Totalitarianism Is Still With Us
The case of Eritrea shows that totalitarian systems are inherently toxic, and that no amount of “engagement” will change them.
There was only one surprise in the vote tally for a United Nations General Assembly resolution in March condemning Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. As a wholly owned Vladimir Putin subsidiary, Belarus naturally followed instructions from headquarters; Syria’s “no” vote was repayment to the capo dei capi in Moscow for his regime-saving military support; and of course North Korea voted no. But Eritrea? Why would a little country in the Horn of Africa with no significant ties or obligations to Russia choose, at such a highly charged geopolitical moment, to give the finger to established norms of international behavior, in the process incurring irreversible reputational damage while seemingly gaining nothing?
The case of Eritrea is worth considering because, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it reminds us of a lesson the West should not forget as it navigates“post-truth” geopolitics: that totalitarian systems are inherently toxic and by their very nature destabilizing, and that no amount of “engagement” will change them.
I, like all first-time visitors to Eritrea’s capital, was charmed by Asmara when I arrived as the new chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in 2019. The streets are immaculate; thanks to its Art Deco architecture, a living legacy of the Italian colonial period, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the weather is perfect.
But in truth Eritrea is a human-rights house of horrors. Dissent is illegal. There is no independent press. Under compulsory, indefinite national service, citizens are conscripted or assigned to civilian jobs. The country has never held a national election. Eritreans live in a state of perpetual fear: Secret police and informers proliferate; arrests are arbitrary; citizens are routinely detained but not told on what charge, and the lucky ones who are released are given no reason for their freedom and are told to keep silent. Thanks to “revolutionary” economic policies, Eritrea is poor, has no infrastructure to speak of and thus no realistic hope for economic development, and is chronically food insecure. Before the coronavirus pandemic and the conflict in northern Ethiopia made cross-border travel impossible, hundreds of Eritreans fled their country every day.
The regime’s desire for total control—“social mobilization” justified by an eternal state of emergency—pervades all sectors of Eritrean society. Citizens wishing to go abroad must get an exit visa; those traveling within the country must have “circulation papers” and produce them for armed soldiers at checkpoints along the way. There are four recognized religions; all other worship is illegal. Eritreans are allowed to withdraw only the equivalent of $330 a month from their bank accounts, and they must do this in person at bank branches because there are no ATMs in Eritrea and online banking does not exist. I wanted to visit a privately owned dairy last spring but was told that this would require a written invitation from the dairy, which then had to be sent to the Ministry of Agriculture for approval, then sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which would decide whether to issue a travel permit. Evil may be banal, but in Eritrea, it is also ridiculous.
Eritrea didn’t exist when Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former diplomat and political scientist, wrote her classic “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” but the pariah state that today haunts the Horn of Africa confirms her essay’s contention that totalitarian systems are more pernicious than authoritarian ones, ideologically constructed in a way that precludes liberalization, and inevitably destabilizing. I read Kirkpatrick’s essay in graduate school. I forgot its important lessons.
Instead, I recall with not a little embarrassment that I arrived in Asmara eager to “constructively engage” and optimistic that, through hard work and patience, I could improve ties between the U.S. and Eritrea. I was not alone in this newbie enthusiasm: Many a diplomat accredited to Eritrea has arrived brimming with energy and ambition only to depart a few years later frustrated, exhausted, and with little to show in terms of tangible achievements. My time in Eritrea was eventful, encompassing the coronavirus pandemic, the civil-war-like conflict in northern Ethiopia, and a drastic deterioration in our bilateral relationship. The experience was an education in the unique challenges that totalitarian systems pose. As a foreign-policy practitioner, I arrived at a number of conclusions about dealing with totalitarian states that are, in essence, a set of practical diplomatic corollaries to Kirkpatrick’s conceptual framework. (These represent my own views, not necessarily those of the Department of State.)
1: Diplomatic engagement with totalitarian states is futile. The Eritrean regime loves to “engage”—to participate in and publicize talks and meetings that give the impression of openness and reasonability. During these interactions, however, Eritrean officials make clear to their foreign interlocutors that the regime will, as they told one of my colleagues, “compromise on process but not on principles.” In other words, you can “engage” indefinitely, but nothing is going to stop the regime from terrorizing and impoverishing its people, or destabilizing the region. (It has for decades intervened in, or triggered, conflicts and civil wars in neighboring states.) There is a natural tendency among diplomats, in Washington and elsewhere, to favor engagement. This is understandable, but potentially dangerous because engagement, if not carefully calibrated, risks legitimizing totalitarian regimes. The U.S., like-minded countries, and the UN should continue to deal with Eritrea, and even cooperate on issues of mutual interest, but this should be tactical interaction subordinate to a strategic appreciation that the regime is inimical, if not hostile, to our interests and values.
2. We should support oppressed populations by acknowledging their lived reality. Totalitarian regimes aren’t satisfied with political control. They demand the pervasive control that can only come by determining the “truth.” According to the carefully curated narrative propagated by the Ministry of Information, Eritrea is an African David engaged in a righteous fight for its dignity and survival against a U.S.-led Western Goliath that “weaponizes” human rights. In this telling, the government and people, united as one, have achieved social justice, national self-reliance, and ethnic and religious harmony. In fact, Eritrea is a human-rights-abusing geriatric dictatorship dominated by Tigrigna Orthodox Christians that is totally dependent on borrowing from foreigners. The U.S. may not be able to rescue the Eritrean people, or any other people living under totalitarian dictatorships, but by providing accurate information and diverse views, it can empower them by thwarting regime efforts to control perception. Many Eritreans have told American diplomats that our human-rights advocacy has given a voice to the voiceless. That is what American diplomacy should seek to do. To its credit, the Biden administration recognizes this. Speaking in Pretoria on August 8, Secretary of State Blinken stressed the U.S. commitment to work with African “partners to tackle 21st century threats to democracy like misinformation, digital surveillance, [and] weaponized corruption” through diplomatic support, including hosting the African Leaders Summit this December, as well as financial assistance under the bipartisan Global Fragility Act, which provides $200 million annually to promote reform and good governance in conflict-prone areas.
3. Confrontation is necessary and appropriate. Totalitarian systems need to have an enemy; foreign (usually Western) hostility justifies their repression. We should unapologetically but not hostilely counter totalitarian regimes’ efforts to propagate misinformation, legitimize their repression, and misrepresent Western policies. I decided last fall that we had for too long given the Eritrean propaganda machine a free pass. This neglect had normalized the regime’s human-rights abuses and propaganda. We began countering the regime’s disinformation, especially anti-American propaganda emanating from the information minister’s Twitter feed, on our embassy Facebook page. Public diplomacy typically seeks to focus on “positive” stories. In the case of totalitarian regimes, we should not be fearful of disciplined confrontation. In Eritrea, that approach worked.
4. Totalitarian states are inherently destabilizing and should be isolated and contained. Totalitarian regimes are cancers in the international body politic. It is in their DNA to metastasize. Eritrea is a regional menace. Its decades of destabilizing belligerence—including the Hanish Islands dispute with Yemen in 1995; interference in the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1996–98; the border war with Ethiopia in 1998–2000; border skirmishes with Djibouti in 2008; and alleged assistance to the terrorist al-Shabaab group in Somalia in the mid-2000s—led to UN sanctions in 2009 and 2011. Eritrea’s current military involvement in the conflict in northern Ethiopia, during which Eritrean forces have reportedly looted and committed horrific human-rights abuses, including sexual violence, against civilians, has complicated efforts to stop the fighting and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis. We must accept that with totalitarian regimes, aggression is a question of when, not if, and tailor our diplomatic approaches and calculations accordingly. Our current Eritrea policy of sanctions and isolation is a good template for dealing with totalitarian regimes. We may not be able to stop their aggression, but we can try to contain it.
The answer to the question I opened with—why did Eritrea vote “no” on the UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a vote that the information minister, out-Orwelling Orwell, described as “a demonstration of [Eritrea’s] uncompromising stand for peace”?—is that it wanted to punish the U.S. for American sanctions imposed on Eritrea last fall when diplomatic engagement failed to persuade the regime to withdraw its forces from northern Ethiopia. That this came at the expense of fundamental international principles, contradicted Eritrea’s previous public positions, and confirmed Eritrea’s pariah status appears not to have mattered to the Eritrean leadership. This is another aspect of totalitarian regimes: Many are led by mercurial, paranoid, and grievance-nursing sociopaths. Our expectations of success in engaging with people like this should be modest.
The point I’m trying to make here is that totalitarianism is still with us, and still evil. The assumptions that underpin traditional notions of diplomacy as the collegial resolution of competing interests do not apply to totalitarian states. My time in Eritrea taught me that confrontation, and not compromise, is the best approach when dealing with these kinds of regimes.
We diplomats like to think that no problem is too big that it can’t be managed by thoughtful engagement and negotiation. Often that approach is the right one. But it won’t work with the Eritreas of the world. We need to be intellectually prepared for the coming challenges of the emerging international dynamics. When someone shows you who they are, Maya Angelou once warned, believe them the first time. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine wakes us up to the continuing relevance of the lessons we learned during the Cold War, we would all do well to heed her advice.