Kenya’s ‘New’ Foreign Policy Approach

Media reports on the latest Kenyan diplomatic news are awash with news of Kenya’s new foreign policy direction. On a recent interview on NTV (local television station), the Kenyan foreign secretary Amb. Amina exuberantly explained this new direction. She succinctly called it economic diplomacy and explained the that the trips made by the deputy president to African states were meant for this purpose. But what is economic diplomacy, is it new and how does it suit Kenya in the changing structure and nature of the international system?

Economic diplomacy is one of the pillars of Kenya’s foreign policy that predominantly focuses on trade and trade apposite matters. The pillar ostensibly applies the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo in advocating for Kenya’s competitive advantage in production of certain products such as horticultural goods and the robust tourism sector. 

Among the other pillars, this one is the most integrated to vision 2030. The latter is the blue-print of catapulting Kenya into a middle-income state by the year 2030. That trade is a big component of this growth and development is trite knowledge. Economic diplomacy is a good example of how foreign policy is used to meet domestic policy objectives. 

Peace, Cultural, Environmental and Diaspora diplomacy are the other pillars of Kenya’s foreign policy. These others are couched – in a document drafted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but yet to be adopted officially by the cabinet – in a language that appears to be geared toward the economic well being of the nation. Peace is needed for economic growth, culture is a strong selling point for the country e.g. the Maasai culture packaged as a tourist attraction which in turn attracts revenue, environment is important for sustainable development and the sustainability of our tourism sector and lastly diaspora funds remitted back to the country provide needed funds to run the economy. In short, all the pillars look to the growth of the Kenyan economy. 

This brings me to my second question, is it new? I do not think so. The document that encapsulates the Kenya’s foreign policy puts this as one of the pillars of Kenya’s foreign relations. The document was drafted long before the Jubilee government came to power. In any event it has arguably been the leading principle in Kibaki’s foreign policy.

Since 2002 the Kibaki administration had been keen on expand the pool of international partners. China was one such available partner. With China’s policy of not conflating human rights with other foreign policy considerations makes it an ideal ‘partner’. Thus the traditional western allies were either being jettisoned or their influence on the internal running of the government curbed. This point poignantly connects Kenya’s foreign policy decision to the evolving nature and structure of the international system. 

The international system moved from bi-polar to unipolar at the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989. This structure saw America (the sole super power) create a human rights agenda for the world. American foreign policy has always seen, by most of its ruling elite at least, the world through the eyes of Wilsonian idealism; that the world could be made a better place by the propagation of democratic institutions. Thus America began the human rights crusade – after vanquishing its mortal enemy USSR – that saw many an African dictators fall by the wayside. 

Consequently, it also saw a rise in American patronizing meddling in the internal affairs of other states as part of their global crusade to democratize the rest of the world, Kenya being among them. However the international system was changing as American strength ebbed into the twenty-first century. Bedeviled by economic crises and an economy that is seemingly slowing down in terms of growth rates, the rise of other states – particularly China with its cultural relativist stand on human rights – presented Kenya with the opportunity to break away from sole/predominant reliance of aid from the United States. Don’t get me wrong, the US was instrumental in bring about reforms such as the abolition of one party state system in Kenya but at the same time was too eager to draw the future of the republic thus usurping the sovereign right of the people of Kenya.

With this in mind, Kibaki’s foreign policy shifted to the East. This, among many other similar initiatives by African heads of state, has sparked what many analyst must see as a throw back to the competition between the US and USSR but only this time it is the Chinese (in stead of the Russians) – though communist in political structure – have embraced the capitalistic thirst for competition. Presidential visits, aid, investments and so on, is being seen on an unprecedented scale in Africa, reminiscent of the old colonial scramble for African wealth. 

Therefore, I think what the Jubilee government is calling ‘new’ may not be so new after all. To its credit, the Government seems to be paying particular attention to the region and continent. The Head of State has severally called upon African countries to invest in other African countries and kick start inter-Africa trade. He and his deputy are milking the ICC trial perceived persecution to build political clout in the continent; possibly to rival a position that has been enjoyed by South Africa for a long time. They are using this platform to launch Kenya’s economic diplomacy which I think is shrewd. However as a cynic, I am loath to only see the good in man as men are rarely good, therefore it may very well be that they are also gathering clout as a means of intimidating the ICC but more of this will be examined at a later time.

In conclusion, ever since the Kibaki administration Kenya’s foreign policy has tilted heavily to international economics. Whereas in Moi’s Government foreign policy was heavily employed to defend the KANU regime and its Machiavellian tactics of holding on to power, Kibaki’s foreign policy has been one marked with a lot of development aspiration and rhetoric. It is no wonder that one of the documents that the draft Kenya foreign policy document lists as a guide is the Vision 2030. I am sure Kenyan’s are watching to see which way the Jubilee Government takes the country’s foreign policy.