Ethiopia is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with its history spanning over three thousand years. Throughout this long history, situated as it is at a veritable crossroads of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, it has enjoyed varied relations with the outside world. Friendly trading relations have alternated with conflicts with external powers that often involved bloody wars.
Ethiopia’s modern diplomatic history can be traced back to the reign of Emperor Theodoros II in the mid-nineteenth century who sought to forge strong diplomatic relations with the outside world, most notably with countries in Western Europe. His vision of a developed and prosperous Ethiopia pitted him against all sorts of enemies and sparked off the need to obtain the best scientific and technical expertise from what he justifiably considered were the most advanced nations of the day. He received a number of emissaries of western nations at his court, trying hard to get their advice and counsel on how to develop Ethiopia. In 1868, he committed suicide when defeated by a British army.
Theodros’ a tradition of contact with western powers was closely followed by the Emperor Yohannes IV (1874-1889) who was equally aware of the value of maintaining good relations with the rest of the world, though he too had his problems not least with the Mahdi in Sudan and with the Italian encroachments into northern Ethiopia. Notable among the diplomatic missions during his reign was the British delegations of Augustus Wylde (1883), Vice-Admiral Hewett 1884 and Gerald Portal (1887) concerning the withdrawal of Egyptian garrisons from Sudan after the Mahdi’s revolt, the British promise to hand over Massawa which had been in Egyptian hands and their subsequent gifting of it to Italy.
The regime of Emperor Menelik saw an increased flurry of diplomatic activities with Ethiopia reaching out to more capital in Europe than ever before. The onset of the so-called scramble for Africa increased the necessity for more intense diplomatic activities by Ethiopia as it had to grapple with the colonial ambitions of various European nations, notably, Britain, France, and Italy. After the humiliating defeat of the Egyptians in Sudan and they are subsequent withdrawal from the coastal areas of what is now Eritrea, the Italians proceeded to take over Massawa and immediately began their advance inland. Emperor Menelik came to power in 1889 and immediately faced a formidable challenge from Italy which had already managed to take over most of the territory north of the Merab River. Notable among the diplomatic developments involving Emperor Menelik was the treaty of Wuchale signed with Italy in May 1889 shortly after Yohannis’ death. Neither party seems to have realized that its interpretation would become a major problem though certainly the Italian envoy, Count Antonelli, was aware that the Amharic text gave Menelik the option of using Italy’s good offices for contacts with other counties while the Italian text obligated him to make all such contacts through Italy. Differences over the interpretation of the treaty, which Menelik abrogated in 1893 ultimately led to the Battle of Adowa in 1896 when an Italian invading force was wiped out.
Ethiopia’s resounding victory at the battle of Adowa went a long way to further cement Ethiopia’s position as the only independent nation in the entire African continent. It rapidly led to treaties with Italy, France, and Britain regularizing Ethiopia’s relations with these three colonial powers. It also led to a significant increase in the nation’s diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. A number of diplomatic missions from all parts of the world arrived in Ethiopia and formal diplomatic relations were established with Italy, Germany, the UK, France, and Russia as well as more than a dozen other European countries. In 1903, following a nine-day mission headed by Robert Skinner, the American Consul-General in Marseilles, a Treaty to Regulate Commercial Relations between the US and Ethiopia was signed.
Diplomacy was to take center stage as the country began to take more serious steps to modernize following RasTefferi’s growing access to power as Regent from 1916 and then as Emperor Haile Selassie from 1930. This was symbolized by Ethiopia’s growing adoption of western lifestyles and development, with more and more diplomatic missions being sent abroad and equally numerous foreign delegations being received in Addis Ababa. RasTefferi’s coronation as Haile Selassie in 1930 attracted visitors from all around the world.
While Ethiopia’s entry to the League of Nations in 1923 was perhaps one of the most important milestones in Ethiopia’s diplomatic history, as important in public relations terms were RasTefferi’s visit the next year to Jerusalem, Egypt, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Sweden, Great Britain, and Greece. Membership of the League of Nations was considered important in ensuring the acceptance of Ethiopia’s independence, but the League’s member states failed to make any serious effort to stop Fascist Italy’s invasion in 1935. Haile Selassie himself spoke to the League of Nations: “I ask the fifty-two nations, who have given the Ethiopian people a promise to help them in their resistance to the aggressor, what are they willing to do for Ethiopia? And the great Powers who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small States on whom weighs the threat that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia, I ask what measures do you intend to take? Representatives of the World I have come to Geneva to discharge in your midst the most painful of the duties of the head of a State. What reply shall I have to take back to my people?” The League’s failure left a lasting scar on the history of the concept of collective international security and justice.
However, it did not destroy Ethiopia’s belief in the concept of collective security. Indeed, the effect was rather to make the country more determined than ever to ensure that in the future such concepts should be made to work. Ethiopia became a founding member of the United Nations and it has subsequently played a significant role in all subsequent efforts to make sure that the success of collective security. Ethiopia’s participation in the United Nations operations in Korea and then in Congo, as well as later in Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, and Sudan are a testament to the country’s unyielding commitment to collective security.