Moral Authority: An Increasingly Rare Commodity for the Western Diplomat in Africa

US Ambassador Robert Godec and EU envoys when they addressed the press outside the Bomas of Kenya National Tallying Centre following the August 8 presidential election/COURTESY

On 2nd September 2017, 14 envoys assembled in Nairobi for a press conference. The envoys, led by US Ambassador Robert Godec, had representation from the UK and the EU.

In what has been described by some as an unusually blunt, the envoys condemned President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga for undermining the electoral commission’s ability to carry out the October 26th presidential election rerun.

Granted, the envoys were echoing the concerns of many Kenyans and other interested parties in this election across the globe. However, one couldn’t help but see the lack of confidence their body language betrayed, albeit subtly.

Recent events seem to have greatly eroded the West’s moral authority globally, denying its diplomats the clout with which they formerly lectured the “third world”. Thus the tongue in cheek manner they did it this week was quite telling.

To properly analyze this erosion of moral authority one would have to look at the US, and the EU as separate entities rather than the collective through which they gave their statement Monday.

Let’s start with America. The turning point for America’s foreign relation disposition can be traced back to the run up to their November election.

In a July 2016 interview with The Times, the then candidate Donald Trump was asked about his position on Turkish president Erdogan’s order to detain tens of thousands of citizens.

Trump’s answer was perhaps the most unusual response by a senior American politician on a foreign policy issue: “when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country.”

Typically the answer would have been to delicately criticize Turkey considering it remains a strategic ally of the US.

With this statement, Trump had embarked on his all-out war on American values. He seems more focused on the introspection of America, and what it stood to gain being the only consideration for foreign policy determinations.

Trump’s intolerance to migrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries, his utter and public disdain for sections of the American media and his attitude towards minority groups in the US — particularly Blacks and Hispanics — is embodied through his “MAGA” rhetoric. Through this rhetoric, Trump is slowly ceding America’s place as the bastion of tolerance and democracy to be emulated by all.

This was however not the most ironic part of American Ambassador Godec’s presentation on Monday. Rather, it was that he was lecturing Kenya on the need to conduct a free and fair electoral process against the backdrop of an investigation into undue Russian interference and ultimately interference into the American election.

In fact, reports emerged in late September that Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort had offered a private briefing on the U.S. election to Oleg Deripaska, a Ukrainian billionaire friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Who would have thought, two years ago, that with regards to election processes, Kenya would be in a position to ask America to remove the proverbial log in its eye?

Next let’s look at the EU. A few hours after the press conference in Nairobi, the EU Commission had refused to condemn Spanish Police violence against supporters of Catalan independence in Barcelona. This is after Madrid’s Guardia Civil had fired rubber bullets into crowds and stormed polling stations to stop Sunday’s illegal referendum vote.

In what many pundits agree was an excessively brutal operation, more than 800 people were injured! I can’t help but ask myself what the response would have been if the operation had happened in Kenya or any other African country for that matter.

However, it isn’t so much the lack of condemnation by the EUC but the reasons behind it that also make the Nairobi press conference ironical.

In a statement, Jean-Claude Juncker, the EUC President said Brussels must abide by the decisions of Spain’s government and constitutional court. This raises a pertinent question, why would on the one hand, the EU abide by decisions of the Spanish Constitutional Court, however disagreeable yet on the other hand find it necessary to condemn a law passed by the majority in the Kenyan parliament? Is what is good for the goose not good for the gander anymore?

Admittedly, moral authority in the diplomatic space is an amorphous and idealistic concept. However, the Nairobi press conference demonstrated the lack thereof denies western diplomats abroad of an essential tool that when used along with others can influence the actions of allies and foes alike.

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