although Canada has held a series of parliamentary hearings on the issue in which officers from Canadian mining firm, Nevsun, have been asked to testify. 

The critical piece of the Eritrea sanctions regime is the Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG), a group of experts tasked with assessing Eritrea’s compliance with the sanctions, and progress on the issues (Somalia and Djibouti) that provoked them. Its recommendations to the UNSC are critical to building the consensus necessary to maintaining the sanctions regime. Most of the SEMG’s annual reports have been highly critical of Eritrea, citing both its non-compliance with the sanctions regime and its continuing failure to modify the behaviors that provided the rationale for the sanctions. That said, more recent reports, such as those issued in 2015 and 2016, have found no evidence of Eritrean involvement in Somalia. Still, SEMG reports continue to recommend a continuation of the sanctions. While the UNSC must undertake a special vote to rescind the sanctions, the SEMG must be renewed annually. Generally speaking, the annual renewals have received overwhelming support at the UNSC, and in 2014, only Russia and Jordan failed to endorse the renewal by abstaining. 

The severity of the Eritrea sanctions regime underscored just how thoroughly Eritrea had been isolated politically. While a number of states, including South Africa, Russia, and China, have made periodic efforts during deliberations of the UNSC to water down the sanctions, the fact remains that it is one of the most punitive UNSC sanctions regimes currently on the books. North Korea is the only other UNSC sanctions regime that currently involves an arms embargo imposed on a UN member state. Meanwhile, other African states such as Sudan and Zimbabwe have been repeatedly shielded from arms embargoes by the support of China and Russia. 

As Eritrea has run into serious trouble at the UNSC, there have been parallel developments at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, for altogether different reasons. In response to worsening human rights conditions in the country, the Council adopted a resolution creating a special rapporteur for Eritrea at its 20th session in 2012. This was the first non-cooperative country mandate passed by consensus in the history of the UN Human Rights Council. After a series of explosive reports from Special Rapporteur Sheila Keetharuth, the Council approved the creation of a three-person Commission of Inquiry (COI) to further assess human rights conditions in the country. At its establishment, it was only the third such commission created in Council history, next to those established to investigate the situations in North Korea and Syria. In 2015, the COI released its findings, which were just as alarming as those of the Special Rapporteur. Over Eritrean protest, the Council decided to extend the mandate of both the Special Rapporteur and the COI, while expanding the COI’s mandate by tasking it with investigating whether the Eritrean government was guilty of crimes against humanity. 

At the regional level, Eritrea found itself equally isolated. In mid 2009, it was the African Union (AU) that requested the UNSC place sanctions on Eritrea, a request that created initial momentum for the UNSC 1907. The AU request was unprecedented as it was the first time it had formally made the case for this sort of punitive action at the UNSC against an African member state.[21] Moreover, all sanctions resolutions tabled at the UNSC were tabled by African states. Meanwhile, IGAD, the Horn of Africa’s regional organization, made a similar request to the UNSC, a move that actually paved the way for the AU’s critical endorsement. At the current time, IGAD member states have blocked Eritrea from readmission to the organization, which it withdrew from in 2007 over protest of Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia.

The United States as a Critical Actor

Eritrea’s slide into pariah status was largely a function of the marked deterioration in its relationship with the US between 2001–2009. In the post-Cold War, unipolar moment, US diplomatic maneuvering—or at the very least acquiescence—has been the single most decisive factor in the UNSC’s deployment of punitive measures against member states.[22] This is a basic reality recognized by many scholars of the UNSC. There are two obvious reasons for US predominance on matters of UNSC sanctions, beyond the obvious fact that it has leverage as a Great Power to forge needed consensus. First, two veto wielding members of the UNSC—France and UK—are junior alliance partners of the US, and as such, their behavior at the UNSC is often aligned with the US. Meanwhile, as a general principle, Russia and China tend to spurn the deployment of punitive country-specific actions at the UNSC, and therefore almost never take a leading role in orchestrating sanctions regimes. These trends are reflected across other UN institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council. 

Beyond this, there is plenty of specific evidence that the US was the decisive force in Eritrea’s international isolation. First, key players like France, Germany, and the EU, had initial doubts about the appropriateness of deploying sanctions against Eritrea, but it was the active lobbying of Washington that changed their positions.[23] Moreover, it was the US that encouraged the AU and AU member states to officially request the UNSC place sanctions on Asmara, because it understood that this would constitute an African stamp of approval that Russia, China, and other UNSC members would be reluctant to ignore via an exercise of their veto power. The US also sponsored the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that introduced the Special Rapporteur. There is also some evidence that during discussions about the second sanctions resolution in December of 2011, Washington sought to prevent President Isaias Afwerki from attending the proceedings in a bid to ensure the resolution’s passage.[24] Heads of state and foreign ministers from neighboring countries that were in favor of the resolution—namely Ethiopia and Djibouti—were able to make their case via teleconference. More recently, the US endorsed all subsequent Eritrea focused resolutions at the UNSC and UNHRC that ensured the maintenance of the sanctions regime and investigative mechanisms at the UNHRC. The US has made it clear that it will not countenance a removal of these measures until Eritrea demonstrates what it considers to be behavioral change, and it is a broadly recognized fact that Washington will veto any UNSC resolution designed to undo the sanctions. Finally, it is worth pointing out that the United States was the only country to show initiative on UNSC 1907’s effort to sanction Eritrean persons involved in channeling military support to Somalia’s Islamists. In 2010, President Obama issued Executive Order 13536, which imposed an asset freeze on Yemane Gebreab, head of political affairs for the PFDJ and key lieutenant of President Isaias. 

It is tempting to believe that Ethiopia’s regional predominance, as the Horn’s preeminent military power, emerging economic juggernaut, and diplomatic hub, account for Eritrea’s international isolation. On one level, this line of argument is strong. There can be little doubt that Ethiopian diplomatic influence played a role in IGAD and the AU’s UNSC sanctions requests, and that Ethiopia wields substantial influence on and through Washington on matters pertaining to the Horn of Africa. But alone, this is an inadequate explanation for Asmara’s international isolation, since Ethiopia had steadily sought to isolate Eritrea diplomatically since its early rupture in relations in 1998. Yet it was only when US-Eritrea relations had reached their nadir, for reasons that were mostly unrelated to Ethiopian exhortations on Washington, that Eritrea’s diplomatic isolation became a reality with passage of UNSC 1907.[25]

The Unlikely Beginnings of an African Pariah State

Like many pariah states in the international system, the Eritrean state has a fairly well-developed narrative of victimhood that situates the US as its bête noir.[26] In this narrative, which is rooted in some deep historical realities but a fair bit of exaggeration, the US is a belligerent state whose influence has been behind a litany of historical injustices against the Eritrean people. These include a sustained effort to deny Eritrea its right to self-determination during the long War of Independence, plots to undermine the Eritrean government during the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border War (1998–2000), the continued occupation of Eritrean territory by Ethiopia, and even the current exodus of Eritrean youth. Eritrea’s international isolation, in this perspective, was but a capstone in a long historical project of subversion orchestrated by successive administrations in Washington. Undergirding this entire narrative is the claim that the US is fundamentally opposed to Eritrea’s existence as an independent state. 

From Asmara’s perspective, the rationale behind “Unprovoked US Hostilities Against Eritrea,”—the title of a key polemic produced by the PFDJ in 2012—have been myopic geopolitical imperatives that have driven the US to provide unqualified support to Ethiopia as its “regional enforcer.” This historic bias has been compounded by the danger of Eritrea’s “power of example,” as a defiant, self-reliant African nation that has rejected the US’ imperialistic impulses.[27] 

All of this might suggest that PFDJ-led Eritrea has always been a revisionist state ideologically anchored in anti-Americanism and deeply committed to opposing American hegemony both regionally and globally. Eritrea’s international isolation, then, might be considered a reflection of this inbuilt ideological orientation, and the rejection of global norms that it entails. 

Yet this view gets the causal dynamic wrong. As will become clear, the current ideological orientation of PFDJ-led Eritrea is less the cause of its international isolation and more its consequence. When one carefully examines the PFDJ’s early postindependence foreign policy, it is clear that it initially contained little revisionist content. In fact, Eritrean foreign policy represented an almost overt endorsement of US priorities and strategic imperatives both at the global and regional level for much of the 1990s. A quick review of the early bilateral relationship illustrates this point well. 

A striking aspect of the EPLF’s (the PFDJ’s predecessor organization) long history as an armed national liberation movement is that despite Washington’s long-standing opposition to Eritrean independence—manifested through its political support of Ethiopian claims to the territory—the EPLF exhibited relatively little anti-Americanism. To be sure, the US was not always a willing ally of Ethiopia when it came to the Eritrea question, as it regarded Ethiopia’s centralizing overreach as a key driver of the conflict, and at times sought to limit its support for Ethiopian military objectives in the unruly province. Yet practically speaking, no one, least of all the EPLF, had any real doubts about where the US stood on the Eritrea question. 

Although it is true that the EPLF was imbued with a thinly formulated conception of Marxism, there was little in its rhetoric that could be interpreted as anti-US vitriol.[28] In part, this was because the security partnership between the US and Ethiopia had abruptly ended by 1977, and by the late 1980s, the EPLF had largely shorn its Marxist garb. But even before the rupture of the mid-1970s, when Washington was footing virtually the entire bill for the Imperial Ethiopian Government’s 40,000 man army, the EPLF steered clear of conveying an image of open hostility toward the US. While the US privately feared Eritrean insurgent attacks on their signals installation at the Kagnew facility in Asmara, these fears were never realized, despite the obvious capacity of the EPLF and its nationalist rivals to launch such an assault. In fact, the EPLF never raised Kagnew base as a political issue worthy of dispute, an omission that is a telling indication of its ideological disposition towards Washington. The EPLF did occasionally detain, almost inadvertently, US citizens that it came across in the field, but they were generally quickly released with little fan-fare. Meanwhile, the EPLF maintained a consistent official presence in Washington through which it sought to engage US officials and persuade them of the legitimacy of the Eritrean nationalist position.[29] 

In the waning days of the war against the Derg, as Soviet support for Mengistu ground to a halt and the regime began to teeter under the pressure of the rebellions in the north, Washington decided to formally engage the EPLF. This engagement came through the person of Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen, who sought to mediate four-way negotiations between the EPLF, the TPLF, the OLF, and the Derg. For the US, the prime objective of this mediation was to avoid further bloodshed by negotiating a mutually acceptable transitional settlement amongst the parties. In the end, Cohen’s efforts were overtaken by the military gains of the EPLF and its allies, who defeated the Derg and took control of the Ethiopian state. 

The EPLF’s military victory presented the US with a fait accompli on the issue of Eritrean self-determination. After a referendum in 1993, the US became one of the first countries in the world to recognize an independent Eritrea, and quickly deployed an embassy and ambassador to Asmara to deepen diplomatic relations. 

In 1994, USAID established a formal presence in the country, although it had begun funding projects two years earlier. By the late 1990s, a robust bilateral aid relationship between the two countries had emerged, with one USAID memorandum noting that that the agency enjoyed “a high degree of confidence and collegiality with the government of Eritrea.”[30] As the fledgling aid relationship suggests, US perceptions of the government in Asmara were generally positive, although US diplomats recognized the prickly and somewhat mercurial nature of the Eritrean leadership. There were two specific areas where US officials had concerns. The first were the PFDJ’s policies towards international NGOs, which were quite obviously designed to assert full control of, and eventually remove, the international NGO presence in Eritrea. These policies culminated in a January 1998 order that all international NGOs in the country close their operations. The order was never implemented, but since many of these NGOs functioned as USAID implementing partners, it did for some time raise the prospect of future operational barriers to USAID programming. The second issue was Eritrea’s slow, halting pace of democratization, as the country had no organized opposition and no clear schedule for multiparty elections. 

Yet in Washington’s view, none of these issues were important enough to merit downgrading of bilateral relations. In 1997, First Lady Hillary Clinton visited Eritrea, and later that year President Clinton dubbed President Isaias and several other African heads of state “a new breed” of African leaders that were committed and capable agents of the African continent’s political and economic transformation. Shared security interests were no doubt central to propelling Washington’s interest in consolidating its relationship with Eritrea, as neighboring Sudan’s export of militant Islamism quickly put it at loggerheads with both countries. The US designated Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993, closed its embassy in Khartoum in 1996, and imposed comprehensive bilateral sanctions in 1997. For its part, Eritrea broke diplomatic relations with Khartoum in 1994, citing its sponsorship of militant groups that were infiltrating across the border into western Eritrea. This confluence of interests prompted the Clinton administration to channel military assistance to Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda, which were deemed “frontline states” in the effort to contain the Sudanese government’s aggressive Islamist foreign policy. 

Seen from the long view, the cozy relationship between Washington and Asmara during much of the 1990s illustrates the dramatic nature of the rupture in bilateral relations that was to come. As mentioned earlier, that reversal largely hinged on three international political developments, two occurring at the regional level and one that was of more global political significance. 

The Eritrean-Ethiopian Border War

May 1998 marked the beginning of the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border War, a conflict that was ostensibly triggered by a dispute over the small border village of Badme, but would fundamentally transform the region’s post-Cold War political order. Although generally not recognized at the time, the war would have two far-reaching effects on US-Eritrea relations. 

First, the war triggered an intense security rivalry between two US allies and forced Washington into the uncomfortable position of seeking to mediate between them. While the US sought to navigate a position of neutrality, and preserve its relationship with both countries, this was no easy task, as Asmara and Addis routinely accused the US of playing favorites. It was Eritrea, however, that was probably more dissatisfied with US mediation, since a US-Rwanda peace proposal tabled in the summer of 1998 seemed to echo Ethiopia’s negotiating position on the border dispute that triggered the war. The proposal called on the Eritrean government to vacate the disputed territories that it had seized on May 12, 1998 during the initial round of fighting. Eritrea rejected this early proposal, arguing it ignored Ethiopia’s earlier efforts in territorial aggrandizement. As a result, Eritrea’s leadership seemed to permanently sour on the mediation efforts of US Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice—a fact that would color Asmara’s later perception of the Obama administration during Rice’s tenure as UN Ambassador and National Security adviser. 

Washington obviously felt differently about its role during the conflict. From its perspective, the US-Rwanda proposal—which to the displeasure of Asmara would be the basis of all subsequent mediation efforts—was not an expression of pro-Ethiopian bias, but strategically the best way to resolve the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict. By asking Eritrea to withdraw from the territory it had seized in the early days of the dispute, it sought to reinforce the principle that states should not resort to force as a means of resolving competing territorial claims. Moreover, it believed that due to domestic political pressures, the Ethiopian government had much less negotiating room than Asmara. This was an argument that was based on the assumption that the EPRDF was a fragile minority government ruling over a largely hostile population.[31] In any case, these rationales likely fell on deaf ears within the Eritrean government, which saw US support for the proposal as a reversion to its historic favoritism of Ethiopia. 

The second major impact of the war was in its outcome. Although not generally appreciated, Ethiopia’s gains in the third and final phase of the war (May–June 2000) re-ordered the regional balance of power in some fundamental ways. While Ethiopia had always been a much larger country than Eritrea, and thus possessed a greater latent capacity to project power, the historical political seniority of the EPLF over the TPLF, and perceived domestic political fragility of the TPLF-led EPRDF government, had led Washington and much of the international community to the view that Eritrea was the pre-imminent—or at least a coequal—power in the region. Indeed, when the war began the US was doubtful of Ethiopia’s ability to penetrate the network of Eritrean defenses that protected the disputed territories.[32] The unforeseen Ethiopian successes of May–June 2000, when Ethiopia barreled across western Eritrea, seized most of the disputed territories, and occupied perhaps as much as 1/4th of Eritrea’s landmass, no doubt prompted the US to revisit its perspective on the regional power hierarchy. This new reality was further cemented by the June 2000 ceasefire agreement in which Eritrea was compelled to accept a 25-mile buffer zone entirely within its own territory and Ethiopia’s full control of much of the disputed territories.

The September 11th Effect

Standing alone, the regional shifts initiated by the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border War did not fundamentally alter the relationship between Washington and Asmara. In part, this is because the US had, over the course of the war, operated as a fairly neutral player in the context of Eritrea’s conflict with Ethiopia, despite whatever grievances Asmara may have had. The most compelling evidence of this neutrality was Washington’s mediation during the latter stages of the Border War, where it applied serious diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia to accept the December 2000 Algiers Agreement that committed it to final and binding arbitration of its border dispute with Eritrea.[33] US pressure was significant, since on its own, Eritrea lacked the leverage to achieve a settlement that would force Ethiopia to relinquish territory via arbitration that it had earned through military force. 

The other key issue was that the US, beyond its Sudan containment strategy, was not heavily invested in the Horn at a strategic level. This detachment enabled Washington to avoid further entanglements that could jeopardize its neutrality in the context of the Eritrean-Ethiopian security rivalry. 

Yet the September 11th terrorist attacks disrupted this equilibrium decisively. As the apparatus of the American state mobilized for the Global War on Terror, Africa emerged as an area of strategic relevance to US policymakers. In this “second front” in the War on Terror, the US would require strategic alliances with key African states in stabilizing the continent and ensuring it did not become a fertile breeding ground for the Al-Qaeda franchise. In the Horn, this new strategic interest was most prominently illustrated by the 2002 creation of the Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa, through which the US sought to institutionalize its strategic footprint in the region. 

Ethiopia’s renewed regional preeminence in the years after 9-11, seemingly clarified by the outcome of the Border War in 2000, made it a natural partner for the US. An early endorsement of this idea was the White House’s 2002 National Security Strategy, which listed Ethiopia as one of four continental “anchors” that required the US’ “focused attention.”[34] As a result, the US increased development and security related assistance to Addis, and in return, received enhanced intelligence cooperation from Ethiopia’s security establishment. 

Somalia was one particular arena where the US sought to leverage its counter-terrorism partnership with Ethiopia. The US was particularly concerned about the presence of known Al-Qaeda operatives in Mogadishu, a number of which were directly implicated in the 1998 Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings. As early as 2002, Washington began to direct resources towards warlords in south central Somalia in an effort to capture these Al-Qaeda targets. Ethiopia, for its part, had waged its own battles against Islamist militants in Somalia in the mid-1990s, and had the necessary intelligence infrastructure to support the US effort. 

In 2005, the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia created a more clear-cut convergence of interest between Washington and Addis. For somewhat different reasons, American and Ethiopian policy-makers were wary of the emergence of a consolidated Somali state under the leadership of an assertive Islamist regime. The two governments forged tighter operational linkages in their counter-terrorism efforts, a fact which became a subject of public scrutiny in the aftermath of Ethiopia’s December 2006 offensive that destroyed the ICU.[35] Using the cover of the Ethiopian intervention, the US launched a number of special operation strikes against Al-Qaeda affiliated targets embedded within the ICU, while assisting Ethiopian forces with intelligence, a naval blockade of ICU positions, and any diplomatic blowback that the African state may have received for its Somalia intervention.[36] 

Yet Washington did not view its post-9-11 relationship with Ethiopia and Eritrea in zero-sum, or mutually exclusive terms. In fact, it openly gestured towards a deepening of its security relationship with Asmara in the years after 9-11. Between September 11, 2001 and December 2002, CENTCOM commander General Tommy Franks visited Eritrea four times. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited in December 2002 (just before a visit to Ethiopia), where he extolled the virtues of enhanced security cooperation between Washington and Asmara by arguing that Eritrea “has considerably more experience than we do over a sustained period of time” in battling the scourge of terrorism.[37] The Eritrean government was eager to foster such a relationship, and through the American law firm Greenberg Traurig, lobbied Washington to place a US base in Eritrean territory. In 2003, Asmara sought to curry more favor with the US by enthusiastically joining its “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.[38] 

These efforts, however, would not bear fruit. By 2004, it was clear the US had decided against establishing a military base in Eritrea, preferring instead to locate its installation in neighboring Djibouti. No doubt, an American base in Eritrea would have antagonized Washington’s Ethiopian partners. Yet from Asmara’s perspective, the US decision was hardly a cause for a serious rift, since the US had not established a military base in Ethiopia and had continued to provide both economic and security assistance to Eritrea at significant levels.[39] 

Of more consequence to Eritrean policy makers was the status of its as yet unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia, and more specifically, the American role in hastening its conclusion. The Algiers Agreement, which was preceded by the already mentioned June 2000 ceasefire agreement, formally ended the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border War. The agreement’s key mechanism for resolving the border dispute that had ostensibly triggered the war was the Eritrean-Ethiopian Boundary Commission (EEBC). Interpreting evidence supplied by the parties through relevant legal principles, the commission would arbitrate between competing territorial claims and determine where the actual boundary lay. The decision of the EEBC was to be final and binding. As is well known, things would not prove to be so simple, eventually creating a context in which Washington and Asmara would move into full-fledged diplomatic collision. 

When the EEBC released its decision on April 13, 2002, Ethiopia hailed it as a vindication of its territorial claims. In effect, however, both sides failed to realize their territorial claims in full. When Addis more closely reviewed the decision, and discovered that the key flashpoint town of Badme had been awarded to Eritrea, it rejected the decision and blocked any effort at demarcation. Instead, it called for an “alternative mechanism” to the EEBC. To Addis, non-demarcation was of little consequence, since it occupied much of the disputed territory. Eritrea, which recognized that the territorial status quo was not desirable, obviously attached much greater urgency to the issue of demarcation. 

By November 2004, Ethiopian authorities had softened their position. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi issued a five-point peace proposal in which Ethiopia accepted the EEBC decision “in principle,” but sought “dialogue” on implementation and a broader normalization of relations. Ethiopia later dropped the “in principle” caveat. Effectively, Ethiopia was now demanding a quid pro quo from Eritrea for demarcating the border and relinquishing Badme—most likely small modifications to the border decision and explicit guarantees on normalization—rather than rejecting the EEBC decision outright. Eritrea correctly insisted that since the decision was meant to be final and binding, the demand for further dialogue—and a quid pro quo for demarcation and Ethiopian withdrawal from Badme—had no legal basis. All that was left was for Ethiopia to vacate what had been deemed Eritrean territory. It is this basic disagreement that has left border demarcation and the broader Algiers peace settlement in a permanent state of limbo. 

How the US responded to this impasse was to have a decisive impact on US-Eritrean relations. Asmara’s view was that the US was one of the most significant “guarantors” of the Algiers agreement (along with the UN, AU, Algeria, and the EU), and was thus obligated to apply pressure on Ethiopia to end its non-compliance, even deploying punitive measures if necessary. This would include a reduction in the sizeable bilateral assistance that the US provided Ethiopia, and with US support, the invocation of the UN Security Council’s Chapter 7 provisions against Ethiopia for its non-adherence to the EEBC decision. 

Indeed, a robust response from the US and the other “guarantors” was not simply an Eritrean hope; rather, it was the Eritrean expectation. In April 2004, Director of the President’s Office Yemane Gebremeskel argued that the impasse over the border would not continue indefinitely, as international pressure would soon force Ethiopia to comply with the boundary ruling: “I don’t think Ethiopia can defy international law for long,” Yemane said, “It is too dependent on international assistance. . . I don’t consider it [the current impasse] a stalemate and I don’t think it’s unlimited.”[40] 

Predictably, the US balked at the idea that it should bear the burden of pressing Ethiopia to comply with the EEBC decision. Given Ethiopian public opinion, Washington believed the EPRDF would resist external pressure on the border issue. Moreover, such pressure was likely to undercut the American efforts in democracy promotion in Ethiopia, and could erode the very stability of the Ethiopian state. This latter concern was linked to a more urgent worry: that a casualty of US pressure on Ethiopia would be the highly valuable US-Ethiopia counter-terrorism alliance, which was a virtual necessity for the US in Somalia. On this point, Washington was fairly honest that broader counter-terrorism concerns required they tread carefully in handling Ethiopia’s non-compliance with the EEBC decision.[41]

Washington was also not of the opinion that the Algiers Agreement positioned the US as an actual “guarantor” of the treaty, and thus obligated to sanction non-compliant parties. Importantly, the Agreement itself refers to the fact that it has been “witnessed by” US and other international parties.[42] This is a crucial distinction since it can be argued under conventional understandings of international law that “witnesses” to an agreement cannot be equated with “guarantors,” the latter of which might carry attendant enforcement obligations.[43] International and bi-lateral treaties are often self-enforcing, and it is not unusual that the burden of implementation rests with the concerned parties themselves.[44] 

Asmara was likely not persuaded by this legalese for a number of reasons, but had Washington’s perceived slights regarding the EEBC decision been contained to the level of inaction, it’s possible that a full rupture in US-Eritrea relations could have been avoided. Yet the US would appear to go one step further, taking purposive action that seemingly enabled Ethiopia to erode the final and binding provisions of the Algiers Agreement. Although the US remained steadfast in its official commitment to the Algiers Agreement, even the most charitable reading of Washington’s behavior suggests that it was operating in direct contravention of the spirit, if not the letter, of the accord. This behavior would provoke the Eritreans, and create toxic relationship between Washington and Asmara that would have far reaching implications for Eritrea’s status in the international system. 

The crux of the issue was the Bush administration’s quiet endorsement of the seemingly benign, but legally incorrect, notion of “dialogue.” This endorsement logically followed from its unwillingness to pressure the Ethiopian government to implement the EEBC decision. Washington did not want to see the stalemate persist, as it worried about the resumption of hostilities between the two countries, and the cost and continued viability of the UNMEE mission—a UN mandated peacekeeping force that patrolled the border areas. Indeed, by December 2005, the Eritrean government had placed such severe operational restrictions on UNMEE that the international community feared the mission would unravel, undermining the credibility of UN peacekeeping operations and removing an essential barrier to a resumption of hostilities along the Eritrean-Ethiopian frontier. 

Yet absent American pressure on Ethiopia, the only logical way to jump start the border demarcation process was for the US to encourage “dialogue” in the form of a third-party facilitation effort that could work alongside and support the EEBC. Early on, Washington’s tendency to favor “dialogue” was exhibited by its support of UNSG Special Representative for Eritrea-Ethiopia, Lloyd Axworthy, who was appointed by the UN Secretary General in January 2004. Asmara refused to engage Axworthy, arguing that the Algiers Agreement did not provide the scope for this sort of mediation in resolving the border impasse. No doubt, Asmara recognized that the assignment of a special envoy was an implicit recognition of the Ethiopian position that further “dialogue” was necessary to implement the EEBC decision. Again, in the Eritrean view, the EEBC decision was final and binding, and all that remained was for Ethiopia to implement the agreement without preconditions. 

Eritrean resistance to Axworthy’s mission doomed it from the very beginning. Keen to avoid a deterioration of the situation along the border, Washington supported another effort designed to generate dialogue between the parties, this time with more direct American fingerprints. In January 2006, US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer visited the region in an effort to jump-start the stalled boundary demarcation process. Her mission was encouraged by UN officials, who on the back of Axworthy’s failed mission, believed that only the US could get traction on boundary demarcation.[45] Frazer’s plan was to visit both Ethiopia and Eritrea, and travel to the disputed Badme region from both sides of the frontier. The Eritrean government provided a visa to Frazer, but refused to allow her to visit the disputed border area, since again, doing so would be a tacit endorsement of the notion that further dialogue was necessary to the implementation of the EEBC decision. In the end, Frazer decided against visiting Eritrea, and entered Badme from the Ethiopian side. Not surprisingly, this upset the Eritrean government, who would publically accuse Frazer of visiting “a sovereign Eritrean territory under Ethiopian occupation without Eritrea’s permission.”[46] 

Despite obvious Eritrean resistance, Washington again forged ahead to bridge the divide between the two countries. Frazer’s effort led to the convening of the Witnesses of the Algiers Agreement in February 2006, and its issuance of an important statement that was backed by the UN Security Council. After insisting on the final and binding nature of the EEBC decision and requesting the EEBC call a meeting of the two sides, the statement of the Witnesses invited the EEBC to “consider the need for technical discussions with the support of neutral facilitator to assist the process of demarcation.”[47] The US tapped General Carlton Fulford, former deputy commander of US European Command, to operate as the neutral facilitator.[48]

By this time, it appears the US had removed the Eritrea-Ethiopia file from the UN Security Council (UNSC), preferring instead to go all in on its own mediation effort. This decision appeared to be another sore point for Eritrea, which again, had always envisioned the UNSC as a central mechanism to resolve non-compliance with the Algiers Agreement, and now had doubts about Washington’s neutrality. In any case, Asmara was not pleased by Washington’s behavior at the UNSC, which they believed had the effect of diluting UNSC statements on the border issue so as to avoid placing any clear burden of responsibility on Ethiopia. 

Like the Axworthy mission, Eritrean resistance undermined Fulford’s effort, forcing the EEBC to decline him as a neutral facilitator. In any event, while the EEBC was able to bring both sides together in March 2006 under the watchful eye of the US, a second meeting scheduled for June was cancelled when Eritrea refused to attend. The insistence on “technical discussions,” which Frazer argued was designed to address areas where physical and human realities made demarcation difficult, was viewed by the Asmara as thinly veiled attempt to adjust the EEBC boundary line. Feeling that the EEBC was now succumbing to American influence, Eritrea largely ended its cooperation with the EEBC by the end of the year. Ethiopia, which had always detested the EEBC, was happy to follow suit. In a matter of months, Washington’s attempt to jump start the stalled demarcation process had fallen apart.[49] 

At senior levels of the US government, Frazer’s failed mediation effort in the first half of 2006 seems to have generated a hardening of attitudes against the Eritrean position vis-à-vis the border impasse. The sentiment seems to have been that the Ethiopians had shown greater flexibility in attempting to resolve the stalemate, while Eritrea had proven obstinate.[50] Perhaps as a result, senior State Department officials would later more transparently favor the Ethiopian position, even asserting—in contrast to official US policy—the need for alternatives to the EEBC decision that would better satisfy Ethiopia.[51] By this time, however, the US-Eritrean relationship had fully gone off the rails, further tilting Washington’s triangular relationship with Eritrea and Ethiopia more robustly towards the latter. 

Seen from the long view, it is clear that the attacks of September 11th initiated a real, if inadvertent shift in American policy in the Horn. The strategic imperatives raised by the War on Terror pushed the US away from the neutrality that had characterized its earlier approach to the Eritrean-Ethiopian security rivalry. This fact was most clearly evidenced by its approach to the stalled EEBC demarcation process. In response, Eritrea chose a strategy of resistance and confrontation, that however legitimate, would in large part determine its emergence as a pariah state.

The Rise of Al-Shabaab

Eritrea’s response to US policy was carefully calibrated but increasingly sharp, and designed to elicit a reorientation in Washington’s approach to the border issue. In effect, Eritrea sought to impose costs on the US for what it viewed as its pro-Ethiopia bias. On July 26, 2005—months before Frazer’s ill-fated mediation effort—Eritrea requested that USAID close its operations in the country, a demand that Washington reluctantly, but dutifully met by the end of the year.[52] At the time, state owned media made clear what the closure of USAID was about, declaring: “The non-resolution of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border issue is negatively affecting the necessary cooperation and work coordination between Eritrea and the United States.”[53] 

State owned and state affiliated media began to ramp up its anti-US rhetoric, although, with some exceptions, the tone of this rhetoric was nowhere near as vitriolic as it appears today.[54] Yet the most telling sign of the shifting Eritrean posture were comments made by President Isaias Afwerki himself. In a statement published on November 21, 2005, Isaias directly criticized US policy in the Horn, and suggested that Washington’s “resort to giving orders through proxy” was a dangerous mistake. Here, Isaias was quite obviously referring to the view that the flourishing security partnership between Washington and Ethiopia that that had empowered Addis to throw its political and military weight throughout the Horn of Africa region.[55] The President went a step further in May 2006, when he used his widely distributed Independence Day remarks to excoriate the US for its role in the border impasse, arguing that Washington was “vouching for and encouraging the TPLF’s defiance of international law. . .”[56] 

As Asmara raised the temperature of its rhetoric, it unleashed a series of measures against the US embassy in Eritrea that seriously undercut its ability to function. The Eritrean government tampered with diplomatic pouches, imposed onerous travel restrictions on the US diplomats, arbitrarily arrested the Embassy’s Eritrean personnel, and in one extraordinary incident, even physically intimidated a US diplomat in a bid to shut down a public event hosted by Embassy personnel. Operationally, the US mission was so beleaguered that it was forced to take the major step of suspending all public services in February 2007, including the provision of visas. 

The Bush Administration initially demonstrated some restraint in its response to Eritrea’s new strategy of resistance, and sought to work within regular diplomatic channels to resolve what was fast evolving into a full-blown diplomatic rupture. As early as 2006, officials from the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs sought to enlist the support of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in opening up a direct line of communication to President Isaias, in the hope that high level contact could improve relations. Yet according to Jenadyi Frazer, on two occasions, Rice’s call was not received and not returned.[57] With few other options, Washington took what it regarded as reciprocal action in August 2007, closing down the Eritrean consulate in Oakland and imposing travel restrictions on Eritrean diplomats in the US. 

While Eritrea’s behavior towards the US mission was certainly a cause for concern in Washington, it remained more of nuisance rather than real source of anxiety. Yet when Asmara began to pursue regional initiatives that contradicted the core US interest of counter-terrorism, Washington’s perspective shifted. The main issue was Eritrea’s political and material support of militant Islamists in Somalia, a policy that was in large part designed to open up a second front against Ethiopia, but also to impose direct costs on the US for its perceived favoritism of Ethiopia. In Washington’s estimation, Eritrea seemed to pursue a similar tack in Darfur, where counter-terrorism concerns were not really in play, but Eritrea seemed to interfere with the Darfur peace negotiations in ways that may have been at cross-purposes with UN-AU mediation initiatives supported by the US.[58] 

Much has been said about Eritrean involvement in Somalia. Asmara’s support of militant Islamist factions opposing the internationally backed Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, including the ICU and its successor Al-Shabaab, is not really in doubt. It should be said, however, that Eritrea was hardly unique in its interference in Somalia or its support of the Islamists. The fact that the US was to back the effort to sanction Eritrea, and effectively “single out” Asmara for its Somalia policy, is an indication of how poor bilateral relations had become by this juncture.[59] 

Washington had been aware of Eritrea’s involvement in Somalia since 2006, and throughout 2007 and 2008, privately and publically warned Eritrea that its backing of Somalia’s militant Islamists would have consequences. In August 2007, Jendayi Frazer acknowledged that the US was now considering designating Eritrea a “state sponsor of terrorism” for its behavior in Somalia, a legal step that would automatically trigger a number of sanctions against the Eritrean government.[60] 

Still, as Frazer noted at the time of relations with Eritrea, the US was “not trying to move toward a fundamental break in our relationship.”[61] Indeed, it never followed through on the threat to place Eritrea on the terrorism list, and for a time, seemed comfortable with lodging threats that Asmara did not appear to take seriously. 

Of course, the sanctions regime that the US sponsored in December 2009 most definitely constituted a fundamental break. What caused Washington’s shift from threats to action? The main issue was the radicalization and resurgence of militant Islamist forces in south-central Somalia in 2008–2009. By 2008, a new Islamist standard bearer, Al-Shabaab, had emerged as the dominant opposition to the TFG. In terms of its ideology and tactics, the group was much more radical than its predecessor the ICU, and more transparently linked to Al-Qaeda central. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s Somalia intervention had not gone as planned, inciting strong feelings of Somali nationalism that were leveraged by the Islamist opposition to rebuild the political movement that had been thrown into disarray when Ethiopia had defeated the ICU in January 2007. Badly bruised, the Ethiopian military gradually became less assertive in Somalia, eventually withdrawing and leaving the TFG and a small contingent of AU troops in Mogadishu to face the wrath of the Islamists. Al-Shabaab and other allied Islamist factions capitalized on Ethiopia’s withdrawal, occupying the critical port of Kismayo in August 2008, and launching big offensives against TFG and AMISOM positions in Mogadishu in early 2009. From the perspective of US counter-terrorism concerns, Washington was now faced with a situation far worse than what existed in 2006, when the ICU’s takeover Mogadishu precipitated Ethiopia’s ill-fated military campaign. 

The worsening situation in Somalia dovetailed with more alarming concerns about homeland security. By the end of 2008, it became clear that Al-Shabaab had opened up a recruiting pipeline to Somali communities in Minnesota and other parts of the US, creating the specter of attacks in the US either directed, or inspired by, Al-Shabaab. This appears to have been the red line that spurred the US to more concerted action on Somalia and Eritrea. On March 18, 2008, the State Department designated Al-Shabaab a Foreign Terrorist Organization under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, effectively making the provision of support to Al-Shabaab a criminal offence.[62] Just eight days before this occurred, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice advised the US Mission to the UN to begin exploring the possibility of targeted UNSC sanctions against Eritrea.[63] US diplomatic pressure on Eritrea became more strident at all levels. US Ambassador to Eritrea Ronald McMullen even warned PFDJ officials that Eritrean support for a reinvigorated Al-Shabaab could have consequences that went beyond sanctions. Ominously invoking the memory of the US invasion of Afghanistanin 2001, he asked Eritrean officials, “Based on recent history, how do you think we would react to a major al-Shabaab terrorist attack against the US?”[64] 

As the US began to cobble together the international support needed for UNSC sanctions regime, President Isaias and his administration largely remained impervious to American threats, oscillating between denying involvement in Somalia, and asserting the legitimacy of opposition to the TFG and Eritrea’s right to support it. It is difficult to know what accounted for the inflexibility of Eritrea’s approach in the face of what would prove to be credible American warnings. 

It should be noted that there was a significant exception to the recalcitrant tone emanating from Asmara throughout 2008–2009. The November election of Barack Obama created a window of opportunity for improved US-Eritrea relations, at least in the view of Eritrean officials. In February 2009, just weeks after Obama’s inauguration, the US Embassy in Asmara noted that, “Senior Eritrean officials have signaled their interest in re-engaging the United States in areas of mutual interest.”[65] This effort included a letter of congratulations from President Isaias to Obama that sounded a conciliatory note. Yet the new Obama State Department seemed fairly committed to the idea that Eritrea must cease and desist from its involvement in Somalia before any rapprochement between the two states could occur. Whatever the reality of the situation may have been, Washington did not detect much substantive change in Eritrean policy towards Somalia throughout 2009. When President Isaias refused phone calls from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the Eritrean government failed to facilitate a visit from Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson in June 2009 (a claim the Eritrean government denies), the Obama administration’s pursuit of an Eritrea sanctions regime became the path of least resistance.[66] With the decision now made, US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice—the bête noir of Eritrea’s ruling PFDJ—successfully helped engineer an effort at the UN in December 2009 that led to the imposition of UNSC 1907 on the State of Eritrea.

UNSC 1907, of course, marked Eritrea’s emergence as pariah state in the international system. As should be clear, it would not have been possible without the radicalization and resurgence of Somalia’s Islamist movement under the banner of Al-Shabaab.

Eritrea and the Pariah State in Comparative Perspective

Eritrea’s emergence as a “pariah” state was the symptom of the dramatic unraveling of its relationship with the world’s preeminent power, the United States. As this essay has shown, the UNSC sanctions regime that was the core component of Eritrea’s international isolation would not have been possible without Washington’s sustained diplomatic effort. 

Three transformations produced the combined effect of shifting the international political context shaping US-Eritrea relations, driving the US into real, but inadvertent political conflict with Eritrea’s PFDJ-led party state. The 1998 Eritrean-Ethiopian War triggered a sustained, but imbalanced security rivalry that tested the capacity of Washington to steer a neutral course between the two countries. The attacks of September 11th deepened the strategic stakes for the US in the Horn of Africa, and provided the impetus for a more robust counter-terrorism partnership with Ethiopia, which Washington, rightly or wrongly, believed was the preeminent power in the region. The counter-terrorism imperative meant that the US gradually lost its ability to remain a neutral party in the Eritrean-Ethiopian dispute, causing Eritrea to pursue a strategy of resistance that manifested itself in the steady erosion of US-Eritrea ties and Eritrean involvement in Somalia. The rise of Al-Shabaab in 2008–2009, which signaled the resurgence and radicalization of Somalia’s Islamist movement, is what pushed the US to take the aggressive step of responding to Eritrea’s policy of resistance by pushing an Eritrean sanctions regime at the UNSC. 

The Eritrean case teaches us much about international politics in the contemporary age. Eritrea’s international isolation—what I have referred to as its pariah status—was not solely determined by the internal characteristics of the PFDJ’s party-state, but major transformations in the international political environment. This suggests that international relations scholarship should be more attuned to the systemic features of global politics that structures the relationship between states that sit at the political margins, and the Great Powers that are the gatekeepers of international political order. PFDJ-led Eritrea was by no means a victim of circumstance; but its international isolation was the product of an increasingly challenging international context shaped by the imperatives of Global War on Terror. This implies that a “reintegration” of Eritrea into the international system, which may already be underway, will require not simply behavioral change on the part of the PFDJ party-state, but a greater sensitivity in Washington about how it can create an external context that makes this possible.

  1. There is a literature on “small states” in international politics, but its focus is on the conduct of small states themselves, rather than what such cases teach us about the critical questions of war and peace that animate the field of international relations. See Ingebritsen, Christine, ed. 2006. Small States in the International Relations. Reykjavik: University of Iceland Press.
  2. Historically speaking, pariah states have violated norms in at least one of three areas: WMD proliferation, state sponsorship of terrorism, and human rights.
  3. My conception of the pariah state builds on Harkavy, R. 1981. Pariah States and Nuclear Proliferation, International Organization 35(1): 135–163.
  4. Saunders, Elizabeth. 2006. Setting Boundaries: Can International Society Exclude ‘Rogue States’? International Studies Review 8(1): 23–53.
  5. For a primer on “revisionism,” see Buzan, Barry. 2007. People, States, and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in Post-Cold War Era. Colchester: ECPR Press. Ch 8.
  6. Walt, Stephen. 1996. Revolution and War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Snyder, Robert. 1999. The U.S. and Third World Revolutionary States: Understanding the Breakdown in Relations. International Studies Quarterly 43: 265–290; Zionts, David. 2006. Revisionism and Its Variants: Understanding State Reactions to Foreign Policy Failure. Security Studies 15(4): 631–657; Miller, Benjamin. 2009. Between the Revisionist and Frontier State: Regional Variations in State War-Propensity. Review of International Studies 35: 85–119; Davidson, Jason. 2010. The Roots of Revisionism: Fascist Italy 1922–39. Security Studies 11(4): 125–159; Colgan, Jeff. 2013. Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War. New York: Cambridge University Press; for a perspective that differs from the internal characteristics of these states, see Caprioli, M. and P.F. Trumbore. 2005. Rhetoric vs. Reality: Rogue States in International Conflict. Journal of Confl ict Resolution 49(5): 770–791.
  7. Reid, Richard. 2005. Caught in the Headlights of History: Eritrea, the EPLF and the Post-War Nation State. Journal of Modern African Studies 43(3): 467–488; Mengisteab, Kidane and Okbazghi Yohannes, Anatomy of an African Tragedy: Political, Economic and Foreign Policy Crisis in Post-Independence Eritrea, Trenton: Red Sea Press, 2005; Reid, Richard. 2009. Eritrea’s Role and Foreign Policy, in The Horn of Africa: Past and Present Perspectives. in Eritrea’s External Relations, edited by Richard Reid, p. 19, London: Royal Institute of International Affairs.
  8. Amahazion, Fikrejesus. 2015. The ‘Isolationist’ Myth: Eritrea, Global Ties, and Diplomacy. Shabait. Oct 3.
  9. It should be said here that one could make the argument that Eritrea no longer qualifies as an international pariah, given its increasing centrality to the GCC coalition in Yemen (a point that will be discussed later in this chapter). But even if one concedes that Eritrea has recently exited pariah status, as I will show, it most certainly did qualify as a “pariah” at one point in time.
  10. One could add Russia to this list. This relationship was illustrated by the controversial visit of the Eritrean Foreign Minister to Russian occupied Crimea in June 2014. See MFA of Ukraine. 2014. MFA Expresses its Strong Protest to the Eritrean Side. MFA of Ukraine. June 14.
  11. See
  12. For data on Chinese aid to Eritrea, see, accessed on August 30, 2015; for more on Nevsun payments to Eritrean government, see, accessed August 30, 2015. Also, author’s conversation, foreign analyst who recently visited Eritrea, June 2015.
  13. See “Turkish Airlines Starts Direct Flights to Eritrea,” which can be found at, accessed September 4, 2015.
  14. Mesfin, Berouk. 2012. A New Dawn for Eritrea-South Africa Relations. November 23.
  15. See “Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. Paying Eritrea to Back Yemen Fight, UN Says,” which can be found at, accessed on September 4, 2016.
  16. Solomon, Salem. 2015. EU Appears Poised to Resume Development Aid to Eritrea. VOA News. Oct 15.
  17. The 2012 Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) report (p.5) discussed the impact of the embargo through revealing commentary on the state of the Eritrean Air Force: “The general and complete arms embargo on Eritrea has had an adverse effect on the operational readiness of the Eritrean air force. The Monitoring Group estimates that only between one quarter and one third of air force aircraft are fully operational, because of lack of access to the spare parts and technical assistance required to meet maintenance standards. Nevertheless, it is the assessment of the Group that even the current reduced state of readiness of the Eritrean air force is indicative of ongoing imports of spare parts and external assistance, in violation of the arms embargo.”
  18. As is well known, the State of Eritrea imposes a 2 percent tax on all Eritrean nationals in the diaspora. It is believed that the sanctions, alongside increasing public dissatisfaction with the Isaias government, have led to reductions in the sums the Eritrean state has been able to raise through this tax over the last several years. However, the numbers remain hard to verify.
  19. See, accessed February 2, 2016.
  20. The Eritrean government’s collection of tax in the UK and Canada remains a subject of continuing controversy and media speculation. See “Diaspora tax for Eritreans living in UK investigated by Metropolitan police,”, accessed on Sept 10, 2015, and “Eritrean consulate still extorting diaspora tax in Canada, a year after top diplomat expelled over scheme,”, accessed on September 10, 2015; Also, Author’s conversation, British official, June 2015; A new consul general arrived in Canada in September 2015.
  21. Eritrea’s was not an active member at the AU between 2003–2011, having withdrawn because of the AU’s inaction over Ethiopia’s non-compliance with the Eritrea-Ethiopian Boundary Commission decision. It rejoined the AU in January 2011.
  22. Hurd, Ian. 2008. After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Vreeland, James and Axel Dreher. 2014. The Political Economy of the United Nations Security Council: Money and Influence. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  23. See “Europeans Track US on East Africa But Remain Reluctant to Sanction Eritrea, Telegraph, which can be found at, accessed on January 16, 2016.
  24. See recently released e-mails of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which can be found at, accessed on January 16, 2016.
  25. For a useful summary of US efforts to push Eritrea sanctions regime, see “Wikileaks Exposes that Sanctions Imposed against Eritrea are politically motivated,” which can be accessed at, accessed on January 18, 2016.
  26. This narrative can be gleaned from the official communications of the Eritrean state—particularly op-eds and press releases called “Hateta”—posted to the government website or read on state owned Eri-TV. Interviews and speeches given by government officials also carry this narrative, as do pro-government websites run from the diaspora.
  27. Research and Documentation Department, PFDJ. 2012. Unprovoked US Hostilities Against Eritrea. Shabait, July 29.
  28. There were allusions to “imperialism” in the EPLF’s official publications that were no doubt references to the US. The accusation of cooperation with the American CIA was also leveled at dissenters within EPLF ranks, although this was more a pretext to purge certain individuals than a real reflection of the EPLF’s ideological posture. Such accusations were not uncommon in the postindependence period either.
  29. The literature on the Eritrean revolution is significant. See Connell, Dan. 1997. Against All Odds: A Chronicle of the Eritrean Revolution. Trenton: Red Sea Press; Wrong, Michaela. 2006. I Didn’t Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation. New York: Harper Perennial; Weldemichael, Awet. 2012. Third World Colonialism and Strategies of Liberation: Eritrea and East Timor Compared. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  30. “USAID/Eritrea: Background And Issues Briefing,” which can be found at, accessed November 29, 2015.
  31. See “Wikileaks – PM Meles, US Diplomats: On the eve of the Ethio-Eritrean War,” which can be found at, accessed on November 1, 2015.
  32. See “Siye Abraha and the Ethiopia-Eritrea War,” which can be found at, accessed on November 1, 2015. Also, these points were made to author in a conversation with a former Clinton era National Security Council staffer, May 2009, Washington, DC.
  33. Author’s conversation, a former Clinton era National Security Council staffer, May 2009, Washington, DC.
  34. The White House. 2002. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington, DC.
  35. While the US had likely cooperated with Ethiopia in channeling arms to an anti-ICU coalition suggestively titled the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism throughout 2005–2006 (before the Ethiopian invasion), it was apprehensive about Ethiopia’s December 2006 intervention in Somalia.
  36. Much has been written on the US and Ethiopia in Somalia. For a good overview, see Hansen, Stig Jarle. 2013. Al Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  37. See “Eritrea Could Teach U.S. Much to Combat Terror,”, accessed November 24, 2015.
  38. Greenberg Traurig was paid USD 50,000 a month for its services, and drafted a position paper suggestively titled “Why Not Eritrea?” The contract was apparently a year long, and valued at USD 600,000. See “Eritrea Pushes to Get U.S. Base,”, accessed January 5, 2016.
  39. There is also little doubt that human rights concerns were a deterrent to the establishment of a US military facility in Eritrea. The human rights situation had steadily deteriorated since the September 2001 arrest of senior PFDJ officials that had publically broken with President Isaias. Moreover, in the subsequent purge, two of the US Embassy’s Foreign Service Nationals—Ali Alamin and Kiflom Gebremichael—were arrested by the PFDJ’s security apparatus. They remain in incommunicado detention, and as such, their status constitutes a major impediment to the deepening of US-Eritrea ties. See Mengisteab and Yohannes, Anatomy of an African Tragedy; Also, author’s conversation, former US State Department official familiar with situation, April 2015. Official implied that for Washington, the dilemma was that the acceptance of FSN arrests would create a bad precedent.
  40. See “Interview with Yemane Gebremeskel, Director of the President’s Office,” which can be found at, accessed on January 7, 2016.
  41. US Department of State. 2007. Eritrea Qs and As: Ambassador-designate Ron McMullen. US Department of State, July 1.
  42. To see the full text of the Algiers Agreement, go to, accessed May 14, 2016.
  43. Aust, Anthony. 2010. Handbook of International Law. New York: Cambridge University Press, p.60.
  44. In the view of Mekonnen and Tesfagiorghis, the lack of a clearly articulated enforcement/compliance mechanism was a major problem with the Algiers Agreement. I think this view is largely accurate. See Daniel Mekonnen and Paulos Tesfagiorgis, “Eritrea-Ethiopia: The Algiers Peace-Agreement and its Aftermath,” which can be found at, accessed on November 15, 2015.
  45. Wikileaks. United Nations Requests USG Assistance to Monitor and Resolve Eritrea-Ethiopia Crisis. Wikileaks. which can be found at, accessed January 30, 2016.
  46. “Embassy of Eritrea rejects Jenadyi Frazer’s Statement to US Lawmakers,” Embassy of Eritrea, which can be found at, accessed on January 15, 2016.
  47. See “Statement by the Witnesses of the Algiers Agreement,” which can be found at, accessed January 28, 2016.
  48. Frazer’s role in spearheading the initiative of the Witnesses can be seen from the following UN memo, “Notes to the Secretary General, Ethiopia-Eritrea: Meeting of the Witnesses of the Algiers Agreement,” which can be found at, accessed on January 29, 2016.
  49. Much has been written on the unraveling of the Algiers Agreement. See Healy, Sally and Martin Plaut. Ethiopia and Eritrea: Allergic to Persuasion. Chatham House, which can be found at, accessed on November 15, 2015; Redie Bereketeab, “Algiers Agreement: Eritrea’s Road to Isolation,” in Richard Reid, eds., Eritrea’s External Relations (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2009).
  50. This view is implied by the US during November 2006 deliberations of the Witnesses. A UN memo summarizes the view of US representatives, noting “Washington no longer considers itself in a position to continue its diplomatic initiative with the parties, in view of its ‘difficult bilateral relations with Eritrea.’” See “Note to Ms. Barcena, Ethiopia/Eritrea: Meeting of the Witnesses,” which can be found at, accessed January 29, 2016.
  51. Wikileaks. Ethiopian Charge Eager to Sanction Eritrea; Agrees to consider New Border Dispute Strategy. Wikileaks. which can be found at, accessed on January 15, 2016.
  52. Eventually, Eritrea would expel the Peace Corp and force a shutdown of the office of the US Defense attaché.
  53. See “Eritrea says USAid banning is ‘irreversible,’” which can be found at, accessed on January 15, 2016.
  54. ibid. Also see BBC. 2005. “Eritrea raps US “hypocrisy” over violence in Ethiopia.” BBC Monitoring Africa, November 3.
  55. BBC. 2005. Eritrean president says imminent war with Ethiopia invention of regime in Addis. BBC Monitoring Africa, November 20.
  56. BBC. 2006. USA behind “complication of border impasse with Ethiopia – Eritrean leader. BBC Monitoring Africa, Shabait, May 25.
  57. Indian Ocean Newsletter. 2006. For Jendayi Frazer, the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. . . The Indian Ocean Newsletter, December 2.
  58. Wikileaks. Former Sudanese FM Ismail Assures Sudan Envoy That Khartoum Stands By Addis Ababa Agreement. Wikileaks. which can be found at, accessed on January 23, 2016.
  59. See Tanja Muller, “Singled Out: Eritrea and the Politics of the Horn of Africa,” which can be found at, accessed on January 18, 2016.
  60. “US considers putting Eritrea on terrorism list,” Reuters. which can be found at, accessed on January 16, 2016.
  61. ibid.
  62. US Department of State. 2008. Designation of Al-Shabaab, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, US Department of State, March 18.
  63. “Wikileaks Exposes that Sanctions Imposed against Eritrea are politically motivated,” which can be accessed at, accessed on January 18, 2016.
  64. “US Embassy Cables: Eritrea attempts ‘charm offensive’ to woo Obama,” The Guardian, which can be found at, accessed on January 16, 2016.
  65. ibid.
  66. “Eritrea-US State Department’s Erroneous and Deceptive Rehearsed Script-Speak,” Shabait, which can be accessed at, accessed on January 15, 2016.


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