Why confirmed ambassador and revised strategy needed to advance US interests in Zimbabwe

Why confirmed ambassador and revised strategy needed to advance US interests in Zimbabwe

By By Charles A. Ray and Michael Walsh

Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, recently called on the Biden Administration to “abandon any misguided belief that it can negotiate with Zimbabwe’s current leaders.” Referencing “a lengthy history of human rights abuses, corrupt practices, and anti-democratic actions,” Risch argued that the U.S. government “should use every diplomatic avenue to forge a coalition of regional and global partners to act in support of the aspirations of the people of Zimbabwe.”

The White House does not appear to share the views of the senator. Even if they were in sync, though, such a plan of action would be far easier said than done for two compelling reasons. First, the senator’s argument is far too general. It fails to take into account the political and cultural environment in which the nation of Zimbabwe is firmly embedded. The context involves more than human rights abuses, corrupt practices, and anti-democratic actions. Second, the U.S. policy toward Zimbabwe, in the form of the Integrated Country Strategy (ICS), is likewise too broad and unmoored from these political and cultural realities.

The ICS, which is the embassy’s strategic plan for the country of assignment, should consist of realistic, specific and measurable end-states or objectives that can be achieved within the five-year life of the plan. The ICS for Zimbabwe has a set of objectives that are not realistic and, given the state of the current Zimbabwean government – which is a continuation of the government in power at the time the plan was drafted – incapable of achievement in the foreseeable future, much less the five-year life of the plan. Furthermore, the ICS fails to specify the resources needed to achieve the objectives any more than Senator Risch’s statement does. The ICS Zimbabwe is not a strategic roadmap. It is a hot mess.

Given the political realities of the southern African region and the current frayed state of the U.S.-South Africa relationship, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. Government will be able to forge a regional or global coalition of partners that are needed to achieve any of our stated strategic objectives in Zimbabwe. Such a coalition might be a reasonable long-term objective, but it would require a lot of other things to happen beforehand. Despite often rocky relations with some of the other members of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), like Botswana, it’s unlikely that any of them will break ranks and work with the U.S. or any other western nation against a fellow member.

As for the international community, other nations have their own interests in the region as well as their own relationships with BRICS members, like India and China, to consider. So, an effective international coalition is unlikely to achieve anything on its own. The previous international effort to bring about positive change in Zimbabwe, comprising the U.S., EU member states, Japan, and Australia, as well as the AU and some African states, serves as a case in point. It failed to achieve its goal of bringing representative government to Zimbabwe or significantly improving the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans. With the current regime in the country, it would not have access to affect meaningful change. So, there are no prospects on the horizon for such a coalition to achieve anything now.

Any change in the status quo in Zimbabwe will not be an easy or quick thing. It will require a change in action and mindset by all concerned in Washington. First, Senator Risch’s proscription against talking to anyone in the Zimbabwean government will need to be subjected to scrutiny. Efforts to help the citizens of a sovereign nation require at least minimal coordination with governmental authorities, or at least noninterference. If there is no interaction with the government, our embassy, and by extension our policymakers, are completely blind to what the government is doing. The idea that we don’t talk to people we don’t like or with whom we disagree is antithetical to effective diplomacy.

Of course, there is a potential counter-argument to this point. The Biden Administration may view Zimbabwe through the lens of a democracy-security paradox. In that case, the U.S. Department of State may intend to forge a very different kind of relationship with the Government of Zimbabwe – one based solely on shared security interests. To a realist, there are compelling reasons to make this turn. There are multi-billion dollar oil and gas investments being made in Mozambique and the Lobito Corridor is the administration’s gemstone infrastructure project on the continent. Both need to be protected from regional instability and violent extremism. The Biden Administration may also see Zimbabwe as a useful intelligence platform from which to counter malign influence in South Africa. Alert to these needs, the White House may want to run its in-country diplomatic activities under the radar. In that case, the absence of an ambassador may be viewed as a blessing in disguise.

That gets to the crux of the problem. If we intend to ‘act in support of the aspirations of the people of Zimbabwe,” we need to not only talk to all parties, official and nonofficial, in the country. We need to establish a clear, coherent strategy to carry out such a project. This should start, in our opinion, with an unambiguous statement of our strategic interests in Zimbabwe, and culminate with a revised ICS which has achievable objectives and identification of the resources needed to achieve those objectives. However, it would be unreasonable to expect that such a strategy would be developed without an ambassador at post. Charges d’affaires and defence attaches have bureaucratic power and influence. But, they don’t have the national political capital needed to be able to create and defend the kind of ICS needed to achieve the goals and objectives desired by the Senator. The current ICS is a testament to that fact.

Charles A. Ray is chair of the Africa Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and served as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe and Cambodia.

Michael Walsh is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.